Buried in a green Pennsylvania valley for nearly two centuries, the man had been reduced to a jumble of bones: skull, vertebrae, toes, teeth and ribs. Gradually, though, he came alive for William and Frank Watson, twin brothers who are leading an excavation at a pre-Civil War railroad construction site outside Philadelphia, where 57 Irish workers are said to have been surreptitiously interred in a mass grave.
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The plates of the man’s skull were not fully fused, indicating he was a teenager when he died. He was relatively short, 5-foot-6, but quite strong, judging from his bone structure. And X-rays showed he never grew an upper right first molar, a rare genetic defect. The Watsons have tentatively identified him as John Ruddy—an 18-year-old laborer from rural County Donegal, who sailed from Derry in the spring of 1832. He likely had cholera, alongside dozens of his countrymen, all dying within two months of setting foot on American shores.
Tipped off by a long-secret railroad company document, the Watsons searched the woods around Malvern, Pennsylvania, for four and a half years to find “our men” (as they call the workers) before locating the Ruddy skeleton in March 2009. They have since unearthed the mingled remains of several others and believe they know the location of the rest. William is a professor of medieval history at Immaculata University; Frank is a Lutheran minister. Both belong to Irish and Scottish cultural societies (they are competitive bagpipers), but neither had any prior archaeological training.
“Half the people in the world thought we were crazy,” William says.
“Every once in a while we would sit down and ask ourselves: ‘Are we crazy?’” Frank adds. “But we weren’t.”
Today their dig is shedding light on the early 19th century, when thousands of immigrants labored to build the infrastructure of the still-young nation. Labor unions were in their infancy. Working conditions were controlled entirely by the companies, most of which had little regard for the safety of their employees. The Pennsylvania grave was a human “trash heap,” Frank says. Similar burial sites lie alongside this country’s canals, dams, bridges and railroads, their locations known and unknown; their occupants nameless. But the Watsons were determined to find the Irishmen at the site, known as Duffy’s Cut. “They’re not going to be anonymous anymore,” William says.
The project began in 2002 when the Watsons began reviewing a private railroad company file that had belonged to their late grandfather, the assistant to Martin Clement, a 1940s-era Pennsylvania Railroad president. The file—a collection of letters and other documents Clement assembled during a 1909 company investigation—described an 1832 cholera outbreak that swept through a construction encampment along a stretch of railroad that would connect Philadelphia with Columbia, Pennsylvania. Contemporary newspapers, which usually kept detailed tallies of local cholera fatalities, implied that only a handful of men had died at the camp. Yet Clement’s inquiry concluded that at least 57 men had perished. The Watsons became convinced the railroad covered up the deaths to ensure the recruitment of new laborers.
Work on the Philadelphia and Columbia line, originally a horse-drawn train, began in 1828. Three years later, a contractor named Philip Duffy got the nod to construct Mile 59, one of the toughest stretches. The project required leveling a hill—known as making a cut—and using the soil to fill in a neighboring valley in order to flatten the ground. It was nasty work. The dirt was “heavy as the dickens,” says railroad historian John Hankey, who visited the site. “Sticky, heavy, a lot of clay, a lot of stones—shale and rotten rock.”
Duffy, a middle-class Irishman, had tackled previous railroad projects by enlisting “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin,” an 1829 newspaper article reported. By 1830, census records show that Duffy was sheltering immigrants in his rental home. Like many laborers from Ireland’s rural north, Duffy’s workers were probably poor, Catholic and Gaelic-speaking. Unlike the wealthier Scotch-Irish families who preceded them, they were typically single men traveling with few possessions who would perform punishing jobs for a pittance. The average wages for immigrant laborers were “ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and a large allowance for whiskey,” the British novelist Frances Trollope reported in the early 1830s.
When cholera swept the Philadelphia countryside in the summer of 1832, railroad workers housed in a shanty near Duffy’s Cut fled the area, according to Julian Sachse, a historian who interviewed elderly locals in the late 1800s. But nearby homeowners, perhaps fearful of infection (it was not yet known that cholera spreads through contaminated water sources), turned them away. The laborers went back to the valley, to be tended only by a local blacksmith and nuns from the Sisters of Charity, who went to the camp from Philadelphia. Later the blacksmith buried the bodies and torched the shanty.