On a stretch of US railroad near Philadelphia lies a dark secret from America’s past, entombed with the remains of over 50 Irish immigrants.
It hints at cruelty, betrayal and unspeakable violence but now a breakthrough could mean the long search for answers may be reaching the endgame and the chilling conclusion that many of the immigrants were killed in a massacre.
The breakthrough will allow excavation to resume at the mass grave near tracks now belonging to Amtrak, the US rail company. The company’s safety concerns had stalled the project for the last two years after the excavation of the remains of seven bodies.
But now permission will be given for the excavation project to resume its search later this year for the remaining 50 bodies.
“This is something that we have been working on for two years and now — touch on wood — it’s going ahead,” one of the leaders of the project, historian Bill Watson, said in a telephone interview from Pennsylvania’s Immaculata University, which is just a few miles from the site of the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut near the town of Malvern.
“We’re looking at 57 altogether and if there are signs of violence on all of the remains it would be the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history and perhaps even in American history,” said Watson, who began the project 12 year ago.
The seven bodies already excavated have been examined by Dr Janet Monge, a forensic anthropologist and the curator at the University Of Pennsylvania Museum, who has worked on the investigation for over a decade and has come to a shocking conclusion.
“I would have to say that it was actually a massacre,” she said in a telephone interview from the university.
“Seven were excavated but in various stages of preservation. Of the five we were really able to examine, they all showed signs essentially of wounds. The preponderance of evidence is that they met a violent death. We have evidence of blunt force trauma, evidence of sharp force trauma and we even have evidence of bullet holes.”
She explained her conclusion like this: “So many things can happen to bones from the time a person dies to the time they’re retrieved that you can definitely misconstrue parts of the damage to the bone. So if we had a situation where we had just one skeleton, I would be inclined to very hesitantly say it’s possible that these people died under these circumstances, but as we pulled out more of the bones it became more and more clear that all of these individuals had died under similar circumstances.
“The probability of this happening randomly to every single skeleton that was extracted is probably nil. So it’s not just that a single bone showed evidence of violence, it’s all of them that came from the excavation showed it and that makes me draw the conclusion that something happened there that was worth covering up and I would have to say it was actually a massacre.”
The story of this tragedy began 182 years ago when 57 young Irish immigrants set out from Derry on board the British ship John Stamp, bound for Philadelphia and the promise of a better life.
Most of them had come from Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. The passenger manifest lists young men like William Devine, aged 21, George Quigley, aged 22, and 18-year-old John Ruddy. There were some women on board too, among them Eliza Byrnes, aged 22, and 20-year-old Eliza Diven (spelling from manifest).
That April morning as they set sail, the heartbreak of the young group of immigrants may have been tempered by a degree of adventure, fuelled by stories of the money to be made building railroads in the New World.
And sure enough, two months later, on 23 June 1832, when the John Stamp docked in Philadelphia one of their own, an Irish contractor named Philip Duffy, was waiting for the immigrants and as they came ashore he offered them jobs.
Duffy had been contracted by the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad to build a section of track called Mile 59, which later became known as Duffy’s Cut. The job offers must have seemed like manna from heaven after the gruelling two-month journey across the Atlantic.
But what awaited these young immigrants on the Pennsylvania railroad that summer of 1832 turned out to be a gruesome kind of hell. Within six weeks all of them were dead.
It was said they had all died when cholera swept through their shanty town, but over time darker stories began to surface that many had been murdered by local vigilantes who feared either the spread of the disease or the foreigners themselves.
For Bill Watson and the other members of the excavation project, forensic evidence suggest a series of events in which a few workers escaped from an enforced quarantine, were caught and killed and then buried near Duffy’s Cut.
“The mile of track where this work was taking place was where a local vigilante group, the East Whiteland Horse company, operated,” Bill Watson explains.
“We suspect when cholera hit that quarantine was set up around the valley and was enforced by the vigilantes around the camp at Duffy’s Cut. The most likely scenario is that the workers had been isolated because of the cholera outbreak but some of them broke quarantine and were killed.”
Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave near the stretch of railroad where they had so briefly worked. The railroad company that had hired them never informed their families of what had happened and their mass grave remained unmarked.
Some years later an Irish railroad worker, who had heard fragments of the story, fenced off a spot in the general area of the grave as a mark of respect for his dead compatriots.
The fenced-off spot remained thus for over 70 years until 1909 when a rail official named Martin Clement, who later became president of the then Pennsylvania Railroad, was assigned by the company to investigate the case.
Whatever Clement discovered, however, remained secret. He did erect a granite-block enclosure, but no explanatory plaque was placed at the spot.
The secret would remain untold until another century dawned and the first rays of light began to be cast on the case in 2002 after the death of Clement’s assistant, a man named Joseph Tripican.
Tripican was also the grandfather of Bill Watson and his brother Frank, a Lutheran minister, and one morning in 2002 when the Watsons were going through their grandfather’s papers they made a dramatic discovery.
Among the papers, they found the file on Clement’s 1909 investigation that their grandfather had taken home with him after the company went bankrupt in 1970.These company records indicated that at least 57 people — not eight — had died at Duffy’s Cut.
“The file included press clippings from 1832 which said that while cholera hit hard in many areas in Philadelphia in July and hit Duffy’s Cut in August there had been only eight or nine deaths there. Newspapers were very accurate in recording cholera deaths to help contain epidemics. But Clement’s investigation put the number of dead at 57,” says Bill Watson.
The Watsons suspected a possible cover-up and decided to investigate the case themselves.
Two years later, on June 18, 2004, the brothers attended the dedication of first plaque erected at the site. The text of the Pennsylvania state historical marker reads, “Nearby is the mass grave of 57 Irish immigrant workers who died in August, 1832, of cholera. They had recently arrived in the United States and were employed by a construction contractor, named Duffy, for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. Prejudice against Irish Catholics contributed to the denial of care to the workers. Their illness and death typified the hazards faced by many 19th century immigrant industrial workers.”
But the Watsons remained convinced that cholera was only part of the story and intensified their investigation. Soon their determination began to pay off.
In 2005, the brothers found what Bill Watson called the holy grail. “I found an Erin go Bragh pipe stem at the site in November 2005. Frank found pieces of a bowl that has shamrocks and harps on it and we found the stem of a pipe that has Derry stamped on it, the port of departure of the ship.”
They suspected they must be close to the bodies but they also knew they needed scientific expertise, so geophysicist Tim Bechtel agreed to join the project. That would become a turning point.
Using ground-penetrating radar and electrical imaging, Bechtel helped to pinpoint key areas to dig for the bodies and on March 20, 2009, the team made a discovery that stunned them — they found a human shin bone.
More discoveries followed. Fragments of skulls and more bones were found and over the next two years they would find the remains of six men and one woman.
“No one had told me to anticipate finding the remains of a woman at the site. It made me feel good when I discovered this new information,” says Dr Monge. “We found six bodies. One was just a stain with the outline of a human being.”
Bill Watson said the work camps usually had a washerwoman and a cook and the body of the woman is possibly Eliza Byrnes [listed as passenger 42 on the manifest] or Eliza Diven [listed as passenger 34].
On March 9, 2012, at a moving ceremony at West Laurel Hill cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, near Philadelphia, five small pine coffins with the remains of four men and one woman found at Duffy’s Cut were laid to rest beneath a 10-foot high Celtic cross. Each had a rose on top — yellow for the men, white for thewoman.
One year later, on March 2, 2013, the sixth body unearthed at the site was taken to Ireland for burial in Ardara, Co Donegal. It was that of 18-year-old John Ruddy, who had ultimately been identified through ship records and a dental anomaly — a missing upper molar that runs in the family.
Ruddys in Ireland contacted Bill Watson after reading about the discovery and a family member donated DNA for tests to be conducted. Subsequently, Ruddy’s remains were the first-found set of remains from Duffy’s Cut in 2009 which were positively identified.
And now, the search for the final 50 bodies of these Irish immigrants resumes with the go-ahead for excavation. “If we can find these remains, we’ll know whether this was a huge mass murder or just part of the crew that was killed,” Bill Watson says.
“Janet [Dr Monge] will be doing a lot of the forensic analysis and that will take some time. We also hope to have DNA done so we can find living descendants. So there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
Dr Monge is not certain what new stories she will find. “Would looking at the remaining 50 be more convincing versus looking at the sub sample? Do we need 50-plus of them showing evidence of trauma in order to convince us that this [a massacre] was the case.
“I’m interested in immigrant experience in the US. This is a particular case of an Irish tragedy, an Irish immigration tragedy, but these tragedies play out across all immigrant populations in the US in different forms and it’s a story which needs to be told. All of these people were instrumental in building this country. We decided that it would be worth it for our own understanding of the site.”
For Bill Watson, understanding and empathy are the main motivators that have driven the research team.
“It could have been us,” he said. “These guys came over here with nothing, looking for the American dream like countless people have done. They thought they were going to make it and within six weeks of arrival they were dead.
“The cholera outbreak had already started before the Irish arrived.
“The disease struck the work site probably because of water from a contaminated creek running past the camp site. The Irish couldn’t have brought the cholera with them but they were all blamed for it in the anti-immigrant ‘Nativist’ spirit of the times.
“It would also have been bad for Duffy if the word got out of what had happened because he couldn’t recruit more people back in Ireland to come and work for him. So everyone kept it quiet.”
Certainly there is no evidence that Duffy’s career suffered. Philip Duffy died in Philadelphia in 1871 at the age of 88, after a long career with the railroad.
Bill Watson believes there may be other similar stories of violence that happened in Pennsylvania during the cholera epidemic of 1832.
“This is the springboard for a lot of activity we are going to be undertaking over the next couple of years. I don’t think this is a unique story, unfortunately. I think it’s one of those rare stories than can be recovered.
“We know of two other mass graves that we intend to explore when we’re done with Duffy’s Cut, also with Irish workers in them. There’s no obfuscation or hiding of records or anything like we had with the story of Duffy’s Cut in those cases.
“One grave is in Downingtown, [about 30 miles west of Philadelphia], and one is in a place called Spring City, [about 30 miles north of Philadelphia].
“Then there is the site of Mile 48 of the railroad [Duffy’s cut is Mile 59]. There was an Irish contractor there named Peter Connor and his entire crew died as well in the epidemic of 1832 and we suspect the violence we found on those at Duffy’s cut is not going to be unique.
“These guys were highly expendable. They cost a quarter a day [25 US cents]. They could be worked literally to death and no one would care.
“Everyone involved in this knows it could have been us but for time and circumstances. My paternal grandmother’s side was Irish named Donnelly, so it could have been me. It could have been my son.”
The John Stamp sails from Derry with the immigrant group of 57, plus 103 other passengers
Ship docks at Philadelphia
Cholera outbreak near Philadelphia. 57 Irish immigrant workers die
Mass grave fenced off by Irish rail worker
Deaths investigated by Martin Clement
Granite block enclosure erected around mass grave but no explanatory plaque
Clement’s investigation file discovered by Watson brothers
Pennsylvania state historical marker dedicated near the site
Irish artefacts found at site
Human shin bone found, then other remains
Six sets of human remains and one human stain found
Forensic analysis shows signs of violent death. Evidence of bullet holes
Remains of six bodies buried in West Laurel Hill cemetery, Pennsylvania
John Ruddy’s remains repatriated and buried in Ardara, Co Donegal
Final phase of search for remaining 50 bodies gets go-ahead to resume
Partial list of 16 of the 57 passengers who sailed from Derry on board the John Stamp in April 1832 and landed in Philadelphia in June 1832. They and 41 others, as yet unidentified, died at Duffy’s Cut, near Philadelphia, six weeks later in a suspected massacre:
George Doherty, age 28 from Donegal
John Ruddy, age 18 from Donegal
William Putetill, age 20 from Donegal
William Devine, age 21 from Donegal (transcribed as Miriam in the original manifest; this is possibly William)
James Deveney, age 26 from Tyrone
Daniel McCahill, age 25 from Donegal
Bernie McGarty, age 20 from Donegal
David Patchill, age 20 from Donegal
Robert Skelton, age 20 from Donegal
Patrick McAnamy, age 20 from Tyrone
Bernard McIlheaney, age 23 from Donegal
George Quigly, age 22 from Donegal
Samuel Forbes, age 23 from Tyrone
John McGlone, age 25 from Derry
John McClanon, age 24 from Derry
Catherine/Eliza Byrnes, age 22 from Tyrone
Elizabeth/Eliza Diven, age 20 from Donegal