Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Death At Duffy's Cut

This is a story revealed in part by archeology. It also is a story which raises thoughts of ghosts, even though there are no ghost sightings in this version of the tale. I learned of it through a feature on National Public Radio news, and also through an article by Abigail Tucker in the April 2010 edition of "Smithsonian" magazine.
The leaders of the archeological expedition in question, Lutheran pastor Rev. Frank Watson and his history professor twin William, are amateur archeologists with professional-level credentials. Their dig was approved by the State, and also by local landowners.
They did not go in search of any fabled buried treasure, either; there's not really a lot of Indiana Jones stuff in the archeology field. Instead, they were searching for word of 57--at least 57--immigrant Irish workmen who had probably disembarked at Philadelphia in 1832, who had found construction jobs helping to build the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad line, working at a place called Duffy's Cut near Malvern--and who, less than two months later, had vanished.
The Watsons learned of this story through a private railroad company file that had been in their late grandfather's possession. They became determined to find out what had happened to these long-ago strangers they refer to as "our men."
They knew that cholera was rampant in the Philadelphia area at the time the Irishmen arrived at Duffy's Cut. It seemed probable that some of them had fallen victim to the disease. But it took a long time to find physical evidence for this, or any other, hypothesis. They searched for the gravesite of the men for four and a half years before, in the pre-spring days of 2009, they finally found it. It was near the Amtrak rail track, the very spot where the men had been working before their deaths.
This was a dig that revealed very few artifacts. A few buttons, a few broken clay pipes--not much else, beyond of course the jumbled collection of bones and skulls that could be expected in a mass grave.
Some of the skulls had been crushed, which suggested the men had either been murdered or "put out of their misery." These actions might have been taken by nearby homeowners who feared the epidemic and feared the immigrants as well.
Others likely succumbed to the disease itself.
None of the victims had papers, and there were no newspaper obituaries. Still, the Watsons hope to identify all of them if possible, and to return them to their families in Ireland. The ones who are not identified they plan to bury under a Celtic cross in nearby West Laurel Hill cemetery, where many people from the upper end of the socioeconomic scale are buried.
Despite the difficulties, with the aid of a forensic dentist the brothers do have a tentative identity for one of the Duffy's Cut victims. He may have been John Ruddy, an 18-year-old who, like the rest of his group, came from Donegal. At this writing, the Watsons are raising money for DNA tests which could confirm the identity and allow the young man's remains to be restored to his family in Ireland.

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