For more than 100 years, train passengers heading west from Philadelphia on SEPTA’s R5 line would never suspect they were speeding past a long-forgotten mass grave of murdered Irish railway workers in the stretch between Malvern and Frazer. Echoing an ugly chapter of the nation’s history, the Duffy’s Cut debacle reflects the gross mistreatment of immigrants and the distorted myth of America as the promised land. Indeed, sometimes the truth comes to the surface with help from beyond the grave.
In June of 1832, after a nearly three-month sail from Ireland aboard the ship John Stamp, 57 men and two women arrived in Philadelphia with hopes of finding work and beginning a new life in the United States. Just six weeks later they were savagely killed along the very stretch of the Main Line track they were hired to build. Their families back in Ireland would never learn their tragic fate or hear from them again.
“Trains were a new technology, a wave of the future at the time,” said Dr. William Watson, a professor of history at Immaculata University. “Philadelphia was very heavily invested in this. The city was a major port of entry for industrial labor in the years ahead. The city elders benefitted as much as anyone else in the system. The Main Line Public Works stretched from Philadelphia out to Pittsburgh, but the name stuck for the towns around here.”
Phillip Duffy, the contractor, hired his crew of Irish workers directly on the dock located near the Washington Avenue Immigration Station aka Pier 53 where a small section of the original pier remains today. Before docking in Philadelphia the ship sailed up the Delaware River and stopped at the first quarantine hospital in the country, the Lazaretto located in Delaware County. As cholera raged around the world, a doctor would have boarded the ship to make sure the passengers were not ill before it was allowed to proceed to Philadelphia.
“If anyone was sick, they would’ve been off-loaded. No one on the John Stamp had cholera. Everybody was cleared, and the ship went onto port,” Watson said. “The Irish would be blamed for bringing cholera to the United States and they were blamed here for the epidemic in Pennsylvania, but they did not have it on that particular ship. Cholera came in from Canada down the Hudson River to New York and then to Pennsylvania.”
Duffy was responsible for building Mile 59 of the train line between Paoli and Frazer. A native of Ireland himself, he used this to his advantage to solicit cheap labor from his homeland. The workers hailed from three main counties in Ireland–Derry, Donegal and Tyrone, responding to advertisements promoting railway labor across the seas in the United States. Due to its particularly rough terrain and the extensive work required to cut through the limestone, Mile 59 in Malvern was the most expensive contract in the entire 82-mile system. The work was back-breaking and so brutal that slave owners would not allow their slaves to participate. Irish Catholics were considered the lowest of the low on the socioeconomic totem pole at the time, and they were willing to do the work out of desperation.
“Duffy was probably born in Donegal, where the largest number of the workers came from. He came in 1798 when the Irish Rebellion occurred and was naturalized here during the War of 1812. By the time of Duffy’s Cut, he was a lone contractor,” said Watson, who noted similar labor scenarios were happening in Ireland and America. In Belfast dock yards, Catholics were given the lowest jobs, literally, as the ships were being constructed, while Protestants worked on the top of the ships. “It mirrors what happened at Duffy’s Cut. The Catholic guys were laboring on the fill and the finishing of the tracks on top was handled by a Protestant crew from Northern Ireland. Their workers didn’t get killed. It was always Duffy’s guys who were the victims. He regarded them as expendable,” Watson explained.
From Philadelphia, Duffy brought the men out to Malvern, a rural area at the time, where they set up an encampment in the valley very close to the where the train line was to be built. In the unforgiving heat of July and August, the workers would have taken drinks from small streams. It is likely a few of the men contracted cholera from contaminated water. As word got out among locals that the immigrant crew was sick, the town panicked. Four nuns from the Sisters of Charity in Philadelphia who were nurses were sent to help. Locals also turned on the Sisters in both an anti-Catholic sentiment and for fear they were cholera carriers. The nuns were forced to walk the 30 miles back to Philadelphia from Malvern in heat of summer.
The full barbarity of the murders may never fully be known, but skeletons recovered by Watson’s Duffy’s Cut research team showed extreme violence and blunt force trauma. A vigilante group formed, made up of individuals connected to the East Whiteland Horse Company owned by the Pratt family, who also owned that mile of track. The Irish crew was surrounded and viciously killed, likely by ax blows to the head or gunshots. The men were thrown into a mass grave and the story was kept quiet. Duffy did not want word getting back to Ireland as no one else would want to come work for him and he would lose contract jobs. He hired another Irish crew shortly after the killings to finish Mile 59.
“People would have resented these Irish guys underbidding local labor. They were exploited to death building the infrastructure of America. No one advocated for them,” Watson explained. “There were only 910 people in East Whiteland at the time, none of them were Catholic. All Duffy wanted to do was get the mile done. He was Catholic himself. He was selling out his own countrymen. The bottom line was the dollar and nothing else. Building the railroad was the biggest industrial endeavor in Pennsylvania at the time and they are literally buried in it.”
Uncovering truth of what happened at Duffy’s Cut would not have been possible if not for Watson discovering a secret file on the incident in his late grandfather’s papers, along with his twin brother Reverend Dr. Frank Watson, president of the Lutheran Archive Center in Philadelphia. Their grandfather had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the brothers became intrigued by the story, eager to find the location of the mass grave.
The file on Duffy’s Cut began with Martin Clement, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1935 to 1949. For decades, he compiled letters and reflections, recording as much as he could about the event. Clement’s interest in the story began years earlier as he rose through the ranks and served as the station master of Paoli in 1909 until 1911. While living one town over in Malvern on the grounds of what is now Immaculata University, he heard stories from locals in the area of the unfortunate demise of Irish railway workers and a mass grave nearby along the train line. He was determined to commemorate the men properly. Using large blocks of granite, he had a stone monument wall built in 1909. The monument is still visible to train passengers today, however there is no sign describing what it represents. Clement planned to include a metal plaque on the wall, but the Pennsylvania Railroad did not allow it.
“These men were the cannon fodder for the Industrial Revolution. They were swept under the carpet. The original Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad covered up their story. The Pennsylvania Railroad didn’t allow the story to see the light of day. Even though the file existed, their deaths were never memorialized or remembered by the railroad officially,” Frank Watson remarked.
The Watsons’ grandfather, Joseph Tripician, began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1919, eventually becoming the secretary for Clement at the company’s headquarters on Broad Street. It was in this role that he first learned of the Duffy’s Cut file, as Clement guarded it very closely, never letting it out of his office.
“When our grandfather was given the file, he went through and annotated it,” said Frank Watson. “He put the pages in original processing order. He was something of an archivist himself, a historian for the railroad. He had one of the preeminent collections of rare railroad books in America. Among them was the Duffy’s Cut file.”
Located in an area referred to as the “dark valley” by early Leni Lenape tribes in the region, the mass grave was forgotten, and the story of the murdered crew at Duffy’s Cut remained largely unknown. Despite that, ghost sightings and stories have swirled around the heavily wooded valley for years, an eerie reflection of its unsettled past.
“There’s a real supernatural element that accompanies this story,” said William Watson. “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t seen those figures standing on the campus lawn.” Referring to a late summer night in 2000, Watson and a friend happened to look out a window at Immaculata University to see three glowing specters standing in close range to the building. The university is just a couple of miles from the Duffy’s Cut site. It was also an Ember night, a significant time in the Catholic faith.
“It looked like neon lights in the shape of men. I thought it was something to do with an art show,” Watson said. “We went outside to the lawn to see them, but they were gone. Nothing was there that could have caused it. It was Hollywood-type special effects. I’ve never seen anything before or since like that.”
Two years later, Watson came across the Duffy’s Cut file which his brother had been storing for almost two decades. He opened the file to the first recorded ghost account dating back to 1832 just one month after the men were murdered. Watson was struck by the both the proximity of the incident to where he worked and the similarity to the apparitions he had seen. The quest, which quickly turned into a dedicated obsession, began to locate the mass grave.
“It caught all of us back in 2002 when we started this,” Frank Watson said. “The description of the ghosts are very similar to what my brother saw on the campus two years before. It was the connecting link for us. The ghost story became one of the centerpieces of the Duffy’s Cut file. The file is fascinating. It’s packed full of anecdotes, citations and priceless reflections from railway workers. It’s been a source for both the geophysical nature of the graves, and the ghost story part. We kept going back to the file for information on the location of the mass grave.”
The ghostly account in the file was from a man who had been walking home one night in 1832 along the track line that was still in the process of being built. “I trudged up between the stone blocks until I got on the fill and there I saw with my own eyes the ghosts of the Irishmen who had died with the cholera a month ago dancing around the big trench where they were buried. It’s true, Mister. It was awful. They looked as if they were kind of green and blue fire and they were hopping and bobbing on their graves.”
For five years the Watsons and their team made up of fellow professors searched the valley looking for the mass grave. Continuing onward they were eager to prove their suspicions that the entire crew hadn’t fallen ill to just cholera, that they must have been murdered. Finding many artifacts among the leaves and brush including wooden pipes with Derry carved into the stem, shoe buckles, buttons, utensils, and shards of dishware indicated they were in the right location. The items were carefully displayed in the Immaculata University library and not long after, ghostly activity in the building was reported by staff.
The breakthrough came in 2009 when geophysicist Tim Bechtel, a professor at Franklin & Marshall who was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, joined the team. Using ground-penetrating radar Bechtel conducted several surveys of the valley near the train line to no avail. They decided to employ another tactic–to use the ghost story from the file as a reference to pinpoint the location of where the ghosts were seen “bobbing” on their graves.
“We had Frank read the ghost account from 1832 just one month after the murders and tried to recreate from what the letter described, exactly where the person would have been when he saw the apparitions. We were standing on a particular spot and thought this must be it. We did the survey and by damn, that is where the grave was,” said Bechtel.
“The survey that ended up working the best for us was an electrical imaging survey. We shot electrical currents through the ground and measured the conductivity of the subsurface and we found a zone that was really resistant. Typically, damp soils and rock are somewhat conductive, but this was very resistant to it, so it suggested to us that there might be some void space from the collapse of coffins. In terms of depth below the top of the embankment, they were 15 to 20 feet down, but we got to them by going through the side of the embankment four feet into the slope,” Bechtel noted.
What the team found initially surprised them–seven skeletons in coffins, not the mass grave they were expecting. The skeletons were sent to Janet Monge, a physical anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, for forensic analysis who found signs of extreme violence at the time of death. She noted if they had had cholera it was not what killed them.
“The seven skeletons we excavated were victims of murder. Perimortem violence indicating a violent death. Mostly bullets to the head,” said William Watson, noting the average age of the workers was 22 and the height was five and a half feet. One worker’s skull showed extreme signs of brutality and overkill. At well over six feet tall, it is likely he would have been trying to fight off the offenders. His skull had both a large five-inch ax blow on one side, and a gunshot to the crown of his head. The coffins had been overly nailed shut, with more than 100 nails per coffin, another indication of hiding the murderous act. After 177 years in the ground, the disturbing truth and horrific injustice of what happened to the men at Duffy’s Cut was finally unearthed.
From extensive research the team had found the ship’s manifest from its voyage from Ireland to Philadelphia. It included each of the 57 men’s names and the two women who were at Duffy’s Cut, as well as their ages and where they were from in Ireland. If not for the passenger list, the victims at Duffy’s Cut would have remained anonymous. Matching names and ages with the forensic evidence revealed the first skeleton they pulled out was the youngest of crew, 18-year-old John Ruddy. One female skull was among the group, matching records to Catherine Burns, a 30-year-old widow. Her skull showed signs of violence as well. The remains of both were eventually returned to Ireland for proper burials in their home counties.
Continuing to look for the mass grave and the remains of 50 more people, Bechtel again surveyed the ground. He found an enormous anomaly by the current Amtrak line and near the stone wall monument put in place by Clement in 1909 that had taken the place of an earlier wooden fence that had been constructed by a later crew of railway workers in the 1870s. Tasked with straightening the Sugartown Curve section of the line, Bechtel suspects the later 1870s crew accidentally dug up the Duffy’s Cut victims while taking dirt to build up the new embankment and there was a “reburial” of the original mass grave from 1832.
“This would have been an Irish crew as well. They would have been religious and quite possibly superstitious. We think they hit the mass grave, got spooked, and stopped,” said Bechtel.” That is why the ones we found were still in that location. They were further west near the end of the embankment. The 1870s crew took everybody they could find. The bones would have been decomposed and disarticulated. The crew buried them in a new mass grave and put a wooden fence around that burial site.”
The seven skeletal remains the team found, one with tree roots growing extensively through it, had remnants of coffins around them. Bechtel suspects these were the first of the group killed and may have been given proper Catholic burials by their fellow workers.
“When the vigilantes appeared and massacred the rest of them, we think the blacksmith that the Pennsylvania Railroad hired buried the rest of them in a simple mass grave, no coffins,” Bechtel added. “The whole area has been developed except for that valley. It’s kind of a valley that time forgot, which is amazing because it let us go back 180 years later and find the bodies that were still there.”
While 50 skeletons remain underground, sunken to the depths of 20 feet, there is a unique opportunity for future DNA research projects. Connecting the remains with family descendants back in Ireland, as they were able to do with John Ruddy and Catherine Burns, would be ideal. The jaw of Ruddy showed a rare dental anomaly which the current Ruddy descendants in Donegal, Ireland also have.
“It was a story that had to be told, and it’s a much bigger deal in Ireland than it is here. We knew for sure they were murdered when we found the first bones,” William Watson said. “These guys were calling out for help. We had to advocate for them. They were forgotten. There is no other contextual evidence about this in the world, and my brother had the file. They died building the biggest piece of industrial infrastructure at the time, one of the biggest in the entire country. People ride those rails everyday benefitting from what they did.”
“We’d like to put a giant Irish cross on the spot so people thundering by on the Paoli line can look out the window and see something there commemorating them,” said Bechtel. “People are on the track daily and have no clue they are sailing over these bodies. Particularly in this day of demonization of immigrants, the story becomes really relevant again. These guys came from poor families to a place where they were considered to be dirty, carrying disease, and not worthwhile, even though they were doing the work of building this railroad that still exists today.”
“Every one of these 57 men and women deserves to be remembered. It is a microcosm of what was going on at the time as we were building up our society through the Industrial Revolution. We should never take for granted a railroad bridge that we’ve seen dotting the city of Philadelphia or along the Main Line. You go to 30th Street Station and it’s a magnificent monument to industry and commerce. All the lives that it took to build that, we should never take them for granted,” Frank Watson said.
The victims who were recovered at Duffy’s Cut have been reburied at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. The large Celtic cross and monument with the names of all the victims from 1832 serves as a memorial and a reminder that deeply buried secrets and ugly injustices of the past are not always lost to time.