That story was more legend than history in August 2004 when the Watsons began digging along Mile 59, near modern Amtrak tracks. (They’d obtained permission from local homeowners and the state of Pennsylvania to excavate.) In 2005, Hankey visited the valley and guessed where the workers would have strung their canvas shelter: sure enough, the diggers found evidence of a burned area, 30 feet wide. Excavations turned up old glass buttons, pieces of crockery and clay pipes—including one stamped with the image of an Irish harp.
But no bodies. Then Frank Watson reread a statement in the Clement file from a railroad employee: “I heard my father say that they were buried where they were making the fill.” Was it possible the bodies lay beneath the original railroad tracks? In December 2008, the Watsons asked geoscientist Tim Bechtel to concentrate his ground-penetrating radar search along the embankment, where he detected a large “anomaly,” possibly an air pocket formed by decomposed bodies. Three months later, shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, a student worker named Patrick Barry struck a leg bone with his shovel.
On a recent afternoon, the valley was quiet, except for the scrape and clatter of shovels, the slap of wet dirt in the bottom of a wheelbarrow, and every now and then the shuddering shriek of a passing train. The terrain would challenge even professional excavators: the embankment is steep and the roots of a huge tulip poplar have fingered their way through the site. The team’s pickaxes and spades are not much more sophisticated than the Irishmen’s original tools. “We are unbuilding what they died to build,” William Watson says.
The Watson brothers hope to recover every last body. In doing so, they could provoke fresh controversies. Some of the men might have been murdered, says Janet Monge, a University of Pennsylvania forensic anthropologist who is analyzing the remains. At least one and perhaps two of the recovered skulls show signs of trauma at the time of death, she says, adding these may have been mercy killings, or perhaps local vigilantes didn’t want more sick men leaving the valley.
Identifying the bodies is a challenge, because the laborers’ names are absent from census records and newspaper obituaries. And, says William Watson, the archives of the Sisters of Charity offer only a “spotty” account. The most promising clue is the passenger list of a ship, the John Stamp, the only vessel in the spring of 1832 to come from Ireland to Philadelphia with a good many Irish laborers aboard—including a teenager, John Ruddy of Donegal. Many of these immigrants did not show up in subsequent census records.
The news media in Ireland have reported on the Duffy’s Cut dig since 2006. This past year, as word of the discovery of the skeleton of Ruddy made headlines, the Watsons received phone calls and e-mails from several Ruddys in Ireland, including a Donegal family whose members exhibit the same congenital defect found in the skeleton. Matthew Patterson, a forensic dentist who worked with the Watsons, says the genetic abnormality is “exceptionally rare,” appearing in perhaps one in a million Americans, though the incidence may be greater in Ireland.
The Watsons are confident they have found the family John Ruddy left behind nearly two centuries ago. But to be certain, the brothers are raising money for genetic tests to compare DNA from the skeleton with that of the Donegal Ruddys; if there’s a match, Ruddy’s remains will be sent back to Ireland for a family burial. Any unclaimed remains the Watsons disinter will be buried beneath a Celtic cross in West Laurel Hill cemetery, where they will rest alongside some of Philadelphia’s great industrial tycoons. In the meantime, the Watsons held their own impromptu memorial service, going down to the mass grave one June afternoon to play the bagpipes.
Staff writer Abigail Tucker reported on the excavation of a Virginia slave jail in the March 2009 issue.