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Duffy’s Cut

History, News

Duffy’s Cut Memorial 2019

Neither rain, nor rapidly dropping temperatures that changed the rain to snow, could keep away the crowd that gathered Sunday at West Laurel Hill Cemetery to honor the 57 Irish laborers who died at Duffy’s Cut in the summer of 1832. The story of the workers who came from Counties Donegal, Tyrone and Derry to build Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but who were all dead within six weeks of their arrival, is one that has been brought out of the shadows of history by brothers William and Frank Watson. Along with a strong team of volunteers and supporters, they continue to work to recover the bodies of all 57 men and women.

Of the seven that have been reclaimed, two have returned home to Ireland. John Ruddy, from Donegal, is buried in Ardara in a grave donated by Vince Gallagher, and Catherine Burns rests in Clonoe Parish in her home county of Tyrone. Here in West Laurel Hill, all were remembered on the 7th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial.

The tribute included a procession led by the Duffy’s Cut Pipers, the national anthem of the United States and Ireland sung by Vince Gallagher, and remarks by Nancy Goldenberg as president & CEO of West Laurel Hill, William Watson and Frank Watson, Bob McAllister of the Emerald Society of Chester County, Kathy McGee Burns and Frank McDonnell on behalf of the Donegal Society and a poetry reading by author and historian Marita Krivda.

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History, Videos

Video: William & Frank Watson Chronicle the “Massacre at Duffy’s Cut”

“Duffy’s Cut is both a place, and it’s a story. It’s a place about 20 miles west of Philadelphia along the railroad tracks so it’s a physical location, but Duffy’s Cut is also a story. And it’s the story of the death of 57 Irishmen in 1832.” ~ Frank Watson

“It could potentially be the worst mass murder in the history of Pennsylvania if all 57 of these workers died. But it is a mass murder scene whether seven died – whom we have excavated – or all 57 did. In which case if it’s 57, it’s the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history.” ~ William Watson

In their new book, “Massacre at Duffy’s Cut,” William and Frank Watson detail their 15-year odyssey to reclaim the Irish laborers whose lives were cut short and their bodies buried under Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1832. They sat down with Irish Philadelphia in the Duffy’s Cut Museum at Gabriele Library, Immaculata University, where they shared their behind-the-scenes account of not only what happened to the workers, but how their mission began when they became the keepers of a secret file inherited from their grandfather.

Watch the interview, and then come to the Commodore John Barry Arts & Cultural Center (The Irish Center) in Mount Airy on Sunday, December 9, at 3 p.m. for a book signing that will follow a talk and update on what’s next for the dig site. For more information, go to the Facebook Events page here.

For more information on Duffy’s Cut, and to check out “Massacre at Duffy’s Cut,” visit their website.

Genealogy, News, People

A Final Farewell to John Ruddy

Frank and Bill Watson are joined by a third piper at the gravesite in Ardara, Donegal. Photo courtesy of Donegal News.

Frank and Bill Watson are joined by a third piper at the gravesite in Ardara, Donegal. Photo courtesy of Donegal News.

By Harry Walsh in Ardara
Reprinted with permission of the Donegal News

DONEGAL man John Ruddy was buried in Ardara on Saturday afternoon, 181 years after he was believed to have been murdered at Duffy’s Cut, 20 miles west of Philadelphia.

Ruddy, from Inishowen,was among a group of 57 Irish labourers were who sailed from Derry on the John Stamp in June 1832. Within five weeks of arriving, all had perished.

On Saturday afternoon, he was accorded honours denied during his short, cruel life as his remains were interred following a poignant burial ceremony conducted by Canon Austin Laverty, Parish Priest, Ardara.

The casket was carried to its final resting place by Earl Schandelmeier, a Historian at Immaculata University, which was the driving force behind the Duffy’s Cut project, accompanied by three pipers in kilts. They were closely followed by Sadie Ruddy, who lives in Portnoo, and her first cousins James and Bernard Ruddy from Quigley’s Point, all three of whom are direct descendants of the deceased.

Canon Laverty told those assembled that “this brings a form of closure to a sad and shameful chapter of American history and re-enforced how desperate times were in this country at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”

Looking out across the graveyard towards Loughros Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, Canon Laverty noted that Slieve Tooey – visible in the distance – was possibly the last piece of Ireland that Mr Ruddy and those who left Derry in 1832 saw through the mists of their tears.

“In a strange way it’s appropriate that his mortal remains are laid here to rest in his native county,” Canon Laverty said.

Prof William Watson of the history department at Immaculata who spearheaded the research and excavation with his twin brother Frank Watson were then joined be fellow piper Tom Connors to play Amazing Grace.

Speaking afterwards a clearly emotional Mr Schandelmeier said that he had been overwhelmed by the whole project.

“This has gone from being something which was on a piece of paper, and time spent looking through the archives, to finding a guy whom we are able to bring back to his homeland today.

“Lots of things happened to allow that to happen – it was almost synchronisity. Things were lined up and it was as if he was almost delivered to us.

“The body we excavated had a one in a million anomaly. There are not a million Ruddys and there are not a million people in Donegal, and here’s a Ruddy and he has it and two of his aunts have it and they also have a story in the family of a guy coming over to the US in the 1830s, working on the rail road and vanishing. What are the odds of that? How could it not be him? It’s been truly miraculous and, as a result, today was incredibly moving,” he said.

“This is history which has been brought to life. It’s not just black and white any more. He has a face, teeth, we’ve uncovered the instruments he ate with – he’s a human being.

“Sad events like this happen every day all over the world. People die unnecessarily – their memories are lost and no one cares. It’s great to be able to give him some dignity – if it’s 181 years ago or if it was yesterday,” he said.

Philadelphia-Columbus railway

The story starts in 1828, when Irishman Philip Duffy won a contract to build Mile 59 of the Philadelphia-Columbus railway.

Mr Duffy enlisted “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin”, according to an 1829 newspaper article. The men moved heavy clay, stones and shale from the top of a hill to an adjacent valley, hence the name Duffy’s Cut. They were poor, Irish-speaking Catholics who would have been paid “$10 to $15 a month, with a miserable lodging, and a large allowance for whiskey” according to a British historian of the time.

Cholera broke out and the workers’ camp was quarantined. Some escaped but returned because the surrounding affluent Scotch-Irish population refused to help them.

“Of all the places in the world, this was the worst place for them to be,” Prof Watson explained. “They were expendable. Because they were recently arrived Irishmen, they were assumed to be the cause of the epidemic. It was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish prejudice; white-on-white racism.”

Prof Watson learned of the story in 2002, when he found a secret report that had been kept by his grandfather, an assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Rail road.
In 2005, excavations near the Amtrak line unearthed old glass buttons, crockery and a clay pipe stamped with an Irish harp – “the oldest example of Irish nationalism in North America”, says Prof Watson.

Four more years passed, and the project enlisted the help of a geologist armed with a ground-penetrating radar. The first remains, those of John Ruddy, were discovered.

Mr Ruddy never grew an upper right first molar, a rare genetic defect. When the find was reported in Ireland, two dozen members of the Ruddy family contacted Watson. One of them, William Ruddy, travelled to Pennsylvania to give a DNA sample.

Prof Watson says “hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands” of Irishmen died building US rail roads and canals.

“The doors are opening slowly” to excavate the bones of the other 51 victims from Amtrak and private property at Duffy’s Cut.

Immaculata University is establishing an institute to explore at least six more mass graves in Pennsylvania and neighbouring states.

“The industrial revolution was made by Irishmen,” says Prof Watson. “Nobody talks about the toll it took on them. We’re looking at the seamy underside of the industrial revolution.”

See the story as it originally appeared in The Donegal News.

Special thanks to Sean Feeny of The Donegal News.

Genealogy, History, News

Rest in Peace: John Ruddy

Professor Bill Watson and Vince Gallagher. Gallagher donated the plot in the Donegal cemetery where John Ruddy will be buried on March 2.

Professor Bill Watson and Vince Gallagher. Gallagher donated the plot in the Donegal cemetery where John Ruddy will be buried on March 2.

The remains of John Ruddy, one of 57 Irish railroad workers who died at an area in Malvern known as Duffy’s Cut, will be buried on Saturday, March 2 in a donated grave at Holy Family Church in Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland—181 years after his death.

The remains were shipped to Ireland several weeks ago, said Professor William Watson of Immaculata University who, with his twin brother, Frank, discovered the remains of the victims who may have died of cholera—or were murdered by vigilantes—near a railroad embankment in the woods in East Whiteland Township.

Vincent Gallagher, a businessman and president of the Commodore Barry Club (The Irish Center) in Philadelphia, donated the grave in his family plot. The Watsons had hoped that Ruddy, who was believed to be an 18-year-old from Inishowen, would be buried near his own family, but the DNA tests on the body and a possible family member in Ireland have not been completed.

The remains of six other victims, including one woman, that were recovered from the site were buried in a donated grave in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion last fall. Skulls of several of those victims exhibited signs of violence and a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist confirmed that one was shot through the head. The Watsons have speculated that the seven may have tried to leave the site after the cholera outbreak and were killed to keep them from spreading the disease, which is caused by a bacteria and is usually spread by consuming contaminated food or water.

Work is expected to begin this spring to unearth the rest of the Duffy’s Cut victims who are buried much deeper than the first seven and close to the Amtrak railroad tracks. Following the intervention of US Sen. Robert Casey and other legislators, Amtrak, which originally told the Watsons that it was too dangerous to dig up the remains so close to the tracks, finally gave permission.

The Smithsonian Channel will be airing the documentary, “The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut,” on March 7 at 8 AM and 5 PM, and again on March 15 at 10 PM.

How to Be Irish in Philly

How To Be Irish In Philadelphia This Week

Shannon and Matt Heaton

Less than a month away. That’s right. St. Paddy’s Day—and all the local St. Paddy’s day activities are less than a month away. In fact, this week many pubs are celebrating “St. Practice Day” to help folks get ready for March 17, commonly known among Irish bartenders as “amateur night.”

Well, there’s plenty to do to get yourself conditioned. On Friday night, for example, Tir Na Nog in Center City is hosting the Bogside Rogues for “The Great Guinness Toast,” an international more-or-less simultaneous quaffing of the brown stuff.

And the 19th annual Greater Philadelphia Mid-Winter Scottish and Irish Festival gets underway in Valley Forge with a concert featuring the Scottish tribal drum group Albannach and The Dubliners, as well as locals Jamison and The Hooligans. This one runs all weekend and features everything from swordplay to whiskey tasting, with a whole lot of music and dance thrown in. There are people who need to practice for this event too. Not us—we’ll be there all weekend and you can see how we handle all things Celtic.

Direct from Boston, Irish duo Matt and Shannon Heaton will be making their magic at Trinity Episcopal Church in Swarthmore on Friday night.

And you have your choice of two great Irish plays – Terminus at the Zellerbach Theatre and The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Plays and Players. Better yet, go to both. If you buy tickets for two or more plays in Philadelphia’s Irish Theatre Festival, you get  a 20 percent discount. Go to the Philadelphia Theater Alliance website to order.

On Sunday, Dr. William Watson, director of the Duffy’s Cut Project in Malvern, where the bodies of 19th century Irish immigrants have been unearthed, will be speaking at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Glenside.

At 12:30 PM on Sunday, Irish Network-Philadelphia is holding a public meeting at the Irish Immigration Center in Upper Darby to discuss future events. Tea, coffee and sandwiches will be provided. If you’re not a member of this networking group, here’s your chance to join and. . .network.

There are still a few spaces in a one-day course at Temple University-Fort Washington on Celtic Christianity, which will be held on Wednesday evening. Dr. Ken Ostrand will take you from Irish Christianity before Saint Patrick to today, and introduce you to a variety of Irish saints (some with amazing powers).

Big day next Friday. The Irish American Business Chamber and Network Ambassador’s Awards Luncheon will honor Aramark Corp, the Rev. Timothy R. Lannon, outgoing president of St. Joseph’s University, and businessman James Hasson and his wife, Sarah. The event will take place at the Crystal Tea Room at 100 East Penn Square in Center City. Irish Ambassador to the US, Michael Collins, will make the presentations.

Later that evening, Collins along with Consul General Noel Kilkenny will be attending a fundraiser for the Duffy’s Cut Project. Money raised at the event, which will feature the music of Paul Moore and Friends, will be used to cover the costs of continued DNA tests on the remains found at the archeological site and to erect a memorial to the dead at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls.

The details for all these events and more are on our amazing calendar. If you have an event you want to publicize, you can add it to our calendar yourself or email me at


Listening to the Voices

Professor Earl Schandelmeier directs the investigation at the Duffy's Cut site.

Professor Earl Schandelmeier directs the investigation at the Duffy's Cut site.

By S.E. Burns

 “What is the point?” was what I clearly heard when I asked if a spirit would pull my hair. I remember looking at Earl, who remained his usual calm, cool and collected self.

I was at the Duffy’s Cut archeological dig in Malvern with Professor Earl Schandelmeier III, one of the four authors of  “The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut,” the remarkable story of how two local men discovered the remains of a group of early 19th century Irish immigrants who died—or were murdered—during a cholera epidemic. While the term “ghosts” was used loosely in the early days of the investigation, it takes on a more specific meaning now. Earl focuses on what are called EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) at the site, recording an astounding number of voices that appear to be from another realm.  He has been one of the four primary researchers on the Duffy’s Cut project over the last eight years.

 In 2002, as an undergraduate history major at Immaculata University, he was invited by Dr. William Watson, and Professor John Ahtes to help with some primary research (very early source and facts checking). “Normally I am not one to volunteer, but for some reason, this one time, I immediately said that I would do it.” He set off the next day for the Chester County Historical Society, located two articles, and made one phone call back to Dr. Watson; and has not looked back since. In 2006 they applied for a non-profit status and the Duffy’s Cut Project was born. 

Intrigued by EVP’s myself, I found it very fitting to talk to Earl about “these spooky voices from beyond” this week as Halloween is quickly approaching.

Q. What are your religious beliefs?

A. Tibetan Buddhism with western influences. My entire life I was raised as a Presbyterian, (hardcore mother and grandmother while father was as equally atheistic) but I always knew, felt differently. From past lives, to divinity, the spirit world, to karma, I later learned that my intuitive beliefs were fully and completely encompassed within a religious philosophy that I had known  nothing about, had never been exposed to, and that were diametrically opposed to everything my family believed.

Essentially, the Dalai Lama teaches, (and this point is extremely important in my own life) that the Buddhist should not proselytize, but instead should work in guiding others to seek personal enlightenment in their own, personal way. We should act as an example to all people, of all religions, exemplifying the love and compassion necessary to reach Nirvana. Each person has their own path to walk, all I can do is attempt to personify the love and compassion I wish to see in the world which of course is much easier said than done. 

Q.  Are there any conflicting issues with what you are doing at Duffy’s Cut and your belief system?

A.  No, in fact just the opposite. I like to think that what we are doing, uncovering the mystery of what happened to the men who died at Duffy’s Cut, shedding light on potential murders of some of the men, telling their story to the world for the first time, actually personifies my belief system. I have worked in this project for so long because I feel a great compassion for the men; a need to help preserve their memories, but also in a spiritual sense, bring them peace and help them move on. 

Q. What is an EVP, and how does it work?

A.  EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomena – essentially the voice or communications believed to be coming from the spirit realm. Recently, I have been using a Franks Box, or specially designed radio frequency scanning device, that is thought to pick up and record these communications. The technology is relatively new, ten years old, and works on the following premise:  By taking a radio receiver and using it to continuously scan or sweep either AM or FM frequencies, and mixing in the white noise, the spirits can manipulate and use this energy as sort of a “telephone” to our world.

Of course as you scan the radio frequencies you expect to hear any number of assorted words, and sometimes even phrases coming through, however, what we look for is distinctly different than those radio interruptions. To be considered  EVP’s the communication must come through over top of the white noise and radio, or fall above or below the white noise and radio bands. In each case there is a clear and distinctive difference – the argument between skeptic and believer in this new technology lies in whether this distinction actually signifies contact with the spirit realm. 

Q.  Do the voices answer your questions? If so, are any of them not related to the deaths of Duffy’s Cut?

 A. Yes, during several sessions conducted near the site we have had some very strange answers recorded with the Franks Box EVP device. We have had answers seeming to come both from men who died there in the summer of 1832, but also from a number of other places and time periods as well. It is difficult to isolate any one particular entity, so we are often at the mercy of the entity that is the strongest (having the most energy to expend speaking with us) and is also willing to speak.

To get these EVP’s I like to compare it with deep sea fishing. You must troll with questions (often focused on emotion) until you get a lucid/sentient response. Then you ask follow up questions until you lose contact. When you do make contact it becomes like opening a door to a crowded dance club – you scream out questions, one or more people hear you, some respond, some seem to want to pass the message on to someone you may have asked for, while others  bully their way forward and won’t allow anyone else to speak. There are also EVP’s that seem to be less sentient, lost in the moment of their death, and can recall nothing but those final minutes of their life. All of their responses are narrowly focused and specific; they are also most easily enticed to come forward through emotion.

There can be very long periods of silence between the doors being opened (contact), sometimes five minutes, sometimes an hour. Contact can last for a few seconds, to as long as ten minutes in some cases – with specific individuals returning over multiple sessions (these sessions must be offset by at least three hours). Finally, there is almost always a distinct lifting and clearing feeling at the end of contact. 

Q. What are three of the most interesting words or messages you have recorded?

A.  In my experience with the Franks Box, we invited the Chester County Paranormal Society to investigate the site; they have some of the clearest EVP’s I have ever heard there.

For example:  When asked to curse – “F-ing whore.” Naming one of the Duffy’s Cut team members – “Dr. Watson.” Where are you? – “The Abyss.”

In addition, when asked what they thought of the contractor they worked for, Mr. Duffy, – “The devil.” 

Q. Has an EVP or anything else paranormal ever frightened you at the site?

A. I have never been frightened by anything paranormal at the Duffy’s Cut site. I have has other experiences that have left a deep- seated  sense of respect for what I am searching for, a bit of a healthy trepidation, if you will, but those stories are for another time. 

Q.  Is there a particular question that you are apprehensive about asking during an EVP session?

A.  No, although I think that one must be careful not to call forth anything that might have malicious intent, malevolent, something “evil”, or even “demonic” in nature. 

Q. What do your family and friends think of your involvement with the afterlife?

A. My wife is interested, she will listen to the final results, the EVP’s, video, but does not physically participate in my investigations. My son is 13, and as such, I keep him isolated from most of my work with the paranormal. I keep only a few close friends, and they are open minded and very interested. It would be extremely difficult to tolerate me with a closed mind!


An Echo Through Time: The Lost Irishmen of Duffy’s Cut

A hole in the back of this skull is being carefully examined.

A hole in the back of this skull is being carefully examined.

On April 13, 1832, the John Stamp set sail from Ireland bound for Philadelphia. Among the passengers were a group of young laborers, men between the ages of 18 and 30, set to work upon a track of railroad known as mile 59 in what is now Malvern, PA. Within two months of their June 23rd arrival, they would all be dead, buried anonymously and without ceremony, in a mass grave in Duffy’s Cut.

For over 170 years, these men, 57 in all, were lost to history.

Local archeologists Frank and Bill Watson, along with their dedicated team, have found them.

It’s a still unfolding tale ready-made for “History’s Mysteries:” Irish immigrants, prejudice, cholera, murder, cover-ups, secret files, ghosts and 21st century technology.

My visit to the Duffy’s Cut site came just a little over a month after the discovery of two more bodies, identified as Skeleton #6 and Skeleton #7. This is exciting stuff, with #6 almost in its entirety, only the right arm and ribs lost to decay. They know the man was very tall for his day, about 5’8, and around 30 years of age. His wisdom tooth, which was intact, will be sent off for DNA testing.

Skeleton #7, on the other hand, was a much shorter man, around 5’2. But his skull tells a very big story: the crack shows he was hit on the head, and there’s a hole in the back that is being examined very carefully by Janet Monge, Adjunct Associate Professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Archeology Department. It’s presumed to be a bullet hole.

What has become increasingly clear is that these Irish immigrants did not all die from the cholera that attacked them; at least some of them were murdered because of fears they would spread the disease, and because they were considered dispensable.

Cholera in the 1830’s was a source of mass hysteria in communities. Its cause was unknown then, but it would have been communicated by contaminated drinking water. It killed about 30-40% of its victims, so the 100% mortality rate at Duffy’s Cut has always been suspect.

The surrounding community would have been afraid of the outbreak spreading from the railroad workers to the general population, and the men would have been quarantined to their site. They would have been turned away from any homes they approached for help.

However, it’s known that they did receive care from a local blacksmith, tentatively identified as MalachI Harris, and four nuns from The Sisters of Charity.

Seven men attempted to escape from the site, but were hunted down by The East Whiteland Horse Company, a group of farmers acting as local vigilantes whose mission was “to track down horse thieves and other breakers of the law.” Those seven men are the only ones to have been provided coffins before their burials; coffins that have mostly disintegrated due to time and the particular composition of the local soil.

“When we first started the dig at the site, there was no sign of life here. Nothing. And now, living creatures are coming back,” Frank Watson, who has a Ph.D. in historical theology, said as we watched a beautiful blue butterfly hovering for several minutes, flitting from one place to another almost as a guide to what discovery will be made next.

It was the file that Frank inherited from his grandfather, Joseph F. Tripician, that was the key to discovering these men. “Our grandfather was the personal assistant to four different presidents at what was The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. He was an immigrant from Sicily, who worked his way up.“

Since the 1830’s folktales and ghost stories had circulated locally about the deaths of the railroad workers. One tale, recorded in an area newspaper in the 1880’s, told of a man walking by Duffy’s Cut in the fall of 1832 (on the way home from the pub), who saw Irishmen dancing on graves. In 1909, there was a railroad marker placed there, but without details.

In other words, an urban legend with no corroborating evidence.

Except for the detailed documents that were hidden away in the secret file kept by each of the presidents of the P&C Railroad, amassed and passed down over a period of 100 plus years. The file began with information from the time of Philip Duffy, the man who was charged with the building of the railroad, and the man who was cited in an 1829 issue of the “American Republic” as “prosecuting his Herculean task with a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin.”

These documents revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of a mass unmarked grave along mile 59.

The last president that Tripician worked for was Martin W. Clement, who died in 1966. It was Clement who had the 1909 marker erected at the site, and who actively worked to acquire a lot of the information stored in the file. In 1968, when the railroad was bought out two years after Clement‘s death, Tripician ended up with the file. And after his death, his grandson Frank Watson inherited it.

In 2002, Frank and his brother Bill, who is Professor and Chair of History at Immaculata University, were finally sorting through their grandfather’s papers, and Frank pulled out the file. Reading through it, they were struck by what they found there, including the account of the dancing Irish ghosts; two years before, Bill and his piping buddy Thomas Conner had experienced the same phenomenon on the campus of Immaculata College. The college is located about one mile west of Duffy’s Cut.

That was the start of The Project. They began assembling a team that now includes geophysicist Timothy Bechtel and forensic dentist Dr. Matt Patterson. Dr. Janet Monge and Samantha Cox from The University of Pennsylvania are key to “cracking the whip in terms of archaeology.” Immaculata College has supported them, even providing the insurance and a grant this summer that has paid for new tools and food for the volunteer crew. Norman Goodman, a former deputy coroner from Chester County, has pledged to help obtain death certificates for the men. East Whiteland Township, as well as the residents of the development surrounding Duffy’s Cut, have all been cooperative. Former students like Robert Frank, Patrick Barry (Frank and Barry found the first bone) and Earl Schandelmier have stayed with the project beyond graduation from Immaculata.

As the momentum has built over the past few years, following the initial discovery of artifacts like a Derry pipe stem and a bowl marked with a harp flag and the words “Flag of Ireland,” the story has garnered international attention. Tile Films in Dublin began filming the dig, and when the documentary aired on RTE in 2007, it was one of the highest rated programs in Irish history. They sold the rights to the Smithsonian for broadcast in the U.S., and continue to film as the story unfolds. They were onsite when Skeletons #6 & #7 were uncovered.

“The story of Duffy’s Cut has gathered a huge amount of interest in Ireland,“ Frank explained. “We’ve done a lot of radio interviews. “

In fact, it was because of one of the radio interviews that the body of John Ruddy was able to be positively identified. He was the first man discovered, in March of 2009, and with a very distinctive dental characteristic: he was missing his right front molar. Missing in the sense that he never had one. After hearing about the genetic quirk on the radio, members of the Ruddy family still living in County Donegal (where the ship’s manifesto revealed John had been from) contacted the Watsons and told them that many members of their family are also missing their right front molar. And, they offered to pay for their DNA testing in order to provide a definitive match.

The fascination that Duffy’s Cut holds is in large part due to the sense of a great injustice finally being righted. According to information revealed in the file, the extreme lengths that the railroad company went to in suppressing the story continued for well over a century. In 1927, local reporter Royal Shunk sent a letter to a clerk at the railroad thanking him for the loan of a file in conjunction with an article Shunk was writing for a local paper. The story never appeared, most likely suppressed when higher-ups got wind of it.

A diary kept by the daughter of local militiaman and 1832 local cholera victim, Lt. William Ogden, was noted in the file as having information pertaining to the death of the men. The diary disappeared sometime after the death of the last sister in 1913.

As recently as four years ago, an unofficial and unauthorized visitor to the site tried to convince the Watsons that they didn’t have the proper authorization to continue with their excavation. Completely untrue, as the brothers have gone to extraordinary lengths to insure that every i is dotted, and every t is crossed.

So, when Christy Moore recorded the song “Duffy’s Cut” written by Wally Page and Tony Boylan, on his 2009 album, “Listen,” Frank Watson sent him a message telling him how much the song meant.

The men, who were once victims of the kind of injustice that history is peppered with, are now the stuff of legend. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s an amends that could never have been made without the advances in technology available today, as well as the unique set of circumstances that put The Duffy’s Cut file in the hands of the Watson Brothers.

As Bill Watson said, “It’s like an echo through time. There was something so right about removing those men. They weren’t meant to die here.”


Murder Most Foul

Duffy's Cut

Irish Ambassador Michael Collins and his wife, Marie, look at the remains of 18-year-old John Ruddy with Duffy's Cut Project managers Dr. William Watson and the Rev. Dr. Frank Watson.

He was 18 years old. He’d come to Pennsylvania from Inishowen, County Donegal, Ireland, on the ship, the John Stamp, with a box that contained all his earthly possessions. He had been hired by a railroad contractor named Phillip Duffy to help lay a stretch of railroad tracks (known as mile 59) through densely wooded hills and ravines near Malvern. Two months after he arrived, he was dead. No one alive today remembers John Ruddy. But 177 years after his death, his bones are finally telling his story.

Ruddy was one of 57 Irish railroad workers who died in 1832 during a cholera epidemic. The men were not given medical help and some historians—notably William Watson, PhD, head of the history department at Immaculata University—suspected at least some of the men had been murdered to keep them from spreading the deadly disease. For the past six years, Watson, his twin brother, the Rev. Dr. Frank Watson, and a team of archeologists, historians, anthropologists, and students, have been sifting through the dirt at the site, now called Duffy’s Cut, where last March they found the first human remains.

The unfused skull with its zig-zag fault line told forensic anthropologists that the body was that of a teenager. When the Watsons looked at the manifest of the John Stamp, which brought many of the workers from Donegal, Derry, and Tyrone to Philadelphia, there was only one teenager—John Ruddy. The small indentation in the top of the skull and the larger hole in the forehead in which a rock had been wedged told the anthropologists that the young man had likely not died of cholera, but had been murdered, his body dumped from a sled into a shallow makeshift grave where he lay sprawled for almost two centuries. Pieces of the sled were found with him. Suddenly, their archeological dig had become a crime scene.

“For us, seeing this was completely heartbreaking,” says Frank Watson. But also exciting: They were witnessing an old folk legend come alive.

“This is an urban legend,” said Bill Watson, surveying the bones he had placed carefully on a table near his office last week, arranged so they could be viewed by Irish Ambassador Michael Collins and his wife, Marie, who were driving up from Washington just to see them.

This urban ghost story got its start 177 years ago with the first account of “ghosts dancing on their graves” reported by a local passing by the site. It continued, with some strange synchronicity, with Watson, who may have seen the ghosts of Duffy’s Cut himself—three strange neon figures not 10 feet from him, there and then gone. If there are ghosts, appearing to Watson was a serendipitous choice on their part. His Irish-American family has a connection to Duffy’s Cut.

The Watsons’ grandfather worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After his death, their grandmother entrusted to Frank some papers he’d left, detailing the initial efforts of the president of the railroad to have a memorial erected to the memory of the dead workers and then, inexplicably, his cover-up of the entire incident. After Bill’s ghostly sighting, Frank remembered the papers, and they began their tireless effort to uncover—both literally and figuratively—the truth about what happened to those 57 men.

It was also wise of Duffy’s Cut’s ghosts to bide their time. It was not only unlikely that anyone would have stumbled upon their mass grave (“It’s the valley that time forgot,” says Frank. “It’s useless for farming or raising animals. It’s a valley. It’s hard getting up and out of it”), but they chose to reveal themselves in the era of forensic science. John Ruddy’s teeth are “in good shape,” according to the forensic dentist who examined them. They are likely to yield a good sample of DNA that can be matched to living descendants.

The forensic scientists have already started to tell the story of the teenaged John Ruddy, says Frank Watson. “They know from his bones that he was heavily muscled and probably malnourished,” he says. “He stood about five-feet-six. We have his ear canal and they know that he had a lot of ear infections. He’s also missing a right front molar. It wasn’t knocked or taken out—it was never there.”

That last tiny fact stirred something in a family named Ruddy in Donegal. After reading about the findings, they contacted the Watsons to offer them their DNA for matching. “Many members of their family are also missing that right front molar,” he says.

The Watsons have no intention of keeping the bones for display, so if they’re able to find a DNA match, John Ruddy may finally find his way home again.