Just shy of one hundred and eighty three years after she was murdered at the Duffy’s Cut work site in Pennsylvania, the remains of Catherine Burns will be returned to her native Co. Tyrone for commemoration and burial.
In 1832, Burns, a widow at the age of 29, immigrated to America with her father-in-law, laborer John Burns, on board the ship John Stamp. After two trying months at sea, they arrived in Philadelphia on June 23, 1832.
Catherine was one of 70 residents of Tyrone among the 160 passengers to leave for a new life in the new world. Within eight weeks of their arrival, Catherine and John disappeared from the historic record.
They were among the 57 Irish laborers hired by Irish-born railroad contractor Philip Duffy to build mile 59 of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, a worksite that would become known as Duffy's Cut and, over a century later, famous for its tragic and mysterious past.
By the end of August 1832, all 57 workers, Catherine included, were dead. Some perished due to a cholera outbreak that swept the work site, but most were murdered before they had a chance to succumb to the disease.
They were forgotten, buried in a mass grave, for over 100 years. The site and its story have been brought to light over the past 12 years by brothers Frank and William Watson, a Lutheran minister and a historian at Immaculata University. The Watson brothers, along with their colleague Earl Schandelmeier, founded the Duffy’s Cut Project in 2002. Since then the Duffy’s Cut Project team has worked to excavate the site, identify any remains, determine the causes of death, and secure funding for the project’s continued work.
As Frank Watson explained, “All of those recovered to this date were murdered by blunt force trauma, and one was both axed and shot in the head. None of the murdered show defensive wounds, indicating that they may have been tied up prior to being murdered.
“Among the six recovered at Duffy's Cut was the first man found, 18-year-old John Ruddy from Donegal, who was reinterred at Holy Family Cemetery in Ardara, County Donegal on March 2, 2013.
The other five men were buried at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd on March 9, 2012.
“The last person recovered at Duffy's Cut in the summer of 2010 was a woman aged to around 30 years of age by our physical anthropologist, Dr. Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. This woman's remains showed that she was used to heavy labor, similar to the men buried alongside of her in the 1832 railroad fill. She suffered perimortem (at the time of death) blunt force trauma to her head, as did the men (they were beaten to death).”
IrishCentral last reported on the intentions to return Catherine home to Co. Tyrone in March, and just this week Watson was delighted to confirm that the plans are now in place, thanks to funds raised by the project coordinators and the Philadelphia Irish community.
Her remains will be buried with a full funeral mass on Sunday, July 19, 2015, at 12:30 pm, at the Clonoe parish, near Coalisland, Tyrone, with a burial immediately after in the church cemetery. Father Benny Fee will preside.
“We feel that there will be an historic bookend placed onto this part of the project, with Duffy's Cut graves in both Donegal and Tyrone,” Watson said. “As part of the journey to bury Catherine Burns, we plan on returning to Ardara to place a marker over the grave of John Ruddy, as well as over the grave of Catherine Burns after she is buried in Clonoe.”
And what of the other victims?
Watson said that he and the rest of the Duffy’s Cut Project team hope to continue the dig at Duffy's Cut, pending ongoing negotiations with Amtrak, who own the land.
It is their mission, he said, “to make the recovery of the rest of the Irish laborers buried there possible, and thus to tell the full story of those who lost their lives helping to build America.”