Long-forgotten dead of Duffy's Cut get proper rites

The remains of the Duffy's Cut workers are given a Christian burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. They were among 57 Irish immigrants buried in a mass grave in Chester County, dead from disease and possibly murder, say researchers.
The remains of the Duffy's Cut workers are given a Christian burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. They were among 57 Irish immigrants buried in a mass grave in Chester County, dead from disease and possibly murder, say researchers. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 10, 2012

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.

"My grandfather was born in 1895 and came over from Ireland when he was 17," said Mary Murtagh, 54, of Newtown Square, who stood next to the open grave site and came to pay her respects. "He worked for the railroad. This could have been him."

Murtagh was one of about 500 people who came to the graveside service to mark the burial of four men and a washerwoman who tended them. Their bones were unearthed as part of the archaeological research near the location of the men's shanty at Sugartown and King Roads in Chester County.

The remains of the rest of the workers are in a mass grave that was too close to the railroad tracks to disturb, researchers say.

But the five pine caskets containing the bones of the men and woman served as representatives of the other workers who met a similar fate.

"It's absolutely a fulfillment of a dream that we had for the duration of this project to see that justice was done for these men and a woman," said William Watson, chair of the history department at Immaculata University, who led the project with his twin brother, the Rev. Frank Watson, also a historian.

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.

Researchers excavated the area and found bones, buttons, a knife, smoking pipes with an Irish flag, and coffin nails. A story of U.S. industry and the immigrants who contributed to it was pieced together.

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.

Before the funeral service, attendees waited in line to enter the Bringhurst Funeral Home chapel at the cemetery. Inside was a display of nails, buttons, pieces of china, and other artifacts unearthed in the excavation.

Next to the artifacts was a table with the five small caskets. Each had a rose on top - yellow for the men, white for the woman.

At 2 p.m., the caskets were carried to the grave site by students who had worked on the project. Clergy, an honor guard, politicians, flag-bearers, and a bagpipe troop led by the Watson brothers in full-kilt regalia also processed to a spot near the cross, which was cut in Ireland and finished in New Jersey.

Kevin Conmy, deputy chief of mission at the Irish Embassy in Washington, called the day an important one "for the millions of Irish people who have made this leap [to immigrate] over the centuries."

Patrick Nulty, 13, a seventh grader from St. Patrick School in Malvern, called it "pretty cool" that the researchers took the time "to figure this out."

But the funeral is not the end. There is still research under way.

One body unearthed at the site was not buried Friday. The remains of John Ruddy, an 18-year-old worker, were identified through ship records and a dental anomaly - a missing upper molar that runs in the family. The remains will be shipped to Ireland for burial in his family's cemetery plot.

Researchers also are continuing to investigate the history of similar work crews buried in Downingtown and Spring City.

But for the 56 - and the woman who served them - the honors denied them in life have finally been given, the Watson brothers said.

"It's a story that people can relate to," Frank Watson said. "Immigrants come to America for a new life. They get mistreated. They die and their story is forgotten. But in this case," Watson said, "we're able to remember."


Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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