Duffy’s Cut victim returns to Donegal for burial

A year after five unidentified victims who died during the construction of the Duffy’s Cut section of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in 1832 were buried in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, the remains of another Duffy’s Cut worker have been returned to Donegal and laid to rest. His name was John Ruddy of Inishowen, and he traveled from Londonderry to Philadelphia on the barque John Stamp in June of 1832 to work on the railroad. A few months later, his body was dumped into an unmarked mass grave with an axe hole in his skull.

Duffy’s Cut, named after Philip Duffy, a fellow Irish immigrant who had moved to the US in search of his fortune, was a particularly gnarly piece of railroad 20 miles west of Philadelphia. Duffy’s contract with the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad required him to level a hill and fill the adjacent valley with the clay, shale and stone spoil. Once flattened, the area would be able to accommodate tracks. To accomplish this backbreaking task, Duffy turned east to the motherland, seeking out in his own words “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin” to work incessantly in horrendously cramped and unsanitary conditions for a pittance. Historians believe John Ruddy was one of 15 from the John Stamp hired by Duffy to move a hill into a valley.

Things did not go as planned. The laborers were housed in a shanty on the work site, their sole source of water a contaminated stream. Cholera struck. As people began to die, the rest of the workers were forcibly quarantined in their shanty. They were expendable. There was no attempt to save them, and in fact, the skull damage suggests that all six of the people found in a mass grave died not from cholera but rather from violence, probably inflicted by the Pinkerton-esque “security” personnel of the East Whiteland Horse Company who were hired to enforce the quarantine.

William Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University, and his twin brother Francis, a Lutheran minister, have been investigating the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut ever since they found a file in their grandfather’s belongings describing the railroad’s 1909 investigation into the events. Their grandfather, Joseph Tripican, was the assistant to Martin Clement, president of Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1940s and the man in charge of the investigation in 1909. The Watson’s found that the railroad’s internal findings of 57 dead at Duffy’s Cut contradicted press articles from 1832 which downplayed the situation and said only eight or nine people had died.

After much permit filing and grant requesting, the Watsons collected some volunteers and put their own money into an excavation of the site in August 2004. They didn’t find any human remains until almost five years later, in March of 2009, when they came across the shin bone of a young man. Five other sets of human remains followed, but that first young man’s skull would provide the sole identifying information. He shares an extremely rare mutation — a missing upper right first molar — with the members of the Ruddy family, some of whom still live in Donegal and remember a family story of a young man heading to the US with stars in his eyes in the 1830s who was never to be heard from again.

Although there hasn’t been sufficient funding to confirm the young man’s identity with DNA testing, the age of the bones, the missing molar and ship’s manifest all strongly point to him being John Ruddy. Instead of keeping his remains in a lab indefinitely until the project gets enough money to perform DNA analysis, the original Duffy’s Cut researchers William Watson, Frank Watson, and Earl Schandelmeier decided to send the remains back to Ireland for a dignified burial.

On Saturday, March 2nd, 2013, the mortal remains of John Ruddy were buried in the graveyard of the Church of the Holy Family in Ardara, a town in Donegal next to Ruddy’s home of Inishowen. The plot was donated by Vincent Gallagher, an Irish immigrant and president of the Commodore Barry Irish Center in Philadelphia. He and his family are from Ardara, and they gave up one of their plots for Mr. Ruddy. Gallagher also put the Watsons in touch with local funeral director Seamus Sholvin and parish priest Canon Austin Laverty.

The casket was carried to its final resting place by Earl Schandelmeier, a Historian at Immaculata University, which was the driving force behind the Duffy’s Cut project, accompanied by three pipers in kilts. They were closely followed by Sadie Ruddy, who lives in Portnoo, and her first cousins James and Bernard Ruddy from Quigley’s Point, all three of whom are direct descendants of the deceased.

Canon Laverty told those assembled that “this brings a form of closure to a sad and shameful chapter of American history and re-enforced how desperate times were in this country at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”

Looking out across the graveyard towards Loughros Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, Canon Laverty noted that Slieve Tooey – visible in the distance – was possibly the last piece of Ireland that Mr Ruddy and those who left Derry in 1832 saw through the mists of their tears.

You can see film of the funeral in this RTE News story:


That’s William Watson, Frank Watson and Tom Connors playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.

The Duffy’s Cut Project isn’t over yet. The Watsons are still working on getting permission from Amtrak to excavate what ground penetrating radar suggests is the major mass grave where the cholera victims were interred. They hope that any remains that can be identified will be returned to Ireland for burial.

34 thoughts on “Duffy’s Cut victim returns to Donegal for burial

  1. Would you use ghost stories as in part support you family history research. I think not but these 2 have used this to support their story. Remember that spectral evidence was used to hang the poor folk during the Salem witch trials.

  2. I thought he should have been buried in inishowen donegal too patrick..if he came from there ..so efffin sad ..

  3. My heart goes out to john ruddy such a young boy to go through so much..but patrick is not stupid ..hes very in tuned with the goings on ..it bothers me a lot that he wasent buried in inishowen.. god bless patrick.

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