Interview with authors

Frank and William Watson.

By Nicole Borello-Editor, Quaci Press and Magazine

NB: Thank you for bringing this little known story forward and into the public eye. Your book, Massacre at Duffy’s Cut, is fascinating and also very informative. How did your grandfather’s stories lead you to this investigation?

Dr. Bill Watson, Professor of History, Immaculata University:  Our grandfather’s railroad stories and the railroad file created by Martin W. Clement on the incident planted the seeds of our interest in Duffy’s Cut. I am a professional historian and was hired as a Professor of History at Immaculata University in the late ‘90s, but I had scant recollection of the Duffy’s Cut stories we heard in our childhood. My office at Immaculata is about 5 minutes by car from the location of Duffy’s Cut in Malvern, and an odd series of coincidences including a ghost story, brought us back to the tales of our childhood in 2002.  I applied for a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker for the site in 2003 and found it necessary to draft a petition which received several thousand signatures of Pennsylvania residents and letters of support from a variety of state politicians. We also had the support of the Chester County Emerald Society to start an excavation, and they obtained the support of the county district attorney and coroner for our endeavors.  My university provided the insurance necessary for the excavation and my students did the bulk of the excavating, Immaculata paid for the Celtic cross at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, and it houses our archaeological museum.  

Frank:  Our maternal grandfather, Joseph Tripician (originally Tripiciano), was an immigrant from Sicily who worked his way up from railroad stationmaster in Altoona, Pennsylvania, to personal assistant to several presidents of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR).  Eventually our grandfather became the Director of the Personnel Administration for the PRR.  In his role as personal assistant to PRR President Martin Clement, our grandfather came into contact with the Duffy’s Cut story. Clement was the one who created the PRR’s secret file on Duffy’s Cut starting in 1909 when he was working as assistant supervisor in Paoli (not far from the Duffy’s Cut site).  Clement had learned of the Duffy’s Cut story from the Irish-American family with whom he resided (the Doyle family, one of whom, Patrick Doyle, is referenced in the file as an integral part of the oral transmission of the Duffy’s Cut narrative) – which happens to be on the site of the Immaculata University campus where my brother Bill teaches.  By the time Clement became PRR President, the file was kept in Clement’s office and was only shown to individuals in Clement’s private presidential office, and at his sole discretion.  That was where our grandfather first learned of the Duffy’s Cut story, and our grandfather was present on a number of occasions when Clement shared the file with colleagues and even his family members (Clement’s nephew shared and confirmed this information with my brother and myself on several different occasions).  As Clement’s former personal assistant, our grandfather was given the Duffy’s Cut file after the merger of the PRR and the New York Central Railroad, thus bringing the transmission of the Duffy’s Cut story into our family.

When my brother and I were children, our grandfather used to walk us along the disused railroad tracks in the Philadelphia area and tell us stories of the history of the railroad, and among those old stories was the tale of Duffy’s Cut.  In particular I remember he told the ghost story contained within the PRR Duffy’s Cut file one Thanksgiving Day.  As the family was gathered together on the front porch of his home in Narberth, PA, my grandfather brought out a transcribed copy of the Duffy’s Cut ghost story and proceeded to read to us the exciting tale of the “dancing ghosts” of the Irishmen who died and were buried there in 1832.  The ghost story grabbed my attention as a boy.  Later on, when my brother and I were in high school, our grandmother asked me to catalogue our grandfather’s railroad papers and books, and that was the first time that I read the whole of the Duffy’s Cut file, including the ghost story contained within its pages (that work of cataloguing my grandfather’s extensive collection of railroad books and papers spurred me on in my later interest in archival research – I serve as the Lutheran Archivist in NJ, and as President of the Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia).  After our grandfather died, my grandmother gave me the Duffy’s Cut file among other railroad papers.  On Labor Day of 2002, my brother and his family came up to my house in Freehold, NJ, and during this visit we shared stories and papers from our late grandfather’s work on the railroad.  It was during this visit that my brother and I decided to investigate our grandfather’s railroad file and find out what we could about Duffy’s Cut.  

Our goal at first was to simply discover the site and see if the stone wall that Martin Clement erected at the site in 1909 still existed.  Several months later, on Columbus Day of 2002 we found the site and saw that the stone wall was still intact.  As we were walking along the tracks that day I saw a man walking his dog, and I asked him if he knew anything about an old stone railroad monument.  As he took a puff of his cigar he simply said:  “Follow me,” and led us to the stone wall.  As the saying goes, the rest is history!  We found one mystery after another and one cover-up after another.  In time, we realized that the full story of the mystery of Duffy’s Cut needed to be told, resulting in our two books on Duffy’s Cut – and in particular to our latest book, Massacre at Duffy’s Cut, where for the first time my brother and I can tell the whole story of the investigation into the mass grave of the 57 Irish railroad laborers who died of murder and cholera at Duffy’s Cut in August of 1832.  In time, our grandfather’s file and the story of the dancing ghosts, led us to the reburial of five of the murder victims at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA, in 2012, and to the burial of another – the first body we recovered -- in Ireland in 2013, and yet another – the latest body we recovered – also in Ireland in 2015.

Copyright 2019 Quaci Press. All rights reserved.

Frank and William Watson with grandfather

on the railroad.

NB: Can you tell us about Duffy’s Cut Project?

Bill: The Duffy’s Cut project is a Pennsylvania 501 c 3 non-profit educational corporation which we formed in 2004, headquartered in my office at Immaculata (address of record for all state and federal tax forms and excavation permissions).  My brother Frank, my former student, Earl Schandelmeier and I are the remaining members of the original non-profit members.  The research team also consists of several individuals also from the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my PhD and MA, and the university’s Museum of Anthropology is where skeletal remains are stored and analyzed before burial.  Dr. Janet Monge, bone curator of the UPenn Museum is the anthropologist who leads the science team; Dr. Samantha Cox leads the archaeological dig; and former UPenn professor, and now Franklin and Marshall College professor, Dr. Tim Bechtel, is our project geologist.  Dr. Matt Patterson is our forensic dental specialist.  The veteran dig crew will return on the next stages of the work.  

Frank:  In addition to having a Sicilian-born maternal grandfather who told us about the mass grave of the Irish railroad workers, my brother Bill and I are also 50% Celtic – with an Irish-American grandmother and a Scottish-American grandfather on our father’s side.  We are both bagpipers and have delved deep into the Celtic side of our heritage.  We certainly had an interest in grandfather’s story from that angle as well.

As we started it in 2002, we hoped at first to just find out the facts of what happened at the site, and the truth of our grandfather’s story.  My brother is a history professor at Immaculata University in PA.  We figured that we certainly had the background to investigate this story (both with PhD’s in history), and so we started the Duffy’s Project along with two colleagues and friends – the late John Ahtes, who, at the time, had been hired by my brother to teach history at Immaculata University, and one of my brother’s history students at Immaculata, Earl Schandelmeier.  

We had been told that we would likely not be able to learn a whole lot about the railroad contractor whose name was fixed to the story – Philip Duffy.  Nonetheless, on our days off, the four of us trekked to local, church, county, railroad, and federal archives looking into various aspects of the story.  Before long we had traced the background of Duffy’s life and his death and burial as well as his extensive work for the railroad and elsewhere.  We also looked through shipping and genealogical records to try and find what we could about the Irish laborers who died at Duffy’s Cut.  While we had the historical background shaping up nicely, we needed help with the science end of things as we hoped to probe the Duffy’s Cut site for the truth of what really happened there.  In time we enlisted a variety of experts who provided critical assistance in a number of areas – anthropology, geology, archaeology, and forensics.  This amazing team of volunteers helped us to discover the mass grave and to explore the lives and deaths of the men and the woman buried there.

Burial site at West Laurel Hill Cemetary

Memorial Wall at Duffy's Cut

NB: Why were the workers murdered? Was it common back then for immigrants to be murdered and disposed of? Or was this an isolated incident?

Bill:  These workers would have been murdered because they were seen as taking manual labor jobs from locals and they were thought to have brought cholera with them (they did not; their ship passed through the quarantine station lower on the Delaware River (the Lazaretto in Tinicum, Delaware County), and no one on the ship had cholera.  Their arrival, however, coincided with the arrival of a cholera epidemic.  Their Irish contractor, Philip Duffy, had nothing to gain from their murder and much to lose in terms of reputation, and he was not complicit in their demise.  The arrival of the workers at mile 59 under Duffy coincided with the arrival of cholera in the vicinity, which claimed a minimum of perhaps a thousand victims in the Delaware Valley that summer. There were fewer than a thousand inhabitants of East Whiteland Township in 1832, and almost none of them were Catholic or Gaelic speakers.  Our workers were regarded as taking jobs on the lower end of the economic ladder from local manual laborers. Local manual laborers would have demanded more than the 25 cents per day that our workers received from Duffy.  

Perhaps 20,000 Irish immigrant laborers died in the 1820s and 1830s while constructing large public works projects along the East Coast of the US, in canal and railroad construction stretching from the Erie Canal in New York to the New Orleans Canal in Louisiana.  The Irish workers willingly labored in difficult and often hostile conditions because this was the first time in their lives that they had a chance to participate in a money economy.  They were previously mostly limited to manual labor on farms owned by absentee British landlords in Ireland without monetary compensation. In Belfast, some Irish Catholics could work in the shipyards in the 1830s for money, but they were literally at the bottom of the system, earning less than their Protestant counterparts.  At Duffy’s Cut they were considered by the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad to be equally expendable and so inexpensive that they could be easily replaced by new immigrants.

Frank:  We knew from the PRR file that the Irishmen who died at Duffy’s Cut came to America in the summer of 1832.  We searched through the shipping records at the National Archives and discovered that there was one ship that brought a significant number of laborers from Ireland to America that summer, the John Stamp, that sailed from Derry in April of 1832 and arrived in Philadelphia on June 23.  

We conducted a full genealogical search of the laborers on this ship (using the same genealogical protocols we used to discover Duffy’s life and death), and we found that pretty much all of the laborers on the John Stamp disappeared from history after they landed in America.  Murder of cholera victims happened not just in America but also in Europe as communities faced the fear of a disease that they did not understand.  In America that fear was compounded by anti-immigrant and anti-Irish sentiment, and at the same time and in the same area (Chester County) where the men and woman of Duffy’s Cut were killed there was another news account that appeared in newspapers throughout PA of a German man who was murdered, along with his whole family, and the man who harbored them.  Sadly, murder of cholera victims was played out in a number of different communities here in America and in Europe in the 1830’s.

NB: From your research, what was it like for Irish-Catholics in America in 1832? Do you think that anti-Irish sentiment still exists, not only in America, but around the world?

Bill: 18th-century Irish immigration in America was largely comprised of Ulster Scots “Orange” Irish, but Irish Catholic (“Green”) immigration began in steadily larger numbers starting in the 1820s, coinciding with large scale American public works projects that depended on British labor policy as well as British technology. The decade of the 1830s marks the beginning of the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish nativist movement in America which eventually coalesced into the Know-Nothings of the pre-Civil War period.  In 1831, the year before Duffy’s Cut, there was an Irish riot in Philadelphia over the usual sectarian issues in Ulster: a Battle of the Boyne parade on July 12 of Irish Protestants that was intended to intimidate the newly-arrived Catholic immigrants.  Philadelphia was one of the epicenters of anti-Catholicism in the 1840s, and the Nativist Riots of 1844 saw Catholic churches bombarded with cannon by nativist mobs, and Irish Catholics lynched in the streets.

I am a convert to Catholicism and technically an employee of a Catholic religious order, the IHMs who run Immaculata University. Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment still exists in the US.  It is more subtle today than in 1832, but it still exists.  We occasionally get anti-Irish sentiment creeping into some of the questions posed by people in audiences of public talks (“Didn’t the Irishmen deserve to be shot at Duffy’s Cut?”) and the battle over the state historical marker elicited comments which were clear examples of what the Chester County Emerald Society and my Ancient Order of Hibernians division in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, regarded as white-on-white racism.  Yes, Americans go to Bono and U2 concerts, but the only Irish Catholic president in American history was assassinated and there has not been another one since.  The week before we took the remains of John Ruddy to Ireland for reburial in 2013, I visited Jim Thorpe to see the Molly Maguire sites and on my way out of town a large McDonald’s sign for the fish sandwich had graffiti covering it that read: “All Catholics are pedophiles.”  Anti-Catholicism, alive and well in one of the Pennsylvania towns where the Molly Maguires were executed in the largest mass execution in American history (a story commemorated in a famous movie starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris and which is in many of the American history textbooks, but which did not get a state historical marker until 2006!).

Frank:  Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments certainly existed in 1832 America, fueled by a Nativist movement that distrusted Catholic Irish immigrants for their supposed allegiance to the Pope over the US Constitution. In Chester County there was also at this time a growing movement for “temperance” (abstention from alcohol), and the Irish Catholics who drank whiskey (it was the railroad that supplied it to them) were looked on “intemperate.”  The charge of “intemperance” was often associated – wrongly – with the transmission of cholera.  If everyone drank whiskey, cholera would have died in that community, as cholera is a water-born illness transmitted through contaminated drinking water.  The Philadelphia Bible Riots in 1844 were a visible manifestation of the anti-immigrant feeling that boiled over at times into outward violence against the Irish.  In Chester County, where Duffy’s Cut was located, there were undoubtedly many Protestant folks who had never even met a Catholic person before they came to build the railroad, and the general distrust of Irish-Catholics in general would not have endeared them to the local populace after cholera broke out in the area in the summer of 1832.

My brother and I are members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the oldest Irish-American benevolent association in the United States, dating from before the American Revolution. Despite the fact that Irish-Americans signed the Declaration of Independence and fought in the American Revolution, anti-Irish sentiment existed back in 1832.  This is the attitude epitomized by the “no Irish need apply” signs that were found around this country even into the 20th century.  We found that even as we progressed with our Project, anti-Irish sentiment popped up from time to time, as, first, some did not think that the murder of Irish Catholic laborers warranted the granting of a PA state Historical Marker.  That was rectified, and the sign was eventually granted and the sign was erected at the corner of King and Sugartown Roads in Malvern, but it took a great deal of hard work on the part of local and state politicians and the AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) to make it happen.  We have been surprised time and time again that anti-Irish sentiment and anti-Catholic still exists in America.  We even found someone who showed up at the community-wide wake for Catherine Burns in Clonoe, in County Tyrone in 2015, who clearly held an anti-Catholic prejudice.  This wake was sponsored by the very kind priest and people of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Clonoe, and the individual in question showed up foolishly thinking that that was somehow the proper place to vent her prejudiced views.

NB: Can you tell us a little bit about your other book: The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad?

Bill:  This is the most thorough treatment of the Duffy’s Cut story in print, and the first time we have been able to explain the science behind how we found the skeletal remains and what those remains told the forensic team about their deaths.  It is also a roadmap for the next steps in the ongoing investigation.

Frank: The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut was co-authored by us and our two colleagues, Earl Schandelmeier and the late John Ahtes, and most significantly allowed us to get the basic story out in the public eye.  It detailed some of the essential background – the railroad history, the history of Ireland and America in 1832, and the preliminary genealogical research on Duffy and the names on the John Stamp ship list.  Our most current book, Massacre at Duffy’s Cut, really tells the full story through the excavations and reburials in America and in Ireland in our own words.

NB: It is said that if it is discovered that all 57 immigrants were murdered, it would be the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history. Do you think this could be the case?

Bill:  This is what I have been saying for years.  The first seven whom we have excavated were murdered and placed in coffins that were sealed with about 100 nails per coffin to conceal the bloody mess inside.  Cholera had hit the camp before deaths of the individuals, who were placed in coffins, and some of the workers undoubtedly died of cholera, but we won’t know how many were murdered until the complete excavation under the stone monument.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find that two thirds of the workers were killed, and we expect to find the same at a spinoff site, mile 48 in Downingtown, where one of the Duffy’s Cut workers ran to and infected another crew under Irish contractor Peter Connor.  Reports are that the entire crew died there, and the contractor also vanished from the records and probably died as well.  We do expect to find evidence there of violence as well.

It is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as we have received requests from people in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee from people who want us to investigate other Irish railroader probable mass graves.  In time we hope to be able to investigate those locations as well.

Frank:  We do know that cholera was raging throughout the surrounding Chester County community in the summer of 1832, and the internal railroad records indicate that cholera did break out in the worker’s shanty.  The railroad file also details what was, for all intents and purposes an effort to enforce a quarantine in the valley where the workers’ shanty was located.  From the first body we recovered to the last body found so far, our anthropologist, Dr. Janet Monge, has indicated that all were murdered.  If the remaining bodies show the same perimortem violence (at the time of death), this will mean that 57 men and at least one woman were indeed all murdered.  Dr. Monge has been quoted as saying that “if they had cholera, that’s not what killed them,” (from CNN Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room,” 2010).  From what we have found so far it is looking like this is the case – that we will have before us the worst mass murder in the history of Pennsylvania.  

NB: Why do you think there is always a cover up when it comes to atrocities that were made against the Irish, especially in history books?

Bill:  The why is hard to explain.  But it is indeed the case. Perhaps the Irish have come too late to the “Olympics of the Oppressed.” When we received the state historical marker in 2004, two Irish anthropology professors at Bryn Mawr College called us out to meet them and discuss how we got the assistance we needed.  They told us that  not only had they experienced a “no Irish need apply” response to applications for state grants for Irish-themed research, but they knew of a dozen other cases of rejections.  In the 1640s, a quarter of the Irish population died during Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, and in the 1840s, another quarter of the Irish population died due to Trevelyan’s policies of starvation.  In 200 years, British policies caused the death of half the country’s population.  Ireland is the only country in the EU whose population in 2019 is lower than it was in 1819. Try to find the details in general World Civ textbooks.  You won’t find it, except in Irish history textbooks. I know this because I have taught World Civ for decades and Irish history for about a decade and a half and the omission is obvious.

Frank:  We know that the railroad in 1832 and the state of Pennsylvania both participated in a cover-up in regards to the extent of the tragedy that occurred at Duffy’s Cut.  This was the case from the very beginning.  We are proud that in February of 2011 PA State Senator Andrew Dinniman sponsored a Senate Resolution of Congratulations for our work at Duffy’s Cut.  This congratulatory resolution from the state is certainly a vindication for us, and most especially, for the men and the woman who died there, and whose stories were officially buried for so long.

From 1832 onward the railroad admitted internally that a number as high as 60 laborers died at Duffy’s Cut.  Publically the railroad always said there were only a few who died there.  There was also a strange retraction of what had to have been the original press coverage of the story within a month of the event taking place.  We have the various press clippings that told of the deaths at Duffy’s Cut, and every time the story appeared in print there was an intentional downplaying of the actual numbers of the dead at Duffy’s Cut.  The original railroad account of what happened at Duffy’s Cut stated that a number as high as 60 men died there (the Mitchel Letter that we found in PA State Archives in Harrisburg).  Publically the railroad stated that a number as low as 6 men died there.  Throughout the history of the PRR the story remained buried, and everyone who saw the file was sworn to secrecy.  

Besides the cover up of the story by the railroad that built Duffy’s Cut, the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, in the 1830’s, the PRR never let their file on Duffy’s Cut out of the President’s office.  Even more, during the 1930’s the PRR covered up the story in another way.  A letter in the PRR Duffy’s Cut file spoke of an article that was written for the Pennsylvania News (the newspaper for PRR railroad workers) that had been written on Duffy’s Cut.  The article was expected to appear in print around the hundredth anniversary of the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut in 1932.  The article was never published.  Instead an article was published in the Pennsylvania News about the risk of communist infiltration within the railroad unions.  Even a hundred years after the incident the railroad refused to let the truth of what happened at Duffy’s Cut see the light of day.  

The old “Irish need not apply” signs that were displayed in shop windows throughout the country demonstrated a deep-seated discrimination against the Irish in America.  The railroad preferentially hired the Irish to work building the earliest railroads in the 1830’s because they would perform the back-breaking work that slave owners would not even hire out their slaves to perform, and for cheap (25 cents a day), nonetheless, the railroad trade publications (such as the American Railroad Journal), routinely printed “humorous” anecdotes that demeaned and belittled the very Irish work force they were hiring to build their railroads.  

It is a fact that there were indeed some who tried to stand in the way of the progress of the Duffy’s Cut.

NB: Did the families at that time or their descendants ever question what happened to their loved ones?

Bill: Letters from families in Ireland looking for lost relatives periodically appeared in the local Village Record newspaper, but we cannot pinpoint any specifically for the Duffy’s Cut work crew from surviving records. Human nature being what it is, relatives undoubtedly did inquire but met deafening silence.  It was bad business for the railroad to discuss the matter. It would be harder to recruit new laborers if word got out.

Frank:  The families of the laborers who died at Duffy’s Cut were never informed of their deaths, and the railroad never reached out to anyone in Ireland.  Nonetheless, many families in Ireland told the story of loved ones coming to work for the railroad in America and of never hearing from them again.  To this day, there are families with similar stories throughout Ireland (we heard some of them on our trips to bury the remains of John Ruddy and Catherine Burns in Ireland in 2013 and 2015).

NB: Catherine Burns, one of the victims, was finally returned to Ireland after almost two centuries and had a full funeral mass. Have any of the other victims been laid to rest in their native land?

Bill:  John Ruddy was also reburied in his native county, Donegal, in 2013. The average age of the workers was 22, and it will be difficult to locate the specific remains associated with specific names for most of the others.  Ruddy was an 18-year-old male and Burns was an approximately 30-year-old female.  They were unique.

Frank:  In addition to the burial of Catherine Burns in her native Tyrone in 2015, we buried John Ruddy in his native Donegal in 2013.  For Bill and myself, taking the first man we found at Duffy’s Cut, the 18 year old John Ruddy, back to his native Donegal was also something of a homecoming for us.  Our paternal 3rd great-grandfather, Thomas Donley, hailed from County Donegal, and our 3rd paternal great-grandmother came from Belfast.  We had never been to Donegal before and it was an amazing experience to see the place where the Irish side of our family originated.  In 2015 we took Catherine Burns back for burial in her native Tyrone.  Both in 2013 and in 2015 we were met by the people of Ireland as if we were each one of their own.  We also found in 2013 that our work at Duffy’s Cut inspired the families of the “Disappeared,” (individuals who had been killed by their own during the Troubles).  The story of our discovery of the men and woman at Duffy’s Cut was told to these families by a US envoy to Northern Ireland, and some of the technology we used at Duffy’s Cut was utilized to help locate some of the “Disappeared.”  We have been told that they credit the finding of seven of the “Disappeared” to the Duffy’s Cut Project.  There is, in our minds, perhaps no greater honor than this – that the discovery of the men and woman who were massacred at Duffy’s Cut helped to bring some measure of closure and peace to others suffering the loss of loved ones back in Ireland.  

NB: Have you ever had any issues with trying to excavate the bodies? Did anyone try to prevent you from further investigation?

Bill:  There is not enough space to detail the difficulties connected to the excavation.  Suffice it to say we have gotten a good many gray hairs over the years from the obstacles in our way.  We needed permission from the homeowners, from Amtrak, from the township, the county and the state in order to excavate for human remains.

Frank:  After we obtained the necessary permissions for our excavation, we had to get the expertise of world-renowned experts such as Dr. Janet Monge (physical anthropologist from the University of PA) and Dr. Samantha Cox (archaeologist, also from Penn), Dr. Tim Bechtel (geologist, Franklin and Marshall College), as well as Dr. Matt Paterson (forensic dentist).  There were people who tried to stop us from digging a number of times – most especially local people who we believe were related to the East Whiteland Horse Company.  The Horse Company was likely responsible for the murder of the men and the woman at Duffy’s Cut.

Dr. William E. Watson

Professor of History, Immaculata University and

Director, Duffy's Cut Project

Rev. Dr. Frank Watson

Pastor, Christ Lutheran Church, Whiting, NJ

Founder and Co-Director, Duffy's Cut Project

Here is the link to purchase their books and CD: