The story of Duffy's Cut began with Phillip Duffy, a contractor who hired 57 Irish immigrants to work for him. When they arrived in June of 1832, the Irish men traveled to Malvern and set up camp in the middle of the woods, expecting to build a railroad. But what they got instead, according to historians, was disease and a violent end that they never could have imagined.
Doctor William Watson, history chair at Immaculata University, his brother Rev. Dr. Frank Watson and volunteers have worked to exhume the graves of the men that were murdered there almost 200 years ago.
The Watson brothers first took an interest in the story in 2002 when they received a Pennsylvania railroad file from their grandfather. Their grandfather told them that he had gotten it from the man who created it: Martin Clemmen.
“I saw something that started this in 2000," said Dr. William Watson. "I had no explanation to it until I saw the file two years later. I saw three glowing shapes that looked to me like neon light in the shape of men, in the same month that the houses went up where the men are actually buried. I didn’t know about any of this until I saw the file, after I saw the ghosts, and realized now there’s an explanation to what I saw."
In the file from the Watson brother's grandfather, it actually includes information on "fiery figures".
The brothers went to the site in 2002 in hopes of "recovering a memory in the family," said Frank Watson.
"So, when we started working down there, we had different theories as to where we were going to look and for what. We knew the shanty was in a separate area from where the burial was, and we actually started with all different resources. The shanty is where they lived and where they died, and we actually started to find artifacts there. Mostly through the Greater Philadelphia rescue dogs; they helped us to find an ash pit, which became the beginning of the discovery of the shanty. After we started finding these artifacts, we knew we had to get some science to start to help us find the burial place.”
Research on the history of the Irishmen lead the brothers to believe that, when the cholera epidemic hit the camp, the workers actually sought help in the community, but were turned down and quarantined in the camp.
"We know that the first few men fled when cholera hit the camp, and they were forced back into the camp," William Watson said. "Our sources are what led us to the spot where we are digging, because we had to rule out certain spots in the valley as to where they were. Finally, with the radar we got in 2007 [and] 2008, we were able to rule the areas out. In March of 2009, we were able to actually put Xs on the map were the bodies were.”
Back in 1832, the press was told that there was only eight or nine men involved in the building, but what they were actually doing was covering up their murder. The eight or nine men were those that were brought back in coffins, who no one could deny that something had happened to them. They were murdered out in the community somewhere, and brought back in sealed coffins. What raised suspicion to the brothers was how many nails were used to seal the coffins. "They were put in a coffin and then sealed with more nails than needed," said Dr. William Watson. "The first guy (we found) had 141 nails to seal his coffin. That’s ridiculous. Most of the coffins back then had around 50 nails. The horse company is covering it up because it was murder, and back then they would have been hung for murder."
With a team of doctors, historians and forensic dentists, the brothers were able to identify the first man they found as John Ruddy, who was just 18 at the time of his death. Forensic studies were able to tell his age by the way his skull had fused, but how they identified the man by name is an amazing feat of science.
"He’s missing his top-right front molar," said William Watson. "And the forensic dental team said that this is a one-in-a-million anomaly. We now have a guy that traveled here from Northern Ireland, Liam Ruddy, from the same place, who came over and he’s missing his top-right front molar. If this molar is a one-in-a-million anomaly, and there aren’t many people in this part of Ireland named Ruddy, then he’s going to be a collateral descendant.”
The brothers even went and pulled the ship registers from vessels that came to America around that time. One ship, identified as "The John Stamp" ship, had a number of laborers on it when it arrived in Philadelphia in June of 1832. The Watson brothers did a full genealogical search on the names of those passengers in hopes that some of them were the men at Duffy's Cut.
"We know that a vast majority of these guys disappeared from history after they landed here in Philadelphia," said Frank Watson. "This gave us our basis to say we knew the ages (of the men), where they came from, what they brought with them and if they traveled together."
The team used the Greater Philadelphia Rescue Dogs to find evidence of a fire, and what they actually found was a 30'-by-30' burn field about two to three inches below the surface in the shanty area. Even some of the pipe stems that they have recovered from the site have fragments of pewter and other metals burned on them from a fire. According to William Watson, the blacksmith was the one who was ordered to set the camp on fire after the last man had died.
"Malachi Harris, the blacksmith, was charged with burying the men. There’s evidence in the ground of the story that was told about his role: He was supposed to have burned the shanty and buried the bodies.”
After finding clues that led them to believe they were close to finding another buried man on the site in 2009, the team was waiting to find evidence of that.
On Friday, Sept. 16, they found it, in the form of his bones. Working slowly and carefully, the team started to unearthed the man's vertebrae, then his teeth, which led to his jaw bones, and then his skull. A tree had grown over him, and the roots had scattered in bones and cracked his skull into pieces.
Exploring the story of Duffy's Cut began as a curiousity and grew into a mission. The work they're doing has led to other the possibility of taking on similar projects. They have been contacted about exhuming three other mass grave sites in the area. One in Spring City, another in Downington and a probable third one near Berwyn.
"These guys are anonymous in the history books," said William Watson. "These are actual individuals of importance; this was the second railroad in North America, and the first in Pennsylvania.
“They wanted their slice of the American dream," said Frank Watson, "and they ended up in a ditch outside of Philadelphia.”
Immaculata University has a museum of artifacts from their dig in their library that's available to the public.