The Mystery of Duffy’s Cut


Staring out the window of a speeding commuter train on its way towards Philadelphia, a passenger would have no clue of the horror and injustice that occurred in this quiet wooded valley. They might catch a glimpse of a stone monument with a sign above it stating, “Duffy’s Cut Mass Grave,” as they approach Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad Pennsylvania Railroad, but it would be difficult to read the words, “Nearby is the mass grave of fifty-seven Irish immigrants who died in August, 1832, etc.…”

Duffy’s Cut, is a historic area along the old Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad Pennsylvania Railroad where fifty-seven young Irish boys toiled and perished while building one of the most challenging stretches of railroad, Mile 59. The terrain was very rough and they needed to build a 300-foot earthen fill in lieu of a bridge. Supposedly, they all 57 died of cholera. History professor, Dr. Bill Watson of Immaculata University knows differently.  For years he’s been organizing digs to recover the Irish lads’ remains. He is the co-author of the book, The Mystery of Duffy’s Cut.

Burying men under track in the fill became commonplace back in the 19th century, although Duffy’s Cut is the first documented case. According to John Antes, premier U.S. railroad historian, 50,000 men died building our nation’s railroad. There’s a saying that under every mile of track there’s a dead Irishman.


One hundred eighty years ago, Duffy’s Cut was a gaping notch in the topography. A land bridge needed to be constructed across the valley, called ‘Duffy’s Fill.’ The hillside needed to be gouged out and leveled so tracks could be laid down and carry the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad onward. Young strapping Irish boys were contracted by a construction boss named Philip Duffy and brought over from Ireland. These lads knew hard work, were familiar with poverty and were willing to cross the Atlantic penniless, with only the shirts on their backs, in exchange for a better life in America. They toiled like dogs moving tremendous loads of dirt and rock that they busted up to create this earthen bridge, Duffy’s Fill. This was hard work for only twenty-five cents a day, work not even free Black men would do, John Antes, explained. Antes is one of the four founding researchers and co-author of the book, The Mystery of Duffy’s Cut.

In eight short weeks, they were all dead. Some died of cholera, and went from virile manhood to walking corpses. Prejudice against Irish Catholics contributed to the denial of care to the workers. Murder is the way at least seven met their end, when their remains were discovered in 2009. Bullet holes, hatchet wounds, impact blows were found in the skulls that Bill and his team of students dug up. Since Philip Duffy hoped to be awarded more contracts to build subsequent miles along the railroad, destroying all evidence of the cholera outbreak was necessary to insure his future success.


The present day Duffy’s Cut Project story begins in 2002 on the green at Immaculata University. Bill and a colleague look out the window and see three light orbs in the shape of men. Thinking they were some sort of neon art sculpture, the men were surprised when they went outside and they had disappeared. Were they ghosts?

This was also the same year that Bill and his twin, Rev Frank Watson, discovered a file they found after their grandfather died. Their grandfather was Joseph Tripician, who worked as director of personnel for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was interested in local history so when the railroad was closing, he secured a number of files including secret documents which he continued to help keep ‘buried.’

On the first page of the thirty-two page file was an eye-witness account of a railroad walker back in 1833, who saw three light orbs in the valley below the track. He believed them to spirit figures moving above their graves.  This was 2002, the first time the Watson’s had ever heard of Duffy’s Cut.

Upon examining the documents, evidence of a massive cover-up began to emerge. Bill had only been awarded his position in Immaculata’s History department a year or two earlier. He immediately connected the three figures to those he saw two years earlier on the green. Everything seemed to be lining up. He decided he must dedicate himself to solving the Duffy’s Cut mystery.


The Watson brothers and their colleagues, John Antes, and Earl Schandelmeir, launched a dedicated quest to find the remains. For seven years Dr. Watson and his history students searched and dug, with little success. But finally, technology evolved to produce the tools that would reveal the site of the lost Irishmen.


The location of the remains of the murdered seven were finally found by Lancaster’s Dr. Tim Bechtel, who has a sub-surfacing geophysics business called Enviroscan.  His portable machine pulses penetrating radar into the earth to find things that don’t belong. As the current spreads out under the surface, the machine measures the resistance of the flow of electricity. The radar picks up air pockets, spaces between the soil, ie. Where a coffin may have collapsed and a human being decomposed.

The students that are with Bill and I today as we walk the area around Duffy’s Cut, are a core group who have been coming to this site for years to work with their professor. Many of these young adults are history or political science majors. They have dedicated nearly every Friday and many weekends to digging. The students glean their passion and energy from their great teacher, ‘Doc’ Watson, whose enthusiasm for the project is infectious.

I try to imagine these students coming across a skeleton lying in the dirt, gently brushing off the soil with small brushes and the impact that must have had on them. Or later finding a clay pipe in the dirt with the words “Erin go Braugh,” carved in it, knowing it is the oldest known artifact of Irish descent in America. One of these boys may have smoked from it days before their death. This is life changing, for anyone, but especially for the young and impressionable.


Their work here at Duffy’s Cut kindled a deep love of history and anthropology in them. Some changed their major to these subjects, some went on to pursue a Masters in Anthropology. The ongoing work with the project and the potential to investigate other mass graves also prompted the History Department to create a minor in Industrial Anthropology at Immaculata.

A speeding commuter whizzes by and pulls my eyes towards the earthen wall or fill. Under it, a culvert allows a tiny stream to pass. This is the same source of the Irishmen’s drinking water 180 years ago and perhaps, the source of contamination that started the initial outbreak of cholera.

Bill takes me over to the area where the bones were found, which actually contained the remains of a woman, who was believed to have been a washerwoman for the camp. A colossal stump of a popular tree lies by its side.

While the sevens victims’ bones were being excavated, it became obvious that his giant old tree needed to be brought down in order to recover the remaining bones. Bones were found intertwined in the trees’ fingery roots. Because of the earth’s disturbance of the burial and the fact that the decaying bodies decomposed into organic matter, superb growing conditions were present. The actual organic compound that comprised the victims now lives in that huge tree. The tree began growing ten years after the burial.

“Four of the murdered seven fed this tree root,” Bill tells me. “If we chipped away at the soil that clings to the wood, we’d probably still find bits of bone,” he continues. “There are men in there,” he says as he stabs at the soil. I stare at the gnarled tree roots of the massive old poplar tree and try to grasp the fact that parts of their bodies actually helped to nourish and grow this tree.

Joe Devoy, owner of Lancaster’s Tellus 360, a store which takes recycled wood and repurposes it into useful and beautiful objects, saw the treasure and importance of this tree’s wood. Being an Irish-American himself, he was easily drawn into the Duffy’s Cut Project. He organized the removal of the popular tree sections which were transported to his woodshop in Lancaster. In the Irish boys’ honor, the tree will be dried, sawn into boards and crafted into 57 musical instruments- guitars, fiddles, and mandolins, to sing out the Duffy Cut story. The poplar tree is becoming a metaphor of death and renewed life.

The story of the seven Irish victims whose remains have been recovered at Duffy’s Cut,is told at immaculata’s Gabriele Library, where a museum is dedicated to the project. It houses over two thousand artifacts (non-human remains) which have been unearthed. The museum is open to the public and available for viewing anytime the library is open (ask for the key).

Evidence of brute impact on the entire seven’s skulls, as well as coffin nails, pot belly stove parts, shoe buckles, Irish clay pipes etc. can be viewed and interpreted. Around the bones of John Roddy, over 140 coffin nails were found in the slope; others had close to 200 to seal the lid.

“This was to ensure that it would not have been opened by those doing the burial, ie. the men who were still alive,” explains Dr. Watson. The bones were studied and identified at the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Department under forensics specialist, Janet Monge. She verified that there were no defensive wounds on the remains despite the fact that they were all murdered.

“We suspect that they did not expect the violent attacks that led to their deaths. They were probably gathered up after trying to escape.” This matches the railroad document that sites where men were trying to flee but were forced back by an unnamed agency.” The East Whiteland Horse Company owned the valley as well as Mile 59 and was the local vigilantes.

“Even back in 1832,” Bill explains, “these men would have been in huge trouble had the murders been discovered. They would have been hanged.”

The seven’s remains were interred in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery on March 9th, 2011 in Bala Cynwyd and the proper honor was finally shown. All except one Irish boy, John Ruddy, from rural County Donegal.

Ruddy is the only one who could be presumably identified because he had a strange anatomical malformation in his skull- a missing molar. This was traced to his ancestors back in Ireland today, who also have that same missing molar. DNA testing may prove his lineage and his remains will be flown back to Donegal, Ireland. This discovery was made by a Lancaster forensics dentist, Dr. Matt Patterson, who tells me the best preserved DNA is located in the pulp which can reveal genetic ties to both the person’s parents.

The remaining fifty Duffy’s Cut victims are believed to be buried in a mass grave near the stone monument that sharp-eyed commuters may glimpse as they whiz by. The Project is working with Amtrak to explore further digging up the remaining fifty.


In reality, there are dozens of Duffy’s Cut stories, dozens of mass graves buried across our land. Mass immigrant burial sites are known to exist in other railroad corridors. Dr. Watson and his colleagues remind the world of a very important lesson. And that is what horrors of social inequality and injustice we are capable of inflicting on our fellow man. One hundred and eighty years ago, it was Irish immigrants, today they just hail from other countries like Mexico, etc. People are exploited whether on the railroad of the 19th century or in the migrant fields of the 21st century.


As we prepare to leave the woods, Bill walks me to a nearby flattish spot where the shanty or camp was located, the center of life for the men. Bill takes his shovel and digs around the spot where it was burned to the ground after the last of the victims were disposed of and buried.  He pokes around in the soil and quickly unearths bits of pottery, brushes the dirt off and hands them to me…a small connection to their hard life, a life filled with the shattered hope of a better life. I turn them over in my hands, think about the boys eating their supper off these plates, drinking their spirits from these cups. I can almost hear the valley ringing with the sounds of their fiddle and lively Gaelic singing.

(a version of this appeared in the March/April issue of Pennsylvania Magazine

3 thoughts on “The Mystery of Duffy’s Cut Leave a comment

  1. Sorry Cindy. I meant to forward this to my husband and inadvertently “replied” to you. I truly enjoy your blog and share it with those I believe will enjoy it. Thanks for the great reading and great travels! And it’s wonderful to read about the kids too. It’s a blessing to have great kids. I am grateful every day!

    Sent from my iPhone

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