History unearthed: Brothers tell story of Irish immigrants in Pennsylvania

Matteo Iadonisi Image
Thursday, March 16, 2023
History unearthed: Brothers tell story of Irish immigrants in Pa.
The newly-displayed bones of Irish immigrant workers help tell the story of a tragedy that occurred nearly 200 years ago.

EAST WHITELAND TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- "My brother and I have done a lot of things together over the years, different projects and so on," said Frank Watson. "But this one had a personal family connection to us."

The Watson brothers, born 10 minutes apart, grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Their grandfather, an executive for the Pennsylvania railroad, passed down documentation about what came to be known as "Duffy's Cut."

As the story goes, 57 Irish immigrants came to America in June of 1832 and were hired by railroad contractor Philip Duffy.

"But within six weeks of their arrival, they caught cholera," said Watson. "The sad reality is these Irish men and the few women who traveled with them were all dead within six weeks of their arrival."

Nearly 200 years later, the Watson brothers aided in the installation of a historic marker and the excavation of the mass burial site in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

Much of the discovered remains were bones and skulls bearing bullet holes and axe blows. They were able to determine that many of these immigrants were in fact murdered for fear of spreading cholera, or perhaps anti-Irish sentiment.

"It could have been us but for time and circumstance. It could have been us. It could have been our sons," said William Watson. "And I absolutely feel it's my point of living now to keep this story alive. It's absolutely essential."

Watson is also a professor of history at Immaculata University, which plays host to the Duffy's Cut Museum. The small exhibit within Gabriele Library contains artifacts found at the site.

And for a limited time, visitors can see three bones of those Irish workers up close.

"To see the bones, like, really makes everything real," said Gina Rufo, a history student who is now interning with Watson.

Come the end of March, the bones will leave the exhibit to undergo further studying to determine the lifestyle and eating habits of the immigrant workers. Eventually, the goal is to have them buried at West Laurel Hill cemetery with the other remains.

"And so the timing of this exhibit here for St. Patrick's Day, I think means a lot to a lot of people in the Irish diaspora in this country," said William Watson.

To learn more about Duffy's Cut Museum, visit their website.

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