University Communications

William E. Watson, Ph.D.

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William E. Watson, Ph.D., chair of IU’s History, Political Science, and International Relations Department, quotes the Roman historian Tacitus to describe his philosophy for teaching history: “This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.”

It is a noble principle and one that has guided Watson’s work both inside and beyond the classroom. Since 2004, Watson has led the Duffy’s Cut Project along with his twin brother, Frank Watson, a Lutheran minister, and history professor Earl Schandelmeier. (The late John Ahtes, professor of history and theology, was a vital member of the research team before his death in 2010.)

The Duffy’s Cut Project is an ongoing archeological investigation into the deaths of 57 Irish immigrants who were employed to work on constructing the 59th mile of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, Philadelphia’s pioneering rail system and only the second in the country. The men arrived in Philadelphia in June of 1832 and were recruited at the docks by construction contractor Phillip Duffy. By August, all of the men were dead, victims of cholera and violence.

Watson and his brother initiated the project after discovering a file that had belonged to their grandfather, who had worked as a personal administrative assistant to the president of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. Documents in the dossier led them to conclude that the railroad had covered up the deaths, and that the workers were buried in a mass grave somewhere in the woods around Malvern, PA. Watson believes it is more than just an odd coincidence that the incriminating file was in his family’s records and that he was teaching at Immaculata, the very area where the Duffy’s Cut events occurred. He also does not automatically discount the ghost stories that surround the saga of the Irish immigrants, since even he admits that, on the way back from a bag piping event one night, “I saw something,” though he does not divulge any details. Watson is far more interested in the practical matters of setting things right for the dishonored dead.

“I saw the file in 2002 and by the following year we had put in a request for a historical marker,” he said. “With the help of the Chester County Emerald Society, we got the marker from the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Division in 2004 and placed it near the site. The marker went in the ground on August 18, and we started digging the very same day.”

It would take five years before the excavation yielded more than artifacts, all of which are housed in a museum at the University. The first body was found on March 20, 2009 but, as Watson said, “We never lost hope. We never gave up.”

Since that time, seven sets of remains have been recovered and five given proper burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA, in March 2012. One set of remains, that of a young man named John Ruddy, was returned to his family in Donegal, Ireland this spring, accompanied by Watson (see story page 5). “The physical anthropologist identified him as an 18-year-old, the only one on the ship list,” said Watson. A dental anomaly peculiar to the Ruddy clan added to the evidence that this was indeed John Ruddy. “Historically speaking,” said Watson, “the evidence is overwhelming.”

Work continues on Duffy’s Cut, which has been covered by hundreds of media venues including Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, BBC Radio, NPR, CNN, and the Travel Channel, as well as in countless other newspaper, magazine, radio and television pieces. Tile Films has produced two documentaries, The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut and Death on the Railroad, and Watson, together with his brother, Schandelmeier and Ahtes, authored a 2006 Praeger Publishers book, The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish who died building America’s most dangerous stretch of railroad. 

“These men were murdered,” said Watson, referring to the physical evidence of violent trauma to the unearthed skulls. At that time, victims of cholera would have been viewed as lethal threats to the welfare of the community, and the cultural prejudice against Irish immigrants would have sealed the fate of these exploited and abandoned workers. “There was a level of injustice here that had to be addressed,” said Watson. “This is a way to right a historical wrong.”

In addition to his labors to restore final dignity to the forgotten men of Duffy’s Cut, Watson teaches a variety of history courses, belongs to several professional societies, has published numerous peer-reviewed articles, given hundreds of presentations and, in his spare time, is a semi-professional bagpiper.

“I played at John Ruddy’s funeral in Ireland, and I’ve played for the past 30 years with the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia and also the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The bagpipe is a very historical instrument. It hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. The first reference to it was from the first Crusade when a French monk saw Scottish Crusaders playing it.” Watson and his associates also play every year in Philadelphia’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. “I’m of Scottish-Irish heritage, so this is my way of honoring my ancestors.”

Watson’s scholarly specialty, however, is medieval military history, Christian contact and conflict with the Islamic world and Russia in the Middle Ages, and his dissertation, The Hammer and the Crescent, is about the Muslim invasion of France. As Watson noted, “We all might be speaking Arabic now. Afghanistan might be Buddhist today. Battles in the 700s shaped the world. Those were times and individuals of very dramatic action and migration. The outcomes turned on a dime.”

According to Watson, “War is like the surgery of history. The United States would not be one country if it weren’t for the Civil War. What would have happened if we hadn’t been there in World War I? War is horrible, but the study of war is critical because of its consequences.”

War was a topic Watson remembers the adults discussing when he was a boy, and those conversations intrigued him, sparking a lifelong interest in the subject. He has ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War, on both the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War, in the French and Indian War, and in both World Wars. “Growing up, it was hearing my family’s war stories around the holiday dinner table that inspired me,” he said.

As an educator, Watson’s aim is to inspire his students to appreciate the value of history and, among other honors, he has been recognized for excellence as a teacher/scholar with the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award. “I try to get students to imagine themselves being alive in whatever time period they’re studying,” he said. “ Connecting with the past is the reason we’re here. We’re keeping these people alive by telling their stories.”

And though it may be challenging at times to impress upon the young the importance of understanding the past, Watson admitted, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”