Duffy’s Cut is the name of a stretch of land along railroad tracks about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, USA. The tracks belonged to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Phillip Duffy, then a railroad contractor of the railroad and himself an Irish immigrant from a generation before, hired 57 Irish workers to help build this stretch of railroad. They arrived from Donegal, Terry, and Tyrone on the ship named John Stamp and were quickly hired by John Duffy. Six weeks later, all 57 were dead and piled into a hole in the ground, unmarked. It was believed that they died of cholera, which was an epidemic that was widespread at the time.
In August 2004, two brothers – one a minister and the other a university professor, began a project to find out what happened to those 57 Irish who came for survival. This began from one of the brothers finding a document belonging to his grandfather–who was a high assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The document mentioned the hidden gravesite of these men. Soon with further investigation, there seemed to be a pattern that showed a cover-up of some things, pointing to events more intentional than death by disease. In addition, one of the brothers experienced seeing an apparition believed to be of these workers. There has been a long legend of ghost sightings and folk stories surrounding the Duffy’s Cut, from the local Pennsylvania community to Ireland.
The Duffy’s Cut Project ( http://duffyscut.immaculata.edu/ ) was initiated in 2004 to find out what actually happened to these 57 Irish immigrants who had traveled to the US to find a better life. The work was arduous in that they had to locate the workers’ remains whose locations were unknown. But soon there was a breakthrough.
In the 1800s and into the turn to the next century, prejudice against immigrants was high. Many had come during the industrializing era for work for new dreams and to escape strife and poverty and famines in their own lands. Competition created by the uneven and prejudiced actions of reward/punishment and availability created strife between many of the new immigrant groups and sometimes used against each other by the companies. Labor unions were quite new at the time. So most of the leaders and management groups were free to do what they wanted with their workers. Prejudice against the Irish-Catholic people were high during this time. This also created a lack of care and concern for most of the workers’ struggles, which intensified with the general attitude of the management and townspeople, toward Irish Catholics.
In 1844, an anti Irish-Catholic riot broke out at an Irish Protestant Orange Day parade in Philadelphia, then followed by the Nativist Riots directed at Irish Catholics. Religion, then, plays a role in division and the right to harm and kill. Another factor is in the racializing prejudices that people carry. The inhabitants of Philadelphia at this time were descendents of Germans, Englishmen, Sephardic Jews, Welsh, and Anglo-Irish – all of whom largely thought of the Irish Catholics as ‘less than human.’ Any look at the many cartoon depictions of the Irish-Catholics in the magazines and newspapers of that period, would attest to this popular view and consequent humiliation. These factors aided in the miserable working conditions of many of the Irish who worked on the railroads in the eastern United States during the late 19th through the middle of the 20th centuries. Of course Italians, Turks, and others who came to work on the railroads were marked for prejudice as well. People are perhaps more familiar with the Western US railroads and practices of prejudice, which demarcated the racism against Chinese railroad workers, for instance. Later, the prejudices received by African-American railroad workers became more well-known. In Japan, for instance, Korean workers were the target. In every nation, there needed to be slave labor to build in such large quantities over such large areas of land for so little pay and with speed. However, it must be remembered that not every individual in socially privileged and dominant groups was prejudiced. There were many cross-positional allies – meaning, many local Philadelphians, for instance, who did not believe in the ‘lesser’ qualities of Irish Catholics and resisted alongside, at the risk of being called ‘a traitor.’
Recently, in 2009, it has been proven using forensic and archeological investigation, that at least two of the men were killed by blunt-force trauma, most likely by a pic-axe or similar tool /instrument / weapon. There had always been folk songs by the Irish in Ireland, on Duffy’s Cut and its legend. Most of them always questioned:
‘Were they taken by the sickness, were they hunted down like scum?…was it cholera or murder?’
– Wally Page, Duffy’s Cut
Most historians, sociologists, and anthropologists who have studied the industrial era and railroads, understand the grounds near railroads, lakes, and bridges, to be lined with the bodies of people whose lives no one knows or remembers. Such is the road of progress and industrialization. This does not make killing and forgotten ancestors inevitable, however, or right or a part of progress. It is a question of collective grieving and its necessity in our times. It is also the work of remembering which is so difficult now. I am forever grateful and filled with tears when thinking of the dedicated work of Frank and Bill Watson in Philadelphia, who followed the ghosts who came to them for a justice that was close to two centuries old by this time. Mass graves are not only what certain countries do. The founding and building of nations often show that it is done at tremendous costs.
Duffy’s Cut – wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duffy’s_Cut
BBC article on Duffy’s Cut: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A52490937
Duffy’s Cut article from ‘The Blood is Strong’ site : http://www.thebloodisstrong.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=52&t=4584&start=0
Duffy’s Cut article from Irish Central.com : http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Pa-mass-grave-of-sick-Irish-railroad-workers-may-be-murder-scene–.html?page=2
Duffy’s Cut Project website: http://duffyscut.immaculata.edu/
SINGER CHRISTY MOORE sings ‘Duffy’s Cut’ :