Irish Immigrants’ Mystery Honored in Burial
Denied a proper burial 180 years ago, the remains of five Irish immigrant railroad workers who died amid a cholera outbreak in 1832 were re-buried in a ceremony Friday that drew hundreds of people to a cemetery here.
As reported last year in the Wall Street Journal, nearly 60 Irish laborers died near the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern, Pa., in 1832 as they built a land bridge for what became the thriving railroad that lent its name to Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs. Their bodies were believed to be buried in a mass grave—with no headstones—next to the railroad line, used today by Amtrak and local commuter trains.
Over the past decade, a research team led by twin brothers and historians Bill and Frank Watson searched for the remains of the workers. They used information from a file of railroad-company documents left behind by the Watsons’ grandfather to help find the burial site in a wooded hollow, known as Duffy’s Cut. In 2009, they began finding the skeletal remains.
Some of the bones had signs of violence, leading the researchers to theorize that local vigilantes may have murdered some of the workers to prevent them from spreading cholera in the community.
The remains of five bodies were buried in a ceremony Friday at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. A viewing of five small caskets containing the bones was followed by a procession to the new burial site donated by the cemetery, next to a 10-foot lime Celtic cross erected to commemorate the workers.
Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald takes part in a funeral at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Friday, March 9, 2012, in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., for five early 19th-century Irish immigrants whose remains were excavated from the Duffy’s Cut site. Researchers believe the site in Malvern, Pa., contains the remains of about 50 Irish immigrants who died weeks after coming to Pennsylvania to build a railroad in 1832.
The Watson brothers and others played bag pipes. Several current and former students at Immaculata University in Malvern, who have participated in the dig at Duffy’s Cut, served as pallbearers.
“Our goals from the beginning were to get them properly remembered and properly buried,” Bill Watson, a professor of history at Immaculata, said in a speech during the Christian burial ceremony.
Kevin Conmy, deputy Irish ambassador to the U.S., said the story of Duffy’s Cut was a “touching reminder of the hardships and dangers” that immigrants faced.