Murdered Clonoe woman on her way home after 183 years in US mass grave

A memorial plaque for Duffy's Cut mass grave where Catherine Burns was buried
A memorial plaque for Duffy's Cut mass grave where Catherine Burns was buried

Some 183 years after she was murdered at the Duffy’s Cut work site in Pennsylvania, the remains of Catherine Burns are to be returned to her native Clonoe for commemoration and burial.

Her remains will be buried with a full funeral mass on Sunday, July 19 at 12.30pm, at St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe, with a burial immediately after in the church cemetery.

Catherine's skull

Catherine's skull

In 1832, Burns, a widow at the age of 29, emigrated to America with her father-in-law, labourer John Burns, on board the ship John Stamp.

Catherine was one of 70 Tyrone residents 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 historical record.

They were among the 57 Irish labourers hired by Irish-born railroad contractor Philip Duffy to build mile 59 of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, a work site 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.

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 - Dr Janet Monge, Pennsylvania Museum

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.

Catherine Burns' grave in the USA

Catherine Burns' grave in the USA

“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 labour, 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).”

“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?