Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

The Immaculata Duffy's Cut Project

Bill Watson (left) and John Ahtes
Bill Watson (left) and John Ahtes
With John Ahtes, a professor of history at Immaculata, and Earl Schandelmeier, one of Bill Watson's former students, the twins began an amateur archaeological dig at Duffy's Cut. They found the same sorts of everyday 19th century artifacts that neighborhood children had sometimes come across in the woods near the tracks, and, in 2005, the team found the workers' large shared shanty and an ash pit. But finding the bodies or real evidence of the workers' fates after all this time seemed unlikely.

Eventually more academics, researchers, and experts joined the team, and the Duffy's Cut Project upgraded its equipment from metal detectors to sub-surface imaging, ground-penetrating radar, and corpse-sniffing dogs.

Among the volunteers were Lancaster forensic dentist Matthew Patterson and Franklin & Marshall College earth sciences professor Timothy Bechtel. Bechtel typically charges $2,200 per day for the magnetometer scans he performs through a geophysics company he and his partners call Enviroscan. In March 2009, he helped to find a set of human remains in the railroad embankment, or Duffy's Fill. He looked for spots that his equipment told him might be full of air rather than dirt; this is where the earth would have shifted and emptied as the bodies and coffins decomposed.

Bechtel found that, as Tripician's papers had suggested, the bodies had been buried beneath the tracks. Project supervisor and archaeologist Samantha Cox wasn't surprised: Two unusually tall trees grew nearby, seemingly nourished by the corpses below.

Working there with Bechtel and Cox, Immaculata University student volunteers Bob Frank and Pat Barry unearthed a strangely discolored soil. And coffin nails. And then a human tibia.

Forensic Dentist's Study of Ruddy's teeth
Forensic Dentist's Study of Ruddy's teeth

Next was the skull of the man the twins believe was John Ruddy, a strapping 18-year-old from Donegal, who, like an unusual number of Donegal's residents, was hereditarily missing an upper right molar. The same day the team found an adult skull, as well as teenage jaw and teeth fragments.

These first discoveries showed careful burials. The five men were in a mass grave, but each had been placed in a coffin, with their heads pointed west, as Irish custom dictated. These, the Watsons conjecture, were the first deaths. Later burials were haphazardand the remains of those showed signs of violence.

Frank Watson would tell reporters that the valley had always been eerily silentand that once they found the first human remains, the birds started chirping again.

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