Despised and Dying: The Irishmen of Duffy’s Cut

In the newsbag yesterday came a striking update on what I can only regard as the cautionary tale of Duffy’s Cut.

“Duffy’s Cut” was a stretch of railroad line in the beautiful, hilly country of Chester County, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, Pa. It got its name from Philip Duffy, an Irish-American labor contractor who hired a crew of Irish immigrants to dig for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.

Researchers have long tried to find the grave of 57 laborers who died there when cholera ravaged the work site in  August 1832. As a railroad supervisor put it: “This man [Duffy] has been rather unfortunate … Nearly one half of his men died from Cholera.”

The quote is from The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut (2006), written by a team of researchers, including twin brothers William and Frank Watson. Duffy’s Cut has been a longstanding mission for the Watsons. (I got the book from my brother Jim, who lives in the area.)

The book’s meticulous evidence tells a gripping and awful story. Young, strong and dirt-poor, the Irishmen did what newcomers to America always do: the jobs nobody else wants. By all contemporary accounts, the Duffy’s Cut stretch was a particularly nasty job.

Cholera had broken out in Philadelphia the previous month. When it reached the railroad camp in the Chester countryside, hysteria trumped decency. The locals quarantined the sick workers at the site and, basically, left them. Nearly all died and were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Their families were never told what happened. The incident got short shrift in official communications, except as an explanation for construction delays. It lived on only in local memory and, as time passed, local folklore.

In 2009 the Watsons, after years of research and explorations, finally found a shin bone. Their team has now uncovered seven sets of remains — and a disturbing new twist: Four of the skulls show signs of trauma, including a possible bullet hole. As William Watson tells reporter Kathy Matheson, “This was much more than a cholera epidemic.” The Watsons now believe that many of the workers did die of cholera, but others may have been killed by vigilantes — perhaps from a mixture of fear of infection, plus contempt for marginalized, cheap laborers.

I find the story of Duffy’s Cut mesmerizing, in large part because I can’t understand how anybody could hear it and still think it’s OK to ignore the rhetoric of hate and prejudice that pulses through so many media outlets today. It’s repulsive. And it’s hypocritical. It boils down to remembering where you came from, and few of us were welcome when we got here.

Consider, for instance, the Sisters of Charity, the Roman Catholic nuns who were one of the few groups to provide competent, compassionate nursing in that long-ago epidemic, including to the victims at Duffy’s Cut. Glowing reports of their bravery were forgotten in the nativist riots that swept Philadelphia a dozen years later. The sisters’ seminary was burned to the ground, along with a number of Catholic churches and rectories.

So I guess it’s not surprising, what they’ve found at Duffy’s Cut. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when somebody decides that the wrong birthplace, or the wrong religion, can make a human … less than human.


Quotes We Like

“Aging is a powerful genealogical incentive. The further from our birth we get, the closer to our past we want to be.”

[Boulder, Co. author and researcher Buzzy Jackson, on why the genealogy bug bites.]


Links, 8.16.10

Thank goodness for the FGS Conference kicking off this week  in Knoxville, TN, proving that things do happen in August. Here in the Northeast, that’s hard to remember sometimes. (But permit me a shout-out to my relatives in places where kids are heading back to school this month. Congratulations, parents! Sorry, kids.)

Out of those PJs: This is good advice for genealogy enthusiasts as well as grumpy schoolchildren. A Michigan columnist presents a nicely balanced view of the good vs. bad in online research, ending with the inevitable (but worthy) caveat: “Get out of your pajamas and find those original documents!”

Adoption records: A decade ago, a dear friend died suddenly just two months after the birth of her first child. An adoptee, she had met her birth mother a few years before. When such meetings take place, they often do so without the benefit of vital records the rest of us take for granted.  In New Jersey, as in all but nine states, adoptees cannot have access to their own birth certificates to find out who they are.  Now, an open adoption records bill will go before our state Assembly in the fall. The story at the link does a good job of summarizing the pro and con positions, but what gripped me most was one adoptee’s quote: “I have friends who are really into genealogy and when they start talking about it, I shut down. I don’t want to be rude, but it’s upsetting.”

Korea researchers, take note: Via the Korea Times, Korean genealogy resources were in the spotlight at the World Library and Information Congress in Gothenburg, Sweden. Officials announced the launch of a digital genealogy database at the Paik Inje Memorial Library of Inje University.

More resource news: In case you haven’t heard, Ancestry.com has unveiled the National Probate Calendar, summaries of probate cases in England and Wales between 1861 and 1941. Here is one researcher’s success story in using it.

Answers at last: In the Kansas City Star, Mary Sanchez reports on a woman’s quest to find out just what happened to a relative who was sent away to a home for epileptics in the 1940s. What she found was a great comfort to her family, who never knew much about where the relative was sent, and how she died. While we often worry about unearthing nasty skeletons, this is a good example of  how family research can also allay old fears.

Museum opening: Via the Mormon Times, the Alex Haley House Museum has just opened its doors in Henning, TN. The front porch of this lovely Craftsman-style house is where Haley first heard the family stories about Kunta Kinte, his African ancestor who became the focus of Haley’s groundbreaking work Roots. The house, which belonged to Haley’s maternal grandfather, has been restored to the way it would have appeared at the time Haley was born.

In the community: Dick Eastman has reprised (and somewhat revised) a classic explanation of Soundex and why it’s important … At GeneaBloggers, Thomas MacEntee draws our attention to the very first RootsTech conference, to be held in February 2011.

Enjoy the week, whether you’re at a genealogy conference, or just back in school.


Follow Friday: The New Jersey Churchscape

Having grown up in New Jersey, I’m an old hand at observing our bizarrely fractured PR image. You can be standing on a beautiful mountain trail or biking alongside a serene canal, and meet somebody who still can’t resist weighing in on how tacky Jersey is, seeing as it’s overflowing with Sopranos, Real Housewives and Jersey Shore punks, blah-blah-blah.

The Seventh-Day Baptist Church in Plainfield, NJ. From "New Jersey Churchscape."

“But you’re in New Jersey,” you’ll point out, gesturing at the peaceful, sublime landscape all around.

“Oh, well, I don’t mean this Jersey.”

Of course not. They never do.

They never mean the New Jersey of New Jersey Churchscape, either. Well, their loss. However, if your genealogy path leads to New Jersey, or if you just love knowledgeable discussions of church architecture,  you may well wish to pay this lovely site a visit.

Want to see a picture of your ancestors’ church? Try searching the index of photographs of historic churches from all over the state. Interested in learning about a specific church architect? Check to see if there’s an entry in the Architects & Builders index, alphabetized by last name.

There are regular articles on architectural topics. This month’s is “Twins,” all about buildings which share design influences. Or this article about two congregations whose church styles expressed their language of dissent in radically different ways. New Jersey Churchscape also keeps track of endangered buildings which face decay, redevelopment or worst of all, demolition.

I tell you, I have ruined many a Lee Press-On Nail clicking through this site.

Just kidding about the Press-On Nail part. The rest is on the level. The New Jersey Churchscape is a great place to visit.


Treasure Chest Thursday: Garden Keepsakes

This link about hand-me-down plants got me to thinking about garden treasures. Like an heirloom rose, the article is a little loose and rambling, but thoroughly charming.

Although I don’t have any heirloom plants myself, I love the idea of a garden with living ties to our ancestors. When I lived in Evanston, Ill., I saw the woman across the street digging around one fine morning. Responding to my nosy inquiry, she proudly explained she’d traveled to her parents’ house an hour away to obtain a slip of a rosebush originally planted by her grandmother. Her parents were preparing to retire south and the family didn’t want to lose this bit of plant heritage.

Here in our New Jersey garden, we inherited some elegantly shaped flowerbeds that were probably dug more than fifty years ago, based on what we were told by a woman who had lived in the house as a little girl. Sadly, we haven’t done much with them. Our insurmountable problem is deep, deep shade which only the hostas truly love. Nearly all the direct sun is blocked by an enormous evergreen tree in the yard next door – one of those former Christmas trees planted by some well-meaning family decades ago.

I’m sure it, too, was charming once. It isn’t now. Our poor neighbor tried to get the township to consider cutting it down to use as the municipal Christmas tree, and it was rejected on the grounds of being ugly. It drops ugly pinecones, too (although my kids get paid by my wonderful neighbor for picking them up so we don’t all trip over them).

However, it does give us one gorgeous dividend. The ancient hydrangea that anchors one end of my garden LOVES the pine needles that wash over it with numbing regularity. Each summer we get spectacular deep, nearly violet blooms that by rights ought to be powder blue. (One of my other neighbors has a cutting of this very plant, and powder-blue blossoms are what she gets.)

So the unlovely heirloom pine tree is giving my lovely heirloom hydrangea a beauty boost. It’s a little drama I get to watch each summer in my own backyard, and I’m sure it’ll be part of my daughters’ family memories, too. Along with the @#$! pinecones.


NewsClips: 1952 and Mary (Haigney) Walker

Today’s NewsClips are in honor of the August babies of the family. That would include my sister Mary, my brother John and my daughter, Nora, who turns 13 today. (And who will give me a hard time for mentioning her in the blog. But Happy Birthday anyway, sweetie!)

These NewsClips feature another August baby in the Haigney family, my great-great aunt Mary “Mamie” (Haigney) Walker (1872-1956), who celebrated her birthday Aug. 16. As I’ve noted, I’m grouping these little local news snippets by year.

Social notes, 1952


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