Buried History: The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut

Restless spirits reveal murder and xenophobia on the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

A Celtic cross in West Laurel Hill Cemetery marks the memory of 57 Irish laborers who were murdered during a cholera scare in 1832. Though the railroad company who’d hired them successfully covered up this crime for almost 200 years, two armchair detectives exposed the tragedy after piecing together clues in family documentation, and following ghostly apparitions to the massacre site.

Located near where Immaculata University is today, “Duffy’s Cut” was to be a crucial track connecting Philadelphia to western Pennsylvania. Named for Philip Duffy, a railroad contractor and Irish immigrant who personally arranged passage for his crew of young men from Ireland.

They were hardly welcome. Many nativist neighbors here resented how these workers undercut them for jobs by taking lower pay and longer days. They also distrusted their Catholic roots, and suspiciously eyed the poverty-stricken “shanty towns” that sprung up along the train tracks.

That summer, Philadelphia was in the throes of its first cholera epidemic, an exotic new disease that caused violent diarrhea and vomiting, blinding headaches and agonizing muscle cramps. A victim could go into shock and die within hours of onset – indeed, about half the people who caught it lost their lives. It was an indiscriminate killer, too, decimating families across all strata of society.

People didn’t understand germs back then – this was decades before Louis Pasteur, when disease was thought to be caused by “foul air” reacting to an individual’s moral and physical constitution. Hand washing wasn’t a thing, and anyway the city’s water supply carried raw sewage and waste from hospitals, garbage dumps, slaughterhouses, and other foul sources. It certainly wasn’t tested or treated, putting every resident at risk from poor tenements to posh townhomes.

Encamped in a valley close to their job site, the Irish newcomers at Duffy’s Cut were especially vulnerable. The local streams they trusted for drinking water became teeming with cholera in the stifling-hot summer of 1832, causing an inevitable outbreak. Word of the dreaded illness quickly got out, it seems, and the townspeople panicked.

A vigilante group formed, evidently stationed at the East Whiteland Horse Company (a stakeholder in the railroad here). We’ll probably never know exactly what went down, but evidence suggests these Irish immigrants were viciously, psychopathically attacked — probably ambushed while they slept, and possibly terrorized over several days first.

Their bodies were thrown into a mass grave and the incident was swept under the rug, with the railroad project moving forward as if nothing happened. Families back in Ireland never heard from them again. Philip Duffy finished this job, moved onto the next. No one was ever charged.

People talk, though, and reports of spirit sightings in the area kept the story alive through generations – starting almost immediately. Just one month after the gruesome murders, a man walking home along the tracks one night reported that he saw green and blue flaming apparitions that looked like the doomed Irishmen, “hopping and bobbing” around the trench where they were buried. 😱

This story was just one of the many documented in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s secret file on Duffy’s Cut, which collected anecdotes, citations, and assorted paperwork about the violence that had been pulled from the records – locked away for 170+ years, ending up in a former company official’s personal papers. Hidden from history. What’s a wronged wraith to do?

One night in 2000, the spectral Irishmen appeared to the Railroad exec’s grandson, a history professor at Immaculata University. He and a friend happened to glance out his office window to see three distinct, glowing forms in the quad below. “It looked like neon lights in the shape of men,“ said William Watson, ”I thought it was something to do with an art show.”

When they went outside to investigate, the phenomenon was gone. “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.” The experience came flashing back two years later, when he and his brother Frank discovered their grandfather’s archive on Duffy’s Cut. All those recurring paranormal reports sounded eerily similar. And familiar. The Watson brothers made it their mission to locate the mass grave and help the spirts find rest by honoring their truth.

After various search efforts including sonar and electromagnetic imaging, their team found success in 2009 by recreating the original 1832 supernatural account exactly as described. Cross-referencing details with current history/topography, they determined where the witness would’ve been when he saw the phantom activity. Remarkably, forensics experts found unmistakable evidence of a mass grave on the spot: seven skeletons, all murder victims, most with gunshot wounds and at least one showing signs of extreme overkill.

Fifty more skeletons likely lie sunken 15 – 20 feet beneath a nearby steep embankment. The Watsons hope that future DNA testing will confirm their research into the victims’ identities, which they uncovered using ship manifests. In 2012, their names were all carved into a large Celtic cross monument in a special ceremony at West Laurel Hill cemetery, where the remains of the seven unearthed victims have been reburied.

Meanwhile most commuters on the Paoli line never give a thought to the people who died laying this track, some of them still buried beneath it. Now that you know: tell a friend. May the ghosts of Duffy’s Cut rest in peace, may we never forget what happened.

via Railroaders Memorial Museum


Nativism been a recurring theme in the United States, a backlash of established inhabitants against immigrants, who were feared, scorned, and scapegoated. Americans have opposed newcomers from practically every racial and cultural background, including (but not limited to) Catholics, Chinese, Irish, Germans, Africans, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and all manner of Spanish-speaking countries.

Myths persist, fueled by misinformation, prejudice, and fear of the unknown. Today, immigration is again a hot-button issue. Here are some facts to help cooler minds prevail in the reform process.

MYTH: Most immigrants are here illegally.
FACTS: According to the Pew Research Center, there were about 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2017, accounting for only 23% of the total foreign-born population of 44.4 million. The majority of immigrants are here legally, either as naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, or temporary visa holders.

MYTH: My ancestors entered the country legally, why can’t they?
FACTS: The immigration laws and policies of the past were very different from those of today. Before 1921, there were no numerical limits on immigration, and most people who arrived at ports of entry were admitted (unless they had serious health/criminal issues).

Today, the immigration system is much more restrictive and complex, with annual caps, quotas, preferences, and categories that make it extremely difficult for many people to enter or stay in the country legally.

MYTH: Today’s immigrants don’t want to learn English.
FACTS: Of course immigrants want to fit in! According to a 2018 survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 88% of immigrants said that speaking English is essential or very important to succeed in the United States. Moreover, the evidence shows that immigrants and their children are learning English at similar or faster rates than previous generations of immigrants.

True Story: while the US has no official language, you need to be able to speak, read, and write English for our citizenship test (even though there are plenty of “natural born” Americans who can’t read and write 🤷 ).

MYTH: Immigrants take our jobs.
FACTS: Immigrants don’t compete for our jobs — rather, they work alongside us in various industries, performing complementary tasks. Immigrants have different skills, education levels, and preferences than native-born workers, and they often fill labor gaps in sectors such as agriculture, construction, health care, and technology.

Immigrants pay more than $490 billion in taxes annually (and they receive only a fraction of that in assistance). Furthermore, immigrants are more likely than natives to start their own businesses, which generate income, employment, and innovation for the economy.

MYTH: Immigrants will overrun our society and make us change how we live.
FACTS: The US is a country of immigrants — newcomers are not a threat to our values or identity, they are literally a representation of them. They’re just people, like us!  Immigrants share the same aspirations and ideals as native-born Americans, such as freedom, democracy, and individuality. Immigrants also bring their own cultures, languages, religions, and traditions, which add to the vibrancy and diversity of American society.

A truly secure and confident society doesn’t fear immigrants, they welcome them like a healthy family opens up to new partners, children, and friends over the years. With the right supports in place, we can build a fuller future for us all.

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave them in the comments below.  

PS: Grab some Duffy’s Cut swag and memorabilia at duffyscutproject.com (based at Immaculata University where apparently there’s a small museum?!). For updates, follow @DuffysCutFansFriends and Duffy’s Cut Museum on Facebook.

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