When I was little my one grandfather whom I called Poppy would tell me stories of how the Irish were persecuted at different times in this country (John Francis Xavier Gallen was Irish and born in the late 19th century) . When he was a little boy, my great grandmother Rebecca Nesbitt Gallen was in service and was the summer housekeeper to the Cassatt Family in Haverford. If I recall correctly, he lost a lot of family during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of the early 20th century, but I digress. Poppy would tell me of anti-Irish sentiment and tales of “Irish need not apply”.
My other grandfather, Pop Pop, would tell me of anti-Italian sentiment. Poppy’s wife, my grandmother (my Mumma), who was Pennsylvania German, would tell me tales of anti- German sentiment during both world wars. And so did my own mother. Yes, I am off on a slight tangent here, but for all that the United States was founded as a nation of immigrants, different sets of immigrants have been persecuted at different times throughout our history and even today. Considering the immigrant stock that runs through my veins I identify with this and am basically unapologetic about my views.
So maybe while Duffy’s Cut is one of Chester County’s most astounding and horrific pieces of history, can it also be said cruelty to various sets of immigrants is as much a part of this country’s inconvenient history as slavery and indentured servitude were?
But back to Duffy’s Cut. I heard about that from my Poppy as a little girl, yet we never learned about it in history class in school. Well one history teacher I had knew of it, but it wasn’t taught to us.
I first wrote about Duffy’s Cut in 2013. I happened to be passing by the Duffy’s Cut historical marker at the time, and stopped to photograph it. Given the clouds of mystery and intrigue still surrounding Duffy’s Cut, I think the foggy afternoon was perfect. I also think that given the development occurring in Malvern (borough and East Whiteland) by developers who don’t truly give a rat’s fanny about the area, the history, or the current residents (they care about building and selling projects) it is also appropriate to remember the history. You can never truly move forward into the future if you can’t honor the past, or that is just my opinion as a mere mortal and female.
I have always thought the tale of Duffy’s Cut to be a huge part of the history of Malvern. The Duffy’s Cut Project is housed at Immaculata. You can go see it.
The Smithsonian Channel has a special about it – called the Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut.
Duffy’s Cut is a big deal. What was Duffy’s Cut? Most simplistically the mass murder of Irish rail workers in 1832 around the time of a cholera outbreak they were blamed for but most say in actuality didn’t cause.
There had been a cholera outbreak. People believed the Irish bought the disease with them. They didn’t as the records for the ship would later prove, but it didn’t matter. Those 57 men (and a woman) were immigrants who spoke mostly Gaelic and lived in the shanty town created to house them next to the railroad (Philadelphia and Columbia line) they were helping create in Malvern.
These immigrants were different. They were “dirty Irish” and locals at the time were suspect of them and threatened by them. I am sorry that sounds awful, but it is an unfortunate truth. I think that and the murder of at least some of these Irish rail workers is why this story has taken so long to unfold and is still continuing.
For example did you know that there is an edition of a paper that was a predecessor (I believe) of the Daily Local called the Village Record.
The October 3, 1832 edition of the paper had an accurate telling of what happened down at Duffy’s Cut earlier that year. The edition of the paper disappeared. The only thing that still exists is the November 8th correction article. The more palatable version of events (yet how was any of it ever palatable or acceptable?)
So my friend and I met with Dr. William Watson at Immaculata today, and he took us to the site. I will not disclose the exact location of the site because well, shall we say, Duffy’s Cut still makes people uncomfortable. And modern day residents who live near this piece of history deserve to NOT be pestered by amateur sleuths and ghost chasers.
Dr. Watson and his brother Reverend Frank Watson became intrigued by Duffy’s Cut when they were given a file that had been in the possession of their grandfather, Joseph F. Tripician. Their grandfather had been a secretary to Martin Clement, the 11th president of The Pennsylvania Railroad. Their grandfather had Clement’s old file on Duffy’s Cut. (And it was Clement who put up the stone monument at the edge of the tracks.)
In April 2010 Smithsonian Magazine had this amazing article on Duffy’s Cut. You can read it online today.
And articles keep being written . Especially because Dr. Watson and his brother and their team have actually gotten some of the remains returned to family descendants in Ireland to be buried with other family members.
The world has taken notice of Duffy’s Cut and what happened there. Perhaps more so than around here truth be told. However, in 2012 an Inquirer reporter named Kristin Holmes wrote a wonderful article about the Duffy’s Cut workers remains which were given burial space at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
When the bodies of the 57 Irish immigrants were dumped into a mass grave in 1832, it was a secret, perhaps meant to shroud a violent end.
But 180 years later, in a ceremony to commemorate the railroad workers’ deaths, there was pomp and fanfare.
Bagpipes, a procession, and a regal, 10-foot high Celtic cross grave marker were part of a funeral service Friday meant to give five of the 57 the proper burial they never had.
The observance at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd was the culmination of a 10-year research project, known as Duffy’s Cut, to determine the fate of the workers who stepped off a boat from Ireland in June 1832 and were dead eight weeks later.
While most died of cholera in an epidemic that swept the region, researchers say some may have been slain in an act rooted in fear and prejudice….The investigation began in 2002 when the Watson brothers, 49, read a secret file that mentioned the workers and a mass grave. The papers were left to them by their grandfather, who worked as a secretary to the president of what was then the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, and is now part of SEPTA.
The brothers began research that would eventually involve geophysicist Timothy Bechtel; the Chester County Coroner’s Office; Earl Schandelmeier, an adjunct professor at Immaculata; Janet Monge, the keeper of skeletal collections at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; and others. Project researcher John Ahtes died of a heart attack in the midst of the investigation….
The men from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry Counties sailed to the United States and were promptly hired by railroad man Philip Duffy of Willistown. The mass of workers lived in a shanty near the tracks. The washerwoman served them. Within eight weeks, they were dead – of cholera and other causes.
Four skulls unearthed at the shanty site show signs of blunt trauma, investigators said. One has a hole that might be from a bullet.
The men probably were the victims of anti-Irish sentiment, the fear of cholera, and prejudice against immigrants, researchers say.
“Their sacrifice has been our motivation,” Frank Watson said.
“Their sacrifice has been our motivation.” How beautiful a sentiment is that?
In the spring of 2013, the New York Times continued with another part of the story: they covered the remains of young John Ruddy being returned to his descendants in Ireland:
The New York Times
Decades ago, just before the Pennsylvania Railroad was auctioned off, Watson’s grandfather — who worked for the company — saved key company records before they were destroyed. Among them were documents that hypothesized the location of the mass grave and reported the deaths of 57 workers.
The documents also clearly stated that the information was intended to remain a secret.
It was a “crazy coincidence” that the railroad company’s records survived through his family, Watson said.
The papers confirmed fears of a cover up. If the men’s deaths were due to cholera, why weren’t they recorded in a local paper, like most cholera deaths were at that time? And why would some of the bodies have been brutalized?
The answers remain elusive.
Have you noticed when you mention Duffy’s Cut you get many reactions/opinions? Ok I get it. Some day the entire truth will come out….and I wouldn’t want to be related to people who either took part in making these workers disappear or the cover up which ensued. It will be like saying you are related to Benedict Arnold. Or a slave owner. And it is something else historically wonky that basically happened in East Whiteland. (Dare I say it? Has the East Whiteland Historical Commission ever opined on this? Participated in research in any way? Or just erected a slightly historically inaccurate sign?)
But it is part of our history around here. And for those of us with at least partial Irish lineage, well, don’t you just want to know? Will finally learning the truth be so bad? John Ruddy from Donegal and the woman Catherine Burns from Tyrone have been returned to their modern descendants and buried in Ireland. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to identify the remains of more workers so that they could be sent home to their modern day descendants and rest in peace?
Fresh research and searching for the truth is underway. That has gotten a lot of coverage the past few months in Ireland, incidentally:
And I can’t forget to mention the television piece done by CBS3’s Walt Hunter this fall as well: EXCLUSIVE: New Search Begins For Secret Main Line Grave Holding Irish Rail Workers
You will notice in the Walt Hunter report the incorrect verbiage on the Duffy’s Cut sign by the stone monument – by the East Whiteland Historical Commission. I mean I guess they tried but they state the wrong year (1834 when the incidents occurred in 1832) and the well wrong cause of death – black diphtheria, and the disease was cholera. The text of the sign is “Burial Plot of Irish Railroad Workers. Died Summer of 1834 of Black Diptheria- East Whiteland Historical Commission.”
Core samples are being taken. Amtrak seems to be cooperating a little more (I call that a true Christmas miracle – hopefully that continues.)
And oh yeah, thanks to the latest Walt Hunter story Duffy’s Cut has even made People Magazine. So what of other local media? Since it was the paper that possibly eventually became the Daily Local (Village Record, West Chester, PA) had that article that disappeared from October 3rd, 1832 how about an in-depth update from our local paper or any of the other Chester County newspapers?
Dr. Watson took us to the little museum at Immaculata where we saw the artifacts and heard the tale. I also find it fascinating how many songs and musical tributes to Duffy’s Cut exist. (You can buy a CD of songs on the Duffy’s Cut Project Website.) But it was when he took us to the site where it hit home ten days before Christmas.
The site feels almost sacred and is so quiet except for the occasional piercing whistle of a passing train or a hawk overhead. Dr. Watson told us not only the tale of the workers but his tale of his grandfather’s file and all the twists and turns it has taken to get this far.
And as his words floated in the air around us and I gazed at a stone monument and surrounding woods, could I heard in my imagination the sounds of the workers? Did they just sort of float in the air outside of our normal consciousness? I am not being fey or deliberately dotty but when you stand there and you hear what happened to them, you can almost see and hear the past…and feel it.
We need to put this right. We need to support this ongoing project as a community. It is part of our history on so many levels, like it or not. We can’t undo what happened, but we can help correct it on some level by finally getting the entire story told.
And finally we can learn from this. Every generation in this country founded by immigrants fleeing persecution, we somehow as a nation seem to persecute over and over different sets of NEW immigrants to this country. How is that showing the religious and cultural tolerance on which this country was founded?
As a society, we can do better. We need to honor our dead locally whether at Duffy’s Cut or the ruins of Ebenezer AME Church on Bacton Hill Road, or farther out towards Kennett Square and elsewhere where other bits of our history is disappearing whether it takes the form of old houses involved in the Underground Railroad, to all the abandoned graveyards that dot Chester County and the rest of the state.
We shouldn’t whitewash our history or pretend uncomfortable and horrific things didn’t happen. We learn from those mistakes. If you cover them up, as human beings we are then doomed to repeat them unless we break the cycle and face the past.
I have a bunch of photos from today from the site and the museum. I will get to them over the next day or so. You can visit the Duffy’s Cut Museum in the Library at Immaculata when the library is open. The actual Duffy’s Cut site is NOT open to the public it is impossibly located to do that, so kindly respect that fact because so many over the years have not. People folly hunting for Duffy’s Cut only jeopardize the work that archeologists, geologists, and historians are trying to accomplish and that is not right.
Before I sign off, a big thank you to Dr. William Watson. He is kind of a big deal history professor and he took the time for us to show us Duffy’s Cut and tell us all about their work surrounding that. Educators like him make all the difference in how you learn and I think his students are so very lucky to have a professor with a passion for history like he has.
This has been a very long post….so thanks for reading through until the end and for stopping by.