Sunday, March 29, 2009

Grave News: Duffy's Cut Mass Grave

No Cemetery Sunday today, the thesis has demanded most of my time. Instead I’m going to talk about the Duffy’s Cut mass grave and the project to find it. A mass grave, especially one that has been kept secret for over 150 years, is arguably not a cemetery. However, since it is the resting place of many individuals, I'm going to go ahead and pretend it is. You may have seen news reports lately about the mass grave found at Duffy's Cut. The story seems straightforward enough, an archaeological dig to discover a mass grave of cholera victims. When you start really reading deeper the story takes some strange twists and turns though. Hang on for the wild ride of the ghostly gandy dancers of Duffy's Cut. There are all the elements of a grand Shakespearean play - murder, sickness, ghostly omens, family secrets, and maybe even closure.

The story begins in 1832 near Malvern, Pennsylvania. Construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad was underway and Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish laborers straight off the boat (literally). During the construction of what would become known as "Duffy's Cut", a cholera epidemic swept the area, and all 57 Irishmen died. Only the local blacksmith and a few nuns from the Sisters of Charity in Philadelphia attempted to help the men. According to lore, some of the nuns died of cholera and were buried in a ditch with the Irish laborers. The surviving Sisters of Charity could not find anyone willing to provide transport back to Philadelphia and had to walk back. For the next 170 years or so Duffy's Cut would maintain a reputation as a "haunted" spot, with reports of the dead Irishmen dancing jigs on their grave filtering back from individuals who had passed near the area. There are persistent rumors that at least some of the men were killed by Anti-Irish gangs which were known to be operating in the area in that time as there was a strong anti-Irish sentiment at the time. The Irish were sometimes held responsible for causing cholera outbreaks, and were often ostracized because the American citizens of the day felt they were just coming here to “steal our jobs”. Come to think of it, that’s a familiar refrain even in the 21st century (admittedly with a different group of immigrants). I recommend Charles Orser’s The Archaeology of Race and Racialization in Historic America if you’d like to know more about the development of race and racism in the United State in general. Wikipedia has a short article on anti-Irish discrimination as well.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Dr. William Watson, a professor at Immaculata University in Malvern, and a colleague were on campus one evening when they saw the apparitions of three glowing men standing on the campus lawn on Ember Night, which according to the article is when “the souls of the dead can leave purgatory and seek Earthly assistance”. Two years after this event, Dr. Watson discovered that his brother (Rev. Dr. J. Frank Watson) had inherited a sealed account of the events at Duffy’s Cut. As it turns out, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) had acquired the Philadelphia and Columbia line along with its records. In 1909 the PRR assembled a secret file on the events at the cut, and kept it sealed. Joseph Tripician, the grandfather of the Watsons, was director of personnel for the PRR and was allowed to take anything he wanted following the collapse of the PRR. Among the files he took was the “secret” file on Duffy’s cut.

So, now Dr. Watson not only has the memory if a spectral visitation, he has the sealed files from the railroad, and he is a professor at the university that owns the land where the grave is supposed to be! Dr. Watson put together a team and began The Duffy’s Cut Project, which is dedicated to finding the remains of the workers. The Project was able to have a State Historic Marker erected in 2004, and during archaeological investigations found domestic items that could be associated with a railroad workers’ shantytown such as forks and ceramics. In 2007 The Duffy’s Cut Project had a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey performed that returned some interesting results. Work continued throughout 2008, still no human remains were found. That all changed last week: on March 23, 2009 the team uncovered human remains. So far the remains of 2 individuals have been found. You can find links to local news reports on the Duffy’s Cut Project’s Updates page.

Now, I have to put on my archaeologist’s hat for a minute. Looking at the videos on the update site, it appears that the team is just shoveling and scooping up remains. That’s not good archaeological practice, especially since they want DNA testing done. You see, where an object is located in the ground is as important as (if not more important than) the object itself. Re-read that sentence. In this case, seeing as these are human remains, the location of the bodies and the way they are arranged can tell an archaeologist a lot, things that would be good to know like: were the bodies laid out in the grave, or just tossed in a pit, were the bodies buried all at the same time or were they buried in sequences – meaning did all the workers die close to the same time or did it occur over a period of time. The location of any bullets can, of course, provide clues to the causes of death. Unfortunately, it seems that archaeologists did not do the first digs, and a lot may be lost already.

DNA testing brings up a whole new slew of concerns. If you’re hoping to get DNA information from human remains, ideally you want to excavate the remains carefully, wearing paper coveralls, hairnets, masks (surgical type), and surgical gloves to minimize the chance of contamination. You also want to have as few people as possible excavating and handling the remains. Every person that breathes on the remains is possibly contaminating them, you see, and by controlling the number of people who come in contact with them you can control for the chance of contamination through several methods including having every individual who has worked on the remains submit a DNA sample. Check out the videos though – the remains are just laying on a table at a press conference. That’s not a good thing. Now, they are planning on extracting DNA from teeth, and they do at least have a better chance of getting a good sample there, so all is not lost.

In defense of the project, they do seem to be trying to do the right thing. They have apparently put a call for archaeologists to assist in the excavation, and some articles have reported that they have secured the assistance of the Smithsonian in identifying the remains. I really am not sure what to think about this project, it alternates between seeming like the set-up a tourist attraction, what with the stories of ghosts and dark deeds and a legitimate attempt to find out what happened to these individuals. The project has already published The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America's Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad and a video. The GPR survey had to have been expensive though, so a little fundraising can certainly be forgiven.

I’ve just found this whole story fascinating. It’s like a modern folk tale in so many ways. Ultimately I do get the impression that The Duffy’s Cut Project is a group of individuals who are trying to do the right thing for the individuals buried there, and I wish them well (and I hope they find an archaeologist or two who’s willing to take over the excavation portion of the project).


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