A tragic, 180-year-old mystery

Carolyn Farrar


Carolyn Farrar

Dr. William Watson, professor of history, said uncovering the remains of some of the Irish people buried in a 180-year-old unmarked grave in Pennsylvania, and the tragic story of their deaths, has been the most meaningful work of his career.

Dr. William Watson, professor of history, said uncovering the remains of some of the Irish people buried in a 180-year-old unmarked grave in Pennsylvania, and the tragic story of their deaths, has been the most meaningful work of his career.

“It’s more meaningful than any research I’ve ever done,” said Bill, chairperson of the history department at Immaculata University, Pennsylvania, and director of the Duffy’s Cut Project.

Bill will be in Donegal next month with a delegation from the United States when the remains of one of the Duffy’s Cut victims, 19-year-old John Ruddy, is reinterred in Ardara.

“This is something we hoped to do way back 10 years ago -- could we take at least one of the sets of remains back to Ireland,” Bill said. Bill and his twin brother, Frank, a Lutheran minister and archivist, have led the project team for the past decade.

The 57 workers buried unceremoniously at Duffy’s Cut -- 56 men and one woman -- were among a group of people who sailed from Derry to the United States in 1832. Twenty-one were from Donegal, the rest from Derry and Tyrone. The emigrants were dead within weeks of arriving at the Pennsylvania site, where they had been hired by Philip Duffy to level a stretch for the Philadelphia and Columbia rail line. The lone woman was believed to have worked as a washer woman.

The Duffy’s Cut team has uncovered seven graves and is in talks with Amtrack, the national railroad company, for permission to dig for the remaining victims. Last year Immaculata worked with West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Pennsylvania to rebury the remains of five men and one woman from Duffy’s Cut. Bill and Frank played the bagpipes at the ceremony, as they will at Mr. Ruddy’s reinterment.

The Ardara ceremony “is coequal in importance to the reburial of the other five,” Bill said, though he added, “This is the thing we thought of the longest and hardest, and it seemed almost impossible.”

Bill and his brother also have Donegal roots, though they do not know where their ancestor William Donnelly lived in Donegal when he left for Canada in the 1760s. Their great, great, great grandfather, Thomas, brought the family to the United States in the 1850s.

“We just know they’re from Donegal,” Bill said of his long-ago ancestors. Still, he has played the bagpipes for 30 years and is a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He wears a Donegal pin.

“I’m conscious of it,” he said. “It’s just tragic that I don’t know where they come from in Donegal.”

Bill and Frank were drawn to Duffy’s Cut after reading about it in documents they found among the possessions of their grandfather, an assistant to a railroad president. The file reported that at least 57 men died from cholera at the camp.

“The whole thing starts with the file,” Bill said. He was quick to credit the team that advanced the project. “We had permission to dig before we had the science. It took us four years to get the assistance we needed.”

Geoscientist Tim Bechtel, who had worked at battlefield graves, provided the radar search that located the graves. Bill recalled that Tim “put a pole in the ground” and told the team to dig 20 feet west of the pole. “And that was it,” Bill said. The first remains found were those now identified as John Ruddy’s.

Matt Patterson, a forensic dentist, also worked to identify remains. Earl Schandelmeier, once a student of Bill’s and now a lecturer, is part of the team. Immaculata students serve on dig crews and have moved tons of dirt, Bill said.

Janet Monge, a physical anthropologist, said the wounds she found were comparable to those found on the remains of the victims of the Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. Janet’s work has also been critical to the project, Bill said.

“They were all victims of violence,” he said of the seven exhumed remains. “We think the bulk of the rest of them are victims of cholera, but some of them may have been murdered, too.”

The researchers believe that panic swept the camp after cholera hit. Seven people fled but were forced to return. They believe that the seven bodies were buried by men alive at the camp who did not know they were burying murder victims. When Bill speaks of the injustice experienced by the men and woman whose remains were left at Duffy’s Cut, there is anger in his voice.

These Irish emigrants had come to take part in the Industrial Revolution, in the “American Dream”, Bill said. “And they were ground up by it.”

Why were they so easily dispatched? “Because they were Irish Catholics. End of story,” he said. Bill said the anti-foreign Nativist movement in the United States in the 19th century “was as bad as anything the Klan would do later on”.

Quakers in the area did nothing, though Bill believed they could not have avoided the story. The men and woman of Duffy’s Cut “had no one to advocate for them,” he said. Bill said there is also evidence of other Irish mass graves nearby and he has been contacted by people in other states asking him to conduct similar work.

“So many Irishmen built this state,” he said. Irish ancestry is the second-largest ethnicity in Pennsylvania, “and we still fight to get recognition of that”.

Bill said Irish and Irish-American organisations have provided invaluable support. The Donegal Association of Philadelphia has supported the project financially and in many other ways. The Emerald Society of Chester County, Pennsylvania, police officers of Irish heritage, also helped the project place an historical marker near the site of the mass grave. To achieve the marker, the project secured thousands of signatures on a petition and suppport from Pennsylvania’s two US senators and US representatives.

The people on the Duffy’s Cut Project care deeply about the people buried there, these people who came for a new life and were dead weeks after landing and virtually forgotten all these years later. Bill has a son who is 19, John Ruddy’s age. Members of the dig crew are Mr. Ruddy’s age, maybe a year or two older.

“Other circumstances, other times -- it could have been us,” Bill said.