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1832: Duffy's Cut - 57 Irish immigrant PA railroad workers murdered or dead from cholera

Discussion in 'Historical Cold Cases - Pre 1950' started by Akoya, Nov 4, 2017.

  1. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Promising discovery in 1830s deaths of Irish rail workers on the Main Line

    Updated: JULY 13, 2017 — 3:45 PM EDT

    by Genevieve Glatsky, STAFF WRITER @thegreatglatsky | gglatsky@philly.com
    The quest to uncover the truth about the deaths of 57 Irish railroad workers on the Main Line in 1832 has led to an encouraging discovery: Ground-penetrating radar last month found several anomalies that suggest more bodies remain buried at Duffy’s Cut, a patch of woods between an Amtrak line and a manicured Chester County cul-de-sac.

    The young immigrants arrived in the United States from Derry to work on a stretch of rail on the old Philadelphia & Columbia line, about 30 miles from Center City in Malvern. Within several months, all of the workers were dead. Official reports at the time listed the cause of death as cholera.

    For decades, the circumstances of their deaths have drawn the curiosity of the Irish American community, which suspected foul play.

    In 2002, twin brothers William and Frank Watson discovered documents kept by their late grandfather, who had been the executive assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The file came with instructions that the information be kept private.

    The documents contradicted the story released during the cholera epidemic. They revealed that instead of eight deaths, 57 people had lost their lives. But untreated cholera has a mortality rate of only 50 percent. Something didn’t add up. Why did everyone die? The Watsons embarked on 15 years of research.

    The burial site happened to be just minutes from Immaculata University, where William Watson is a history professor.

    Excavations between 2009 and 2012 unearthed the remains of six men and one woman, who was a cook and laundress. Forensic examiners determined the seven had died violently, by bullets and blows from sharp implements like axes.

    William Watson said he believes a vigilante group murdered the immigrants out of a fear of cholera and prejudice against the Irish, who were often blamed for the epidemic. The Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad then covered up a massacre.

    “What happened at Duffy’s Cut is kind of an epitome of the fear of cholera, of the fear of the foreigner,” said the Rev. Frank Watson, president of the Lutheran Archive Center in Mount Airy. “It certainly speaks to some of the worries and concerns people have today and the craziness that we see perpetrated in different communities around the world.”

    Forensic scientists identified two of the bodies, which were given proper burials in their hometowns in Ireland. In 2012, the five others were buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

    Other discoveries of artifacts included a pipe stem with the word Derry imprinted, now requested by the Maritime Museum there, and a clay pipe bowl with an Erin Go Bragh flag on it, which William Watson believes is one of the oldest examples of Irish nationalism in the United States.

    Recovery of more bodies halted for several years due to cost constraints and safety considerations given the proximity to the Amtrak line.

    This summer, radar surveys identified anomalies in the ground that suggest seven more bodies, as well as one large presence underneath a 1909 stone monument, which the Watsons suspect could signify a mass grave. If more foul play is confirmed, William Watson believes Duffy’s Cut could be the site of the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history.

    The researchers hope to give any bodies burials that respect religious tradition. The brothers said they now have full support of Amtrak. Railway workers of Irish descent have volunteered to help excavate the site.

    “We went out there and it just kind of got in our blood,” said Pearse Kerr, an Amtrak worker and representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “It’s something that pulls on your heartstrings. As Irish railroaders, it’s a perfect fit for us. This is our predecessors.”

    The story has taken on a life of its own, spurring international attention as well as documentaries, books, albums, and an opera. A new documentary, The Cut: The Journey of the Men and Women of Duffy’s Cut, is aimed for a summer television release.

    “The connections of loss and grief and covering up of stories transcend boundaries, transcend religions and denominational differences in a very powerful way, ” Frank Watson said.

    Immaculata offers a scholarship for students to travel to Ireland in recognition of Duffy’s Cut. Last year the school held a two-week training program for teachers to incorporate the event into history lessons, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    Investigators plan to take core samples around the seven anomalies within the next few weeks to look for evidence of decomposition and hope to start excavating by August. US Radar surveyor Harold King estimates a 70 percent chance that the anomalies lead to seven more remains.

    “We kind of were in something of a limbo,” Frank Watson said. “We wanted to finish it. We knew that this was a story that had grabbed a hold of our souls. We’ve continued with the hope that we actually will be able to finish this out. Our philosophy is, leave no man or woman behind.”
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  2. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    A tobacco pipe with Irish markings currently on display at display at Immaculata University Library exhibit about the Duffy’s Cut victims, 57 Irish railway workers that were victims of cholera and violence.


    William Watson (left), professor of history at Immaculata University, and the Rev. Frank Watson led the effort at the Duffy’s Cut archaeological site to investigate the mystery of the 57 dead Irish rail workers. They are at the site where they found bodies of the rail workers who were victims of cholera and violence in Malvern.


    A photo of the remains of Catherine Burns. This photo is on display at a museum about Duffy’s Cut at the Immaculata University Library.
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  3. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member

    Duffy's Cut is the name given to a stretch of railroad tracks about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, United States, originally built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. Wikipedia
    Address: 36 Sugar Ridge Ln, Malvern, PA 19355
  4. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Duffy's Cut
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Coordinates: 40°02′0.6″N 75°31′45.84″W

    Enclosure where the majority of the remains are believed to rest, possibly after having been moved.[1]

    Pipes recovered at the site

    Construction tool (top) and iron strapping (bottom) c. 1832 that was attached to a wooden stringer and used as a rail. Both items recovered at the site.

    Grave of some of the victims in West Laurel Hill Cemetery
    Duffy's Cut is the name given to a stretch of railroad tracks about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, United States, originally built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line. Railroad contractor Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to lay this line through the area's densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers came to Philadelphia from the Ulster counties of Donegal, Tyrone and Derry to work in Pennsylvania's nascent railroad industry. Less than two months after their arrival, all 57 are believed to have died during the second cholera pandemic. While most died of the disease, forensic evidence suggests that some may have been murdered, perhaps due to fear of contagion,[2] as the pandemic spanned several continents and many years.[3]

    The site is located near Malvern, Pennsylvania in East Whiteland Township[4] near the intersection of King Road and Sugartown Road, where a Pennsylvania state historical marker has been placed.[5]

    Prejudice against immigrants generally and Irish Catholics specifically contributed to the denial of care to these immigrant workers, who were often viewed by the owners and managers of railroad and coal mining companies as expendable components, and by anglo-germanic Americans as unwholesome and even dangerous.[citation needed] Philip Duffy's blacksmith buried the first three to perish in individual graves, but when it became clear that all would die he buried the rest of the dead workers in a shallow ditch along the railroad’s right of way without ceremony or funeral.[5] No death certificates were ever filed for these individuals. Asiatic Cholera usually causes 40-60% casualties within a single population.[citation needed] In this case, all of the workers are believed to have died, leading to the theory that some may have been killed.[5]

    Official record of the deaths at Duffy’s Cut remained locked in the vaults of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) until Joseph Tripican, a secretary to a former PRR president, removed them after the company’s bankruptcy in 1970. In the 1990s, one of Tripican’s grandsons, Reverend Dr. Frank Watson discovered the papers in a file and began to research the history with his brother Dr. William Watson, Professor of History, and adjunct professors Earl Schandelmeier and John Ahtes of Immaculata University.[5]

    On June 18, 2004, a Pennsylvania state historical marker was dedicated near the site. The text of the marker reads, "Nearby is the mass grave of fifty-seven Irish immigrant workers who died in August, 1832, of cholera. They had recently arrived in the United States and were employed by a construction contractor, named Duffy, for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. Prejudice against Irish Catholics contributed to the denial of care to the workers. Their illness and death typified the hazards faced by many 19th century immigrant industrial workers."

    In August 2004, the site began undergoing archaeological excavation by a research team headed by Dr. William Watson from Immaculata University, Rev. Dr. Frank Watson, Earl Schandelmeier, and John Ahtes. The Duffy's Cut Project team consisted of four primary members, William Watson, Frank Watson, John Ahtes (who died in 2010) and Earl Schandelmeier at Immaculata University. On March 20, 2009, the first human bones were unearthed, consisting of two skulls, six teeth and eighty other bones. The researchers announced their discovery on March 24, 2009.[6]

    In August 2009, "Finding Dulcinea" reported that the two earliest skulls found both show evidence of blunt-force trauma inflicted peri-mortem, suggesting the possibility that they were murdered.[7] More recent research of the site suggests that a mass murder may have taken place against the Irish workers[8] by local vigilantes fearful that cholera would spread. Analysis of the bones has indicated the possibility that some of the men were killed by projectiles.[9][10][11]

    On March 9, 2012, the remains of five men and one woman from those who died at Duffy's Cut Shanty Town were laid to rest in a church burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.[12] The men and woman were unearthed by researchers from Immaculata University at the location of the Shanty Town near an Amtrak railroad line in Pennsylvania.[13] A sixth body was recovered and identified as John Ruddy from Inishowen, County Donegal; his remains were returned to Ireland for reburial there.[14] in 2013[15] The remains of Catherine Burns of County Tyrone who died in Duffy's Cut in 1832 were reburied in Ireland in 2015[15] Excavation of the deep burial site was halted when Amtrak, which owns the land, would not issue permits for additional digging because of the site's proximity to the railroad tracks.[16]

    In popular culture[edit]

    Tile Films of Dublin, Ireland produced a documentary on the story for broadcast on the Irish State Broadcaster RTÉ.[citation needed], then went on to produce a follow-up with WNET, "Death on the Railroad" as an episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead (season 12, episode 2) first aired May 8, 2013.[1] and RTÉ. In this episode, the claim was made that modern forensic science determined that the 57 Irish railroad workers did not perish as the result of cholera, but instead were murdered. No conclusion was drawn as to motive, although many theories were offered.

    Greenwood Publishing Group published The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut in July 2006.[2]
    "Duffy's Cut"
    Song by Christy Moore and Wally Page (writer)
    Songwriter(s)Wally Page

    Irish musician Christy Moore released a song, written by Wally Page, called "Duffy's Cut" (2009), whose subject matter is the death of the workers on the railway.[2]
    In March 2011, Celtic Punk band The Dropkick Murphys released a song called "The Hardest Mile", which also deals with the newly discovered evidence that some of the men may have been murdered rather than having died of cholera.


    Pipes recovered at the site


    Construction tool (top) and iron strapping (bottom) c. 1832 that was attached to a wooden stringer and used as a rail. Both items recovered at the site.


    Grave of some of the victims in West Laurel Hill Cemetery

    Coordinates: 40°02′0.6″N 75°31′45.84″W
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  5. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Ireland’s Forgotten Sons Recovered Two Centuries Later
    In Pennsylvania, amateur archaeologists unearth a mass grave of immigrant railroad workers who disappeared in 1832

    During the era of horse-drawn railroads, workers filled in a ravine at Duffy's Cut. (Ryan Donnell)

    By Abigail Tucker
    APRIL 2010

    Buried in a green Pennsylvania valley for nearly two centuries, the man had been reduced to a jumble of bones: skull, vertebrae, toes, teeth and ribs. Gradually, though, he came alive for William and Frank Watson, twin brothers who are leading an excavation at a pre-Civil War railroad construction site outside Philadelphia, where 57 Irish workers are said to have been surreptitiously interred in a mass grave.

    Ireland’s Forgotten Sons Recovered Two Centuries Later
    In Pennsylvania, amateur archaeologists unearth a mass grave of immigrant railroad workers who disappeared in 1832

    During the era of horse-drawn railroads, workers filled in a ravine at Duffy's Cut. (Ryan Donnell)
    By Abigail Tucker
    APRIL 2010
    Buried in a green Pennsylvania valley for nearly two centuries, the man had been reduced to a jumble of bones: skull, vertebrae, toes, teeth and ribs. Gradually, though, he came alive for William and Frank Watson, twin brothers who are leading an excavation at a pre-Civil War railroad construction site outside Philadelphia, where 57 Irish workers are said to have been surreptitiously interred in a mass grave.

    The plates of the man’s skull were not fully fused, indicating he was a teenager when he died. He was relatively short, 5-foot-6, but quite strong, judging from his bone structure. And X-rays showed he never grew an upper right first molar, a rare genetic defect. The Watsons have tentatively identified him as John Ruddy—an 18-year-old laborer from rural County Donegal, who sailed from Derry in the spring of 1832. He likely had cholera, alongside dozens of his countrymen, all dying within two months of setting foot on American shores.

    Tipped off by a long-secret railroad company document, the Watsons searched the woods around Malvern, Pennsylvania, for four and a half years to find “our men” (as they call the workers) before locating the Ruddy skeleton in March 2009. They have since unearthed the mingled remains of several others and believe they know the location of the rest. William is a professor of medieval history at Immaculata University; Frank is a Lutheran minister. Both belong to Irish and Scottish cultural societies (they are competitive bagpipers), but neither had any prior archaeological training.

    “Half the people in the world thought we were crazy,” William says.

    “Every once in a while we would sit down and ask ourselves: ‘Are we crazy?’” Frank adds. “But we weren’t.”

    Today their dig is shedding light on the early 19th century, when thousands of immigrants labored to build the infrastructure of the still-young nation. Labor unions were in their infancy. Working conditions were controlled entirely by the companies, most of which had little regard for the safety of their employees. The Pennsylvania grave was a human “trash heap,” Frank says. Similar burial sites lie alongside this country’s canals, dams, bridges and railroads, their locations known and unknown; their occupants nameless. But the Watsons were determined to find the Irishmen at the site, known as Duffy’s Cut. “They’re not going to be anonymous anymore,” William says.

    The project began in 2002 when the Watsons began reviewing a private railroad company file that had belonged to their late grandfather, the assistant to Martin Clement, a 1940s-era Pennsylvania Railroad president. The file—a collection of letters and other documents Clement assembled during a 1909 company investigation—described an 1832 cholera outbreak that swept through a construction encampment along a stretch of railroad that would connect Philadelphia with Columbia, Pennsylvania. Contemporary newspapers, which usually kept detailed tallies of local cholera fatalities, implied that only a handful of men had died at the camp. Yet Clement’s inquiry concluded that at least 57 men had perished. The Watsons became convinced the railroad covered up the deaths to ensure the recruitment of new laborers.

    Work on the Philadelphia and Columbia line, originally a horse-drawn train, began in 1828. Three years later, a contractor named Philip Duffy got the nod to construct Mile 59, one of the toughest stretches. The project required leveling a hill—known as making a cut—and using the soil to fill in a neighboring valley in order to flatten the ground. It was nasty work. The dirt was “heavy as the dickens,” says railroad historian John Hankey, who visited the site. “Sticky, heavy, a lot of clay, a lot of stones—shale and rotten rock.”
  6. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Duffy, a middle-class Irishman, had tackled previous railroad projects by enlisting “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin,” an 1829 newspaper article reported. By 1830, census records show that Duffy was sheltering immigrants in his rental home. Like many laborers from Ireland’s rural north, Duffy’s workers were probably poor, Catholic and Gaelic-speaking. Unlike the wealthier Scotch-Irish families who preceded them, they were typically single men traveling with few possessions who would perform punishing jobs for a pittance. The average wages for immigrant laborers were “ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and a large allowance for whiskey,” the British novelist Frances Trollope reported in the early 1830s.

    When cholera swept the Philadelphia countryside in the summer of 1832, railroad workers housed in a shanty near Duffy’s Cut fled the area, according to Julian Sachse, a historian who interviewed elderly locals in the late 1800s. But nearby homeowners, perhaps fearful of infection (it was not yet known that cholera spreads through contaminated water sources), turned them away. The laborers went back to the valley, to be tended only by a local blacksmith and nuns from the Sisters of Charity, who went to the camp from Philadelphia. Later the blacksmith buried the bodies and torched the shanty.

    That story was more legend than history in August 2004 when the Watsons began digging along Mile 59, near modern Amtrak tracks. (They’d obtained permission from local homeowners and the state of Pennsylvania to excavate.) In 2005, Hankey visited the valley and guessed where the workers would have strung their canvas shelter: sure enough, the diggers found evidence of a burned area, 30 feet wide. Excavations turned up old glass buttons, pieces of crockery and clay pipes—including one stamped with the image of an Irish harp.

    But no bodies. Then Frank Watson reread a statement in the Clement file from a railroad employee: “I heard my father say that they were buried where they were making the fill.” Was it possible the bodies lay beneath the original railroad tracks? In December 2008, the Watsons asked geoscientist Tim Bechtel to concentrate his ground-penetrating radar search along the embankment, where he detected a large “anomaly,” possibly an air pocket formed by decomposed bodies. Three months later, shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, a student worker named Patrick Barry struck a leg bone with his shovel.

    On a recent afternoon, the valley was quiet, except for the scrape and clatter of shovels, the slap of wet dirt in the bottom of a wheelbarrow, and every now and then the shuddering shriek of a passing train. The terrain would challenge even professional excavators: the embankment is steep and the roots of a huge tulip poplar have fingered their way through the site. The team’s pickaxes and spades are not much more sophisticated than the Irishmen’s original tools. “We are unbuilding what they died to build,” William Watson says.

    The Watson brothers hope to recover every last body. In doing so, they could provoke fresh controversies. Some of the men might have been murdered, says Janet Monge, a University of Pennsylvania forensic anthropologist who is analyzing the remains. At least one and perhaps two of the recovered skulls show signs of trauma at the time of death, she says, adding these may have been mercy killings, or perhaps local vigilantes didn’t want more sick men leaving the valley.

    Identifying the bodies is a challenge, because the laborers’ names are absent from census records and newspaper obituaries. And, says William Watson, the archives of the Sisters of Charity offer only a “spotty” account. The most promising clue is the passenger list of a ship, the John Stamp, the only vessel in the spring of 1832 to come from Ireland to Philadelphia with a good many Irish laborers aboard—including a teenager, John Ruddy of Donegal. Many of these immigrants did not show up in subsequent census records.

    The news media in Ireland have reported on the Duffy’s Cut dig since 2006. This past year, as word of the discovery of the skeleton of Ruddy made headlines, the Watsons received phone calls and e-mails from several Ruddys in Ireland, including a Donegal family whose members exhibit the same congenital defect found in the skeleton. Matthew Patterson, a forensic dentist who worked with the Watsons, says the genetic abnormality is “exceptionally rare,” appearing in perhaps one in a million Americans, though the incidence may be greater in Ireland.

    The Watsons are confident they have found the family John Ruddy left behind nearly two centuries ago. But to be certain, the brothers are raising money for genetic tests to compare DNA from the skeleton with that of the Donegal Ruddys; if there’s a match, Ruddy’s remains will be sent back to Ireland for a family burial. Any unclaimed remains the Watsons disinter will be buried beneath a Celtic cross in West Laurel Hill cemetery, where they will rest alongside some of Philadelphia’s great industrial tycoons. In the meantime, the Watsons held their own impromptu memorial service, going down to the mass grave one June afternoon to play the bagpipes.

    Staff writer Abigail Tucker reported on the excavation of a Virginia slave jail in the March 2009 issue.
  7. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Morning Mix
    Unearthing a deadly secret: Were 57 Irish workers murdered in 1832 Pennsylvania?

    October 8, 2015

    They had arrived from Ireland by ship, desperate to start a new life and willing to do backbreaking, dirty work cheaply. The 57 men set out to build Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania railroad line in 1832, at a time when Irish immigrant workers were helping a growing country meet the increased demand for transportation infrastructure.

    But six weeks later, all 57 men were dead.

    Was it cholera or murder?

    It’s remained a mystery for more than 180 years.

    Now, a new search is underway to find 51 of the men who are believed to have been buried in a mass grave near the railway line.

    For more than a century, the truth about what happened to the men has remained a dark secret. It has long been believed that all of the men died of cholera. But in recent years, the discovery of remains of seven bodies — six male workers and a female — shows clear evidence of brutal violence.

    Researchers have come to believe that some of the others may have been killed as well.

    [This 9,000-year-old ritual decapitation may have been one of America’s first]

    some of the skeletal remains of Duffy's cut workers. (The Duffy's Cut Project) Some of the skeletal remains of Duffy’s Cut workers. (The Duffy’s Cut Project)
    Generations later, the secret of what happened to these men is being closely kept by the descendents of the people who might have been complicit in — or even responsible for — their deaths.

    According to Bill Watson, the director of the Duffy’s Cut Project, which has led the effort to unearth the truth, there’s a very good possibility that many of the men were brutally murdered amid widespread fear that immigrants were responsible for the cholera outbreak.

    “There are people who are fearful that their ancestors’s names will be dragged through the mud,” Watson said.

    In 2009, his team got its first big break: Researchers identified the first of the seven bodies, which were buried in coffins.

    [Medieval stabbing victim found tangled in the roots of a fallen tree]

    There were signs of blunt-force trauma — bullet wounds to the head and cracks in their skulls from being bludgeoned with an ax.

    “We believe that a large number of them had contracted cholera by the end,” said Watson, a professor of history at Immaculata University, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia. “But we don’t doubt that some of the remaining bodies will show signs of violence.”

    “It’s possible that it is the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history,” he added.

    (The Duffy's Cut Project) (The Duffy’s Cut Project)
    Watson — along with his twin brother, J. Francis Watson, and another man, Earl H. Schandelmeier — began the search, compelled by a fascination with the history of the dead rail workers and by a sense of justice.

    “We’re all part Irish, and we know that if it were a different time and circumstance, it could have been us or our sons,” Bill Watson said. The average age of the victims, he said, was 22.

    Then their fascination took a very personal turn.

    Decades ago, just before the Pennsylvania Railroad was auctioned off, Watson’s grandfather — who worked for the company — saved key company records before they were destroyed. Among them were documents that hypothesized the location of the mass grave and reported the deaths of 57 workers.

    The documents also clearly stated that the information was intended to remain a secret.

    It was a “crazy coincidence” that the railroad company’s records survived through his family, Watson said.

    [3,000 skeletons, many of them plague victims, must make way for new train site in London]

    The papers confirmed fears of a coverup. If the men’s deaths were due to cholera, why weren’t they recorded in a local paper, like most cholera deaths were at that time? And why would some of the bodies have been brutalized?

    The answers remain elusive.

    “We know for a fact that there are records that would describe the event in its entirety that were pulled from the record,” Watson said.

    [Skeletons found holding hands after 700 years, proving love never dies]

    The truth may not remain hidden for long. This week, Watson and his team began digging at a new site, not far from where they found the first bodies.

    The group began taking core samples from the soil that will be examined for signs of human remains.

    It could be months before any new bodies are found. If they are, the discovery will be a major breakthrough.

    Watson believes it is the least that can be done for the men whose blood and sweat paved the way for a railroad line that is still in use today, Amtrak and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority passengers.

    “The sheer magnitude of the depravity of the people who did these things to these guys . . . it’s horrific,” Watson said.


    Some of the skeletal remains of Duffy’s Cut workers. (The Duffy’s Cut Project)

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  8. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member

  9. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


    Marker Location:
    King and Sugartown Roads, Willistown Township

    Dedication Date:
    June 18, 2004

    Behind the Marker

    To build their lines, Pennsylvania railroads had to tunnel through mountains, cross wide rivers, span deep gorges to lay the track upon which their trains would run. This was hard, physically demanding, low-paying labor and dangerous work. To find men desperate enough to build and maintain their lines, Pennsylvania railroads for generations relied upon foreign workers - Irish and Chinese, and Italians - and upon African Americans from the South. In 2004, a state historical marker was erected for fifty-seven Irish Catholic men whose fleeting chance at the "American Dream" ended in horror in August, 1832.Section Gang on hand trolley, 1870
    Section Gang on a hand trolley somewhere in Pennsylvania, circa 1870.

    Hired on the docks in Philadelphia by Phillip Duffy, a Willistown railroad contractor working for the markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad, these Irishmen were taken to two small hills near the present-day town of Malvern, to fill in a ravine for a track bed. Duffy crowded his work crew into a single hastily built shanty. Largely shunned by the local populace-anti-Irish Catholic riots had broken out in Philadelphia just the year before - the newcomers began their grueling labor in June.

    That summer, an outbreak of cholera swept through the Delaware Valley, killing at least 900 people and inciting great anxiety. At the beginning of August, the disease made its deadly appearance in the ravine. As they watched their fellow workers fall ill and then die, some of the Irish men hurried to nearby homes for assistance. But anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudice was so prevalent that doors were barred, and help denied. Only the contractor's blacksmith risked exposure in a futile attempt to save lives. He also led several Sisters of Charity from Philadelphia to the site, but to no avail.

    The task of burying the Irish workers, who all died from cholera that August, fell upon the blacksmith. He buried them all in a shallow ditch on the railroad's right of way without ceremony or funeral. Rejected by the local residents, the nuns walked back to Philadelphia without food or water in the late summer heat.

    Although incidents of mass death such as this one at Duffy's Cut were uncommon, immigrant workers on Pennsylvania's railroads suffered from injury and death at a high rate, for they were often viewed by the owners and managers of railroad and coal mining corporations as expendable components, and by "native" Americans as unwholesome and even dangerous outsiders. Often crowded into company housing in out-of-the-way locations, foreign-born mine and rail workers struggled for survival in a frequently hostile environment.Lithograph of the Southwark Bible riot scene
    Lithograph of the July 7, 1844 Southwark "Bible Riot," Philadelphia County,...

    As commerce and industry expanded rapidly in the decades before the Civil War, immigrant workers' efforts fueled Pennsylvania's exploding economic growth. Landless Irish tenant farmers and laborers, dispossessed by the English in their homeland, and then fleeing starvation after the outbreak of the infamous Irish potato famine, fled by the thousands every year. The vast majority wound up in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Some found skilled labor positions, or farming opportunities, ended up doing temporary and arduous hard labor. One Irish writer remarked in 1860 that there were four modes of power at work in the world of American industry, "water-power, steam-power, horse-power, and Irish-power. The last works hardest of all."

    Immigrants from Germany, England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Norway, and Sweden, and China also arrived in America with high hopes and limited opportunities in the mid-1800s. For those who spoke English or were skilled craftsmen, chances for economic success were greater. Many of these immigrant workers brought with them ideas about labor guilds and fraternities, which would appear in force during the last quarter of the nineteenth century when organized workers challenged the authority of wealthy industrialists.

    Railroad jobs, especially for markerbrakemen, could be extremely dangerous. In 1881, more than 30,000 American railroad workers were killed or injured on the job. Many railroads offered no compensation; nor did the courts which ruled that workers shared the blame for their injuries and deaths-even when railroads had the ability to use equipment that would improve safety.

    During the mining and railroad strikes of the late 1800s, owners sometimes imported African Americans as strikebreakers, and though some labor organizers like markerWilliam Sylvis and Richard Trevallick of the National Labor Union supported equality for African American workers, much of the white working class was hostile to their inclusion. White workers were often hostile to the Chinese, harboring the stereotype-based fear that submissive Chinese would accept lower wages, and thus undercut the bargaining power of white labor. Wage-earning women also struggled for acceptance and respect. Their efforts were undermined by the prevalent view that women should maintain the home and rear children.

    In the late 1800s industrial workers membership in unions in Pennsylvania and across the nation began to afford them some protections against management abuses. But in 1832, the fifty-seven Irish laborers who worked on the Philadelphia and Columbia line were completely on their own. When disease struck, they suffered, and died, alone. No death certificates were ever filed for these non-citizens. Work on Duffy's Cut resumed in the fall.

    Excavators stand around a unearthed mass grave.
    Excavation work at the Duffy's Cut gravesite, Malvern, PA, circa 2008.
    When the Philadelphia and Columbia was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857, the story of Duffy's Cut might have been forgotten had it not been for some local residents who still talked about the gruesome tragedy. In 1870, sympathetic local railroad workers constructed a wooden fence around what they thought was the gravesite. In 1909, a railroad assistant supervisor replaced the deteriorating wooden fence with a stone wall. But according to at least one local resident, whose story was recorded in 1919, the Irish men's unmarked graves were covered by track when the Pennsylvania Railroad reset its line in the 1880s to straighten out the Sugartown Curve. Old railroad maps appear to confirm this disturbing possibility.

    Official record of the deaths at Duffy's Cut, remained locked in the vaults of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) until Joseph Tripican, a secretary to a former PRR president removed them after the company's bankruptcy in 1970. In the 1990s, one of Tripican's grandsons, Frank Watson discovered the papers in a file, and began with fellow historians William Watson, John Ahtes and Earl Schandelemeier to research the history. The state historical marker, dedicated in 2004, memorializes the fifty-seven Irish workers who died at Duffy's Cut in August of 1832, and the labors and sacrifices of the immigrants who helped build the railroads in Pennsylvania.

    Beyond the Marker

    Dennis Clark, The Irish in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press), 1973.

    Alan M. Kraut, Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the "Immigrant Menace" (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 1994.

    William E. Watson and others, The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad (New York: Praeger), 2006.

    Immaculata University, The Duffy’s Cut Project http://duffyscut.immaculata.edu/Index.htm
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    Railroad contractor Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to lay this line through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers had recently arrived in Philadelphia from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry, Ireland. Within two months, all 57 were dead.

    All but the first three workers were buried in a shallow ditch along the railroad’s right of way without ceremony or funeral. No death certificates were ever filed.

    Official record of the deaths at Duffy’s Cut stated the workers died of cholera, however, cholera usually causes 30-70% casualties in a population, while in this case 100% of the workers died leading to a theory that some may have been killed.

    In August 2009, the Irish Times reported two skulls were uncovered that showed evidence of blunt-force trauma inflicted ante-mortem, suggesting the possibility of murder. More recently evidence of a mass murder, possibly fueled by local fear that the Irish would spread cholera, may be behind the Duffy’s Cut mass grave..

    A full investigation is expected to ensue as further excavation and testing is done on the remains.
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    Duffy’s Cut
    By William E. Watson

    At Duffy’s Cut, a railroad construction site in Chester County, Pennsylvania, fifty-seven Irish immigrant railroad workers died amid a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1832 and were buried in a mass grave. The Irishmen from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry were hired to dig a railroad cut and construct an earthen fill in lieu of a bridge at mile 59 of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&C), part of a transportation system to link Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Archaeological evidence uncovered in 2009 and thereafter demonstrated that some of the workers died of blunt force trauma and bullet wounds rather than cholera.

    color photograph of a large celtic cross shaped headstone, surrounded by 57 Irish flags and a large plaque on the ground directly in front of it
    The remains of five men were reburied in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd. Here, fifty-seven Irish flags line the large Duffy’s Cut memorial grave, one for each of the deceased rail workers. (Photograph by William E. Watson)

    Duffy’s Cut takes its name from Irish railroad contractor Philip Duffy (1783-1871), who came to the United States in 1798, the year of the United Irishmen rebellion. He was among the contractors to gain work from the Pennsylvania Canal Commission, created by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1825 to oversee construction of what came to be called the Main Line of Public Works, which was projected to cut travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to three to four days instead of the three to four weeks travel time by Conestoga wagons. In 1828, the Canal Commission approved construction of two rail lines—the P&C (eighty-two miles) and the Allegheny Portage (thirty-six miles). Duffy’s mile 59 contract was the second of his six contracts with the P&C in the period 1829 to 1849, and the most expensive contract along the entire system, at $23,500. Duffy also obtained contracts with the West Chester Railroad and the Reading Railroad.

    Duffy lived in a rented house in Willistown Township, south of the P&C line, with ten non-naturalized Irish laborers who worked with him on mile 9 of the West Chester Railroad (which was intended to link up with the P&C). The bulk of Duffy’s crew for his mile 59 contract arrived in Philadelphia from Derry in late June 1832 aboard the bark John Stamp. Their average age was 22, and most of them were desperately poor. The lure of labor opportunities in canal and railroad construction in the United States drew progressively more Irishmen across the Atlantic in the 1830s.

    Duffy brought forty-seven men and at least one woman from the John Stamp to mile 59 to work with the ten already living with him, making a crew of fifty-seven to work on the P&C cut and fill. As the work commenced, cholera arrived in Philadelphia and an epidemic gripped the Delaware Valley. In July and August, perhaps 1,000 people perished in the epidemic in the Philadelphia region. By early August, cholera had reached the workers’ camp in Chester County and sources indicate that some of them tried to flee. Quarantines of food and also of humans were employed throughout the United States during the 1832 epidemic, and evidence suggests that a quarantine of the workers was attempted at mile 59, perhaps imposed by the East Whiteland Horse Company (some of whose members lived adjacent to the work site). By the end of August, all fifty-seven workers had perished.

    Archaeological excavations and forensic analysis of seven sets of remains from within the railroad fill in 2009-2012 revealed that those workers sustained blows to their skulls at the time of their deaths and one had a bullet shot into his skull at close range, but none had defensive wounds. Railroad records indicate that locals shunned the workers when cholera struck the camp, and it is likely that fear of cholera and perhaps even nativist sentiment contributed to the deaths of the work crew. Five of the excavated remains were reburied at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, in March 2012, and one was reburied at Holy Family Cemetery in Ardara, Donegal, Ireland, in March 2013. The events at Duffy’s Cut provide an example of the pervasive fear of contagion and of what historian Alan Kraut has called “the immigrant menace” in early America.

    William E. Watson received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and is Professor of History at Immaculata University. He is author of several books, and coauthor of The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut and Irish-Americans: The History and Culture of a People.

    Copyright 2015, Rutgers University

    The remains of five men were reburied in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd. Here, fifty-seven Irish flags line the large Duffy’s Cut memorial grave, one for each of the deceased rail workers. (Photograph by William E. Watson)
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    Duffy’s Cut: Search continues for 19th-century railroad workers’ graves in Malvern


    A worker Friday searches for bodies buried 185 years ago in unmarked graves, at Duffy’s Cut in Malvern. BILL RETTEW JR. – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
    By Bill Rettew, brettew@dailylocal.com

    Posted: 06/10/17, 5:30 AM EDT | Updated: on 06/10/2017

    # Comments
    A worker measures and places flags along the Main Line railroad tracks to denote possible unmarked graves of Irish railroad workers, at Duffy’s Cut in Malvern.
    A worker measures and places flags along the Main Line railroad tracks to denote possible unmarked graves of Irish railroad workers, at Duffy’s Cut in Malvern. BILL RETTEW JR. – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
    EAST WHITELAND >> The next time you ride a train along the Main Line west of the Malvern Station, you might just be crossing the largest mass murder site in Pennsylvania history.

    Some of the 57 Irish workers whose remains have been discovered here possibly succumbed to a cholera outbreak. However, recently unearthed evidence shows that many were murdered and possibly then thrown into a trash heap.

    Searchers, part of the Duffy’s Cut Project, including Dr. William Watson, a professor of History at Immaculata University, believe that many of the 50 missing railroad workers likely were murdered and buried in unmarked graves at Duffy’s Cut.

    Almost 185 years ago, 57 Irish rail workers excavated a stretch of track along what is now known as the Main Line. Duffy’s Cut, an area of treacherous rock formations, was named after contractor Philip Duffy, who critics say exploited the workers, paid them 25 cents per day and then might have contributed to the demise of the crew.

    On Friday, after five years of mostly inaction due to a severe lack of funding and the need to secure proper permission from Amtrak, which uses the nearby tracks, a group of about 20 searchers watched and worked as two “ground-penetrating radar” devices swept the area near the tracks.

    The devices, which looks a bit like a lawn mower and also are pushed, sport a computer tablet.

    Several Amtrak and SEPTA trains rumbled by during an hour-long visit, possibly atop the burial spot of 50 missing workers.

    Charles Mason, of U.S. Radar in Monmouth County, N.J., operated one of two battery-powered radar machines.

    He compared radar waves to ocean waves. Mason searched for targets 15 to 25 feet below the surface.

    “It’s like watching waves come into a shore,” Mason said. “The radar will break around it like a jetty.”

    Within about an hour of starting work, Mason had placed about a dozen orange flags marking spots where a blip on a screen, or abnormality, were located.

    The radar machine locates voids where something has collapsed.

    “A decaying body leaves an uneven layer of soil,” said Professor Watson.

    The gravesite was made public in 2003 by Drs. William and Frank Watson. They uncovered more than 100-year-old documents held secret by a railroad company. Volunteers and Immaculata students have performed much of the excavation at the site.

    Neighbor David Worst watched workers search for bodies. His family moved into the neighborhood in 1958 and had always heard that the site was a mass grave. Even as a child, Worst said the area provoked an “eerie feeling.”

    Bob McAlister, of the Lancaster police department, is an Irish history buff, and said his Irish grandfather worked on the railroads.

    “That could have been him,” McAllister said.

    “This could be us except for time and circumstance,” Watson said.

    Seven bodies have been recovered from the site.

    A shanty town of immigrant workers was under quarantine at Duffy’s Cut. Watson said that Duffy and others were likely afraid of cholera, along with a general “hatred “of the Irish and a fear that the immigrants would displace local workers.

    Walt Hunter, media consultant, wrote in a release that immigrant workers were “slaughtered.”

    “(The team) believe(s) local vigilantes, in an explosion of anti-immigrant hate, and fueled by fears they were spreading disease, then ambushed, beat and shot the workers,” wrote Hunter.

    Two victims were identified by name before the last body was found in 2012, following a three-year dig and search. It was determined the seven recovered victims did not die of cholera, but were murdered.

    Until they were identified, the recovered victims were only known to present day searchers by names such as “the tall guy” or “the guy with ax blow and the bullet.”

    McAllister said that when a pair of victims was identified by name, the workers were “humanized.” No longer were the murdered workers considered “throw-aways.”

    Catherine Burns and 18-year old John Ruddy were recently formally buried in Ireland.

    A historic marker stands at King and Sugartown roads. Train riders will soon, for the first time, be reminded and informed of the history at the spot, and the workers’ fate.

    For more up-to-date information, go to www.duffyscut.immaculata.edu To donate at a “Go Fund Me” page, access www.********.com/duffys-cut-fund-the-project-2uv6pxes
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    William Watson at the Duffy's Cut site in Malvern, PA (ref.)

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    large celtic cross shaped headstone, surrounded by 57 Irish flags


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    Reburial of woman in native Ireland highlights 183-year-old murder mystery
    Catherine Burns arrived in 1832 to work on the Pennsylvania railroad. Six weeks later she and 57 others were dead. Now a remarkable project is telling their story

    Jessica Glenza in Malvern, Pennsylvania
    Sunday 19 July 2015 02.00 EDT Last modified on Friday 14 July 2017 16.53 EDT
    Catherine Burns will be buried in her native County Tyrone in Northern Ireland on Sunday, 183 years after her attempt to create a new life in the United States came to a grim end in a railroad shantytown outside Philadelphia.

    The identification of her remains, their return home, and the insight her story has provided into the lives of Catholic Irish immigrants who sailed to the US fleeing prejudice is the result of a remarkable history research project.

    That project ultimately revealed Catherine’s murder more than a century and a half after it happened.

    She was 29 years old and already a widow when she left home and sailed from Derry, County Derry, as one of 160 Catholic Irish immigrants bound for the US on a ship called the John Stamp. When they landed in Philadelphia, Catherine must have been hopeful. She soon found work with 57 other Irish Catholic immigrants at a railroad construction called Duffy’s Cut, 30 miles outside the city in the town of East Whiteland.

    But the immigrants were dead some six weeks after their arrival in 1832.

    For years, memory of the deaths was little more than a ghost story, and the name Duffy’s Cut had all but been forgotten. The place would be referred to as Dead Horse Hollow for many years. Newspapers at the time reported deaths along the railroad in the camp, but just eight, and all were attributed to the cholera epidemic that seeped south from New York City that year.

    Then, 12 years ago, twin brothers and PhD historians Frank and Bill Watson inherited a file that upended that history – on Pennsylvania Railroad letterhead, memoranda recounted the deaths of 57 Irish railroad workers, not the eight reported by newspapers.

    After years of work to corroborate the file, the Watson brothers pinpointed where they believed the remains of the railroad workers lay. Soon, they uncovered an unmarked gravesite where seven skeletons were buried in wooden coffins along the Amtrak tracks.

    The skeleton they would later identify as Catherine – and the others with it – had gashes in their backs of their heads. One had an apparent bullet wound.

    ‘People panicked’
    When the brothers found the remains, the impulse to disregard them was strong. Native American burial grounds were common in the area, and not two miles away, in Paoli, 52 revolutionary war soldiers were killed in a massacre during a British ambush.

    At least one local historian mused that the bullet wound could have been the result of a musket accident.

    But the Watsons persisted in their research over the years, drawing on more than half a dozen other disciplines ranging from geology to forensic dentistry in an effort to confirm their theory – that this was a mass grave of railroad workers from Philadelphia’s industrial revolution.

    Not all 57 workers are believed to have been murdered – the Watsons and their colleagues believe as many as 50 more died when cholera swept the east coast that summer, an epidemic that may have precipitated the violence that befell their countrymen as townspeople tried to stop the disease from spreading.

    “We both believe that when the epidemic hit, people panicked,” said Bill Watson. The epidemic had already killed 3,500 people in New York City, records from the time indicate. The Watsons are hopeful that the next phase of digging, on Amtrak property, will uncover more clues and, perhaps, remains.

    Listed on the John Stamp’s manifest, Catherine Burns is thought to have worked as a cook or laundress in the shanty where workers lived, in the woods near the tracks. The worksite, called Duffy’s Cut, was named after Philip Duffy, a builder, himself Irish Catholic, who secured a contract with Pennsylvania to construct mile 59 of the Philadelphia-Columbia railroad.

    A forensic dentist who analyzed Burns’s bones said she would have been a giant in her day, nearing 6ft tall. Like those of an athlete, Burns’s bones had grown accustomed to the burden manual labor placed on her body, growing dense as her muscles demanded greater fortitude with years of hard work. She is believed to have come to the United States with her father-in-law, a 79-year-old listed as a “laborer” on the John Stamp’s manifest.

    The only other worker to be identified was 18-year-old John Ruddy, a man with a rare genetic defect that causes a missing molar. That allowed researchers to track him to a family of Ruddys now living in Donegal, many of whom have the same one-in-100,000 defect. The Watsons are working to find a lab that can perform a conclusive DNA comparison between John Ruddy’s genes and those of people believed to be his descendants.

    But even as the Watsons and their close colleague and fellow historian Earl Schandelmeier III are embraced by Irish diplomats and Irish American organizations, the researchers’ work remains a subject of contention among some historians.

    “The part that’s raw is the murder part,” said Jim Jones, a history professor at nearby West Chester University. “This is an area that prides itself on its tolerance – Quakers, the underground railroad and all that – and the idea that there may be murderous discrimination against foreigners, Irishmen in this case, certainly makes some people uneasy.”
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