In 1832, Irish Railroad Workers Were Murdered In Pennsylvania For Fear Of A Disease They Didn't Have

When Philip Duffy hired Irish immigrants to build a railroad in Pennsylvania in 1832, he couldn't have known it would end in horror. Many workers at Duffy's Cut died mere weeks after arriving in America to begin work on a railroad in Pennsylvania. While the names of Duffy's Cut's casualties remain largely unknown, they continue to speak to modern scholars and illuminate the railroad's dark history. We may never know for certain what happened at Duffy's Cut, but scientists have no doubt that foul play was involved.

In 1832, eight workers were said to have died from cholera, but when two brothers discovered their grandfather's records, they found a coverup by the railroad company, which hid many more fatalities. Researchers unearthed skeletons that showed signs of severe trauma, indicating that the men didn't actually die from cholera, but rather from something much more sinister.


  • The Skeletons Exhibited Signs Of Bullet Wounds And Blunt Force Trauma
    Photo: PBS / YouTube

    The Skeletons Exhibited Signs Of Bullet Wounds And Blunt Force Trauma

    Records show that eight people died of cholera in 1982 while constructing a railroad at Duffy's Cut. But Bill Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University, believes the death count is much higher. The team has excavated seven bodies at the site, and many of them show signs of blunt force trauma and bullet wounds, leading investigators to believe that cholera was not their actual cause of death.

    In one of the first skeletons scientists excavated, they discovered that the man had been struck on the head, prompting further investigation. Anthropologist Dr. Matt Patterson discovered blunt-force trauma in three more sets of remains and a bullet in a fourth. Because the immigrants were supposed to have died of cholera, the evidence raised more questions than offered answers. Were the workers killed before they contracted cholera? Or were their murders considered mercy killings for victims suffering severely from the disease? Historians continue to ask these questions as the search for more bodies continues.

  • The Railroad Company May Have Covered Up The Immigrants' Deaths
    Photo: PBS / YouTube

    The Railroad Company May Have Covered Up The Immigrants' Deaths

    The Watson brothers, William Watson, history professor at Immaculata University, and Frank Watson, a reverend at a local church, discovered an old file in their family's belongings indicating that there was a discrepancy between the railroad's official records about the deaths at Duffy's Cut and those reported by local newspapers at the time. The file belonged to Martin Clement, who eventually became the president of Pennsylvania Railroad. Clement kept detailed records that showed 57 men died at the camp, while newspapers only reported eight deaths. They became convinced that there was more to the story, which possibly includes a coverup by the railroad company.

  • Amtrak Stopped The Excavation Project
    Photo: jmv / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Amtrak Stopped The Excavation Project

    The mass grave is 30 feet underground and too close to an Amtrak track to reach. Geophysicist Tim Bechtel said that he "doesn't blame [the company] for not being keen on excavating there," since Amtrak owns the property. Bill and Frank Watson, the leaders of the project, say that although they're disappointed, their true mission was to "get [the immigrants'] stories out of folklore and into actual history," which they feel they've accomplished.

  • The Immigrants' Work Was Grueling
    Photo: rjsteih / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    The Immigrants' Work Was Grueling

    Constructing a railroad is tough work in and of itself, but it's particularly hard when you have to level out an entire hill before you can put down tracks. Immigrant laborers were seen as disposable, which is why they got the most physically challenging work. In the case of Duffy's Cut, they were required to flatten a piece of land before they could put down the rails, which required moving "sticky, heavy... clay, a lot of stones—shale and rotten rock." Irish immigrants then had to the use the soil from the flattened hill to fill in a neighboring valley.

  • Tragically, Many Immigrants Were Dead Within Six Weeks Of Coming To America

    Fifty-seven of the immigrant laborers Philip Duffy hired when he got the bid to build the railroad at Mile 59, now known as Duffy's Cut, were "a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin." Records indicate that the workers came off a ship called the John Stamp, which arrived from Derry, Ireland. The passenger manifest lists young men like William Devine, aged 21, George Quigley, aged 22, and 18-year-old John Ruddy. There were some women on board too. Among them were Eliza Byrnes, aged 22, and 20-year-old Eliza Diven.

    Given the task of building one of the most difficult parts of the line, the men spent no more than a few weeks working before they all died. There was a cholera outbreak in the area at the time, and it's likely that many men perished from the disease. Investigators are unsure, however, how many died and whether it was the bullets in their skulls or the fatal illness that ultimately caused their demise.

  • Irish Workers Faced Low Wages And Miserable Conditions
    Photo: PBS / YouTube

    Irish Workers Faced Low Wages And Miserable Conditions

    Immigrants planning to work construction on the growing infrastructure in the United States faced difficult and dangerous conditions:

    "In 1881, more than 30,000 American railroad workers were killed or injured on the job. Many railroads offered no compensation; nor did the courts, which ruled that workers shared the blame for their injuries and deaths—even when railroads had the ability to use equipment that would improve safety."

    Traveling across the Atlantic for weeks was treacherous enough, but railroad workers faced low wages, paltry living conditions, and jobs that were potentially deadly. The immigrants at Duffy's Cut were probably paid about "ten to fifteen dollars a month, with miserable lodging, and an allowance for whiskey." The workers lived in a shanty town and, because there was widespread animosity toward Irish Catholics at the time, were incredibly isolated. They started work in June and were required to work through the brutally hot summer months.