“were they taken by the sickness
were they hunted down like scum
was there poison in the water
was it cholera or murder”
So ponders the haunting lyrics in the song “Duffy’s Cut,” which tells the tale of Irish laborers who came to Philadelphia in 1832, only to die months later during a cholera outbreak. While many of the details are unknown, the general story is that 57 Irish immigrants were hired off the ship John Stamp by fellow Irishman Philip Duffy to work on mile 59 of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in Chester County. But while the official record states that only 9 men died, local stories maintained that all 57 had perished, under sinister circumstances.
More than 150 years later, a team at Immaculata University is working to uncover the mysteries of Duffy’s Cut. The ongoing project has already dug up several bodies, which possess blunt force and projectile wounds which suggest that not all of them died from sickness. Although the whole story of Duffy’s Cut remains unclear, one prevailing theory the team has developed is that when cholera broke out among the 57 laborers, locals murdered the rest to make sure the disease did not spread.
Last week, Jim Kopaczewski and I got the opportunity to visit Immaculata and meet with Dr. William Watson, who along with his brother Frank is the leader of the Duffy’s Cut Project. In fact, the project got started when the Watsons were going through old documents from their grandfather, an executive assistant at the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Dr. Watson shared with us the history of Duffy’s Cut as well as stories about the vast project. He showed us artifacts and even drove us to the site, eerily in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Not only did Dr. Watson tell stories about the fascinating yet mysterious history of the site, but he shared insight about the challenges a project like this can entail. As students of history, we tend to think about the men and women we research as long-removed from the present-day. But that is not the case when you want to dig up their bodies, as the project had to cooperate with local law enforcement and legal officials. Fortunately, Dr. Watson said that the Malvern area has a large Irish-American population, so, with a few exceptions, they had the community’s support. This came in handy when getting permission to dig in the neighborhood, though there has been much more red tape on the portion of the land still owned by AMTRAK. Even getting the historical marker had its political frustrations, though with the support of local politicians and organizations the marker was finally approved in 2004.
Progress on the Duffy’s Cut Project has been exciting. Of the original bodies already dug up, one has been identified as eighteen year old John Ruddy. The Watsons were invited to return the remains to Ireland, where through DNA testing they even found present-day members of the Ruddy family. They also identified a second body, a woman, who they hope to return to Ireland in the near future. The rest of the bodies were buried in a Pennsylvania cemetery. Furthermore, Watson believes they found the burial site of the rest of the bodies. Though the site is on AMTRAK property, they hope to run tests on the soil soon.
The mass grave at Duffy’s Cut serves as a grim reminder of the challenges Irish laborers faced in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Except for a local blacksmith and nuns from Philadelphia, these laborers were denied care, and it appears even murdered to prevent the spread of disease. Buried in an unmarked grave, the records were altered and hidden to hide the deaths of dozens of immigrants who had been in the United State less than a year. But hopefully the project directed by Dr. Watson and Immaculata University can continue to shed light on the laborers of Duffy’s Cut and help us understand history of ethnicity and labor in the United States.
To learn more about the Duffy’s Cut Project, check out their website, which also includes images and videos.