With winter long gone, the digging can resume at a site in Malvern just south of the span of commuter rail line that runs between Paoli and Frazer. The focal point is old Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad before it. It’s the P&C’s efforts between 1840 and 1850 that made the Main Line possible.
Duffy’s Cut was named for 19th-century railroad contractor Philip Duffy, who was charged with building this particular stretch of rail any way he could. “Cut” is railroad lingo for the gouging of the earth to lay flat track. For Mile 59, laborers had to first build a land bridge with fill—Duffy’s Fill. Sadly, 57 Irish immigrant laborers Duffy ushered from dock to ditch the summer of 1832 died within six weeks. They were anonymously buried that August within that fill.
Burying men under track became commonplace, but Duffy’s Cut was history’s first instance. Or so believes the team that’s been assembled at Immaculata University—made up of academics and historians, along with volunteer archeologists, paleontologists and forensic experts. So far, they’ve found the remains of five of the 57 laborers. That gruesome discovery made international news last year, and exposed one of this region’s most fascinating cover-ups.
Two of the skulls discovered had damage consistent with blunt-force trauma, which calls into question reports that everyone in the crew fell victim to the widespread Asiatic cholera outbreak that ravaged Philadelphia that summer. Archival research, a long-covert railroad file and the subsequent archeological discoveries all point to the possibility that anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment and violence were directed at the men, who would’ve been exotic threats to the locals. Even more shockingly, the railroad itself may have acted to halt the spread of cholera by preemptively killing the infected, figuring the men were expendable and untraceable, and the assailants’ crimes erasable—with fill.
The Rev. J. Francis Watson would finally get his chance to examine the confidential railroad file long stored in a Narberth study and passed down by his grandfather. With it, his twin brother, William, would come to understand his supernatural sighting at Immaculata University two years prior, as townhouses surrounding Duffy’s Cut were going up. Frank would remember his grandfather’s Thanksgiving Day railroad ghost stories, both siblings would recall the walks they took with him on defunct rail.
“No one believes us, but it’s all a coincidence,” says Bill, who chairs the history department at Immaculata.
“We see God’s hand—and a greater purpose—in all of this,” adds his brother, a Lutheran minister. “Mysteries that have remained mysteries for generations are supposed to remain mysterious.”
Compelled by their memories and recent findings, they found the valley in East Pikeland Township. It was declared a crime scene, and this spring, the team—which also includes Immaculata history lecturer Earl Schandelmeier—will continue searching for and identifying as many men as it can to provide for proper burials. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd has committed pro-bono plots.
“There’s the social injustice, of course, and the story of Irish immigration, but also the hidden history of the railroad and the untold story of the sacrifices for American industrialization in Jacksonian America,” says Bill. “There are a thousand reasons why we should be doing this. But everywhere we went to ask for [technical assistance and financial] help, we were told the project has no extrinsic value.”
Some have even issued near-threats to halt the dig. “I can’t tell you how many roadblocks there have been,” Bill says. “It’s disgusting.”
But, as Frank insists, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.” Especially in an area where, historically, there’s been so much wrongdoing. The Paoli Massacre happened on land near downtown Malvern, where Britain’s Lord Charles Grey raided Chester County-born Gen. Anthony Wayne’s largely Scottish-Irish regiment on Sept. 21, 1777. Even those willing to surrender were stabbed with bayonets or burned—made martyrs and maimed.
“This is apparently a bad place for Irishmen,” says John H. Ahtes, a Duffy’s Cut Project member and a lecturer in Irish history at Immaculata. “When there’s atrocity down the road, how can you resist? It’s totally captured me, and I haven’t let go since. But it’s also been horrifying. There are still 50-odd more men we will try to extract, and we can only imagine the horrors that await us.”
At 2 p.m. on March 20, 2009, the first human bone—a tibia—was unearthed by Immaculata University interns Bob Frank and Pat Barry. Vertebrae followed. By day’s end, the team had 120 bones.
The team contacted the district attorney’s office, the state police, Amtrak and the U.S. Embassy in Ireland. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology issued a press release. The Associated Press announced the discovery to the world. The museum’s forensic anthropologist, Janet Monge, and Chester County chief deputy coroner Dr. Norman R. Goodman found that the bones were human, Caucasian and from the early 1800s. The bruises to the skulls occurred at the time of death. A pickax head was found 10 feet away, as were pre-Civil War bullets.
“But were they killed?” Goodman asks. “Maybe the bruises were because they worked without hard hats, and rocks hit them in the head. If we find bullet holes or injuries to bones caused by bullets, then we have a problem. [The team] would like to say there was violence. At this time, I can’t. But given the investigation of the site and the many tales, legends, stories and reports, we’re working on the premise that these may be the remains of these men.”
The Watsons’ 32-page railroad file includes 22 documents dating from 1889 to 1932 (100 years after the men’s deaths). It corroborates the physical evidence. When those in Duffy’s Cut contracted cholera, they were denied medical treatment except from four anonymous Sisters of Charity (now the Daughters of Charity) from Philadelphia and a neighboring blacksmith. They tried to escape but were forced back. “Maybe they thought if they killed a couple, the rest would be so scared they wouldn’t want to get out,” Bill says. “They were forced to die in that valley.”
Thus far, the first five men—the earliest burials—were found in one mass grave in wooden coffins, evident only from the ghost-like imprints of nail patterns. It was a Christian burial: Their feet pointed East and their heads faced the West. All were buried face up.
“As we would get closer to the bodies, the smell of death was still there,” Frank says. “Death leaves a rust, or dark brown color, to the ground and a smell of decay, of bad gases.”
“It’s what we were looking for, so we wanted to smell it,” Bill attests.
As the dig continues, a plan has been outlined by Stephen Brighton, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of Maryland, and Timothy Bechtel, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Pennsylvania. The all-volunteer team will move east and west—rather than farther upslope—from the mass grave. “We may find several clusters of graves,” Bechtel says. “These may be very difficult to excavate because they were buried before the bulk of the raised railroad bed was completed on top of them. There may be a lot of earth to move to get to them, but I’m confident they’re there.”
Digging in a ditch is hardly common work for academics, historians and a minister. All have had run-ins with ticks. Bill Watson contracted Lyme disease and ripped a groin muscle.
If the remains are found in a more jumbled state, it indicates that the burials became increasingly improper. As the days went on, there would’ve been less planed wood and a greater number of men too ill to build coffins.
In his cramped office at Immaculata, Bill has cardboard boxes with wood shards from the men’s coffins. There are clear plastic bags filled with bones and teeth. “It still creeps me out,” he admits.
The team has names for 15 of the 57 men from a ship list found at the National Archives in Philadelphia. A missing top- right front molar—a genetic trait—helped identify the first man: John Ruddy from Ireland’s County Donegal. His traumatized skull hadn’t fully fused. Experts say it’s from an 18-year-old, and Ruddy was the only one that age in the ship’s log. When news broke of the missing molar, Ruddy relatives in Ireland were in touch.
There’s enough of Ruddy—listed as a laborer and passenger No. 4—to physically recreate him. He was about 5-foot-6. There are enough toe bones to determine his foot size. Experts may attempt a facial reconstruction. “We both have 18-year-old sons,” says Frank. “It could’ve been our kid who we never heard from again.”
Bill predicts a homecoming and a state funeral for Ruddy. “If we can find collateral evidence,” he says.
That will come through DNA analysis of Ruddy’s teeth and matches to gum swabs from living descendants. The team is banking on a state police grant to support the pricey lab work. For now, most of the remains are stored in a file cabinet in Bill’s office. A small “RIP” Halloween prop rests on top of it. “This stuff belongs in a museum,” he says.
Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000 artifacts—all non-human remains—found at Duffy’s Cut, including clay pipe bowls, a pants clasp, two immigrant chest hasps, buttons, forks, knives, broken whiskey jugs and the like, along with circa-1820 railroad remains. Those unearthed first came from a period work-camp shanty and an ash pit within it. Archival and archeological evidence indicates that the railroad ordered the blacksmith to burn the shanty and the men’s possessions once the last of them died. Many of the artifacts still have molded coal on them. The mass grave was no more than 30 feet away from the ash pit.
One of the more impressive artifacts is a clay pipe bowl with “Erin Go Bragh” carved into its side; another bowl has the Gaelic harp and a shamrock. “We almost have a pipe for each man who died there,” says Bill.
Pipe stems were labeled “Derry,” the county in Northern Ireland from where the laborers set sail on the John Stamp in April 1832. They were headed for Philadelphia, where Duffy likely transported the crew by wagons along old Lancaster Pike. “They were undoubtedly pounced upon by Duffy, who presented himself as a friend, as someone who could get them good jobs,” says Immaculata’s John Ahtes.
The Chester County Historical Society has exhibited the items, and there’s a Smithsonian Channel documentary on the subject. The team’s book, The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut, sold out its first 10,000 copies, and the Irish ambassador to the United States paid a visit to the site.
The Duffy’s Cut Project would’ve never set sail had Frank Watson not spent Labor Day weekend 2002 poring over the secret railroad file handed down by his grand-father. What he found helped his brother substantiate what he’d seen on the grounds of Immaculata University two years earlier.
In September 2000, Bill claims that he and a colleague witnessed what someone else had also reported seeing a month after the 1832 deaths: Irish workmen dancing on their graves. “It looked like neon lights,” he recalls. “Three men were on the lawn, and then they vanished.”
Bill is convinced the spirits were looking for help. “My office is less than a mile from the grave,” he says.
Nearby townhouse residents reported similar ghost stories. Their children often found artifacts, but they were afraid and re-buried them.
The Watsons initially discovered the site of a stone-slab memorial wall, which, in 1909, had replaced a wooden version from 1873. By 2003, they’d applied for a state historical marker to commemorate the site, and began waging a yearlong political battle for permission to dig. Ultimately, the state ruled the area was not consecrated ground. Though, in a way, it was.
“We’ve always maintained that it was more of a dumping ground,” Bill says.
The marker went up in August 2004, the same day digging began. “We put it in with so many hundreds of pounds of concrete,” says Bill. “It’s not going anywhere.”
The team began with metal detectors and information from the railroad file as their guide. By 2005, high-tech experts had joined with ground-penetrating radar, sub-surface imaging and a search-and-rescue dog service. That spring, the shanty was uncovered, and by August, the ash pit.
It wasn’t until December 2008 that the hunt for the mass grave zeroed in on the upslope of the fill above the shanty. After the initial find in March 2009, the team held off through June. On July 22, they discovered the second, third and fourth graves. A fifth was found under a tulip poplar tree. “The earth disturbance of the burial, and the decaying bodies themselves provided good growing conditions,” says Bechtel. “It’s a little poignant that the organic carbon that comprised the men now lives in these huge trees, but to recover what remains of the men, the trees may need to be removed.”
“We had all dreamed about it,” says Frank, who repeatedly envisioned finding the first bones beneath a big stone.
“They were reaching out,” Bill insists.
Now, others with the same surnames as the 160 passengers on the John Stamp are reaching out. Ruddy is listed behind three Dohertys, two from Derry and another from Donegal. Doherty relatives have recently contacted the Watsons. Brian Hegarty’s great-great-uncle Bernard left Derry in 1832 to work on the railroad. After one letter indicating he’d arrived, his family never heard from him again.
“This is as unfortunate a story as there was in the time period,” says Ahtes. “In the 19th century, 50,000 men died building the railroad. And all over industrialized America, there were dozens—if not hundreds—of Duffy’s Cut sites wherever cheap labor was needed. The stereotypes against the Irish, in particular, were always bad. But then, at Duffy’s Cut, it got worse—and violent.”
The Watsons are Irish-Scottish on their father’s side and Italian-German on their mother’s. But the family is a railroad family through and through.
Their maternal grandmother, Mary Tripician, who passed on the secret file, worked for the railroad as a secretary in Altoona. That’s where she met Joseph F. Tripician, the Watsons’ grandfather, who retired as director of personnel for the PRR. Their paternal great-grandfather was a conductor. Sadly, he was cut in half in a horrific train accident in 1910.
Tripician lived in Narberth until he died in 1977, and he instilled in his grandsons a love of history and the railroad. Frank recalls him telling the story of dancing ghosts on their Thanksgiving Day visits. He read a transcribed copy from the Duffy’s Cut file that their grandmother gave Frank in 1984. “It was what my brother saw on Labor Day in 2000,” says Frank.
On walks on defunct sections of track, their grandfather would reminisce. “He wanted me to become the family historian,” Bill says. “Now, he would be astounded to see this history unfold, to see us put together X, Y and Z on behalf of these men, and to see them get out of a place they don’t belong. Maybe the spirit world is involved. Maybe they were talking to him.”
A Sicilian immigrant and stonecutter, Tripician would’ve empathized with the immigrants’ story in Duffy’s Cut. He inherited the file from Martin W. Clement, president of the PRR from 1935 to 1949. It was Clement who put together the file and ordered construction of the stone memorial. “It’s clear they both wanted the story preserved,” Frank says.
The cover-up’s dead ends are the most mysterious. Copies of the Oct. 3, 1832, edition of The Village Record (the precursor to West Chester’s Daily Local News) are missing everywhere, including the Library of Congress. Other editions suggested it would correct the erroneous initial reports that only “eight or nine” Irishmen died of cholera. Without it, for the remainder of the 19th century, no newspaper reported more than 10 deaths. “Railroads were funding newspapers [with advertising],” Bill says. “The incident was always downplayed, and copies of the Oct. 3, 1832, issue were pulled and destroyed.”
Then there’s the missing diary account of the tragedy. William Ogden, a lieutenant in the militia, had died of cholera down the road from Duffy’s Cut on Aug. 25. He was one of the outbreak’s first recorded deaths of some 900 in Philadelphia that summer and into the spring of 1833, according to Board of Health records. His eldest of three daughters, Mary, kept a diary that Clement refers to in a railroad file entry.
“She probably witnessed the murders, and those responsible would hang for it,” Bill theorizes. “The atrocity could also have been in retaliation for infecting her father (or the perception thereof).”
Bill has received a series of aggressive phone calls from someone who wanted the dig halted. Point-blank, Bill asked if he was related to Ogden. “He said, ‘I don’t know. I may be,’” recalls Bill. “I think he’s got that diary.”
The Watsons have also spoken with a local Clement descendant, who told them his uncle said to never tell anyone about the file. At the time, the Pennsylvania Canal Commission owned the railroad and might’ve been held culpable. There were plenty of railroad names tied to Chester County families who could’ve possibly been implicated and tried for murder. “There’s hanky-panky, no question,” says Bill.
Historically, cholera killed 60 percent of those who contracted it. So how could 100 percent of the work crew die “unless the men’s departures were expedited?” Ahtes poses.
Duffy’s Cut was the early railroad’s most expensive and deadliest stretch of track. Work was delayed for a year at the Sugartown Curve after the Irish laborers disappeared. The stoppage delayed the opening of the Pennsylvania’s Main Line of Public Works, a mixed canal and rail link between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
“We’re lucky track expansion there went to the north, rather than south, or it would have obliterated the site,” says Bill.
From the start, the two Watson siblings have had the support of the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Immaculata. “Every time I saw one of the nuns in the halls, she’d say, ‘We’re praying for you,’” Bill says.
When the Watsons finally hit pay dirt, they marched into the president’s office with a shifter full of bones for Sister Patricia Fadden. “It was macabre, but we had to show it off,” Frank says. “Until the first body, everyone doubted it.”
Now, the team offers a one-credit class on Duffy’s Cut at the university three times a year. Open to the public, it spans a weekend.
“There’s an awful lot of respect for what we’re doing,” says Frank. “But there’s no respect in letting 57 men lie under a discarded railroad.”
Until they found the artifacts in the ash pit—in particular the men’s pipes—the not a single volunteer heard a bird sing or a frog croak, even in the summer. “It was like it was all dead,” says Frank.
Then, one day, they found a cougar print—perhaps Philip Duffy reincarnated. When they found the cemetery where Duffy is buried in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, no church official could determine the exact location of Duffy’s plot—other than to presume it was under the concrete pad of an addition.
To learn more about Duffy’s Cut, visit duffyscutproject.com.