Coincidence Or Fate: The Irey Family Curse

A decade ago, the law enforcement community of Chester County wanted to pay tribute to a sheriff who was killed on his second day on the job in 1887. They chose to memorialize the long-forgotten sheriff, Benjamin Irey, with an 18-by-15-inch bronze plaque at the courthouse in West Chester.

Usually, such ceremonies involve descendants of the fallen hero’s family. But in the case of Benjamin Irey, county officials were unable to find any of his descendants. And, for a very peculiar reason: The Irey family bloodline was obliterated by a baffling series of strange deaths.

While history describes many family bloodlines rendered extinct by “family curses”, most of these extinctions were the result of congenital health defects. But the strange case of the Irey family is different, because few members of this Chester County family died of natural causes.

Benjamin Irey: The One-Day Sheriff

Benjamin Irey was born in West Nantmeal Township in 1830, at a time when Chester County had a population of less than 100,000 souls. While there were some large towns in the county, most of the residents lived in the rural countryside and earned their living through farming.

Benjamin had tried his hand at farming, but eventually became a carpenter by trade and settled in Parker Ford. He married Hannah Davis, who bore him five children, and took an active role in his children’s education by serving on the East Coventry school board.

The Irey household was happy and healthy until December of 1881, when Benjamin’s oldest son, John, who was residing at Lawrenceville, was attacked by a dog while delivering a load of coal to Limerick Station.
While passing the property of Isaac Buckwalter, John Irey was mauled by Buckwalter’s dog and bitten on the arm. The injury was promptly treated by Dr. Savidge, who washed and dressed the wound.

John’s arm, however, continued to swell, and Dr. Emery of Phoenixville was called in. Under Dr. Emery’s treatment, John’s condition seemed to improve and, eventually, his recovery was pronounced complete.

Then, on April 22, 1882, John experienced difficulty breathing. His muscles began to twitch involuntarily, and these tremors grew more violent with each passing day. By the following week, John was raving like a madman, and it took eight men and a bottle of chloroform to subdue him.

His agony was so great that he begged his subduers to end his suffering with arsenic, but he died within hours. As for Isaac Buckwalter’s dog, it attacked two other men who had attempted to apprehend it, and was finally captured and killed in Birdsboro in Berks County. An examination of the carcass determined that the dog had rabies.

The following year, in 1883, Benjamin Irey ran for sheriff of Chester County, but lost by 56 votes. He succeeded in his second attempt, and was sworn into office on January 2, 1887.

The next morning, Sheriff Irey left West Chester at around 7:40 in the morning intending to board a train at Frazer to serve a warrant in Phoenixville. While standing in front of the Pennsylvania Railroad station, the sheriff was struck by an eastbound milk train. His back was broken and his skull was crushed.

Witnesses carried the sheriff into the train station and sent for a doctor, but it was too late. Benjamin Irey was the first law enforcement official to be killed in the line of duty in the history of Chester County.

The Brothers Irey

Benjamin had two brothers, John, who was a Chester County commissioner at one time, and Samuel. In September of 1893, John Irey was killed instantly after falling into a well sixty feet deep in West Nantmeal. What makes this death strange is that it occurred on his own property.

There was an old well located in the outkitchen of the Irey property that had been covered over in boards, which had become rotted over time. John, who was said to be a rather large and heavy man, stepped onto the boards while attempting to use the water pump, and it is believed he died of a heart attack before his body even hit the bottom of the well.

Perhaps just as strange was the untimely death of the sheriff’s other brother, Samuel, who died in the woods while hunting.

After failing to return home, a search party was formed, and after Samuel’s body was found the coroner determined that he had died of a broken neck, presumably after tripping over a tree stump.

The Curse Continues

After Sheriff Benjamin Irey was killed by the milk train, his wife, Hannah, attempted to sue the railroad for damages, but it was determined that Irey had met his demise as a result of his own clumsiness, and clumsiness would also explain the deaths of Samuel and John Irey.

Clumsiness, however, does not explain the deaths of the sheriff’s son, who had been bitten by a rabid dog, or the death of his daughter, Annie, who burned to death in a fire in 1891 at the age of 20, shortly after marrying Charles Lippincott.

All of Benjamin’s children died without having children of their own, and if the Irey bloodline were to continue, it would’ve been up to the last surviving daughter, Sara, who married a man named Morris Holman.

Holman had been battling a protracted illness when he visited the Irey family physician in August of 1894. He had just returned from visiting the doctor in Parker Ford and was chatting pleasantly with his family when he excused himself and suddenly left the room.

He was found a short while later in the outhouse, with two deep gashes in his throat. A bloody penknife was on the floor. He was still alive when was taken to the Pottstown Hospital, but died within hours from loss of blood.

Although Sara Irey Holman lived to the age of 70, she never remarried and never had children. With Sara’s death in 1931 came the death of the Irey bloodline. While some distant kin may still living in Pennsylvania, the 2010 dedication ceremony of the bronze plaque honoring Benjamin Irey, the One-Day Sheriff, was held without any descendants present.

So what can explain the extinction of the Irey family? Bad luck? The fickle finger of fate? Or could there be a darker, more mysterious reason?

Author: Marlin Bressi, source:

Marlin Bressi is an author and history buff who currently resides in Harrisburg. As a nonfiction writer he has authored four books, the most recent of which are Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits and Pennsylvania Oddities.

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