Before 2004, hikers passing through the woods in Chester County, Pennsylvania in the vicinity of Malvern would have encountered a granite block enclosure with no identifying marker. Perhaps they would have puzzled a moment before walking on. Perhaps they would have heard an odd sound or even caught a glimpse of a specter dancing on the earth, as local lore has it that ghosts inhabit this stretch of the old Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. In any case, the oddity of the enclosure in an otherwise empty stretch of woods may have led them to wonder about its story.
The story begins in Ireland, in June of 1832. The majority of the Irish population is suffering. Poor and largely living on land rented from English and "Anglo-Irish" aristocracy, they are forced to pay exorbitant rents and turn over large portions of their harvests to the landowners. Poor harvests and exploited land are the precursors to the Great Potato Famine in 1845. Many young people look toward the shores of America, where they believe a better life awaits them. Some of these emigrants, young men from the northern counties of Donegal, Londonderry, and Leitrim, board the John Stamp in the port of Londonderry. After an arduous journey, a fellow countryman from Donegal named Phillip Duffy meets them in Philadelphia and promises them jobs on the railroad. Many sign on and go with him to a camp on mile 59 of what would become the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. What he does not tell them is that the work will consist of long hours of backbreaking toil, leveling clay and shale hillsides and filling in the valleys for the tracks.
The fate of the men who labored on what has come to be called "Duffy's Cut" is a bit of a mystery. What is known is that during the summer of 1832, there was an outbreak of cholera, and that it reached the camp. According to an article in crimelibrary, The Village Record, a local newspaper, reported on deaths from cholera in the camp, but no copies of that paper remain. Crimelibrary further reports that a November 7 article in The Village Record retracted the high number of deaths it apparently reported in October and claimed that only eight men had died in the camp. A local blacksmith who, along with four Sisters of Charity nuns, attended the dying men, burned down the shanty where the men lived, erasing all evidence of the camp and what had occurred there. An Irish railroad worker marked the area with a fence as a sign of respect, and in 1909, Martin Clement, a Railroad official who would later become president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, erected the granite marker. His superiors did not allow him to add a plaque explaining the historical significance of the spot.
This might have been the end of the story had not the twin grandsons of Joseph F. Tripician, an executive who worked with Martin Clement, inherited Clement's records. In 2002, they found a discrepancy in the number of death's reported at Duffy's Cut - Clement's records claimed 57 as opposed to the official tally of eight - which piqued the interest of the Watson twins, Dr. William Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University, and Reverend Dr. Frank Watson, a Lutheran minister.
Along with his history students, Dr. Bill Watson turned the site into an archaeological dig. After discovering coffin nails and human remains, they determined they were dealing with a mass grave. They brought in Janet Monge, a physical anthropologist, and Dr. Matt Patterson, a dentist with, as a March 2013 New York Times article states, "training in forensic odontology." They discovered signs of trauma in the remains, including blunt force injuries and a bullet hole. "I actually think it was a massacre," Dr. Monge told the New York Times. A possible scenario is that the local townspeople, fearing the Irish workers would cause the cholera epidemic to become rampant, contained the men at the worksite and then murdered those who had not died of the disease.
The story of Duffy's Cut and the anonymous workers made a deep impression on Bill Watson. It has become his mission to recognize the incident, identify the remains, and repatriate them to Ireland. He created the Duffy's Cut Museum at the university and obtained an official state marker to recognize the mass grave of the workers. "The Duffy's Cut Project is an ongoing archival and archaeological search into their lives and deaths and seeks to provide insight into early 19th Century attitudes about industry, immigration, and disease in Pennsylvania, " Dr. Watson states on the Duffy's Cut website. In March 2003, Watson accompanied the first identified remains, those of 18 year-old John Ruddy, back to Ireland, where they were laid to rest in a proper ceremony.
This article was originally published in November 2013, and has been updated for the
October 2014 paperback release.
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