They emigrated to the United States in the early summer of 1832 from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry Counties in Ireland. Hired off the docks in Philadelphia to work on a stretch of tracks on the Pennsylvania & Columbia Railroad (which later became the Reading and Columbia Railroad) between Philadelphia and Lancaster County, 57 Irish immigrants fell prey to an Asiatic cholera epidemic and died during August of the same year.
They are sometimes referred to as the “Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut,” and 180 years later, some of them have finally received the dignity of a proper Christian burial.
On Friday, March 9, a memorial service was held at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion, during which five wooden coffins containing skeletal remains were interred.
Immaculata University, in collaboration with the cemetery, provided the memorial for the 57 immigrants, and the burial for the remains that were able to be located.
Immaculata also provided funding for a 10-foot Celtic cross, made in Ireland from limestone, to mark their final resting place, along with a plaque listing all their names.
The ceremony, officiated by Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, was also attended by deputy ambassador to the United States from Ireland Kevin Conmy, Immaculata University president Sister Patricia Fadden, I.H.M., state Sen. Andrew Dinniman of West Whiteland and state Sen. Duane Milne of Willistown.
The senators laid wreaths on the burial site and had sought state assistance for the academic work and investigation of the Duffy’s Cut immigrants.
William Watson, chairperson of Immaculata’s history department, and his brother, Frank Watson, led efforts to study the original mass grave site in Malvern, Chester County. Their research led to some dark discoveries of the history of that stretch of railroad tracks and the people who labored to lay them.
In the summer of 1832, the immigrants, mostly men and a few women, were working to fill in a valley known as Duffy’s Cut (named for Philip Duffy, the contractor who hired them) in East Whiteland Township near Malvern. In August, they came down with cholera and all died. As Irish Catholics, they already faced prejudice, and suspicion that they brought the disease with them led to much hysteria.
Examinations of the remains that were found show blunt trauma to the skulls and possible gunshots, indicating the probability that while some died from the cholera, many were killed out of fear and anger.
They were buried at their work camp in an anonymous mass grave about 30 feet underground, without any ceremony, death certificates or notification of family, who never knew what became of them.
It is believed that the track bed for the railroad was built above the mass grave, and therefore, the majority of remains are unreachable. Those tracks are primarily operated by Amtrak and SEPTA now, and are part of the Thorndale-Paoli line (formerly the R-5 route).
“Everyone deserves to be remembered,” Frank Watson said. William Watson added, “We hope this ceremony will bring peace to the souls of the men and women of Duffy’s Cut, after almost 180 years of ignominious repose.”
In addition to the five immigrants whose remains were buried during the ceremony, a sixth was found and identified as 18-year-old John Ruddy of Donegal. His remains have been shipped to his descendants for burial in Ireland.
The memorial service was attended by the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade, who stood guard during the public viewing of the coffins, and by the seventh-grade English class from St. Patrick School in Malvern, whose teachers used the historic incident as a teaching tool.
Wood from a poplar tree that had to be removed in order to reach the six bodies will be seasoned and used to make 57 musical instruments for Immaculata’s music department, in honor of the 57 immigrants.
Bishop Fitzgerald reminded attendees that each person is created in God’s image and likeness, and has an eternal destiny. “Although these Irish immigrants were deprived of their human rights in this world, they are not forgotten by God, and we pray that they are at peace in His kingdom,” he said. “In their memory, we must also rededicate ourselves to insuring that the right to life and human dignity is respected for all persons in our own time and culture.”
George Gregory is a parishioner of St. Cecilia Parish in Coatesville.