The Irish Ghosts of America: Duffy’s Cut, Philadelphia

After being the source of ghosts stories for years, Duffy’s Cut revealed a hideous secret.

I mentioned in my last post on this topic that sometimes ghost stories act as a sort-of folk memory of a place, documenting a tragedy as a campfire tale. Duffy’s Cut is a superb example of this.

The ghost tales reportedly began in 1909, when a railroad worker saw blue and green ghosts dancing in the mists near Malvern, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. But I find stories that date even further back: In 1891, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about a headless ghost that patrolled Germantown’s Carpenter station; In June of 1897, the Harrisburg, PA Patriot reported a red lantern and spectral flagman seen by riders near Lock Haven; In 1908, along Dead Man’s Curve near the Jessup-Peckville station, the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader reported a man stepping onto the traks in front of a train, and moments later appearing floating above the smokestacks. There were ghosts along the Pennsylvania tracks, and they walked uneasy.

The western railroads, as you know, were largely built on Irish labor, and the work could be deadly — there’s a phrase I hear every so often to dramatize it, claiming that every mile of track is laid over the corpse of an Irishman. Living conditions were generally poor, as was pay, rations, and health care. Disease was rampant, and once one man got sick, the sickness quickly spread. So it’s no surprise to hear whispers of this in the stories of haunted tracks.

But Duffy’s Cut, it turns out, held a darker secret. It covered a mass grave — 57 Irish railroad workers, buried without official record. Some may have had cholera, but, as a forensic expert pointed out, they didn’t die of it. No, they were murdered — many of the bones showed extreme trauma, caused by blunt objects, or axes, or bullets. It’s not clear precisely what happened, but the speculation is that some of the men developed symptoms of cholera, which was then developing into a pandemic, and somebody else, probably as part of a group, decided just to kill everyone.

Duffy’s Cut inspired Irish songwriter Wally Page to write a song called named after the location, recorded by Christy Moore in 2009. The song includes the following lyrics:

From Ballyshannon and The Glenties
they sailed right into hell
they suffered like the weeping Christ
down Duffy’s Cut they sweat their blood
into his wishing well

were they taken by the sickness
were they hunted down like scum
was there poison in the water
was it cholera or murder
the smoke, that hid the bullets
from the barrell of the boss’s gun

The story also inspired the Dropkick Murphys 2011 song “The Hardest Mile,” which includes the following lyrics:

Fifty-seven men on the hardest mile
Murdered for their troubles, left to die
Immigrant sons from Donegal, Tyrone & Derry
Their numbers were few but they did the job of many
Now ghosts dance a jig on an unmarked grave
A slug full of lead was the price they were paid
Vigilante justice, prejudice and pride
No one in this valley will be seen again alive
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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.


  1. please keep me posted on the progress of Duffy’s Cut … Thanks and God Bless …

  2. Always glad to see when the story of ‘Duffy’s Cut’ is mentioned. A tragedy too long hidden. The Irish, in the main, do no tend to be braggadocio. We have suffered MANY Duffy’s Cut incidences and we keep quiet. The downside is many Irish themselves and others do not know of the tragedies we have overcome in establishing our place in the land of the free.

    Education goes a long way….would appreciate if you would post the following links:
    1 – Duffy’s Cut Project (ongoing) website:
    2 – Wikipedia overview:'s_Cut
    3 – ‘Death on the Railroad’, Secrets of the Dead PBS video:
    4 – Wear a conversation piece and spark interest:
    5 – Christy Moore song:
    Bail รณ Dhia ort!

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