The Duffy’s Cut massacre is explained by writer Rob Buchanan.
What follows is a gruesome tale of mass murder, Anti-Irish conspiracy, and unquiet ghosts. Picture Pennsylvania in the dark stark winter of 1832. It is minutes to midnight as a lonely railway worker walks the tracks. A moonless sky, heavy with starlight, curves above him. Supernatural electricity starts shivers through his spindly body as he sees something emerge from the shadowed ground before him. Locals and employees alike avoid the rumoured cemetery. It seems tonight this lonely man will find out why. He could never have realised he would become a piece in a shocking puzzle of murder, solved centuries later.
In his own words: “I trudged up between the stone blocks …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.”
The Nightmare of the American Dream
In 1832 a team of 57 Irish immigrant labourers, and 2 women, sailed from Derry aboard the ship “John Stamp”. Hailing from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry, they were seeking a better future. They arrived three months later in the U.S and began work on the Pennsylvania Railroad. They could never have imagined that, within weeks, their building site would become their murder scene and their tomb.
Philip Duffy was an Irish immigrant labourer, turned wealthy entrepreneur. He set about making a name for himself as a contractor, in the blossoming American railroad industry. Like countless Paddies before him, he looked to his own community of Irish immigrants for his labour force. Having proved himself a successful and punctual contractor, Duffy gained the contract for the “Mile 59” stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.
This section of land featured particularly unforgiving terrain to excavate. The workers would also be required to bridge a valley using the raw materials extracted from the cut. Yet Duffy promised his men would finish the work in less than 11 months, despite the additional dangers. Work began on 18th May 1831 and the completion deadline was 1st April 1832. This notorious stretch of the track became known as “Duffy’s Cut.”
Despite their Herculean efforts, it became obvious to all that the project would never be completed on time. Duffy became increasingly furious with the workers whom he had tasked with an impossible scheme. As the job overran the April 1832 date, the would-be tycoon decided to cut his losses and in June he hired an additional crew of 57 Irish labourers.
The Cruellest Cut
Our 57 workers lived in an improvised settlement near the Cut, along with the Irish women. In the 19th century, shanty towns of this nature were common. The men’s task was backbreaking and dangerous, but the pay was lifesaving for their desperately poor families back home. The Irish worked appallingly long hours and collapsed in their huts at the end of each day. They were expendable. So although Duffy always hired Irish, he certainly did not fraternise with his fellow countrymen. Neither did he live in their ad hoc settlement, preferring a comfortable rented house in the nearby Willistown Township.
In August 1832 the statewide cholera epidemic reached the area. Cholera is contracted from drinking or washing in contaminated water. The infection causes deadly bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting, which in turn enters the water sources, propagating the disease in a vicious circle. Unfortunately, germ theory was not advanced in 1832 and the source or transmission of this lethal affliction was not understood.
Torches and Pitchforks
People did understand that cholera could be an agonising death sentence, and they were terrified of catching it from the stigmatised communities it was associated with. In the case of the region surrounding Duffy’s Cut – that unlucky demographic was the poor Irish immigrants. Cholera quickly spread in their unsanitary shanty town.
There was no doctor, no medicine, no uncontaminated water on site. The labourers panicked and fled to nearby farming communities seeking assistance. Understandably the locals were equally afraid for their own families. So the Irishmen encountered locked doors or were greeted at the business end of a shotgun. Without any medical treatment or access to clean water, the entire squad of fifty-seven Irish labourers were dead within weeks. Or so Duffy and the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad claimed.
Local newspapers perpetuated the conspiracy. Headlines said the deaths were tragic but were simply from disease. Equally shameful was the fact the families of the deceased were never informed of their loved one’s fate. But the dead tell tales, and their voices can span centuries.
Digging for Clues
Fast forward to 2002. Two brothers, Dr William Watson and Rev. Dr Frank Watson were searching through belongings of their dead grandfather Joseph Tripician. He had spent his life in the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. So, it was unsurprising that the curious brothers found suspicious documentation among the materials. To their educated eyes, some of this paperwork pointed to a mass grave and a dark secret lying undiscovered for nearly 200 years.
The Watson brothers’ grandfather had learned about the scandal in his role as Martin Clement’s secretary. Clement was the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1935 to 1949. A keen archivist, he heard and read rumours of a mass grave beside the railway. Documents from 1870 described railroad workers erecting a basic wooden marker and fence as some modest memorial.
Now Clement himself wanted to honour the dead by marking the spot with a memorial stone in 1909. It was designed to be visible for passing train passengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad company let him install the stone but forbade him to add a plaque telling the tale of murder. Another indication of the strong emotions involved is the fact that, fearing vandalism, when Phillip Duffy died in 1871, he was buried without a headstone. This was only corrected in 2018.
Digging for Bodies
Armed with this new information, the brothers and Earl Schandelmeier, and John Ahtes formed The Duffy’s Cut Project. In August 2004 the archaeological excavation began. For years their only discoveries were simple clay pipes and shoe buckles.
In March 2009 human remains were discovered. Two skulls, six teeth and eighty assorted bone fragments. Raising money from the Irish-American community and local historians, and with the help of their associates, engineers, geophysicists and the Amtrak train company they set about uncovering Duffy’s Cut.
Rather than a mass of bones like a plague pit, they uncovered seven skeletons in coffins. The remains were analysed by physical anthropologist Dr Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Monge’s examination concluded the subjects had died violently. Some skulls even exhibited gunshot wounds.
The average age of the men was just 22 years old. All the bones showed evidence of blunt force trauma from an axe or gunshot wounds. These men and women suffered an extremely violent death.
Ghost of a Chance
Amid all this modern forensic science, it was a bizarre paranormal twist which helped bring the reality of the legend into the light. The native Leni Lenape tribe called the Duffy’s Cut area “the dark valley.” In their mythology, it was a cursed place haunted by unsettled spirits. But the truth was even darker than their folklore.
William Watson actually claims a ghost sighting he and a friend had in the summer of 2000, at Immaculata University, was the catalyst for the excavation project. He claimed they saw luminous ghosts standing outside his window on the college grounds near Duffy’s Cut. The phantoms glowed like blueish-green gas in the summer night.
This spectacle planted a seed that would come to fruition two years later when his brother Frank Watson dusted off the Duffy’s Cut file, which had been in their possession unread for nearly twenty years. The brothers came across a reported ghost sighting, which occurred in the accursed area shortly after the massacre. When a lonely worker from our prologue walked the rails in the winter of 1832, he witnessed blue and green phantoms, spectres which closely resembled the college campus ghosts William claimed to have seen.
A Lost Cause Found
Tireless research obtained their ship’s manifest, enabling the team to identify the fifty-seven men and two women’s names, ages and counties of origin. These demographics allowed some skeletal remains to be matched. Reports from the era showed that the Irish Catholics were viewed at best as lazy criminals, and at worst as disease-carrying subhumans. The lives of the victims of Duffy’s Cut were cheap. And considering himself as a naturalised American “gentleman,” Duffy’s opinion of his fellow Irishmen was likely little better.
The archaeological survey led the researchers to theorise that the disturbed distribution of burials was caused by another Irish work crew working in the 1870s. They accidentally exhumed some of the victims relocating soil for the newer embankment. This would’ve been a gruesome discovery and these young men would’ve likely been devout Catholics who would rebury the dead reverently, adding the previously mentioned memorial wooden fence, whilst also being fearful of reporting the crime scene.
The Awful Truth
So what really happened at Duffy’s Cut? Forensic evidence gives us a terrifying insight into the event. Motivated by the fear of cholera and anti-Irish hate, a local vigilante group formed. The mob were made up of “Nativists”, townsfolk and men from the East Whiteland Horse Company, which incidentally was owned by the same family who owned notorious Mile 59.
The Nativism movement in the U.S. opposed “foreigners” finding home and work in the land of the free. Without a hint of irony these “natives,” former migrants themselves who had decimated the true indigenous peoples, hated the Irish.
The vigilantes likely struck at night when the exhausted workers were asleep. They would’ve surrounded the humble housing and attacked. Many had convinced themselves there were stopping the spread of disease. Most were motivated by a significant anti-Catholic sentiment.
Some of the victims died instantly due to gunshots. Some likely still half asleep. The others showed desperate defensive wounds. They were finished off by brutal blunt-force injuries from axe blows to their heads. Did they beg for mercy from their attackers? Did any of the murderers have second thoughts as the blood flowed? We will never know. But after the massacre, the broken bodies were cast into a mass grave nearby, like they were equal to the rubble, rubbish and earth they had slaved so hard upon. The horrendous crime was buried along with the anonymous dead.
Despite the behaviour of the locals, it wasn’t legal to kill Irish people. The vigilantes faced execution or imprisonment. And Duffy feared if word made it back to the homeland not only would he face the Irish wrath but his supply of cheap disposable Irish labour would dry up too. And so the despicable dark secret was hidden deep along with the bodies.
The gruesome project of discovery is still ongoing. The body of one female victim – Catherine Burns – has even been repatriated and reburied in Clonoe, County Tyrone. She died a widow at 29 years old. The rest of the dead of Duffy’s Cut are memorialised on site or respectfully reburied in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, commemorated with a large Celtic cross. They are no longer anonymous dead “Micks.”
What lessons can we learn from this inhumanity? Perhaps for modern Irish people, this nightmarish crime and its motivations can provide a poignant comparison to the treatment of disadvantaged migrant workers in the twenty-first century.
“Massacre at Duffy’s Cut: Tragedy & Conspiracy on the Pennsylvania Railroad” by William E. Watson and J. Francis Watson
“The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad”
By William E. Watson, William E Watson, J. Francis Watson, John H. Ahtes III, Earl H. Schandelmeier
Rob Buchanan was one of the winners of 2015 Poetry Ireland Introductions series. His debut poetry collection “The Cost of Living” sold out. He has won national and international awards for his writing, and has been published in a number of poetry journals and magazines including The Stinging Fly, Flare, Live Encounters and Pendemic. Rob was a winner of the Young Ireland Award in Glasgow for his lectures on the Dangers of Democracy. He has written popular current affairs columns for, and been published, in DublinLive, The Outmost, Eile, An Phoblacht , Rukkle, Headspace and The Journal. Rob lives in Dublin and is working on his first novel and a Dublin history anthology.