Project seeks answers to immigrants’ deaths

Freehold pastor working
with brother, two others
on Pennsylvania mystery

Staff Writer

Project seeks answers
to immigrants’ deaths
Freehold pastor working
with brother, two others
on Pennsylvania mystery
Staff Writer

Frank Watson, the pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church, Freehold Borough, and his brother, William Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University outside Philadelphia, Pa., have become document-driven detectives of the lives of 57 Irish immigrants who died in 1832 without official notice. The men were unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave and the Watsons hope to put the ghost stories to rest and bury the men’s remains in individual graves.

According to Frank Watson, the death from Asiatic cholera of the newly arrived immigrants who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad was hushed up, but people around the area known as Duffy’s Cut created a kind of myth around the men’s deaths. Coincidentally, the university where William Watson teaches is about 10 miles from the area of Duffy’s Cut.

Working with a team of two other historians, the Watson brothers have been researching the history of these Irish immigrants whose deaths were never recorded. Calling it the Duffy’s Cut Research Project, they have uncovered a lot of information, but not the bodies. That gruesome work will begin at the end of August.

"The whole investigation started at my home in Freehold," Frank Watson said. "My bother and I were going over some stories and I had this file that was given to me by my grandmother. My grandfather, Joseph Tripician, was the assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The president of the railroad, Martin W. Clement, was an important guy back in his day.

"Clement collected information on Duffy’s Cut and kept it in a file. Around the time that my grandfather retired, the railroad became Penn Central. Sometime around then he was given this file by Clement. The file is the only evidence for this story, but there was a lot of folklore around the story," Watson said.

According to the facts, in June 1832, Philip Duffy, an Irish immigrant working for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, hired a group of 57 men who had just arrived from Ireland to build a 1-mile stretch of railroad, the first railroad in Pennsylvania and one of the earliest in the United States.

The men died in August 1832, Watson said.

"They had no relatives in this country. They had no connections. They were recently arrived immigrants from Ireland. At that time the railroad was called the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad," he said.

According to Irish immigration history, many Irish immigrants worked on the railroads, as well as in coal mines and other industrial businesses. By the 1870s, they had become a major ethnic group in the United States.

"When they were building the railroads it was common to hire recent immi­grants. They were hired by Philip Duffy, who may have hired them right off a boat in Philadelphia. We’ve searched all of the immigration records for around June 1832. The names of the men were never recorded," Watson said.

He said public notice of the men’s deaths would have amounted to bad pub­licity for the railroad.

"They were the largest work gang that ever died at one time, and the railroad covered it up. I found the only official railroad record of this, a contemporary report on the disaster that mentions the death of these guys from cholera," the pastor said.

Watson maintains that industrial America did not concern itself with the

plight of the people who were so integral to the building of the nation.

"Although the railroad tried to cover it up the local community knew about them because the men were trying to get help. The area has been associated with ghost stories almost since it happened," he said.

Watson said one humanitarian did try to help. His name was Malachi Harris and he was a local blacksmith. He took care of the men while they were sick and then he buried them. But, Watson said, Harris did have some help.

"Folklore has it that the Sisters of Charity sent out four nuns from the city of Philadelphia to help the blacksmith comfort the men and prepare them for burial. The locals refused to even give the nuns water. They were terrified of getting cholera. There was a huge outbreak of cholera going on. There were Irishmen working on a canal in Princeton who died of cholera at the same time," he said.

Neither the blacksmith nor the nuns caught cholera themselves, Watson said, adding that the actions of Harris are re­ported in the Pennsylvania Railroad files.

"We have been told that the guy was born in Chester County. We are 99 per­cent certain of our detective work on the part of Harris. As for the nuns, we have tons of contemporary references in the Philadelphia city archives," he reported.

"The only direct reference to their coming to Duffy’s Cut is in the Pennsylvania Railroad file. In the 1880s there was a very detailed story written up by the local historian in Duffy County. And in the Pennsylvania Canal Commission records, we have found a contract for the commission of that rail­road," he said.

Watson and the rest of the team hope to have the men reinterred at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery. The cemetery has donated the plots and the coroner has made the area where the men are buried a crime scene so that the bodies can be exhumed.

Watson explained that Clement had constructed a stone enclosure for the area in 1889. The area is at a curve in the rail­road track where a housing development has been built around it. The area is now owned by Amtrak.

"We are working with the Emerald Society, an Irish police organization that does a number of charitable things during the year, to turn the area into a park. There’s now an official Pennsylvania state historical marker in the road, but it’s about a half-mile from the site of the grave because it’s in the woods," the pas­tor said.

The Watsons, along with John Ahtes and Earl Schandelmaier, are writing a book about the project and a producer of PBS documentaries began filming last month at an event at Duffy’s Cut where the state historic marker was erected.

"We’ve had inquiries from four differ­ent documentary companies. The one that is probably going to do it is Tile Films over in Ireland. They work with Irish public television. Everything is happen­ing so fast. There’s been a lot of interest in Ireland. There will be a film crew on the first day of the digging at the end of August," he said.

As for the book, they are close to signing with a publisher of academic books.

"The tentative title is ‘The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut,’ " Watson said.