Sunday, March 16, 2014

Duffy's Cut 57 ... Massacre?

If you drive into Bala Cynwyd’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery (sister cemetery to Historic Laurel Hill in Philadelphia), past the office and funeral home, you’ll drive right toward a ten-foot-high limestone Celtic Cross, which adorns a monument covered in Irish symbolism. Much has been written about Duffy's Cut over the past few years, so I will not go into great detail here (please visit the links at the end if you would like to further educate yourself). The story is worth keeping alive for a number of reasons, like that of the Holocaust. The main reason being how we Americans oppressed the unfortunate during our capitalistic heyday around the Industrial Revolution. No, I’m not talking about how we killed off the natives of the Hawaiian Islands for imperialistic gain, or pressed into service Welsh and German immigrants to work the coal mines. I'm talking about a small select group of Irish immigrants who were brought to America in 1856 to work on building the railroads.

According to Immaculata University’s website (which sponsored the Duffy’s Cut project):
“In 1832, a group of 57 Irish immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry arrived in Philadelphia. They were brought to Chester County by a fellow Irishman named Philip Duffy as laborers for the construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, Pennsylvania’s pioneering railroad. Within six weeks, all were dead of cholera and possibly violence, and were buried anonymously in a ditch outside of Malvern.”

Malvern, a western suburb of Philadelphia (in East Whiteland township, as indicated on the memorial), has very hilly terrain and at the time was densely wooded. Immigrant workers were brought in since the work was very dangerous. There was extreme prejudice against any kind of immigrants and so these people were treated as expendable resources by the railroad companies. Some of the 57 workers died of cholera (they would have received no medical care from their employer, the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad) and some were murdered. Phillip Duffy’s blacksmith buried all 57 workers in a shallow ditch beside the railroad bed.

According to the article “The Deaths at Duffy's Cut: Cholera or Cover-up?” (, “Between the summer of 1832 and the spring of 1833 a cholera epidemic ravaged the east coast of the U.S. At its worst, the disease killed as many as 80 people a day in Philadelphia…” Some have hypothesized “that local vigilantes, spurred by a blend of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigotry and fear of a deadly epidemic, may have murdered many of the Irish workers.” Locals have claimed to have seen the workers’ ghosts dancing on their own mass grave and paranormal investigations have even occurred. As far back as 1909 newspapers reported people seeing specters “as if they were a kind of green and blue fire and they were a-hopping and bobbing on their graves...” (ref.

Official records of the deaths at Duffy’s Cut remained locked in the vaults of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the company which evolved from the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. The records were found by accident by Reverend Dr. Frank Watson when the company went bankrupt in 1970. Watson’s brother William was a Professor of History at Immaculata University (which is located near Malvern, PA). Their grandfather had actually worked for the railroad and would tell them stories of the ghosts of Irishmen who danced on the graves alongside the railroad tracks in Malvern. After the grandfather’s death, the Watsons found the original records. Then they went digging – literally.

William Watson at the Duffy's Cut site in Malvern, PA (ref.)
Excavation of the ditch began in 2004 under the direction of William E. Watson, and in 2009 the first human bones were found in the mass grave. Irish pipes and other artifacts were found as well. Blunt trauma was noted on two of the skulls and there is evidence that some of the bones were struck by projectiles such as bullets. It appears to have been a massacre, for whatever reason. The bones of John Ruddy, the youngest of the Duffy’s Cut 57, died there at the age of eighteen. According to the New York Times, he finally received a proper burial in 2013:

“They laid his bones in a bed of Bubble Wrap, with a care beyond what is normally given to fragile things. They double-boxed those bones and carried them last month to the United Parcel Service office on Spruce Street in Philadelphia. Then they printed out the address and paid the fee. With that, the remains of a young man were soon soaring over the Atlantic Ocean he had crossed once in a three-masted ship. His name is believed to have been John Ruddy, and he was being returned to the Ireland he had left as a strapping teenage laborer. In 1832.”

Laid to Rest in West Laurel Hill Cemetery 

Funeral for five of the exploited "Duffy's Cut" railroad laborers
I learned of Duffy’s Cut quite by accident. A friend of mine who works at Philadelphia’s Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery told me about the dedication (in 2012) to the Duffy’s Cut 57 at West Laurel (Belmont Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, PA). I took a ride over and found the flags still lined up around the crypt cover. I missed the memorial service by a day, I think. If you watch this video (link below), you’ll be quite moved, I’m sure, by the serious and heartfelt ceremony, not to mention the small coffins which hold the remains to be buried:
Click here to watch the YouTube video of the memorial ceremony at West Laurel Hill Cemetery: Duffy's Cut viewing, memorial service and burial in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
According to Wikipedia:
“On March 9, 2012, the remains of five men and one woman from those who died at Duffy's Cut Shanty Town were laid to rest in a respectable church burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. The men and woman were unearthed by researchers from Immaculata University at the location of the Shanty Town near an Amtrak railroad line in Pennsylvania. A sixth body was recovered and identified as John Ruddy from Inishowen, County Donegal; his remains were returned to Ireland for reburial there. Excavation of the deep burial site was halted when Amtrak, which owns the land, would not issue permits for additional digging because of the site's proximity to the railroad tracks."

Monument at West Laurel Hill, shortly after dedication
(Would not issue PERMITS ...?) Below the huge limestone Celtic cross here at West Laurel Hill lie the buried remains of five men and one woman, all members of that unfortunate lot, possibly the victims of mass murder - the Duffy’s Cut 57. The other names on the crypt cover are from the ship’s roster (the John Stamp), and if excavation under the tracks is someday allowed by Amtrak, their remains may be buried here as well. As Bill Watson, director of the Duffy's cut project puts it: "Every human being deserves to be remembered (ref.)"

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Never forget what we’ve done to our fellow man in the name of “progress.” The evidence points toward a massacre of these unfortunate people, 57 Irish immigrants who came here in search of the American Dream.

References and Further Reading:

For the most comprehensive account of the Duffy’s Cut deaths: The Deaths at Duffy's Cut: Cholera or Cover-up?
Images from the PBS documentary, "Death on the Railroad"
The Duffy's Cut Project on the Immaculata University website
The Ghosts of Duffy’s cut YouTube video (RTE documentary)
New York Times article: With Shovels and Science, a Grim Story Is Told
West Laurel Hill Cemetery website
West Laurel Hill Cemetery Honors Irish Railroad Workers of Duffy’s Cut with One Year Memorial Service
Long-forgotten dead of Duffy's Cut get proper rites

PBS "Secrets of the Dead: Death on the Railroad" DVD