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Forgotten Irish Laborers Finally Laid To Rest


This past week, five Irish immigrant laborers were laid to read in Philadelphia, 180 years after their death. From member WHYY, Peter Crimmins reports they were part of a forgotten railroad work crew that was buried in a mass grave under the very railroad tracks they helped construct.


PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: Hundreds of mourners - mostly Irish - came to West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia to pay their respects to 57 unknown railroad workers who reportedly died from cholera while laying track 180 years ago.

BILL WATSON: Well, what we're doing today is burying the men and woman who were murdered.

CRIMMINS: That's Bill Watson. He's a history professor at Immaculata University who excavated the bones. The skulls he found revealed gunshots and blunt force trauma - likely from an axe.

WATSON: They were killed in the midst of a cholera epidemic, but our burials today do not reflect that pandemic. They reflect prejudice and xenophobia, you know, a tragic end for a couple of immigrants who expected the American dream.

CRIMMINS: Watson recovered only six sets of bones. The rest are still buried somewhere under the tracks that Amtrak uses every day.

WATSON: We knew that there was something common here and something rare at the same time. The common aspect is that, yeah, this is something that happened all over the country. But the fact that these men could be recovered, their stories told, that's fairly rare.

CRIMMINS: The remains from the early Industrial Revolution sets a scientific precedent. Janet Monge, a senior anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the bones for years to learn about the workers' diet and the intense physical strain they were under. That's not why she came to the funeral. Her ancestors are Italian and they also came to American as immigrant laborers.

JANET MONGE: But it's all the same really. So, it's nice to be able to pay homage essentially to those ancestors of ours that we never met, but would love to say a word to, like, thanks.


CRIMMINS: The five unknown laborers were lowered into the ground as an Irish tenor sang "A Soldier's Song." Cemetery superintendent Bill Doran built the caskets for the remains. As an Irish immigrant himself, he says he felt a kinship.

BILL DORAN: They came to Philadelphia and started to work the next day. You know, so, for the mothers and fathers in Ireland, you know, they were expecting a letter in the mail that never came. Their loved ones just fell off the face of the earth.

CRIMMINS: At least one family does know what happened. The remains of a John Ruddy were identified and will be shipped back to County Donegal, Ireland so he can be buried at home. For NPR, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.


WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Crimmins
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