Murder in the Time of Cholera

Researchers suspect a cover-up in the Main Line deaths of 57 Irish railroad workers 178 years ago.

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Aug. 17, 2010

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“My God, that’s what we saw!” Bill blurted out.

Soon, both brothers were poring over the file line by line. As it turned out, Duffy’s Cut was located less than a mile away from Bill Watson’s office at Immaculata and the two decided to try and find it. According to the file, in 1909 the PRR erected a stonewall marker along the side of the tracks to honor the men, and the Watson brothers would spend days walking what is today SEPTA’s R-5 line until they found the monument. Beyond the marker lay a small, steeply sloped wooded valley, Dead Horse Hollow, and somewhere down there were the remains of the 57 Irishmen. The brothers vowed to find the men, identify them if possible and notify the next of kin, and give them a proper burial. The Watson brothers were soon joined by two other Immaculata historians, Earl Schandelmeier and John Ahtes (who passed away in July), and the four would form the core research team of the Duffy’s Cut Project.

The men worked for love, not money. Although the team applied for numerous grants to fund the research project, all requests were denied, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We have to make do with what we jokingly call MAC grants—meaning we have to go to the ATM,” Schandelmeier says.

But as word of the project grew, more and more experts agreed to donate their time, including Penn’s Monge and Dr. Timothy Bechtel, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Franklin and Marshall College and chief scientist for Enviroscan, which provides magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar for archeological digs and public-works projects. It was Bechtel’s scans that pinpointed the remains that have been exhumed thus far. Bechtel usually charges $2,200 a day, and he estimates he has spent at least 30 days scanning the valley at Duffy’s Cut pro bono. “This project is so worth it,” he says. “All of us think it’s just absurd that we can’t get any grant money, it boggles the mind that nobody thinks this project has any historic merit. Early on, a lot of people thought we were on a wild goose chase, and now it’s too late to admit they were wrong.”

At first, the work was tedious and time-consuming as the team pored through far-flung historic archives, old census records and newspapers. Strangely, all copies of the Oct. 3, 1832, edition of the Village Record, the paper of record at the time, are missing, including the copy that should reside in the Library of Congress. This is the edition that should have had the first news account of the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut. Curiously, a follow-up story in the Village Record from Nov. 9 claims the death toll was overstated in the first article, and that only eight or nine Irishmen died at Duffy’s Cut. None of the other newspaper accounts from the time put the death toll higher than nine or 10. The Watson brothers began to smell a cover-up.

“Railroads were big advertisers” Bill Watson says. “The incident was always downplayed in newspaper accounts, and I think that all copies of the Village Record [from Oct. 3, 1832] issue were pulled and destroyed.”

There were other parts of the official record that didn’t add up. Even with the relatively primitive medical treatments for cholera available back in 1832, such as leeching, the death rate was only 40 to 60 percent, meaning nearly half of all people who contracted the disease recovered. The fact that all 57 Irishmen contracted cholera and died from it would seem to be at best an amazing statistical anomaly—and at worst a bold-faced lie.

According to archival accounts, when the cholera began infecting the men at Duffy’s Cut, a plea for medical help went out and was swiftly denied. Back then it was mistakenly believed that cholera was spread by casual contact (in fact, cholera is only spread by direct ingestion of fecal matter through contaminated water or food) and the valley at Duffy’s Cut was then quarantined.

There were no police or sheriffs in the area at the time, so law and order was maintained by the East Whiteland Horse Company, an armed vigilante force made up of local men that retrieved stolen horses and meted out rough justice to the thieves. The Duffy’s Cut researchers hypothesize that as many as 10 men may have defied the quarantine and fled the valley in search of help, or just out of fear and desperation. Men from the Horse Company soon tracked them down. There was a struggle, violence ensued, and all the men who escaped the valley were killed. Their bodies were brought back to the shanty as a grim reminder of what would happen if anyone else tried to leave the valley. The Horse Company men then cordoned off the lip of the valley, where the men were left to die.

That is the theory anyway, and for the last six years it remained just that until the summer of 2009 when the team began uncovering skeletal remains, each with perimortem wounds to the skulls. The Watson brothers admit they may never be able to identify who killed the men, assuming that is what in fact happened. “Unfortunately, that part of the mystery may never be solved,” says Frank Watson. Still, the Duffy’s Cut Team is confident they are on the right side of history, and even if they are never able to conclusively prove what happened at Duffy’s Cut and who is responsible, it is the least they can do to give the men a proper Christian burial. If all goes according to plan, they will locate and exhume the remains of all the men by the end of the year. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd has offered burial spaces for the remains, and the Watson brothers plan to have a Celtic cross made out of stone to mark the gravesite.

Already there are signs that, slowly but surely, the curse that has hung over the valley at Duffy’s Cut like a fog for 178 years may finally be lifting.

“Before we found the first body we never heard any animal sounds down in the valley, no bird chirping, just an eerie silence,” says Frank Watson. “After we started finding the bodies, the birds started chirping again.”

Jonathan Valania is editor in chief of

Duffy's Cut: Conversations with the Dead?


This past spring, the Chester County Paranormal Research Society asked for permission to investigate the valley at Duffy’s Cut. The Duffy’s Cut Project research team is deeply divided about the scientific validity of paranormal investigations—Frank Watson (along with John Ahtes, before his death) believes they are in conflict with his religious beliefs and status as a clergyman; Bill Watson remains agnostic about their validity; and Earl Schandelmeier prefers to keep an open mind about the known unknowns that lie beyond the purview of scientific fact—but after some debate they gave the go-ahead.

The CCPRS team brought with them an array of sophisticated ghost-busting equipment, including cameras equipped with motion sensors and night-vision capabilities, and several electromagnetic field meters. But the device that yielded the most startling results was something called a Frank’s Box, a device that scans the AM radio band and acts like a ouija board, purportedly enabling a two-way conversation between the living and the dead.

Duffy’s Cut Project team members Earl Schandelmeier and Robert Frank accompanied the investigators from CCPRS and both men agreed to ask questions out loud that only the 57 Irishmen could answer during sessions with the Frank’s Box. These attempts to communicate with the dead took place in three half-hour segments over the course of several hours. At first, there was not much response, but as the night wore on, things got interesting:

Question: Do you know Duffy?

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. BaT.TereDCakeS said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 10:41AM

“I would loveto find out who did this. I hope they uncover the mystery. This should be solved so their spirits can rest in peace.”

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2. Orange you glad I didn't say banana said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 01:59PM

“"were built on the blood, sweat and tears of Irish Catholic immigrants"

I am amazed to learn that only Irish catholic immigrants worked on the railroad. Absolutely none of the workers were protestant, not even one.
Perhaps protestant Irish did work on the railroad but lacked the blood, sweat and tears of their catholic countrymen.

I know the vast majority of immigrants were catholic as the majority of the population in Ireland is catholic but it strains credulity that every single Irishman that worked on the railroad was catholic.

Mr Valania, can you prove your assertion?

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3. rdriley said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 02:36PM

“A good story that misses being great thanks to the incredulous addition of paranormal nonsense. It's one thing to report that some wanna-be "ghostbusters" crossed their streams down in Duffy's Cut and leave it at that. It's another thing entirely to print supposed "answers" from beyond the grave as if they are direct quotations, and not the random, garbled radio nonsense that any reasonable person hears on those recordings.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 04:56PM

“Seriously, give it a rest.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 05:52PM

“What utter credulous drivel.

But thanks for not describing the Irishmen as clad in Emerald green or carrying lucky charms, you used a lot of cliches but scraped past those two.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 06:04PM

“Paranormal nonsense or not...there is no bad publicity.

The role of impoverished immigrants and their role in North American infrastructure is under studied and downplayed whether they were European African, Asian or from other regions. These people dug the foundations, laid the track and built the waterways that still determine how we live.

As a note to “Orange”…I’m sure you’re aware that Irish Catholics and Protestants didn’t often work together – if at all. The 700 years of English repression would see Protestants and Catholics each taking every opportunity they could to do each other in.

During the early 1800’s they mostly lived in segregated communities – can you imagine the outcome if there was only one Protestant in that work gang?

As an example I suggest reading “Goaded to madness - the battle of Slabtown”
Paul Hutchinson, Michael Power, 1999

I think it’s great that the Duffy’s Cut Project has taken this on. The facts show important cultural connections, soc”

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7. Salathiel Albine said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 07:54AM

“I’ve slept peacefully on many a grave in PA in my historical researches during my 50 years of study. I was visiting a friend at his new home and we were having a lovely garden party. A few of us decided to take a walk in the woods and that meant going down the path below his house in the woods. As we got lower, some of the female guests began getting apprehensive, and complained of the sudden cold. It was a hot, muggy day in august, but the air was indeed, suddenly very cold. I asked about the path and the homeowner said it used to be for the railroad, or something, but they didn’t use it. Then he said it was called Duffy’s Cut. I immediately recalled having read about it in the 1970s, and said “oh, this place is haunted” and as soon as I said that, the entire valley filled with a thick fog. Any one of us could have fallen and been hurt or worse, but eventually we all made it back up to the house, although it took a long time and we had to all hold hands so not to get lost on the path. It was almost impossible to see the path in the fog. Back up at the house, it was hot and sunny, but you could see the fog below. I’ll not be back.”

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8. gurrier said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 09:54AM

“The Smithsonian did a piece on this last year, and Irish radio and TV have continue to cover it. This article misses the bit that most interested me - a rare congenital defect has enabled one of the bodies to be identified.

As for the Catholic/Protestant thing, the men came from a pretty mixed part of the country, and judging by the names mentioned in the radio show linked below, there's a strong chance they were both Catholic and Protestant. Don't let Irish-American stereotypes blind you.

RTE (starts 30 mins in, about 8 mins long) :”

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9. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 01:39PM

“"utter credulous drivel"? WTF? The Victorian age called, they want their outraged sensibilities back.”

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10. Micky said... on Nov 24, 2012 at 10:47AM

“as an Irish Catholic , I know through out history You would not find the Catholics and Protestants together . Still that way to many of us today . ( not a religous thing . political . just happens to be the way party lines were drawn a very long tiome ago ) To read they were , every lovin one , all Catholic is no shock at all . to ever read it in reverse wouldnt have shocked me eighter . Lets just remember th tragedy , and not muck it all up with trash .”

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11. PC said... on Feb 8, 2013 at 11:09PM

“I only recently became interested in the story of Duffy's Cut. As a history buff I'm aware of the prejudice towards Irish catholics that existed, especially in the Philadelphia region. In 1842 there were riots, churches burned and priest hanged in Philadelphia. References to the paranormal seem to serve as a bridge between the past and present.”

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12. David said... on Feb 9, 2013 at 02:29PM

“This needs to be brought to the light of day.
Was it in the same general area as where the Paxton Boys killed American Indians at a mission?
Protestants and Catholics never made common cause? What about Wolfe Tone, Emmet, Mitchel ?”

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13. David said... on May 9, 2013 at 09:24AM

“I watched a program "Secrets of the Dead" on PBS last night (May 8 2013).
The program was about the Duffy's Cut mystery and was interesting. Evidence is that there most definitely was foul play and a cover up.
Perhaps the program will be put online or on You Tube? I may have missed something during the program but am curious about what happened to Mr. Duffy himself.”

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14. Enigma said... on Dec 15, 2013 at 02:05PM

“I agree with Mickey...the truth as to who murdered these poor men has likely passed into history but the tragedy remains...Let us give these poor earthbound souls a decent burial and leave them to their eternal slumber! May they rest in peace!”

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15. David said... on Dec 11, 2014 at 05:21PM

“As to the Protestant and Catholic thing a thought that occurs to me is "Not all Protestants are Orange".

I personally hope that the murderers at Duffy's Cut were not "Scotch-Irish" but of course there is that possibility as well as in the case of the "Paxton Boys" Indian murderers.”

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16. David said... on Dec 14, 2014 at 10:53AM

“I see that a Youtube version of "Death on the Railroad" plays well on my computer as of Dec.14 2014. If I get it right it is

I would be curious about the suspected mass grave site that was not accessed because of location too close(or under) to the active modern railroad,if remains were there,did some of them die of cholera or were all of them murdered?”


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Related Content

The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut
By Jonathan Valania

This past spring, the Chester County Paranormal Research Society asked for permission to investigate the valley at Duffy’s Cut. These attempts to communicate with the dead took place in three half-hour segments over the course of several hours. At first, there was not much response, but as the night wore on, things got interesting.