Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Deaths at Duffy's Cut: Cholera or Cover-up?

The Cholera Epidemic

Between the summer of 1832 and the spring of 1833 a cholera epidemic ravaged the east coast of the U.S. At its worst, the disease killed as many as 80 people a day in Philadelphia, claiming 900 victims in the Delaware Valley before subsiding.

Excerpt about cholera from the Montreal Courant
Excerpt about cholera from the Montreal Courant
Cholera's symptoms were soon well known around the world: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting, leading in the most severe cases to a horrific death by dehydration. Beyond that, not much about cholera was clear to the railroad workers and their neighbors; the disease was an immediate threat and a source of overwhelming panic. We now understand that cholera is a bacterial infection, spread most commonly through contaminated water. John Snow's famous mapping of London's 1854 Broad Street outbreak showed the world how the disease was transmitted, and Louis Pasteur's experiments on "germ theory" in the 1860s would describe how invisible small infectious agents might spread from one person to the next. But in 1832, this sickness was utterly mysterious and terrifying.

It may not then have been surprising that residents of Philadelphia and its outskirts blamed the epidemic on what they regarded as strange, poor and unclean new invaders: the Irish immigrants, like those who lived in tents at the railroad camp.

Three men in the camp died within a few days of each other. Records tell us that Philip Duffy and his employees gave them a respectful Catholic burial. But then more men got sick. When some men fled the camp for help, locals turned them away, perhaps violently. Only railroad blacksmith Malachi Harris and four nuns from Philadelphia's Sisters of Charity would visit the camp to help these victims of cholera.

The nuns did what they could to nurse the men. More of the workers died, and the railroad's blacksmith laid them to rest in a mass grave in the ditch that ran alongside the tracks

Finishing their mission, the Sisters had to walk 30 miles back to Philadelphia beneath the August sun. Stagecoach drivers and other travelers were afraid of catching cholera from them.

But Philip Duffy was safe. The Irish contractor seems to have been moonlighting on a section of the West Chester Railroad at the time. He ordered the blacksmith to burn the camp and the worker's possessions, either to limit the disease, or to hide what had happened. Then he hired a new crew. Duffy would later retire to a West Philadelphia mansion where he died of old age in 1871.

Until recently, that was the end of the story: The Irish workers at Duffy's Cut had died of cholera. But that was an extraordinarily unusual outcome. The death rate from cholera is only 30-60%. One would have expected at least a few of these 57 men, in the prime of their lives, to have beaten the disease.

It's no wonder suspicion has always surrounded this case.