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Earl Schandelmeier, William Watson and Frank Watson visit the location where the Duffy’s Cut Project unearthed human remains.

19th Century Irish Railroad Workers in Pennsylvania Grave May Have Been Murdered

August 20, 2010 12:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
An examination of the 178-year-old “Duffy’s Cut” grave indicates that violence contributed to the deaths of the 57 Irish immigrant railroad workers inside.

Uncovered Skulls Show Signs of Physical Trauma

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A year and a half after discovering the remains of Irish immigrant laborers near the “Duffy’s Cut” railroad tracks in eastern Pennsylvania, researchers believe they have enough evidence to confirm that many of the 57 men who died there in 1832 were murdered. The men were previously believed to have died from a cholera outbreak.

“I don't think we need to be so hesitant in coming to the conclusion now that violence was the cause of death and not cholera, although these men might have had cholera in addition,” said University of Pennylvania anthropologist Janet Monge, who took part in the excavation.

The remains of the immigrants were uncovered in March 2009 by William E. Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University, and his twin brother Frank, a Lutheran minister. The brothers, who learned of the immigrants’ deaths in 2002, have been digging around the area since 2004. They have discovered thousands of artifacts, including pots, buttons and pipes.

Sevens sets of remains have been uncovered thus far, including four skulls.  Each skull shows signs of physical trauma, and one appears to have a bullet hole. The Watsons feel that the discovery of the latest two skulls earlier this month serves as confirmation for their theory that the workers were murdered.

The Story of the Duffy’s Cut Workers

The 57 workers were Catholics who had arrived in America in June 1832 from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry counties in Ulster. They were hired to work on a stretch of railroad in Chester County, Pa., by Philip Duffy, a fellow Irish immigrant who was hired as a construction contractor by the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.

Duffy’s men were responsible for constructing Mile 59, described by Smithsonian magazine as “one of the toughest stretches” of the railroad. “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 describes.

Within six weeks of the arrival, all 57 men were dead. They were buried in a mass grave near Malvern, Pa., and their deaths were kept a secret by the railroad company. Duffy ordered that the shanties were they lived be burned down for sanitary reasons.

The incident was part of local folklore, which was preserved by historian Julian Sachse, who interviewed elderly residents in the late 1800s. He was told that the railroad workers had attempted to flee the shantytown during a cholera outbreak, but the locals, fearing infection, would not let them inside their homes.

There was little evidence of the episode until 2002, when Frank Watson discovered a file belonging to his recently deceased grandfather, a former secretary to Martin Clement, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The file contained documents assembled by Clement during a 1909 railroad investigation; it had concluded that all 57 men died of cholera.

The brothers were suspicious … as the disease's mortality indicates that only 40 to 60 percent of that group should have died,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer. As they studied railroad documents, newspapers, diaries, and other sources, and dug around the area, they began to suspect that there may have been violence at play.

They “came up with a theory that local vigilantes, perhaps with the blessing of the contractor Phillip Duffy, simply came into the forest and killed all the workers, believing it was the only way to keep the cholera from spreading,” described NPR’s Guy Raz in a May 2010 interview with the brothers. “And right after the men were buried, Duffy had the site torched to hide the evidence.”

Duffy’s Cut Resources

The Duffy’s Cut Project Web site includes photographs of the excavation site and the latest news of the project.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology explains how the excavation of the site and analysis of the remains are performed.

The Watsons, along with John H. Ahtes and Earl H. Schandelmeier III, authored a book about Duffy’s Cut in 2006 called The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America's Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad.”

Reference: Immigrant railroad workers; cholera

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