In 1832, 29-year-old widow Catherine Burns left Derry, Northern Ireland for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she would soon find work at Duffy’s Cut, a railroad construction site staffed by Irish Catholics about thirty miles outside the city. Less than two months later, Catherine—and several others—would disappear forever.

For over a century, it was assumed that the workers at Duffy’s Cut were killed by a cholera epidemic sweeping the East Coast, and around the time of Burns’ death, newspapers reported that nine people had died at Duffy’s Cut because of cholera.

Then, as Jessica Glenza at the Guardian recounts:

12 years ago, twin brothers and PhD historians Frank and Bill Watson inherited a file that upended that history – on Pennsylvania Railroad letterhead, memoranda recounted the deaths of 57 Irish railroad workers, not the eight reported by newspapers.

After years of work to corroborate the file, the Watson brothers pinpointed where they believed the remains of the railroad workers lay. Soon, they uncovered an unmarked gravesite where seven skeletons were buried in wooden coffins along the Amtrak tracks.

The skeleton they would later identify as Catherine – and the others with it – had gashes in their backs of their heads. One had an apparent bullet wound.

What exactly happened at Duffy’s Cut remains deeply contested and many local historians refuse to comment or speculate. But the Watsons believe that Catherine Burns and six others were murdered after they attempted to flee the cholera-infected shantytown:

The men were “held or tied up”, said Frank Watson, and “buried by their unsuspecting colleagues in the fill”. Their bodies were returned to the shanty in wooden coffins, each sealed with upwards of 100 nails to conceal the “bloody mess” inside. The brothers also suspect that an organization headed by some of the area’s most prominent families and designed to deter horse theft, the East Whiteland Horse Company, may have had the means to perpetrate such an act.

“The part that’s raw is the murder part,” Jim Jones, a history professor at West Chester University tells Glenza. “This is an area that prides itself on its tolerance – Quakers, the underground railroad and all that – and the idea that there may be murderous discrimination against foreigners, Irishmen in this case, certainly makes some people uneasy.”

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While there remain several disturbing questions surrounding her death, Burns’s remains have—at the very least—been returned to Northern Ireland where last Sunday, she was celebrated with a long overdue wake and burial at St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe, County Tyrone.


Contact the author at madeleine@jezebel.com.

Image of the discovered coffin nails via the AP.