When it comes to ghost stories, I’m a skeptic. That’s why I’ll admit I felt a touch of dismay when I learned that alumnus and historian Bill Watson G’86 Gr’90—the main subject of senior editor Samuel Hughes’ cover story, “Bones Beneath the Tracks”—is convinced that the “three illuminated human figures” resembling neon lights he glimpsed from a lavatory window one night in 2000 were the spirits of Irish railroad laborers who had died under mysterious circumstances in 1832.
Fortunately, you don’t have to share Watson’s belief to be impressed with the persistence and investigative zeal he has brought to his near-decade-long quest to uncover the true fate of the 57 workers, who perished just weeks after arriving on the John Stamp out of Derry and being recruited to work on the railroad then under construction between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—or to be appalled by the evidence, discovered since last spring, that some of them at least were murdered.
Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University, has pursued the case through old newspaper accounts, correspondence, railroad records, and excavations at the site known as Duffy’s Cut. Seven skeletons have been exhumed so far, several of which show evidence of ax or gunshot wounds, according to the Penn Museum’s Janet Monge Gr’91, a forensics expert who examined the remains.Watson and his team intend to keep searching, hoping to find—and properly bury—the rest of the 57 Irishmen lost more than 175 years ago.
In her richly imagined new novel, Dangerous Neighbors, Beth Kephart C’82 tells the story of two sisters, Katherine and Anna, set against the backdrop of the nation’s Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which took place in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. She vividly conjures the era’s mix of romance and commerce, from the Centennial’s ornate Main Exhibition halls to C.D. Murphy’s Tavern, the starting point for a conflagration that consumed the shantytown set up across the street from the fairgrounds.
After having written several highly praised memoirs, Kephart has mostly been writing fiction for the past few years, publishing four young adult novels before Dangerous Neighbors, which came out in August. In “More Light,” she reflects on the book and her writing life, and we also offer an excerpt from the novel.
The past that Penn Professor of Anthropology Harold Dibble deals with is much more distant. Dibble is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Paleolithic period, and his excavations and analyses of sites around the Mediterranean have yielded major insights about the behavior of Neandertals and the early humans who would eventually displace them.
Dibble also taught Gazette frequent contributor Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 in a course on human evolution she took as a doctoral student, and she would later work with him on a cookbook of evolution-inspired recipes. In “On Hearths, Ancient and Modern,” Beebe writes about paying a visit to her old teacher and his colleagues at their summer-excavation headquarters in France’s Dordogne region—an area with such enduring appeal that it is believed to have been inhabited continuously by hominids for 400,000 years—and shows that Dibble and company have a pretty solid handle on what constitutes the good life in the present as well.
For ethnomusicology doctoral candidate Jennifer Kyker, the issue is more one of preserving the present for the benefit of the future, as she works to promote the musical culture of Zimbabwe and to improve the lot of some of the country’s girls through Tariro (hope), a nonprofit she founded. Freelancer Cai Emmons, the author of several novels, tags along as Kyker navigates Zimbabwean society, performs with local musicians, and inspires her young charges in “Spreading Hope and Music.
—John Prendergast C’80