1832 Cholera Outbreak in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut

Lately, there has been a fair amount of news coverage (“Fates Of Irish Workers Sealed In Mass Grave”, “Pennsylvania Ghost Story Leads to Murder Mystery”, “CNN Visits Penn Museum to Follow Story of “Duffy’s Cut” Excavations in Malvern, PA”) about the mystery surrounding “Duffy’s Cut,” a stretch of land in Chester County where, during the summer of 1832, 57 Irish laborers died. The men were hired by labor contractor Philip Duffy to construct mile 59 of the Pennsylvania and Columbia Railroad. The cholera epidemic that was ravaging parts of the U.S., including New York City, spread to Philadelphia and reached the laborers’ camp in mid-August. Within two and a half weeks, all of the men were dead.   

All of the deaths were blamed on the disease; however, historical documents and local stories suggest that some of the victims may have been murdered by locals, antagonistic to Irish Catholics, who wanted to prevent the outbreak from spreading. A few years ago, scholars and other interested parties began an archeological dig at the site of the mass grave to try and determine whether foul play had indeed occurred.       

Although downplayed in histories concerning the 1832 cholera epidemic, the toll that the disease took on Philadelphia that summer was high. Many residents fled from the city to the countryside. August proved to be the worst month with well over a hundred cases a day reported. A significant number of those cases resulted in death.  The worst days in the city were August 6, when there were 176 cases and 71 deaths, and August 7, when there were 136 cases and 73 deaths reported.      

There was a fairly organized and concerted effort on the part of the medical community in the city during the early months of the outbreak. However, by August medical personnel were overwhelmed and began to seek outside help. The Committee of the Almshouse, later known as Philadelphia General Hospital, asked Bishop Kenrick if he could request the help of the Sisters of Charity to serve as nurses. The order, founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, already had a presence in the city. In 1814, at the request of then Bishop Egan and Fr. Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Augustine’s Church and close friend of Mother Seton, sisters began working in St. Joseph’s orphanage.       

Sister Rose White, first sister servant of St. Joseph's Home, no date

Kenrick agreed to contact the order.  In addition to the five sisters already in Philadelphia, eight others were sent from the motherhouse in Maryland. They lived and worked in the Almshouse and other hospitals, including St. Augustine Church, which Fr. Hurley had turned into a makeshift hospital under the supervision of Dr. Oliver H. Taylor.        

Father Michael Hurley, no date

Four Sisters of Charity were also called upon to minister to the dying men at Duffy’s Cut. Their presence was recorded from the accounts of an eyewitness; however, no official record of their mission exists. Relevant documents may have been destroyed in the fire at St. Augustine’s several years later. Ironically, although most of the patients cared for by the Sisters of Charity at St. Augustine were recorded as being non-Catholic, the church was not spared by Protestant nativists when it was burned to the ground during the riots of 1844.       

Lithograph of St. Augustine in ruins, 1844

Cholera had run its course in Philadelphia by early September. None of the sisters who ministered in the city and at Duffy’s cut during the outbreak perished from the disease. Their assistance, as well as that of Bishop Kenrick and Father Hurley, was publicly recognized by the city. The Board of Health and the Almshouse Committee recognized their efforts, and the city awarded silver plates to the sisters and thirteen physicians who had played a prominent role during the outbreak. The sisters declined the offer, instead asking that the money used to make the plates be used as funds for the orphanages and schools that the order administered.          

 In his diary, Bishop Kenrick commented on the noteworthy efforts of the sisters and priests during the outbreak: “…displaying an example of heroic fortitude, with certain peril to their lives, the Sisters took charge of the pest-stricken patients in that Hospital. Four others of the Sisters gave their services in other hospitals…priests proved their character and their strong virtues, caring for the sick in the exercise of the sacred ministry; while non-Catholic ministers generally fled from the city.”       

Excerpt from Kenrick's diary, September 22, 1832

Kenrick was one among many prominent religious figures of all Christian denominations in the United States and Britain who viewed the outbreak as punishment for people’s sins, specifically those dealing with the overindulgence of food and drink. And although Kenrick greatly assisted those affected by the disease, in a letter to Bishop Rese of Detroit, Kenrick shares his view of the outbreak as sort of a blessing in disguise in that it allowed many to reflect on their lives and come to terms with death. He writes, “The cholera has done great good in Philadelphia. Many are prepared for death, frightened from daily examples of unexpected deaths.”   


Excerpt from Kenrick letter to Bishop Rese, August 16, 1832

References:  McGowan, Francis X., ed. Historical Sketch of St. Augustine’s Church, Phila., Pa. Philadelphia: The Augustinian Fathers, 1896.    

Prendergast, Edmond, ed. Diary and Visitation Record of the Rt. Rev. Francis Patrick Kenrick, 1830-1851. Lancaster, Pa: Wickersham Printing Co., 1916.    

Watson, William. “The Sisters of Charity, the 1832 Cholera Epidemic in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut.” U.S. Catholic Historian 27no. 4 (Fall 2009): 1-16.    

For more information on Duffy’s Cut see:    

Watson, William E. et al. The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006.    


A “petulant girl”?: Josephine Walsh’s diaries

I’ve been volunteering at PAHRC this summer, and am currently creating an inventory for two artificial collections: “handwritten manuscripts” and “manuscripts books.” It appears that many of the items in these collections were removed from manuscript collections.

For instance, many of the items that I’ve come across were created by Josephine M. Walsh. These materials, mostly diaries, were likely pulled from the Walsh family papers, a collection that documents the Martin J. Walsh (1840-1910) family, in particular Martin’s sons James J. Walsh and Joseph Walsh, both of whom were doctors.

Josephine Walsh (center) on her way to Europe, July 1900

Josephine Walsh (center) on her way to Europe, July 1900

Josephine Walsh was the youngest child of Martin Walsh, a prominent general goods businessman who lived in Parsons, PA, and Bridget Golden Walsh, the niece of Martin’s business partner. As one of six children, she was more than twenty years younger than her distinguished older brothers, James and Joseph. Joseph Walsh, based in Philadelphia, became a physician and studied tuberculosis. James Walsh cut short his Jesuit education due to his interest in medicine. Based in New York, he went on to become a doctor, a well-known lecturer, and author of several books on religion and healing.

Dr. James J Walsh

Dr. James J Walsh

Josephine’s mother died in 1895, when she was 12. Her father died fifteen years later. Josephine cared for him during the last two years of his life, after a stroke left him weakened.

Josephine’s diaries span her young adulthood, from her time at Mount St. Joseph’s Academy until her twenties. They are full of travel notes, commentary on social events, and writings on her family and even their shop business. Story drafts and inspirational ideas are scattered throughout her notebooks. She also wrote plays, which she and her friends performed for their families.

Though her family was quite wealthy, she apparently sought financial independence through her stories. A diary entry from 1906 laments her rejections from publishing houses.

“So far the income from my writings has amounted to nothing. In fact less than nothing – because I have had the expense of paper, ink and time!”

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 1.

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 1.

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 2.

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 2.

Josie wanted to be a writer, but this was a tough dream for a woman in the early twentieth century. It appears that her family did not support her ambition. Her brother James in particular had a very strict idea of a woman’s domestic responsibilities, and did not allow her to pursue anything else.

“When I had kept house for about a year, I begged Jim to let me go to school some place to learn higher education and real culture, but he wouldn’t hear of it. When I insisted and said I would bolt anyhow whether he approved or not, he wrote me a letter that will live in my memory forever. He told me that if I left home – I would be like the woman who tired of one husband and sought another. He told me to be a real – a real woman, and not a petulant girl. I pestered him with letters full of my dissatisfactions for fully three years…he begged me to appreciate my happy lot in life and my fortunate position, even though I couldn’t see it that way.”

Her brother's refusal to allow her to attend school.

Her brother’s refusal to allow her to attend school.

Her brother's refusal to allow her to attend school (cont.)

Her brother’s refusal to allow her to attend school (cont.)

Dr. James Walsh lecture on the proper duty of women - "to bear many children, that men may abound."

Dr. James Walsh lecture on the proper duty of women – “to bear many children, that men may abound.”


The Josephine Walsh papers as well as the Walsh family papers would be very useful for researchers interested in the lives of wealthy women, or more specifically Catholic women, around the turn of the 20th century. These papers also document certain views that were held during this time period about women and a woman’s “proper place.”

A lengthy and active military career

I recently finished processing the Robert M. O’Reilly papers (MC 34) which document a good portion of O’Reilly’s career as a surgeon for the U.S. Army.

Portrait photograph of Robert M. O'Reilly, circa 1870

circa 1870

O’Reilly’s appointment as surgeon general of the army, a position he held from 1902 until  his retirement in 1909, was the last in a long line of assignments that came during his almost 50 years of service. O’Reilly certainly did not experience many dull moments during his career as it coincided with several national and international wars and conflicts.

O’Reilly’s career began in 1862 when he interrupted his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania to enlist as a medical cadet during the Civil War. A good deal of correspondence in the collection is O’Reilly’s letters to his mother that he wrote while stationed in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Order for O’Reilly to report to the General Field Hospital near Chattanooga Creek, Chattanooga, Tennessee, March 12, 1864

In 1867, O’Reilly was sent to several army posts in the southwest and was then stationed in Wyoming Territory ending up at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. While there, he was involved in clashes between the U.S. military and the Sioux Nation in 1874  and 1880.

For a time, O’Reilly was stationed at Red Cloud Agency, one of the first reservations established by the U.S. government, located in the northwestern corner of present-day Nebraska. This agency served as one of the centers of activity during the Sioux Wars of 1876-77.

The government assigned troops to Red Cloud Agency in March 1874 after the killing of an agency clerk. The military encampment was named Camp Robinson (Fort Robinson). One of the letters from O’Reilly to his mother discusses the troop’s arrival to the camp.

In the letter, O’Reilly writes

The Indians looked pretty blue when we arrived and well they might. A command of over 600 cavalry men with 40 wagons takes up a tremendous length of road when on the march…

March 5, 1874 letter to his mother, page 1

March 5, 1874 letter to his mother, pages 2-3

During the Spanish- American War, O’Reilly served as chief surgeon of the First Independent Division, the 4th Army Corps, and later chief surgeon on the staff of Major General James F. Wade in Havana.

One of the reasons Spanish troops stationed in Cuba were at a disadvantage during the war was that they were suffering severely from yellow fever. In a letter O’Reilly wrote to his sister Mary while he was stationed in Florida, he notes the concern over the yellow fever outbreak and discusses the movement of troops in the area, as well as how he had been treating members of women’s religious orders.

O’Reilly writes:

There hasn’t been any fever- yellow fever I mean- in Tampa. There is or was a good deal of typhoid as this is pretty ?? to be in camps of green troops.

My associations since the General and staff went to Huntsville has been largely sick holy people. On Saturday I sent seven Sisters of Charity from New Orleans off on a ship to Santiago…They are yellow fever nurses.

O’Reilly to his sister, August 16, 1898, page 1

He continues on the second page:

We are moving the troops out of here as fast as possible and by the end of  week they should all have gone. I suppose then I shall go to Huntsville but I don’t know.

O’Reilly to his sister, August 16, 1898, page 2

O’Reilly’s letter also seems to indicate that his son, Philip, who he refers to as “Jack” was also involved in the war. Philip, a cadet in the U.S. Navy, died in 1901 at age 22. On page one, he notes:

In that now the blockade is over Jack’s ship is ordered back to League Island, so no doubt you will see him soon…

The finding aid for the Robert M. O’Reilly papers is now available online.

A Philadelphia Artist

I’m currently processing the Campbell- Martin- Furlong Papers, a collection of papers that documents these three interrelated Catholic families as well as other related families such as the Kennedys and Jenkins.  Most of items are family correspondence, though some business and estate materials are also included. One member of the Martin family who is fairly well-represented in the collection and who caught my attention is William A. K. Martin (1816-1867). Other than family correspondence, a decent amount of letters and other items deal with Martin’s career as an artist. 

Martin’s works primarily included landscape, portrait, and maritime paintings, specifically paintings of U.S. Naval ships. He also painted works with religious themes. A parishioner and friend of St. Philip Neri’s first pastor, John Patrick Dunn, Martin donated one of his first paintings, depicting the Scourging of Christ at the Pillar, to the church. The painting, which hung above the altar of the church, was described in detail in the April 21, 1842 issue of the Catholic Herald in an article entitled, “Beautiful Painting.”  

The Catholic Herald April 21, 1842

Martin’s preoccupation with maritime subjects resulted from the fact that several members of the Martin and related families were merchant captains. William’s father, Captain John Martin, mainly conducted business with New Orleans and the Caribbean as well as Western Europe and China. William spent much of his young life at sea. One item in the collection includes his passport from age 12-signed by Secretary of State Henry Clay- when he travelled through Europe. 

William A. K. Martin's passport, 1829

From the turn of the century up until the mid 1800s, Philadelphia served as the preeminent city for artists in the country, particularly portrait artists and lithographers. Thus, Martin was privy to a vibrant artistic scene. He was able to receive tutoring in portrait painting from notable artist John Neagle. Martin was also a member of the Artists Fund Society and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts which held annual exhibitions to sustain art activity in the city. 

Receipt of payment for lessons in portrait painting with John Neagle, January 9, 1841

Letter from noted lithographer John Sartain with information regarding a meeting of artists associated with the Academy of Fine Arts, January 15, 1856, p.1

Sartain letter, p.2

Martin’s correspondence and business-related materials appear to demonstrate that Martin had a fairly steady amount of business in his home town. His work garnered some interest outside Philadelphia as well. He was asked to exhibit paintings at the Metropolitan Mechanical Institution in Washington D.C.  Moreover, Librarian of Congress, John Silva Meehan took an interest in his paintings. Meehan worked on Martin’s behalf to have him hired to paint a marine subject for one of the panels in the new extensions of the U.S. Capitol building. 

Letter from John S. Meehan to W.A.K. Martin, February 2, 1857

Although Meehan urged Martin to begin work on the project in order to provide members of Congress with a taste of what they could expect, Martin did not want to begin such a large endeavor without certainty that he would be hired for the job. With the recent birth of his fourth child, Martin writes: My pecuniary situation with an increasing family is such as to place it out of my power to incur the expense and loss of time such as I did on the prior occasions, unless with a certainty of success and as ‘hope deferred maketh the heart sick’ and doubting I fear that this twin hope is doomed to meet the fate of its brother killed by an omnibus. Hope however lingers to the last. Thus, the opportunity to have his work displayed in the Capitol building did not come to fruition. 

W.A.K. Martin to John S. Meehan, February 12, 1857, p.1

Letter to Meehan, p.2