With that, the remains of a young man were soon soaring over the Atlantic Ocean he had crossed once in a three-masted ship. His name is believed to have been John Ruddy, and he was being returned to the Ireland he had left as a strapping teenage laborer. In 1832.
His voyage home is the latest turn in the tale of Duffy’s Cut, a wooded patch that is little more than a sylvan blur to those aboard commuter trains rocketing past. It is a mass grave, in fact: the uneasy resting place for dozens of Irish immigrants who died during a cholera epidemic, just weeks after coming to America, as an old song says, to work upon the railway.
For the last decade, a different kind of rail gang — professors and students, scientists and landscapers — has been digging away at the layers of soil, myth and silence to unearth the unlucky inhabitants of Duffy’s Cut and place them in both historical context and consecrated soil….
It begins in late June 1832, when the John Stamp docked in Philadelphia, ending a two-month sail from Derry in northern Ireland. On board were dozens of young Irishmen eager to begin their American climb, bearing the names of Devine, and McIlheaney, and Skelton — and Ruddy, at 18 the youngest.
Working for a contractor named Duffy, a crew of about 120 men was soon digging through clay and shale to fill the lows and level the highs for a train line. “A sturdy-looking band of the sons of Erin,” a local newspaper called them.
But an outbreak of cholera caused a Philadelphia panic that hot summer. The disease struck the work site, probably by way of a contaminated creek running past the men’s crude living quarters — their shanty. The local community shunned the sick foreigners, leaving acts of kindness to a few courageous Sisters of Charity who ventured out from Philadelphia. When the epidemic subsided, the official account of the sad but unremarkable toll at Track Mile 59, also known as Duffy’s Cut, was eight dead, with the shanty burned down and buried by a humane blacksmith….
Mr. Watson and his twin, Frank, a Lutheran minister, were sorting through family things in 2002 when they took a close look at an old file. It turned out that this Martin Clement, who later became president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, had kept an extensive file on Duffy’s Cut, and that his executive assistant — their grandfather! — had taken the file after the railroad vanished into a merger in the late 1960s. These internal records indicated that at least 57 people — not eight — had died at Duffy’s Cut….
Working closely with a handful of passionate colleagues, the Watsons did extensive historical research before creating a rough grid of the site. On a hot August morning in 2004, they began their dig with the help of a few college students, all young men of the same age as those who had come with shovels to these woods nearly 170 years before….
In March 2009, two students found a tibia, then more. Before long, skull fragments and other remains were laid on a table in a conference room at Immaculata, beneath a crucifix, for an examination by Janet Monge, a physical anthropologist and the curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and Dr. Matt Patterson, a local dentist with training in forensic odontology. A muscular man in his late teens, they concluded, who had never developed an upper right first molar — a dental variance that Dr. Patterson called “exceptionally rare.” The skull also had evidence of blunt-force trauma, Dr. Monge said….
Dr. Monge found signs of blunt head trauma in three more sets of remains, as well as a bullet hole in another. For the researchers, these forensic clues, coupled with contemporaneous news accounts, conjure a possible sequence of events in which a few workers escaped from an enforced quarantine, were subdued and killed, then returned in coffins to Duffy’s Cut, where the rest soon died of disease. Then all were buried in an anonymous grave….
A year ago this month, the remains of four Irishmen and one Irishwoman, 180 years dead, were buried beneath a limestone Celtic cross in a cemetery just outside Philadelphia. The search for their shantytown comrades continues; Mr. Bechtel has already found a “very concentrated anomaly,” 30 feet deep, that the team hopes to excavate sometime this year.
Meanwhile, research by Dr. Patterson and Dr. Monge found that some Ruddys in County Donegal are known to have a certain dental variance: the absence of an upper right first molar. That fact, coupled with the passenger list from the John Stamp, prompted the decision by the research team to ship back to Ireland the remains of the first victim they had found.
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