Philadelphia Mass Grave of Irish Immigrants May Date Back to 1832

The fate of 57 Irish immigrants who died in August of 1832 was not news to historians at Immaculata University, but the discovery of the location of their mass grave last week is a horse of another color, as the saying goes.

This was a sad ending for these poor souls who died of cholera just weeks after arriving in Pennsylvania to build a railway.


The discovery of the mass grave occurred in a wooded area known as “Duffy’s Cut,” near the suburban Philadelphia university. The name derives from Philip Duffy, who was the man who hired the immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry to help in the construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. The rough terrain had yielded other artifacts over the course of time; including pipes, buttons and forks. It is hoped the discovery of the bones will allow for identification.

Immaculata University history professor, William Watson, said:

“We feel a kinship with these men. Righting an injustice has led us to this point. The railway never informed the men’s families of their deaths and instead allowed the bodies to be thrown into a ditch and treated like garbage. This was someone’s son or brother or husband. Something has to be done.”

Ground-penetrating radar unearthed pieces of two skulls and dozens of other bone fragments and teeth. It is believed that some of the workers buried in the mass grave may have been murdered either because of their illness or their ethnicity. It is certain that many died of cholera, an acute infection caused by contaminated food or water. The Irish were defiled when they first came to America’s shores, and there was much prejudice and hostility towards them.


Professor Watson said:

“There was… tension between residents and the transient Irish workers, and a great fear of cholera, especially among the affluent classes. Anyone with cholera was deemed to be almost subhuman. God forbid it would spread to the respectable segments of society.”

Professor Watson and his brother, Frank, who is also an historian, began what is known as the Duffy’s Cut Project back in 2003. It was prompted by knowledge gleaned the year before of the workers and their demise that came from the personal papers of their late grandfather, who had worked many years for the railway. Watson claimed to have found from a ship’s passenger records the surnames of 15 of the 57 Irish immigrants who perished. One set of remains has already been identified as that of a teenager named John Ruddy.


According once again to Watson:

“The goal is to find living descendants in Ireland by extracting DNA from the remains and to either send them back to their homeland or to give them proper burials.”

What a tragic ending to what seemed to be the fulfillment of the American dream.

Leave a Comment

  1. Tim says:

    Really interesting article, although I'd suggest the Irish were reviled when they arrived, rather than defiled … (although they might have been that, too: most 19th C countries didn't like their migrants too much…)

  2. Great reading, thanks for the info.

    • Hi Tim,
      I am so glad you liked the article. The Irish as well as other immigrants were treated badly when they first came to America.
      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Tony says:

    Very nice article, a piece of history I wasn't aware of. I hope they are able to help identify more of the remains and to notify the families. Of course so much family history has been lost over time.