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