[Illustration by TIM DURNING]
Dead Men Do Tell Tales
Wed. October 13 8 PM
Pen & Pencil Club
1522 Latimer St.
There is an old saying that goes: under every mile of railroad track is a dead Irishman. Locally speaking this is almost literally true. Out near Malvern, under mile 59 of what was then the Pennsylvania Railroad and is today SEPTA’s R-5 line, lie the bodies of 57 Irish railroad workers. What killed them remains mystery that — 178 years later — appears to be on the verge of being solved. The official record says the men died of cholera, but a team of academic researchers known as the Duffy’s Cut Project suspects that some, if not all, of the men were in fact murdered to stem the spread of a cholera epidemic then raging in Philadelphia. We’ll be joined by key players in The Duffy’s Cut Research Project, a small volunteer army of archaeologists, forensics experts and history students is headed up by the Watson brothers — Bill, chairman of the history department at nearby Immaculata University, and Frank, a Lutheran pastor with a P.H.D. in historical theology. Also, for lovers of ghost stories: Earl Schandelmeirer, another member of the Duffy’s Cut team, will be on hand to discuss all the purported paranormal activity around the dig site, including what some believe to be conversations with the dead men of Duffy’s Cut using a Ghost Box.
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY There is an old saying: Under every mile of railroad track is a dead Irishman. Locally speaking, this is almost literally true. Back in the 19th century, the Main Line, not to mention large stretches of the railroads in this part of the country, were built on the blood, sweat and tears of Irish Catholic immigrants, who back then commanded about as much respect as Mexican immigrant workers command today. Out near Malvern, under mile 59 of what was then the Pennsylvania Railroad and is today SEPTA’s R-5 line, lies the bodies of 57 Irish railroad workers. What killed them remains a mystery—one that, some 178 years later, appears to be on the verge of being solved. The official record says the men died of cholera, but a team of academic researchers known as the Duffy’s Cut Project suspects foul play—that some, if not all, of the men were murdered to stem the spread of a cholera epidemic, then raging in Philadelphia and Chester County. And the researchers may well have discovered the forensic evidence to prove it.
After eight years of digging, the Duffy’s Cut Project has uncovered more than 2,000 artifacts—pipe stems, broken whiskey bottles, forks, buttons, shoe buckles—and four sets of remains. Two weeks ago, they found two more. These were the most complete set of remains yet. Most striking, the skulls had perimortem wounds, meaning caused at the time of death, according to Dr. Janet Monge, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who has been examining the remains. In layman’s terms, the men’s skulls were split open right before they died, just like the two skulls on the skeletons they found the previous summer.
“We know the wounds are perimortem because living bones break differently than dead bones,” says Monge. “At this point, we are not 100 percent certain that this was the cause of death, but when there is more than one set of remains with the same trauma in the same place it is more likely causative.”
In June of 1832, the 57 Irish migrant workers arrived at the docks of Philadelphia. Their job was to lance a flat path for the track through steep, hilly terrain. In railroad parlance, this is known as a ‘cut’ and thereafter that stretch of track would be known as Duffy’s Cut. Six weeks later, they would all be dead. History would blame cholera for their deaths, but history is always written by the winners, and the winners—in this case the railroad company and the landed gentry of Chester County—would be best served by such an explanation. But in fact there is a lot about the historical record that doesn’t add up. MORE
RELATED: This past spring, the Chester County Paranormal Research Society asked for permission to investigate the valley at Duffy’s Cut. The CCPRS team brought with them an array of sophisticated ghost-busting equipment, including cameras equipped with motion sensors and night-vision capabilities, and several electromagnetic field meters. But the device that yielded the most startling results was something called a Frank’s Box, a device that scans the AM radio band and acts like a ouija board, purportedly enabling a two-way conversation between the living and the dead. Duffy’s Cut Project team members Earl Schandelmeier and Robert Frank accompanied the investigators from CCPRS and both men agreed to ask questions out loud that only the 57 Irishmen could answer during sessions with the Frank’s Box. These attempts to communicate with the dead took place in three half-hour segments over the course of several hours. At first, there was not much response, but as the night wore on, things got interesting:
Question: Do you know Duffy?
Answer: Yeah, the devil.
Question: What about those homes up there?
Question: Are you with God?
Answer: No … no … abyss.
Listen for yourself. These purported exchanges with the dead at Duffy’s Cut are captured on sound files posted at philadelphiaweekly.com/multimedia.