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This Local Coroner Has Questions About the Duffy’s Cut Mass Grave Site


Newspapers covered the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Paoli Massacre seven years later. So why was there never anything about the 1832 massacre of 57 unfortunate souls near Malvern? “I don’t want to ruffle feathers,” says Norman Goodman, Chester County’s former chief deputy coroner. “I just want to set the thing straight.”

One thing is certain: Between 2002 and 2010, the remains of seven Irish Catholic railroad laborers were exhumed from a mass grave at Duffy’s Cut—Mile 59 of what was then the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad line. Four bullets were found at the site, and an unearthed railroad file and other documents indicate that as many as 57 were murdered. Goodman was part of the investigation. Duffy’s Cut was his final forensic report in 18 years of service. “I reported all this in 2010, and they just didn’t want to hear it,” he says. “They had their own ideas.”

Goodman is referring to the volunteer corps of historians, archaeologists, Immaculata University students and others involved in a case that sparked international attention and plenty of media coverage. There have been books, including 2018’s Massacre at Duffy’s Cut: Tragedy and Conspiracy on the Pennsylvania Railroad. There are paintings by Malvern’s Fred Danziger and a Duffy’s Cut Irish-style red ale from Doylestown Brewing Company. Some additional excavation and research is planned—in particular, near Mile 48 of the rail line in Downingtown, where at least one other Duffy’s Cut worker is believed to have fled for help.

Read More About Duffy’s Cut: One the Case 

Norm Goodman at home in Langhorne.

Immaculata is home to the Duffy’s Cut Project. The school has hosted teachers from around the country with the aim of introducing a grim moment in history into secondary curriculums. This past spring, Amtrak remade the sign that hangs above the site’s 1909 stone memorial. It had blown down over the winter. “The evidence has to justify a theory—and, without a doubt, the evidence indicates that the bodies were murdered,” says Immaculata history professor Bill Watson, the project’s director and author of the 2004 book The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad. “They were brought back in coffins because they were a bloody mess, so the railroad had every reason to minimize the events in internal documents and externally. The records disappeared—it was a cover-up.”

Archival research, a covert railroad file and subsequent archeological discoveries point to the possibility that anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment led to violence. Or perhaps the railroad itself acted to halt the spread of disease by preemptively killing the infected, figuring the victims were expendable and untraceable.

Another Duffy’s Cut team member is bone expert Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the physical anthropology section at Penn Museum. “He’s a pathologist, no?” poses Monge, referencing Goodman’s credentials. “Generally, pathologists don’t deal with skeletal materials without the soft tissues.”

Her assessment of the cranial remains points to murder, and she described it as massacre on CNN. Monge maintains that there was clearly diagonal damage—likely from an axe—in one skull. Another skull had entrance and exit wounds and the external residual smear of a bullet.

Read More About Duffy’s Cut: Discovered Remains Reveal a Sinister Demise 

Goodman, an 89-year-old former orthodontist originally from Phoenixville, has his own theory. It’s all there in his “Duffy’s Cut—Minority Report.” He asserts that the manner and cause of death couldn’t be determined—and that the laborers were more likely the victims of a well-documented global cholera pandemic that killed 900 in the Delaware Valley. “The Duffy’s Cut Shanty Town (with Valley Creek at its base) would’ve been a crucible for cholera,” says Goodman, who refers to newspaper reports of several local cholera deaths.

Goodman attests that the recovered skulls did exhibit compression fractures, but he says it was the result of the wooden coffins collapsing onto their remains—or perhaps accidental damage incurred due to lack of protective head gear. He also disputes the presence of any exit wounds, adding that the damage that does exist is more consistent with decomposition than compression.

Watson believes that the seven laborers may have fled Duffy’s Cut and the cholera quarantine only to be rounded up by the East Whiteland Horse Company, killed offsite in the presence of Judge Cromwell Pearce, and returned for burial in coffins that were nailed shut. Pearce lived a half-mile east of the site. It’s conceivable that he would’ve worked with such vigilantes to enforce the quarantine and appease complaints from powerful farming families like the Pratts, who owned the land at Mile 59. Pearce may have also worked in unison with the railroad to control public accounts of the deaths.

In part, this theory is spawned by a recent call Watson received from Berwyn’s Jay Charles Woodward, a direct descendant of Pennsylvania Railroad ownership. Like Goodman, though, Woodward is skeptical. “They’re throwing the word ‘murder’ around without witnesses or weapons, but a charge of murder in our legal system remains open,” he says. “All the descendants in Ireland know is that a loved one arrived here on a ship and they never heard from him again. I worry where this could go in the wrong hands.”

For his part, Goodman remains adamant. “In the new book, they say no one (found) died of cholera—everyone was massacred,” he says. “When I gave my opinion, I was told I was a persona non grata—don’t come back, and don’t talk to anybody. Now they’re making an even bigger story of something that didn’t happen.”

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