Murder or Cholera?

Duffy’s Cut, located in Pennsylvania, is the resting place of  57 Irish immigrants. The location is famous as a haunted site, with locals reporting the appearance of green and blue dancing ghosts. The most well known siting was from 1909. A man walking home from a night at the local tavern saw these dancing specters and knew that they belonged to cholera victims. This account was discovered later in 2002 by the grandsons of this man. The two brothers found the written account and used the evidence to unearth the mass burial in 2009. The remains that they uncovered belonged to a group of Irish immigrants who had come to Pennsylvania to work on the railways, but within eight weeks were all deceased due to a cholera pandemic.

Duffy’s Cut Excavation. Larma, 2010. AOLnews.com

Dr. Janet Monge, from University of Pennsylviania,  was the first to analyze the remains, and found evidence that perhaps foul-play was involved. One of the men had a large divot in his skull, suggesting head trauma around the time of death. Early in August, more evidence arose. Of the seven remains that have been excavated, one also showed evidence of being shot in the head. The clean hole through the skull is not diagnostic, but gunshot is the most likely explanation. While cholera cannot be ruled out as the major cause of death, these two traumatic deaths create doubt. Monge believes that within the next couple years when excavation and analysis is completed that the question of murder or cholera will be better addressed.

There are two important lessons from this excavation. First, there is a place in archaeology for the use of oral and written personal histories. Just as Heinrich Schliemann used the Illiad, these two brothers used their grandfather’s ghost story to uncover the past. Anecdotes may not be equal to data, but they can provide a starting place for research. We have to be careful in our use of stories and acknowledge their biases, but we cannot eliminate them as a reliable source. Second, mass graves, as mentioned earlier, are sites that must be handled delicately. Before we can create conclusions about why these individuals are interred this way we must first look at all available evidence including the context of the burial, artifacts associated with the dead, the placement of the remains, and the individuals themselves- their health, their ancestry, their demographic. History is very helpful in shaping our interpretations, however, my concern with this site is that the reliance on history may be creating biases in the interpretation of the material. It will be interesting to see how this excavation and research progresses.

Works Cited

Duffy’s Cut, 2010. http://duffyscut.immaculata.edu/

Rafferty, 2010. Grandfather’s ghost story leads to mysterious mass grave. http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/08/24/pennsylvania.graves.mystery/

Lohr, 2010. Pennsylvania Ghost Story leads to Murder Mystery. http://www.aolnews.com/nation/article/duffys-cut-mass-grave-in-pennsylvania-did-irish-immigrants-die-of-cholera-or-were-they-murdered/19606498

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