The remains of a 19th-century Irish immigrant who researchers believe was murdered while building a Pennsylvania railroad will be reburied in his home country this weekend after being identified in part through a missing molar.
U.S. historians unearthed the bones of the young man thought to be 18-year-old John Ruddy near train tracks in suburban Philadelphia four years ago. On Saturday, they'll attend a re-interment for the railway worker more than 3,000 miles away at a cemetery in County Donegal.
"We can't help but think he would prefer to be buried there," said Bill Watson, a lead researcher on the team that found the remains.
Ruddy was among 57 Irishmen hired in 1832 to help build a stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad known as Duffy's Cut. But the immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry died about six weeks after their arrival, and the railroad company never told their families.
Watson and his twin brother Frank, also a historian, led a team in a 10-year effort to research and dig up evidence of how the workers died in what is now a woodsy area behind homes in Malvern, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia.
Their conclusion? Many workers died of cholera and were dumped in a mass grave. Yet forensic evidence indicates several were homicide victims, likely killed by local vigilantes because of ethnic hatred or fear of the disease. Those immigrants, including Ruddy, were found buried separately.
The research team tentatively identified Ruddy based on a passenger list from the ship on which the immigrants traveled, and his small bone size. There was only one 18-year-old worker listed in railroad archives, Watson said.
Ruddy's jaw also had a genetic dental abnormality — a missing molar. It's a trait that still runs in his family, according to Watson, who said modern-day Ruddys in Ireland contacted him after reading about the discovery. One Ruddy donated a DNA sample to confirm the identification in 2010, but researchers have not had the time nor the money to complete the analysis yet.
However, it's unlikely another body with that bone size and "super-rare" tooth anomaly would be found at the site, said University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Janet Monge, who works with the all-volunteer team.
Researchers are going ahead with Ruddy's burial this weekend because of a looming deadline for a documentary film crew that has been following the Duffy's Cut project. Ruddy's relatives, who could not be reached for comment, are expected to attend, as are other community members, Watson said.
"A lot of the people throughout Donegal see this as being important because they've all got stories in their family tree like this — people who left for America and were never heard from again," said Watson, whose own ancestors also hail from the county.
Ruddy will not be buried in his homestead of Inishowen but in the nearby town of Ardara, where a grave was donated by a more recent immigrant to the U.S.
Vincent Gallagher, now president of the Irish Center in Philadelphia, said it was the least he could do for a fellow countryman who died on a lonely journey to build a better life. Gallagher himself emigrated from Donegal about 40 years ago, joining a slew of relatives who came before him.
"When I came to this country, there were a bunch of people waiting for me from my own family," said Gallagher, a landscaper. "But these people — 57 of them — they came here, they didn't know a soul."
The Watsons have been unable to identify the other alleged homicide victims because their bones indicate they were all in their 20s, leaving too many possibilities. However, their remains were reburied last year in a solemn ceremony at a suburban Philadelphia cemetery. The mass grave can't be excavated because of its proximity to active railroad tracks.
"The idea of somehow being able to get one of them back to Ireland, it seemed like a distant hope 10 years ago," said Watson, who is also a history professor at Immaculata University in Malvern, not far from where the workers died. "It's just a miracle, actually."
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