Historians and advocates are attempting to raise funds to support the excavation, insurance and examination of the remains of 50 Irish laborers believed to have been massacred at Duffy’s Cut, a stretch of railroad outside Philadelphia.
Brothers Frank and William Watson (a Lutheran minister and a historian) have already spearheaded the project and excavated the remains of seven Irish men buried in the location. Following the examination of the remains and research into documents the brothers and forensic anthropologist Dr Janet Monge established that what happened there in 1832 was nothing short of a massacre.
The story of these murdered Irish laborers began with the British ship John Stamp, which sailed from Derry bound for Philadelphia. Most of the passengers were from Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. The passengers included William Devine (21), George Quigley (22), and John Ruddy (18).
After two months at sea they arrived in Philadelphia on June 23, 1832. There they met with Irish contractor Philip Duffy, who offered them jobs. He 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.
Within six weeks these 57 laborers were dead.
It is believed that cholera swept through the laborers' shanty town. Based on the examination of the physical evidence carried out by the Watsons and Monge it is believed that these workers escaped from enforced quarantine, were caught and murdered.
Through the brothers' hard work and the public’s contributions they had the remains of six of the bodies reburied at the West Laurel Hill cemetery, Pennsylvania, and one the men’s remains, 18-year-old John Ruddy’s, buried in Adara, County Donegal.
Now the Watson brothers plan to uncover and examine the 50 other men who were buried at this site. Previously Amtrak had concerns over safety and stalled the project, however Frank Watson told IrishCentral that they’re now planning to get back to work later this year, funds permitting.
He explained that for the last two years they have been in negotiations with the company who own the plot of land where it is believed the 50 Irishmen are buried.
“Through the hard work of our engineer, Joe Devoy (owner of Tellus 360 in Lancaster, PA) Amtrak has agreed to a plan that will allow us to excavate what look to be the remaining bodies of up to 50 Irish laborers underneath the stone enclosure,” said Frank.
The “enclosure” he refers to was originally built as an octagonal wooden fence by Irish laborers, on the Pennsylvania railroad in 1870. That was replaced around 1909 by Martin Clement and a stone wall remains to this day.
It was through the Watson brothers connection to Clement that this mass murder emerged. Clement built this enclosure around the area, but there was no explanation of what he had found. It all remained a secret until Frank and William Watson’s grandfather Joseph Tripican, who had been an assistant to Clement’s, died.
In 2002 the Watsons were going through some family papers where they discovered a 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 had died at Duffy’s Cut.
Nearly thirteen years after their initial discovery the Watson brothers are well on their way to putting an end to the Duffy’s Cut mystery and laying these men to rest.
Frank told IrishCentral that they are being aided in their fundraising by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick along with the Immaculata University. However, they need over $25,000 to complete the dig and that’s before the laborers' reinterment is paid for. On Father’s Day they will hold a music fundraiser in Drexel Hill (more details below).
For the past two years the Watson brothers have been sharing the story of Duffy’s Cut with the community, meeting with various groups and working with the group making a movie about the emigrants' plight.
Frank explained that while the Irish government, especially Peter Ryan, Deputy Consul in New York, has been hugely helpful in promoting and supporting the Duffy’s Cut project there is no Irish or US government funding.
“The goal of the fundraiser is to provide the necessary costs both for the Amtrak and insurance costs, and also to provide for DNA testing on the first set of remains,” explained Frank.
These first set of remains were those of John Duddy, the 18-year-old man, who was returned to his native soil in Donegal.
“Our forensic dentist Matt Patterson collected DNA samples last year when he came with us to Ardara in Donegal for the burial of John Ruddy, and we have been awaiting results of other DNA tests being conducted free of charge by others but because of cost-related issues we still have no complete results – therefore the need to provide funding to ensure prompt results.”
When the other 50 bodies are excavated and examined they were be reinterred at West Laurel Hill Cemetery (in Bala Cynwyd, PA) where six of the Duffy’s Cut victims are already buried.
“The vault was intentionally installed with more space for further bodies two years ago, but if we find the remains of a 70-year-old laborer, we hope to take that body back to Tyrone,” said Frank.
They believe this will be the body of John Burns, the oldest laborer on board the John Stamp. He traveled with his widowed daughter-in-law, Catherine Burns. They both disappeared from history after they arrived in the US in August 1832.
“There were 70 out of 160 passengers on board the John Stamp who hailed from Tyrone, making Tyrone the country with the largest number of passengers who came to America on that ship. At least three of the laborers from Tyrone disappeared after they came to America on board the ship,” said Frank.
“We hope that the concert on Father's Day will help to raise the necessary funds to discover and rebury the remaining men (and possibly other women as well) from Duffy's Cut.”
The fundraiser will take place on Father’s Day, Sunday June 15, at the Twentieth Century Club of Lansdowne, Drexel Hill, PA, from 3 to 6pm. For tickets and more information visit their Facebook page here.
A teaser for a documentary on the men:
Here Christy Moore sings a song telling the tale of the 57 Duffy's Cut victims: