Secrets of the Dead

Full Episode

Secrets of The Dead: Death on the Railroad

In the rural Pennsylvania countryside of 1832, Irish immigrants worked to build one of America’s earliest railroads.

The men were constructing mile 59 of what would become the Philadelphia-to-Pittsburg mainline, at a site that became known as Duffy’s Cut.

They left Ireland, a land ravaged by famine, disease and violence, in hopes of a new life. But, within weeks they would all be dead, their bodies buried in an unmarked grave.

What happened to these men has remained a mystery for more than 180 years. Their disappearance covered up by powerful forces.

Now, a chance discovery by twin brothers Bill and Frank Watson has exposed this forgotten secret.

Our guys unfortunately walked out into a maelstrom and they became cannon fodder of the industrial revolution.

It’s a story that reveals a dark chapter in American history.

Remembering this story is important because its a matter of justice its a matter of doing what is right with one heritage and ones history. And for us in the US its important to tell this story, its important to remember those who have given up their lives to help build up this country.

The Watsons teamed up with other historians and scientists to uncover to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of these missing Irish railroad workers.

FRANK – Is that a bullet hole. Oh my goodness.

SAM – it looks like Trauma

Using a combination of modern forensic science and old fashioned detective work they searched for the true story behind Death on the Railroad.


In 1832, tens of thousands of young Irish men and women fled Ireland the United States.

They went in search of the American dream. Fifty-seven Irish laborers were among them, departing from the port of Derry in northwest Ireland for an 8 week journey across the Atlantic to Philadelphia.

Working on a railroad was the first step in their quest for a better life. But a silent killer stalked their tracks—cholera.

Just six weeks after their arrival, all 57men were dead and their untimely deaths became the stuff of ghost stories and legends.

The discovery of a mysterious file detailed how the Irish immigrants were hired to work on of one of America's earliest railroads.

It also revealed that when the men died, the railroad went to great lengths to keep the men’s deaths secret. Just what happened to these men was lost to history.

Twin brothers Frank and Bill Watson grew up with the railroad.

Dr. Rev. Frank Watson
My grandfather had told stories to us stories of the RR from when I was a little boy, from when my brother and I were kids we grew up with the RR as part of our family story.

Prof. Bill Watson
This was something that we knew from the very nature of the file was not meant to get out into the public.

After he died, they found this file hidden among their grandfather’s papers.

It was never supposed to see the light of day.

Frank – That actually come in right on the first page the first document. “It is not desired to let it get out of the office”. We came upon a letter from George Doherty and in this letter his father told him the bodies buried where they were making the fill. And for us that became the key.

Determined to find out more, the brothers were joined by two fellow academics, John Ahtes and Earl Schandelmeier.

They had two tasks: verify the details in the file and find the location of Duffy's Cut.

Through their research, they discovered the railroad hired an Irish contractor, Philip Duffy, to build mile 59 of what would become the Philadelphia-to-Pittsburg mainline.

Earl Schandelmeier,
Philip Duffy is a very interesting character, he is a contractor, he is a business man, he is an immigrant to the United States from Ireland, he is a good guy, he's bringing a lot of work to his fellow Irishmen. At the same time he is a villain.

Duffy had the largest contract on the railroad, worth more than half a million dollars today. It was 3 times more expensive than any other mile of railroad.

John Ahtes
We found a very chilling official report which said that Duffy had been very unfortunate because half his crew had died of cholera, not that they had been unfortunate but Duffy had been because it slowed down the progress of his work and required the RR to pay him more money.

As they delved into the history of Duffy's Cut, questions about what happened to the workers piled up. The file revealed that like so many other nameless immigrants, the men were buried in a mass grave.

But how did they die? Was it cholera? Or something more sinister?

The team set out to find the location where the men worked.

Using old maps and modern technology Earl Shandelmeier searched the countryside alongside mile 59.

We had three aspects of the project that we were really focusing on. The first was to find the area where they were living, the shanty area, the second was to find the individual graves and third was to find the mass graves. Now in order to do that we need to be able to figure out the topography of the landscape in 1832. What we did then was work from the archives pull maps from the 1832, 1850 and 1870 time period and interlay them with google earth maps today. In doing that and by also going out and walking the landscape taking many thousands of pictures and video we were able to take the landscape as it is and create the way it was in 1832. Essentially we have been able to take seven or eight acres of land and narrow it down to a quarter of an acre so it gave us a finer area to search and sped up the process.

But who were these men who met such a tragic fate?

Searching through the national archives in Philadelphia, the Watson brothers uncovered the name of the ship the men boarded for America.

FRANK – The RR file itself has this to say: “the contractor in early in the summer of 1832 hired employed a large number of Irishmen who had but lately arrived on these shores.”

Bill – From January 1st to Oct 1st 1832 we find one ship coming directly from Ireland with a largely Irish passenger list of laborers and it arrives in Philadelphia on June 23rd 1832 its called the John Stamp.

Frank – We took the ship list and we started doing a genealogical search on the names of the laborers as well as other passenger. We checked census records, death records, we checked marriage records and largely the laborers on board the John Stamp disappear after they arrive in June of 1832.

Bill – what's really important is to remember the people who are listed on this ships list are real human beings. One name that leaps out from this list is John Ruddy, he is 18.

John Ruddy was from Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland. In the days of sailing ships, the crossing was dangerous and could take up to three months. Ruddy knew he would probably never return to his homeland.

FRANK - My brother and I, Bill we both have boys and we can only imagine what it would have been like for their parents to say farewell to them when he came to America to be a laborer in a new land. Its a very poignant thing for us to look at a name and to realize he probably would never see his family again.

Like so many of the 400,000 Irishmen and women who left Ireland for America in the decade after 1828, Ruddy had no other option but to leave his homeland in search of a new life.

Lower Third

Dr. Gordon Kennedy,
Boston University.
In the 1830s Ireland would have been a very divided and very conflicted country. There was very few opportunities for young men in Ireland at that time, if you didn't have land at that period probably the best thing would be to leave the country altogether. There was very little civil job, government jobs weren't open to Catholics. If you didn't work the land or if you didn't work in any industrial outlet which the south of Ireland didn't really have, the North East did in Belfast in the linen industry and shipping industry to a certain degree at that stage but in Southern Ireland or Western Ireland there was little industry and you start to see patterns in the 1810s and 1820s of young men, especially from the west of Ireland away from the urban centers leaving Ireland in droves.

When they arrived in Philadelphia, John Ruddy and the other Irish laborers were probably hired right off the docks by Philip Duffy.

They came to a country that was hostile toward Catholics. With few avenues of employment open to the Irish, they were ripe for exploitation by their fellow countrymen.

Duffy immediately took them out to rural Pennsylvania to build Mile 59 of the railroad. In early August 1832, after six weeks of back-breaking labor, cholera struck the camp.

Within days, all 57 men were dead--their remains buried in a mass grave in the very dirt below the railroad tracks.

Using evidence they uncovered in the railroad file and the archives, the Watson’s were determined to find out the exact spot where the men were buried.

The railroad believed that they were buried in this stone enclosure and he had this built as a memorial to the men around 1909 this was one of the theories, there were 3 other theories in the RR file, the second theory was they were buried in the area of their shanty which was the bottom of the valley below us here. The third theory is the RR fill which was built in 1832 to 1833.

The Duffy's Cut team scoured the valley in search of the mass grave the men were buried in.

They discovered evidence of the men's lives in the valley but it got them no closer to uncovering the remains of the men who died at Duffy's Cut.

The breakthrough came when geophysicist Tim Bechtel joined the team.

Dr. Tim Bechtel,
I am the rocks and dirt detective. I am the guy who can look at the rocks and tell you whether they are fill or native material or where they might have come form. And I am the Geophysicist I have the equipment that can see into the ground and tell us where things are that we might want us to expose.

The landscape has changed dramatically in the nearly 200 years since the railroad was built.

Would it even be possible for Bechtel to find the mass grave site?

The area where they worked stretches over half an acre of the valley, a huge expanse. In hopes of narrowing down possibilities, the team referred to a letter written by James Doherty, whose father was a railroad worker during the same time period.

Frank - What's interesting in this letter, is he was asked where the men were likely buried by his supervisor and the letter says this, “I know that they do not know where the bodies were buried but I heard my father say that they were buried were they were making the fill.”

Tim - making the fill seems to be the key phrase, what does that mean? It could mean generating the fill material the fill meaning the dirt that goes in here or the fill could mean the embankment itself. And as we stood here and talked about it and thought about where someone would be able to see the bodies or the burial we realized that making the fill had to mean they were in the embankment. So we realized this is where we wanted to focus all of our efforts on this fill embankment where they made the fill.

With ground penetrating radar, Bechtel could see the “inside” of the hill.

The team expected to find a large anomaly signifying a mass grave. But instead, they discovered something far different: a number of smaller anomalies in the railroad embankment.

So its quite possible that instead of one grave with 57 bodies in it, its quite possible that there maybe several smaller graves.

To confirm his suspicions, Bechtel needed more detailed information about the sub-surface.

Placing a series of probes into grid patterns on the hillside, he sent electrical pulses through the soil. These pulses will travel differently depending on what they pass through.

Where there is just damp soil the current will flow very easily. If there is air spaces or large rocks the current doesn't flow very well.

Using the data collected from the electrical pulses, Bechtel created a detailed map of the subsurface of the embankment.

Now, he could look into the heart of the fill dirt and tell the team exactly where they should be searching for remains.

What we are looking at are depth slices through the hillside so each picture represents a progressively greater depth below the ground surface.

Combining these images, Bechtel could see anomalies below the surface.

The early 1830s marked the beginning of a century of industrial growth in the US.

America was changing beyond all recognition. And the changes were spurred by a revolution in transportation.

Prof. Steven Hahn, Historian,
University of Pennsylvania
The building of turnpikes and canals and of course in the late 1820s and early 1830s the first Railroad. Railroads are going to play an immensely important role in the first half of the 19th Century, especially in the North East and Mid-West in terms of beginning to integrate an American economy.

The 1830s in the US was really in the midst of an enormous period of change and tension, in social and economic life, in political, in cultural life as well. Certainly one of the largest areas of change has to do with the tremendous economic expansion that is taking place in many parts of the country.

These massive building projects called for huge amounts of cheap labour working in appalling conditions.

And in the 1830s, only one immigrant group was willing to do such work … the Irish.

Prof. Tyler Anbinder,
Historian, George Washington University.
Irish immigrants quickly became the preferred labour source for the building of the RR, they could be hired very cheaply, they could be fired on a whim,a lot of employers you could work them virtually to death and no one would care, that they were disposable. For those reasons and the fact that the Irish immigrants were very desperate for work, they were the only ones willing to take work in these kinds of conditions and American's were happy to rely on the Irish more then any other group to do the manual, unskilled labour to build the RR, the laying of the tracks, the building of the roadbed, the hauling of the materials, that was all work that the Irish very quickly came to dominate.

The team spent more than six years searching for the Irishmen’s remains. By 2009, armed with Bechtel’s research, they knew exactly where to dig. For once x really did mark the spot.

So we had to plough through or blast through with pick axes through the fill to get to get to the spot where this set of remains was located, it was about 3 feet 3 and half fee in about down to here. We started out with the tibia and moved through the body until we got two head pieces about here, several fragments of cranium and by the end of that first day on march 20th pretty much an entire man.

John, Earl and the brothers decided to postpone the dig until the summer. They believed they had located the site of the mass grave of these missing Irish emigrants but before a large scale excavation could begin, they wanted to consult more scientists.

They brought in physical anthropologist Dr. Janet Monge. Her role would be to identify the ethnicity of the remains and to find out what exactly happened to the men who died at Duffy's Cut.

Dr. Janet Monge,
For me the intriguing part was the story surrounded Duffy's Cut, the fact that possibility existed that they could derive 50 plus skeletons from a single mass grave situation what that would actually tell us and show us and elucidate that period of American history is just fascinating to me personally.

The archaeology on the site would now play a key role. The team needed someone with experience excavating mass burial sites.

One of Monge’s students, Sam Cox, had worked on archaeological digs in Africa and Europe. With Monge working in the lab, Cox's role would be to supervise the dig.

Sam Cox,
For a couple of reasons it's important to have physical anthropologists out here the first one been really to be able to identify when you find bones the secondly is to be able to look at how the bones are laying out to interpret the way the remains are in the ground and then to help sort individuals.

The team hoped to uncover the mass grave at last. Using Tim Bechtel’s radar map, she laid out an archaeological grid that would be the central focus of the dig.

Almost immediately, they uncovered another set of remains.

FRANK – Do you think this is a bone, right here Sam.

SAM – Which on, yes, careful

FRANK – Oh my god it is, is that pelvis, is that the iliac crest..

SAM – We will have to look at that.

FRANK – Holy Cow Look at that. The skull will probably somewhere right about here.

SAM – hopefully...

FRANK - ... that's what the hope is?

It is a very sad thing seeing the remains of a human being just buried here and having these roots rip him apart. But there is a sense of relief two that his story is going to be uncovered as his mortal remains are uncovered. Its just an amazing feeling, an amazing feeling, both sadness and joy at the same time. It rips our heart out, I think we would all say it rips your heart out seeing these bones like this, but nonetheless very exciting.

Sam – that one be careful because it is very close to the bone.

Frank – that one I am worried about

The next step after the roots come out is we are going to clean everything up so we can see what exactly we are looking at. We want to see how they are in the ground. We want to find out how this person was laid down, so we want to see where the whole skeleton looks like together.

The team believed the remains they’d found were part of a larger mass grave.

But as they continued to exhume the bones, they made a surprising discovery.

So, what we have just started excavating here is an individual, who is laid out in this direction, we have his upper arm here, we have scapula so his shoulder, some ribs and his vertebrae going this way and we have the cranium up here. The head is in the west, the feet pointing toward the east which is very typical christian burial ….most interesting thing nice dark wood stain running up around the body in a rectangle, you can see it coming down in the corners here, which would indicate the remains of a coffin.

Nobody was expecting to find a coffin at Duffy's Cut. The team thought they were digging through the grave site of cholera victims.

Cholera was a highly infectious disease. Its victims were often buried quickly and with little ceremony.

Why were these bodies in coffins?

Professor Kingston Mills, from the Immunology Lab at Trinity College Dublin, studies the effects of the disease.

Prof. Kingston Mills,
Immunologists, Trinity College Dublin.
Cholera is an infectious disease caused by a bacteria called Vibrio Cholera which is taken in by the oral route so people would get infected by coming in cotact with and drinking contaminated water and contaminated food that would have the bacteria on it. And the bacteria would start multiplying in their intestine their gut and this causes a severe gastro-intestinal pain and diarrhea the patient looses a lot of water so they become dehydrated and a lot of them will die.

In the 1830s there wouldn't have been antibiotics so there was no real way of treating it. Death usually occurred within a few hours up to 24 hours from severe dehydration. Roughly 50% of those who would have contracted it would have died but a significant number would have survived, so its highly unlikely that 100% of any group would die from this disease.

The Watson brothers’ file reported all 57 men who worked at Duffy’s Cut died of cholera.

But a report from anthropologist Janet Monge had them wondering if something, or someone, else was responsible for the deaths.

Basically, I do think that there that there appears to be a blunt force trauma on the skull which to me looks like it unhealed. So its this one that I have my suspicions about and its this one that we will spend a great deal of time analyzing just to see if we can any kind of healing associated with it or something like that that will give us an indication of whether or not it was really something that was sustained at the time of death.

The evidence Monge discovered –that the body suffered an injury at the time of death—raised troubling questions.

He had two skull fractures prior to his death, that may actually have been roughly contemporary with his death, possibly the cause of his death. The possibility here that this man was murdered.

Monge believed the bones belonged to a young man no more than 20 years old. This skeleton may be the remains of John Ruddy, the young man from Donegal, who left Ireland with hopes of a new life in America.

We can put a name to this man, that is in terms of the fulfillment of the quest, this is what we are doing we are trying to get these guys out of this anonymous graves, these hard hearted guys in the 1830s didn't care if we lived or died. They were forgotten their families members in Ireland never heard from them again. There is a sense of justice now, we know know who this guy is.

After discovering that the first body excavated at Duffy's Cut suffered a head wound before death, the team was desperate to find more bodies at the site.

Did all these men die of cholera? Or, were some of them murdered?

Evidence of trauma on other bodies might explain why not a single man who worked at Duffy’s Cut survived.

Sam Cox,

Today we are basically expanding our trench and we are trying to see if we can find any more graves, so we are digging out towards this big tree because we have a theory that some of the graves might actually be underneath it. So we are actually exploring at the moment to see if we find anything. Hopefully we can get this dug out ...(turns and looks back towards the guys working)...I am hoping in about an hour.

BILL – There's bones, you can see the line it goes all the way back.

JOHN – You got to get that clear.

BILL – AHH, casket big casket.

FRANK – Casket, big pieces of casket.

JOHN – Lets be careful.

FRANK – Very well preserved pieces of wood.

Dr. Rev. Frank Watson,

Frank – we know that once we smell this particular odor we know we are very close to a body.

Bill – this the smell of death. There is no doubt about it.

The team found two more bodies buried in coffins in the base of the embankment.

This discovery, along with evidence of possible head trauma on John Ruddy’s skull, raised more questions than answers.

Was this a simple case of cholera or was it the site of mass murder? The story of what truly happened at Duffy's Cut still eluded them.

John Ahtes,

Logic would tell us that the bodies that are buried lowest in the fill are the ones that were placed here first so these are probably the first men who died at DC. The question of whether these are men who died of violence from the neighborhood or work accident or cholera or combinations of all three is something we are going to have to piece together.

While the team excavated the remains of a third body, Sam Cox took the bones from the second skeleton to Janet Monge in her University of Pennsylvania lab for cleaning and analysis.

Dr. Janet Monge, Physical Anthropologist, University of Pennsylvania.
JANET – That’s nice, uh oh, …

SAM - I know, get some roots off its head.

JANET - it is a muscular man and it is with all the classical male features, so it is easy to really say with a great degree of assurance this is a male. This is just a dandy.

JANET – oh what’s this

SAM – yes it is, its very open

JANET – there is something up with this. Yes something's up. this might be a nice blunt form trauma, this damage that appears to have occurred around the time of death, this is plastic defamation, so you have the blow, this is a piece of dislodged bone that if this individual was alive and had brain tissue it would have jettisoned a piece of bone right into the meninges and into the brain. I don’t know all of the details of all of the evidence associated with DC but it is possible given the fact we have got that other one and this wound like this both of which I am leaning toward peri-mortem on that they weren't hit in some way or something, maybe killed.

Prof. Bill Watson,

DC has yielded some very interesting secrets this week, we did not expect to find evidence of violence at the very beginning of this dig, we did not expect to find coffins but everyday something new something surprising. I think these guys wanted us to find them, this is a case where a bunch of individuals are screaming out for justice across the centuries.

During this period of the dig, the team discovered the remains of three bodies but were no closer to finding the mass grave.

Geophysicist Tim Bechtel returned to the site in order to expand his map of the embankment.

Dr. Tim Bechtel,
University of Pennsylvania
Starting in the summer of 2009 we had electrical imaging data that went down to about the big tree and it was in that that we found underground a very resistive area. That was in the hillside above where the blue tarp is now right on the edge of that zone is where we found the first burial that we are calling John Ruddy.

We thought that that might be the mass grave, As it turned out we found that the first remains were in coffins, so clearly we didn’t have the mass grave right here.

So we went back in August 2009 and extended the grid to get an idea of how extensive this resistive anomaly might be and it turns out it runs the whole way down the slope under the big tree and past the little one. My data ends at that little tree so I suspect we will continue to find them on beyond the limits of where I have data.

A year later, still so much of the story of the lives of these men’s lives remained hidden. In the summer of 2010, the team returned to the site.

Sadly, they were missing John Ahtes, a founding member of the team, passed away suddenly just weeks before the dig started up again. He was only 48. His loss was keenly felt by everyone on the project.

Bill - DC and John were synonymous, we lost a bit part of the heart of this team, we can all say that. I have been close to John for decades before DC, we lost part of the heart but not the soul, he is with the 57 men now and he will help direct us to see this through.

Bill (OTS) – he has not gone anywhere, he is guiding us, no doubt about it.


CU Frank – (nodding) we feel he is still behind us that’s for sure.

Pan to Bill – he knows more then we do now he is laughing at us probably.

Earl (OTS) – he always thought he knew more than we did.

Frank (pan to him) – four 8 years we have been like the four musketeers, as Earl said we have been 4 musketeers, now it down to three musketeers.

John's passing made the team even more determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. With Bechtel’s additional research, they soon found another skeleton.


Janet – I think its going that way

Sam – it should be going that way, East – West.

Janet – Yes it could be, but its definitely not going this way.

Frank – could this be another body could there be two bodies here

Sam – its possible we have a couple of burials in here so we could have a couple of people.....

We may be looking at the first of the group of people who died. Maybe they were sick with cholera, we have seen this in other archaeological cases, somebody sick with an infectious disease and in a lot of pain, mercy killing takes the form of been bludgeoned to death, so they are looking at now 4 graves which contains 4 more of these individuals which is likely to allow us to refine our picture of what we think happened on those final days at DC.

But why were the events at Duffy’s Cut kept such a secret? Cholera outbreaks were well reported in local and national newspapers in those days.

Why is there no public record of the outbreak at mile 59?

Did the railroad have something to hide? The team hunted through the Chester County Historical Association’s archives in search of an answer.

Frank - Wow it only says that 8 people died at Duffy's Cut, 8 its right here.

Bill – 8 son of a gun.

Frank – this is the Nov 7th Village Record “8 of which proved to be fatal then ceased suddenly as it commenced....” and internally they are saying up to 60 died they knew his 57 men died here, but they are reporting to the newspaper that only 8 died.

Bill - this is RR spun.

Frank – this is RR spin is right ...classic.

FRANK – That from the Nov 7th Village Record article, they say here there were only 8 men who died rather then the 57 who Martin Clement has in the official Pennsylvania Railroad account of this incident. So for us its a strange part of this mystery why did they down play it.

BILL – This is a very secretive thing from the beginning there is a spin going on from the very very start of this event and it is out of proportion to a natural disaster.

Murder, as the evidence now suggests, would certainly give the railroad reason to cover up the events at Duffy’s Cut. But why would these hard-working immigrants have been murdered?

One reason may have been fear of retaliation by Irish rail workers for the death of their fellow countrymen.

Prof. Tyler Anbinder,

I think any time that you had violence against the Irish immigrants in early American history you typically had a response in kind from the Irish immigrant community so all of early 19th Century American history is full of episodes in which, native born Americans will protest against Irish immigrants sometimes violently and usually the Irish will respond. Irish immigrants, typically did not take violent discrimination against them lying down, they tended to respond in kind. That was part of the way Irish immigrants were viewed.

Back on the site, the team had almost completely excavated the fourth skeleton, when they uncovered another set of remains.

Well it looks like we have another skull here and he looks like he is west to east just as many of the bodies have been.

SAM - So we have been basically clearing out all the soil on top of the graves we found earlier. So it looks like what they are doing is cutting into the hill to bury graves so the coffins are been laid in flat even though we are on a slope.

Sam Cox's discovery led Earl Shandelmeier to explore how the bodies may have been interred in the embankment. He believes he has discovered how the men were buried by their colleagues.

Earl Schandelmeier,

As you can see in about a minute and a half I can etch out the fill that is here on this hillside. Giving myself a nice flat area here it is about 6 and a half feet long, two and a half feet wide and it is deep enough that if I actually took, we use this piece of wood as an example and we put one load of dirt on top and you can see within two loads of dirt this whole entire coffin is going to be gone and we are not going to have to extend the fill much further then we would have had to originally.

Another set of remains, the fourth, was ready to be exhumed.

Measuring in height at nearly six feet, the man was incredibly tall for the era. To his fellow Irishmen, he would have been a giant.

As they removed the bones, they saw something shocking.

SAM – oh.

FRANK (OTS) – Oh my goodness.

EARL (OTS) – Looks like a bullet hole. Its pretty suspicious.

FRANK (OTS) – Is that a bullet hole. Oh my goodness. Look how round that is, Sam what do you make of that.

SAM – It looks like trauma.

TIM – Sam is that real clear. Is that very clearly trauma.

SAM – Its definitely trauma. This looks like the trauma here and then we have got a second one.

BILL – It looks like we have got a mass murder scene. They killed these guys. This is the reason for the cover up. This is why they had to keep it secret for 177 years.

FRANK – Its exciting to know the truth.

BILL – Just think, his parents never knew that this happened to him, they never knew he was left here in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania.

TIM – The people who knew were the Railroad.

The story of Duffy's Cut has taken a dark and sinister turn. The evidence shows that these Irishmen came to a grim and grizzly end.

Of the five sets of remains excavated from the site, one skull was so badly decomposed it was impossible to say how the person died but three of the skulls found so far show evidence of trauma at the time of death. What story did the fifth skeleton reveal?

JANET – Sam can you come here.

SAM – What's up.

JANET – Well you want to know what fellas I don't know if I should tell you this now but we have Duffy's Cut Chick.

SAM – Do you think so?

JANET – We got a chick!

SAM – She is small!

JANET – I think what is kind of giving me this clue at the moment is this really really small pallet, its teeny. I really can't see this as been anything but been a female.

Sam – I don't know what does it mean for us if we do have a lady out there, how do we reconcile that?

JANET – Well as I have always said it doesn't really do anything to the story, the story is really just unfolding and now it just has to encompass a female within its structure.

Two women travelled with the laborers on the John Stamp. Thanks to Monge’s research, the team knew that the female skeleton was about 30 years old at the time of death.

The ship’s passenger list provided a clue about who this woman was.

FRANK - One of the women was 29 year old woman named Catherine Burns, she was from Country Tyrone, she travels with a John Burns who looks like her father in law. Catherine and John Burns both disappear after they come to America.

Bill – our thinking is that these RR work sites would have needed someone to wash to clothes, cook the food and it would not have been out of the norm for one of these workers to have brought the woman with them to the site of mile 59.

Frank – certainly from our perspective finding a women who was buried with laborers was a shock, it gave a totally different picture in my mind to know the local there murdered a woman as well as a men.

Bill – it further explains the cover up.

Back in the lab, Monge confirmed Cox’s suspicion that the tall Irishman met a violent and bloody end.

SAM – There are definitely two different wounds on this skull we have this one on the top which is a more round kind of trauma and then we have also got on his right side a big kind of gash where we’ve got a bit kind of triangular shaped cut. Which is the second trauma.

Janet – I am kind of now curious about it....this is really really thick this has been clunked, for sure.

Sam – you don’t think it’s a bullet.

Janet – yes I do think its bullet.... This is unusual, it is edges are jagged. There is something odd, certainly has all of the characteristics of almost like an axe wound, this is a very interesting skull....

Monge sent the skull to be scanned at the University Hospital and the results pointed to violence

When the CT scans came back to the lab we were able to I think pretty convincingly confirm that we were looking at a bullet hole that it was produced by a lead bullet. Let me point to the evidence for you, these flakes and this object with the red arrow pointing to it, are actually unusual objects within the construction within the overall density of the bone, we suspect that it is lead swipe. But very interestingly lying in a compartment at the back of the skull, completely sealed is another one of these very dense pieces of material which we suspect is a bullet fragment. This is pretty convincing in showing us the evidence that this individual was perhaps struck in the head with an axe, shot in the head probably pretty close to the same time frame we are not sure which one occurred first but pretty much guaranteed the death of this individual.

In 1832, Irish Catholics coming to America would have been looked upon with suspicion and distrust because of their religion.

Could that be why the railroad workers were murdered?

John Ahtes,
West Chester and Chester County in particular would not have been a place that was terribly welcoming to immigrant labour in 1832, particular Irish Catholic laborers it was a place where the social and economic order very much reflected the hierarchy of the colonial period and the changes wrought by the industrial revolution were painful and resisted out here.

With the evidence mounting, the Duffy's Cut team believed they may have found those responsible for the killings.

What we have got out here specifically in Chester County there are groups of individuals who fear and revile the immigrant. We have examples of cross cultural violence, were reported in the paper and we have groups like the East Whiteland Horse Company operating as a vigilante organization very close to the site of this work, who were the law in the absence of a constable, the individual who owned mile 59 his family ran the horse company.

As cholera began to strike the railroad workers, could the vigilantes in the horse company have moved to protect their community from the disease by attacking the Irish in their midst?

By 2011, the team had removed six sets of remains and found coffin stains for two more burials, though the skeletons had been washed away.

They scoured what is left of the 1832 railroad embankment but found no more bodies. The embankment itself ends abruptly.

So where are the remaining 49 Irish laborers?

For the answer, Bechtel must go back to the 1870s, when the railroad company set about improving the line.

When they were straightening the RR and building a new embankment. They would have needed material and the 1832 abandoned embankment would have been very easy material to dig. So when they were digging that material out and re-using it and in the process of doing that, they probably hit the mass grave and that freaked them out, in the process of doing that they probably at that point, disinterred the bones that they encountered and maybe brought them up here where they were filling in the 1870s and buried them here and put a memorial wall over them.

TIM – Screen clear

Assistant (OTS) – yes

TIM – Ok here we go, check and make sure the sampling thing flashes.

To prove his theory that the mass grave is under the memorial wall, Bechtel used a geophysics technique called fan shooting.

He placed a series of listening devices known as geophones connected to a sound reader in a semi-circle around the memorial. Using a jack hammer, he sent sound waves through the earth, measuring how fast the sound travels to the geophones.

If something--like a body--is buried in the ground, the sound waves will travel more slowly through that area.

Its our way of hunting this whole plateau area to try and find where the mass grave might be if its up here near the wall.

TIM – Which one look to you like the slowest arrival.

Assistant (OTS) – 7

TIM – 7 definitely, see how these are right behind 40, these two drop off that's slow and then pick up again over this direction.

Tim – Your on the shot point. Ok I am on Channel 7 this is the slow one, so somewhere between me and you is the low velocity zone.

This anomaly runs through the ground where the memorial lies.

Its not this exact location but its sort of centered here its a zone within this quadrant of the wall, where the material depth is lower velocity.

Frank – so Tim this could be the spot as your saying and Clemens 1909 stone wall and the original 1870 wooden fence may indeed mark the spot of the Mass ossuary.

Tim – they could indeed, the mass grave may have originally been in the valley but in the 1870s they may have hit it and re-interred them up here and put the marker right on top of them.

Bill – so many generations of RR'ers were correct. We always thought we would find the mass grave and the individual burials would be impossible. We find the individual burials, and this thing is waiting here.

Tim – exactly. Its backwards.

Frank – even if we can't dig to retrieve these remains, we can at least properly not and mark and remember this place as the burial place of the rest of the men as the ossuary.

We are awfully close to the active RR, that would represent a safety and engineering hazard, I don't think it would be possible to recover these fellows. Its a little frustrating that we can't get too them having found the other but I am ok with that, we know what kind of life they led and what kind of death they had and there is some comfort in knowing at least where these guys are even if we can't get too them.

The Watsons’ railroad file showed that some of the men tried to escape the valley at the start of the cholera epidemic.

The team believed that these remains belonged to these men.

Our thinking is that the vigilante rounded our men up after having escaped the valley. We have come to the conclusion uniformly among the historical part of this team that those individuals were coffined as they were to prevent those men in the valley from seeing the bloody mess inside.

The sealed coffins were dumped back into Duffy's Cut by the vigilantes. The surviving Irish railroad workers buried their comrades never knowing what had happened to them.

After the remaining men died, Duffy had their bodies interred in a hidden mass grave.

Philip Duffy, the railroad company and those who murdered the Irishmen chose to forget about the crimes at Duffy's Cut. The railroad contract made Duffy a wealthy man.

The Philadelphia to Pittsburg mainline was an enormous success and it led to the creation of the Pennsylvania Railroad which, by the middle of the 20th century, was one of the largest companies in the world.

The story of the men at Duffy’s Cut was kept alive by subsequent generations of Irish railroad workers who hoped their countrymen would one day receive a proper burial.

The remains found at Duffy’s Cut were finally laid to rest in March 2012 at West Laurel Hill Cemetery outside Philadelphia.

This is just one part of the telling of the building of our country here in the United States, its an important part of the picture but 57 names, 57 individuals will be remembered for future generations as many of 50,000 individuals died building the RR from East to West and at least 57 of them will be remembered.

The team has one final duty to perform.

The remains of the young man they believe to be John Ruddy are brought back to Ireland, for burial in his native Donegal.

More than 180 years after he left these shores, one of the men of Duffy's Cut is coming home.

FRANK – For me the most amazing part of this is, this is the first man we recovered from Duffy's Cut and he is the only man to be buried back in his homeland. So its very fitting end to an 11 year pilgrimage for us. Its an amazing thing to be able to go from a file to a grave.

BILL – and its very poignant obviously for us as fathers, we have sons the same age as this guy. How horrible it must have been for his parents to see that ship go away and never hear from him again. He gets back to his home turf, its incredibly meaning for us.

Bringing him back here was the most amazing thing I have ever done, to set here to be on Irish soil, there is nothing more important, I could never have done anything more important in my life, ever and the feeling of pure joy and bliss, putting him in the ground...I can't explain it.

The immigration myth if we can call it as part of American history is one that generally suggests that all was well once people arrived in the US and so the darker side of that immigrant myth is an important side of our collective memory and something which we really need to explore more deeply.

1962 – 2010


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