Duffy’s Cut: Hopes that the mass grave of Irish dead have been uncovered

Rev. Dr. Frank Watson Dr. William Watson and Earl Schandelneir pictured at the monument at the back of Derry's Quay. DER2815MC077
Rev. Dr. Frank Watson Dr. William Watson and Earl Schandelneir pictured at the monument at the back of Derry's Quay. DER2815MC077
  • There are hopes that the mass grave of remains may have been located
  • The Watson brothers pioneered the search for the Irish dead
  • 57 emogrants left Derry quay in 1832
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Fresh searches have gotten underway in the United States in an attempt to recover the remains of 51 Irish workers who died at a campsite at Malvern, Pennsylvannia where they had been employed as railway workers having emigrated from Ireland in 1832.

And, researchers are hopeful that this may uncover the mass grave where most of the remains of the dead are located.

Fifty-seven workers, mainly from Donegal and Tyrone had been hired by construction chief Philip Duffy to help lay rail track through the woods of Pennsylvannia. They left Derry quay upon the ship John Stamp. Yet, just weeks after their arrival all of them were dead, either through cholera, murder or a combination of both factors.

In July this year a delegation of academics and archaeologists who pioneered the excavation travelled to Derry to visit the city’s quay from where the emigrants emabarked and to take part in a funeral mass and burial ceremony for the only woman who at the site known as ‘Duffy’s Cut’. The remains of 29-year-old Catherine Burns were reinterred at St Patrick’s Church, near Coalisland, County Tyrone. Injuries to her skull indicate she had been murdered.

Previously it had been thought that further searches for the remains would not be possible because of the proximity of the rail track to the burial site of the dead of Duffy’s Cut. However, the new search site is about 50 yard away from the original burial site and is also close to the memorial wall built in 1909 to commemorate the victims.

The story of Duffy’s Cut has been brought back to life over the past decade by brothers, Frank and William Watson, a Lutheran minister and a historian at Immaculata University.

DUFFY'S CUT. . .Dr. William Watson reading a copy of the Journal outside the city's Guildhall during his visit to Derry this summer..  DER2815MC076

DUFFY'S CUT. . .Dr. William Watson reading a copy of the Journal outside the city's Guildhall during his visit to Derry this summer.. DER2815MC076

Following negotiations with America’s national railroad, Amtrak, they were granted permission to carry out the new dig.

Frank Watson said: “What we are conducting now are core samples of the site of what we believe is the mass grave of the reamining 51 labourer’s at Duffy’s Cut.

“We have core samples being taken between 20 and 30 feet along an area underground that our geophysicist indicated looks like the mass burial place.

“If we find human remains in these core samples our intent is to excavate the remains and re-inter them in the United States, at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and in Ireland, as we have already done with the first 6 bodies who were buried at the base of the 1832 railroad tracks).”

It was a tale of injustice. We are here to put the final stamp on it after many years-William Watson

The core sampling should be completed by the end of this week. “They will be analyzed by Dr. Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania,” Dr Watson said. “We hope, if there are viable remains, to be able to match them up additional laborers from the John Stamp.”

The Watson brothers and their team rely entirely on donations to complete their honorable work to give these Irish immigrants murdered and buried in a pit, thousands of miles from home, a dignified burial.

Last July, a group of men, including the Watson brothers, who eventually unearthed the uncomfortable truth of what took place over 180 years ago in the woods at Malvern, close to Philadelphia visited the spot on Derry’s quay from where the unfortunate migrants set sail.

Dr Frank and Dr William Watson, set about unravelling the mystery after they were bequeathed a set of papers by their grandfather. Their grandfather had been assistant to Martin Clement, a former Chairman of the Pennsylvannia and Columbia Railway. When the company went out of business in 1970, the Watson’s grandfather kept the file concerning Duffy’s Cut. It was marked as ‘confidential’.

EAMON AD HERE. . ..'Front left to right, Eal Schandelneir, Rev. Dr. Frank Watson, Dr. William Watson. Back from left, Bob McAllister and Tom Conners. DER2815MC075

EAMON AD HERE. . ..'Front left to right, Eal Schandelneir, Rev. Dr. Frank Watson, Dr. William Watson. Back from left, Bob McAllister and Tom Conners. DER2815MC075

Speaking about why they began to delve into the story of Duffy’s Cut, William Watson told the Journal: “It was a tale of injustice. We are here to put the final stamp on it after many years. “

“Our grandfather told us part of the story when we were only young brothers. I have a recollection that the story went in ear and out the other. I inherited the file after he died. In 2002, I looked through the papers and some of my grandfathers work on the railway and remembered this was one of the stories he told us and one that he’d preserved. I teach history at Immculata University and the site is just beside Duffy’s Cut.

“On the cover of the file it said ‘Do not let this get out of the office’. We then knew there was a mystery here. His boss had compiled the file going back to the early days of the 20th century. He had other stuff because he was director of personnel, he was allowed to take from the vault what he wanted. But, we know for a fact that this story was important for him because he kept it in a special place in his study. He annotated the file because there were a couple of dates that his boss had got wrong. So what we inheirited was a file with accurate dates and information.

“As late as 1955 they were still keeping this a secret. Right after we found the first set of remains I did a talk at Wayne, a place not too far from the site. A guy who was the nephew of Martin Clement came forward and said he was brought into the boardroom and my grandfather was there. It was here that he’d heard the story and was told not to say anything about it. Now, why would they want to keep it a secret unless there was another part to the story?”

In fact as Martin Clement began the compilation of the file on what had happened at Duffy’s Cut he advertised in local newspapers from people to come forward who had any information about what actually took place there in 1832. And, people who knew at least parts of the tale began to come forward. So, the file not only contained the kernels of the story but the perspectives of those who had passed the story on. “

Frank Watson said: “At one point we came across a man whose father had been a contemporary of a man who left Derry in 1832 and came from Donegal. His name was George Doherty and his fathers name was John Doherty who was born around 1803 and who was able to tell where the remains were buried. The first man who tried to preserve the story was called Patrick Doyle who arrived in the States before the Civil War. He settled in Pennsylvania and after the war was a track labourer on the railroad. His sister also provided rooms in her home for Martin Clement about 1909, so that’s how Clement came to knew about the story.

“It’s a crazy lineage. Doherty, Doyle and then my grandfather and then us. Otherwise this was folklore, whitewash, hidden history that no one would have given a damn about. “

The Watson brothers firmly believe that it was fate that combined a set of circumstances that brought them to where they are now in terms of the tale of Duffy’s Cut.

“We both have PhD’s in historical areas and we know that when we looked at this it is something very unique. If it had fallen into the hands of someone else it may not have gone anywhere,” said Frank.

William Watson also believes that there is another facet to the story.

He said: “Another man here with us in Derry, Tom Conners, saw something that made us think there was some sort of supernatural connection. This was two years before we began this project, but coincides exactly with when houses began to be built very near the site. Everyone in that cul-de-sac came to us after the story hit the our local media and reported ghostly sightings there. What I would say is that we saw fiery figures. Then when I saw the file, it opened it up. Before I saw the file I would have said we’d seen neon lights, but if we had been back in the 1880s and read the very first newspaper reports of ghostly sightings, I would have called them fiery figures. It’s insane and none of us would say that this is coincidence.”

The Journal spoke to the Watson’s on Derry’s river front, the spot where the Duffy’s Cut immigrants departed from. They viewed it as very poignant moment in their journey.

“Now that we are looking at the river, the Foyle-that they came to the place where we live for a better life but never found it is very sad,” said Frank Watson.

His brother William told the Journal: “It still hasn’t really sunk into me that we are actually here at the point of departure. We drive across the river today and I thought to myself, Oh my God, this is where they would have seen the last of their native land.”

Another member of the group, Earl Schandelneir who studied under William Watson at Immaculata University told the Journal: “In 2002 Bill asked for volunteers for the Duffy’s Cut project and I volunteered the first day. I graduated and went through graduate school and moved to another state, but I have just kept coming back again and again,” he said.