PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Bone fragments from an Irish woman mysteriously killed while working for a Pennsylvania railroad in 1832 will be reburied in her native land this summer, historians said Tuesday.
Skeletal remains of the immigrant believed to be Catherine Burns were unearthed six years ago near train tracks outside Philadelphia. She was among 57 Irish laborers who died while building a section of railway known as Duffy’s Cut.
Most are in a mass grave, but Burns was among several buried apart from it. Her bones were reinterred at a nearby cemetery in 2012, but the recent discovery of two more fragments led researchers to plan a funeral in Burns’ native County Tyrone in Northern Ireland.
The Rev. Benny Fee, who will lead the service July 19 at St. Patrick’s Church in Clonoe, said he was touched by Burns’ story. Historians believe the 29-year-old widow left Ireland in search of a better life, only to be killed six weeks after arriving in the United States.
“She came from a poorer Ireland and time than we enjoy today, so let us who have so much now, let us be generous to her even in death,” Fee wrote in an email Tuesday.
It’s the second repatriation of remains found at Duffy’s Cut, now a woodsy area behind suburban homes in Malvern, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia.
For more than a decade, Immaculata University professor Bill Watson and his twin brother, Frank Watson, have led a volunteer team trying to uncover what happened to the workers from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry. Officials with the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad never notified the immigrants’ families of their deaths.
The Watsons believe many died of cholera and were dumped in a mass grave at the shantytown where they lived and worked.
But they also theorized — based on mortality statistics, newspaper accounts and internal railroad company documents — that some were killed by local vigilantes because of ethnic hatred or fear of the disease. Those immigrants, including Burns and a man believed to be 18-year-old John Ruddy, were found buried separately.
Researchers tentatively identified Ruddy partly based on railroad archives, his small bone size and a congenital missing molar that relatives said runs in the family. In 2013, team members traveled to Donegal to rebury him. DNA tests are pending.
The remaining bones exhumed at Duffy’s Cut, including Burns’, were interred at West Laurel Hill cemetery in Bala Cynwyd in 2012. The team was not confident of Burns’ identity at the time, but William Watson said they have been convinced by further study.
In the fall, researchers reopened the box containing items found at Burns’ original gravesite — such as coffin shards and nails — and noticed two bone fragments about the size of fingernails. Now in a vial on Watson’s desk, the remains are being treated like a reliquary, he said.
They haven’t been able to find relatives because they don’t know Burns’ maiden name. Still, repatriation seemed like the right thing to do.
“It’s the symbolism of it,” he said. “We would want someone to do that for us.”
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