If you’re driving along King Road near Malvern PA, a small town approximately 30 miles west of Philadelphia in the heart of Pennsylvania’s mainline, you’ll come across an innocuous historical marker at where King intersects Sugartown Road. The marker tells the tale of Duffy’s Cut Mass grave, a black mark in Pennsylvania’s history that occurred 181 years ago.
About a half mile away from this marker, between an affluent cul-de-sac and Amtrak’s R-5 line, in an area known as “Dead Horse Hollow” there lies the mass grave of 57 Irish immigrants. These men, who came from the counties Donegal, Tyrone and Derry were initially reported to have died of cholera as there was an epidemic wiping through the Delaware Valley at the time. Reality is much more gruesome. In the past several years a team of local men, historians, students and concerned citizens, have been working to exhume the bodies and provide them with proper burials. Thus far, seven have been excavated. Forensic evidence shows they died violently, likely at the hands of local vigilantes prejudiced against the Irish.
I first learned about the Duffy’s Cut project a couple of years ago when I was doing some pre-concert research (what? no one else does that). I was seeing The Dropkick Murphys play in Philly (where I did this lovely Irish Pub Crawl) for their Shamrock and Roll Tour and looked up the lyrics to the song “The Hardest Mile,” from their album Going Out in Style, which was written in commemoration of Duffy’s Cut. On my way back from Philadelphia the next morning, I took a detour through Malvern and stopped to read the marker (and snap a photo). I would have hiked down into the woods to check out what was going on, but it was raining and the concert was still effecting me ( a polite way of saying I was hungover).
I did some further research into the project and found that the two men spearheading the project are brothers, Dr. William Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University and his brother Rev. Dr. Frank Watson and in the process I found another connection, just three blocks away from my apartment.
When I first moved to Lancaster I knew Tellus 360 as a cool store that sold Irish antiques and furniture made from reclaimed wood. These days, it’s much more then a store. An experience might be one way to describe. An entertainment center could be another. On their website they describe it as a hub, and a meeting place that every town needs. I contacted Tellus 360 asking to learn a little bit more about their involvement in this project and was invited down to their building to talk with Joe Devoy, the owner, and learn more about both their property and the Duffy’s Cut project.
When I first arrived, we sat to talk in their basement recording studio (I told you it was much more than a store) and after chatting about Duffy’s Cut I got a grand tour, but that’ll be saved for part two of this piece.
Joe had got involved in the project, as we’re so apt to do, through a friend of a friend. He gave me some more background information, and some insights I couldn’t gain through research alone.
A quick summation is that these 57 immigrants were hired off the boat in Philadelphia in 1832. A railroad contractor named Phillip Duffy hired them to lay grounds for what would become “the mainline.” The particular stretch that these men worked on (the aforementioned “hardest mile”) was particularly brutal with dense forests and hilly terrain. After these men (and woman) perished little was heard about the incident for years.
The Duffy’s Cut project has been shrouded up in piles of cover ups and bureaucracy from the time it began. When I asked Joe why they were so committed to this cause he referenced that. He told me how too many coincidences have been falling into the laps of the men working on this for them to give up and make sure to see it through. William Watson (who heads the project) happened to be teaching at Immaculata University, just a mile from the site of the mass grave. His (Watson’s) grandfather had been an executive with the Pennsylvania railroad and had in his possession, a file on the matter that the railway had kept under lock for years. Those things couldn’t just be coincidence.
If you want a more extensive, better written account of the project from it’s infancy, check out this article, “Murder in the Time of Cholera,” that Jonathan Valania did for the Philadelphia Weekly in 2010. The article includes a visit to the area by the Chester County paranormal society, because, well, people think it’s haunted.
Nearby residents claim that “Dead Horse Hollow,” the valley in which the mass grave lies is haunted and Watson has mentioned the creepiness of the area. Mr. Devoy, when talking, didn’t make mention of any ghost or other things that go bump in the night, but did assert that you could still feel the presence of these Irish immigrants if you’re in the area, that they’ve become part of the landscape, which is part of the reasoning behind one of Tellus 360’s upcoming projects.
Mr. Devoy procured an 150 year old poplar tree that was chopped down in order to exhume the current seven bodies. It started growing, he told me, recently after the men were buried and had essentially sprung up from their grave. It was part of them and they are part of it. His goal is to create 57 musical instruments (guitars, both acoustic and electric, mandolin, fiddles, bodhran, flute, cello and possibly a grand piano )out of the wood. An endgame would be to give half of them to local musicians and half to musicians in Ireland and at one point have all the men who play one come together to play them as a unit, a final tribute to the fallen men of Duffy’s Cut.
This is some years in the future however because first, the wood needs to dry out properly, and the remaining men must be exhumed. This is a story that’s still being played out.
In the March of 2012 the bodies of four men and one woman were laid to rest in Philadelphia’s West Laurel cemetery. Another body, that of 18 year old John Ruddy, has been sent over to the village of Ardara in County Donegal Ireland to be buried there.
I asked Joe why it meant so much to see that these guys were exhumed and properly buried. It’s because they paved his way here, he told me. He came over to the US at a young age and as an Irish American, was welcomed by an already thriving community and given the opportunity to thrive (that’ll certainly be evident in the second part of this blog post where we explore what Tellus 360 is turning into) but these guys didn’t have that chance he said. They endured a two month voyage across the Atlantic and were hired the day after arriving in Philadelphia, worked like dogs and disposed of when they were no longer of worth. The Irish, he pointed out, at that time were worth less than a slave, because they could at least be sold for a profit. We talked about how Pennsylvania had such a storied history of the Irish fighting for a place in the American hierarchy from Duffy’s Cut to the Molly Maguires (Joe himself researched and wrote an article about them) and the basic indentured servitude Irish miners in my home region of NEPA endured. It’s a cycle. The Irish have ended up coming out on top but there’s other ethnicities and nationalities facing the same thing today.
These railway workers may be dead but the issue is a relevant one.
Click here to check out the official Duffy’s Cut project website. It’s chock full of articles, pictures, and updates on the project. Here is the link to Dr. William Watson’s book The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut, which is an interesting read for anyone interested in either Irish American or Pennsylvania (or both in my case) history.
And stay tuned for the second part of this post where we’ll get into just what else Tellus 360 is involved in (hint: it’s a lot).