The remains of five Irish immigrants killed while building a Pennsylvania railroad in 1832 — murder victims, researchers believe, of local vigilantes who buried them anonymously near the tracks — will be re-interred Friday in a suburban Philadelphia cemetery.
Michael Collins, Ireland's ambassador to the U.S., is among dignitaries expected at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd for a funeral service that will include bagpipers and a gravesite marked by a 10-foot-high Celtic cross.
"They'll get a real burial that they didn't have in 1832, that's for sure," said historian Bill Watson, who helped uncover the remains.
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, Pa., about 20 miles west of Philadelphia.
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 of them 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.
"We were told that it was an urban myth," Bill Watson said.
The first years of excavation in woods behind a manicured subdivision entailed discoveries 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.
It wasn't until 2009 that the Watsons' team found human bones. They unearthed six skeletons in all, and forensic experts found evidence of 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.
One set of remains was tentatively identified based on bone 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 — will be interred at West Laurel Hill. Identification proved nearly impossible, in part because the remains were so badly decomposed.
Their grave will be marked with a Celtic cross made of limestone quarried in County Kilkenny, Ireland, and donated by Immaculata.
"It's just the right thing to do, to give these men a Christian burial," said university spokeswoman Marie Moughan.
Rest in peace
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 most are interred in a mass grave too close to active rails 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?"