BALA CYNWYD, Pa. — The remains of five Irish laborers who researchers believe were murdered in 1832 while building a Pennsylvania railroad received a dignified re-interment Friday, more than 3,000 miles from their homeland and nearly two centuries after their first anonymous burials.
People lined up to pay their respects before five wooden caskets at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, just outside Philadelphia. The sounds of bagpipes and gunshot salutes filled the air as more than 100 mourners paid tribute, including Kevin Conmy, deputy ambassador for the Irish embassy in Washington.
"What this does is it just reminds us that the story of Irish in America has many strands," Conmy said. "You do get a sense that justice has been done to these people."
The immigrants were among 57 hired to help build a stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad known as Duffy's Cut. They lived in a shantytown by the rails in current-day Malvern, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia.
Historian Bill Watson and his twin brother Frank Watson, also a historian, led a team that set out nearly a decade ago to find out what happened to the workers from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry. They believe many died of cholera and were dumped in a mass grave at Duffy's Cut.
But they also theorized – based on mortality statistics, newspaper accounts and internal railroad company documents – that some were killed. Railroad officials never notified the workers' relatives of their deaths, and they later burned the shantytown.
The burial services on Friday marked the end of a long quest for the Watsons.
"It's a 10-year pilgrimage for us," Frank Watson said afterward. "It's a pilgrimage for truth and for justice."
When the Watsons' team first began excavating in woods behind a manicured subdivision, they unearthed items such as glass buttons, forks and smoking pipes, including one stamped "Derry." Many artifacts are now on permanent display at nearby Immaculata University, where Bill Watson is chairman of the history department.
In 2009, they found human bones. The team uncovered six skeletons in all, and forensic experts found evidence of skull trauma. The brothers speculate that when cholera swept through the camp, these immigrants tried to escape the deadly epidemic but were killed by local vigilantes, who were driven by anti-Irish prejudice and fear of the extremely contagious disease.
Those remains were found apart from the main ossuary, commingled with coffin nails. One set of bones was tentatively identified based on size and the passenger list of a ship that sailed from Ireland to Philadelphia four months before the men died. If DNA tests prove a match to descendants in Donegal, the remains of John Ruddy will be returned to Ireland.
The other sets of bones – four men and a washerwoman – were interred at West Laurel Hill. Identification proved nearly impossible, in part because the remains were so badly decomposed.
Their grave was marked with a 10-foot-high Celtic cross made of limestone quarried in County Kilkenny, Ireland, and paid for by Immaculata.
"It's just the right thing to do, to give these men a Christian burial," said university spokeswoman Marie Moughan.
The cemetery donated the plot for the same reason, said Kevin McCormick, a liaison to the Duffy's Cut Project from West Laurel Hill. Some might argue the dead should rest in peace in their original graves, but disposing of bodies is not the same as burying them, he said.
"Who put them there?" said McCormick. "Was it people who had their best interests in mind?"
The Watsons' ultimate goal had been to find, unearth, identify and repatriate the remains of all 57 workers using DNA analysis, the ship's passenger list and other documents. But ground-penetrating radar indicates the mass grave is too close to active train tracks for the bones to be exhumed.
Still, the evidence and artifacts the team did uncover are valuable, said Kurt Bell, an archivist with the state Historical and Museum Commission.
"It really speaks volumes about the social history of railroads. We don't know a whole lot about the men who built the railroads in Pennsylvania from early in the 19th century," said Bell, a railroad historian. "The Watson brothers have really shed light on a little-known subject."
More data will be coming. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere are studying bone samples for additional information about the workers' lives.
And the Watsons plan to look into another reported potters' field of Irish railway workers in Downingtown, 10 miles up the tracks. Research shows cholera made its way to that camp, Bill Watson said, and he wonders if murder did as well.
"It happened here," Watson said. "Why not there?"
Associated Press writers Matt Rourke and Patrick Walters contributed to this report.
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