Duffy’s Cut is the infamous railroad worksite where nearly 60 Irish laborers were killed in 1832. Some succumbed to an outbreak of cholera, but many of them are believed to have been massacred in a violent attempt to stop the spread of the disease.
The site and its story have been brought to light over the past 12 years by brothers Frank and William Watson, a Lutheran minister and a historian at Immaculata University. The Watson brothers, along with their colleague Earl Schandelmeier, founded the Duffy’s Cut Project in 2002. Since then the Duffy’s Cut Project team has worked to excavate the site, identify any remains, determine the causes of death, and secure funding for the project’s continued work.
Repatriation work began in 2013, when the body of 18-year-old laborer John Ruddy was identified and returned to Ardara, Co. Donegal for a proper burial. Catherine Burns will be the second Duffy’s Cut victim to be sent home to Ireland.
The sad journey of the 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. 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.
Among them were Catherine Burns, a 29-year-old widow, and her 70-year-old father-in-law John Burns.
Burns was easily identified because she was something of an anomaly among the mostly male workers. As Frank Watson told the Ulster Herald, “We found these two small bones that had been covered in rust and in the fall of last year we took them to a dentist in Lancaster. . . . We were able to ascertain that they were the remains of a 30-year-old woman and using genealogical protocols, we were able to trace them back to Catherine Burns.”
The cause of her death has been determined as blunt force trauma and she was one of the first seven people to die at the site, he told the paper.
Last weekend, the Philadelphia Irish community and the Duffy’s Cut Project organizers held a fundraiser to secure money for the passage of Burns’ remains.
“We have already taken John Ruddy home to the Republic and it would be lovely if Catherine could go home too,” Watson told the Ulster Herald. “And if we can find John Burns, it would be our intention to repatriate him too.
“It has been an unusual case for us and we feel it would be historical justice that Catherine is taken back to Tyrone.”