Fates Of Irish Workers Sealed In Mass Grave

Flags mark off the area in the forest where the workers' shanty stood i i

Flags mark off the area in the forest where the workers' shanty stood. Guy Raz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Guy Raz/NPR
Flags mark off the area in the forest where the workers' shanty stood

Flags mark off the area in the forest where the workers' shanty stood.

Guy Raz/NPR

Almost two centuries ago, 57 Irish workers arrived in Philadelphia to build a part of Pennsylvania's Main Line Railroad. Less than two months later, they were all dead. For 170 years, ghost stories haunted the small valley where they died, until two brothers set out to find out what happened to the workers of Duffy's Cut.

The rail line now passes through some of the most affluent towns outside Philadelphia, but back in the 1800s, it was frontier country. If you wander into the woods where the men were buried, it doesn't look all that different today.

Inside this forest, where the poplar trees seem to touch the sky, there's a small clearing where an archaeological dig is taking place. Flags mark off an area about 30 feet square, the remains of a shanty where those 57 workers lived and died in the summer of 1832.

Fragments Of A Hard Life

Brothers Bill and Frank Watson grew up with the story. Every Thanksgiving, the twins' grandfather used to tell of the Irishmen you might see late at night dancing around the big trench where they were all buried.

"They looked as if they were a kind of green and blue and fire," as Frank remembers the story. "And there they were, hopping and bopping on their graves."

Part of a jawbone i i

Part of a jawbone believed to belong to John Ruddy, one of the workers at Duffy's Cut. Guy Raz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Guy Raz/NPR
Part of a jawbone

Part of a jawbone believed to belong to John Ruddy, one of the workers at Duffy's Cut.

Guy Raz/NPR

Bill now holds the real story in a small cardboard box. Inside is part of a jaw bone — with teeth still intact. "These are some of the remains of John Ruddy," he says.

Ruddy was one of the men brought to America from Ireland in June of 1832 by a local contractor named Phillip Duffy. Duffy was hired to build a one-mile section of the Main Line — now known as "Duffy's Cut."

The Industrial Revolution had just begun, and cheap laborers were needed to build a budding nation's railroads.

"This was the biggest industrial endeavor in North America in the 1830s," Bill says. "By the time it was completed, this was the second biggest railroad in North America."

Historian John Ahtes, who teaches at nearby Immaculata University, says that at the time, there were no unions and no serious labor laws, so landowners and contractors set the work conditions.

"They probably would have worked 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week," Ahtes says. "Their food and housing circumstances would have been supplied by Duffy, who was running a company town."

Clues To A Crime?

Twin brothers Bill and Frank Watson i i

Twin brothers Bill and Frank Watson are piecing together what happened to the Irish workers at Duffy's Cut. Guy Raz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Guy Raz/NPR
Twin brothers Bill and Frank Watson

Twin brothers Bill and Frank Watson are piecing together what happened to the Irish workers at Duffy's Cut.

Guy Raz/NPR

That town's locals were wary of the new arrivals, and rumors about the strangers flourished. The distrust escalated when a massive cholera epidemic swept through town.

"They thought there were certain things that predisposed you towards the disease," Bill says. "Alcohol was one of the things, and of course, the Irish were considered to be the prime alcoholics at the time."

According to the local newspaper, a few of the Irish workers contracted the deadly disease. If all the men had contracted the disease, statistically at least 40 percent of them would have survived. But by August, all the men were dead, and the mystery was sealed for nearly 200 years.

Frank and Bill's team of volunteers started to dig about five years ago. At first they found old clay pipes with Irish symbols. But then, last year, they came across a skull with a gaping hole in the back. Using forensic analysis, they identified the skeleton as most likely belonging to John Ruddy. The Chester County Coroner confirmed the cause of death as a projectile.

Frank and Bill have a theory. Local vigilantes — perhaps with the blessing of Duffy himself — simply came into the forest and killed all the workers, believing it was the only way to keep the cholera from spreading.

After the men were buried, the Watson brothers say, Duffy had the site torched to hide the evidence. "Duffy knew precisely what happened here, and he didn't give a darn," Frank says.

So far, the remains of four men have been found. Two of the skulls show signs of trauma.

This summer, the dig will resume, and the brothers hope to find what's left of the rest of those 57 men. For now, they are still nameless, their slumber only disturbed by the occasional passing train.

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