One has only to glance through the database of missing persons at the website Information Wanted (and I highly suggest you do) to see the large number of Irish immigrants who somehow lost touch with their friends and families during the desperate exodus of the famine years. I’ve found it in my own research-- the will of an ancestor that read, “Son left for Detroit 20 years ago and not heard from since-presumed dead”, and the notice in a British paper seeking news of a brother of one my ancestors whose rumored death in St. Louis somehow filtered back to South Tipperary.
Many of these unfortunate families were never reunited with their loved ones, or even learned their fates. Now for one family the mystery has been solved albeit nearly 200 years late. I’ve been following the story in the weekly newspaper “The Irish Echo” of the mysterious deaths in1832 of Irish rail workers in a Pennsylvania valley. The mainstream press hasn’t seemed to give much coverage to this haunting story, but it’s one that fascinates me.
Railroad development was just getting under way in 1830’s America. In the decade between 1830 and 1840 over 2,000 miles of track would be laid, and as they had done in the building of the Erie Canal, entrepreneurs looking for cheap, expendable labor turned to Ireland. In 1832, 57 men from County Donegal were recruited to work on the dangerous section of track that would come to be known as Duffy’s Cut. They arrived on the Philadelphia docks in mid spring, and within 6 weeks they were dead. Cholera was the cause given, and it was certainly present, but there was much more to the story. Locals seemed to sense something terrible had happened in the labor camp. Cholera was a very serious disease, but it was not 100 percent fatal. Even if untreated, some of the victims would have survived. Stories circulated of ghosts dancing on their own graves, and then there was the unsettling way the railroad had hushed up the incident, to the point that relatives in Ireland were never notified of their loved ones deaths.
It would not be until the 21st century that the facts slowly emerged. It began with the discovery of a secret file detailing how the railroad had covered up the deaths. Included in the file were directions from a later railroad president that a marker should be built for the men, and further instructions that the file should never be made public, indeed should never leave his office. After its discovery, excavations began and the site of the labor camp was unearthed, but aside from some artifacts nothing else came to light for over four years. Then in 2009 two sets of remains were found, one them of a teenager, and what they told investigators was unnerving. Both had holes in their skulls, hardly a symptom of cholera. Forensic examination of the bones also revealed the hard life these men had led; young though they were, their joints were worn down with heavy labor and lifting and showed signs of various illnesses.
Using ship passenger records, (there was only one 18 year old on the ship), and DNA along with a genetic dental anomaly that still runs in the family today, researchers were able to give a name to the young victim—John Ruddy. The first weekend in March he was reburied in his native County Donegal. Four more sets of remains were discovered, and there are still more buried at Duffy’s Cut, some so close to the active rail line they may never be disinterred. The additional remains were laid to rest in Pennsylvania under a Celtic Cross of Irish limestone. It’s a small comfort that at least one of those men got to go home.
To learn more about this project, try this Smithsonian site which has 3 short videos, http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/site/sn/show.do?show=131088 or listen to the very interesting 2009 interview with researchers on MP3 at this site Radiotimes
Also, watch for the PBS special, scheduled to air on May 8th at 10 pm.