the past in pop culture

Tag: Family History

The Descent of Their Last End: A Son of Erin Returns Home

Smoking pipe fragments excavated at Duffy’s Cut, Pennsylvania. Some of the pipes clearly made in Ireland. Duffy’s Cut Museum, Immaculata University. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

After 181 years, John Ruddy has returned to Ireland to be buried among his ancestors at a funeral attended by descendants. In an earlier post, Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are?, we wrote about how DNA testing, archaeology, and forensic science have solved mysteries about the past both for the famous and for the forgotten. Richard III’s remains were recently identified, but so were John Ruddy’s. In the spring of 1832, John Ruddy and a number of other Irishmen sailed to Philadelphia and were hired straight off the boat to work on building one of the country’s earliest rail lines. Barely two months later, as a cholera epidemic raged, Ruddy and fifty-six others died at a site known as Duffy’s Cut.

Locals long believed that the mass grave contained men who were victims of the disease and that this accounted for the many eerie stories associated with the site. But a team of historians and students from nearby Immaculata University discovered when they began excavating the bodies, that some had died by violence. Forensic evidence suggests that some of the six men, and one woman, whose graves have been excavated so far, were murdered. The hypothesis is that local vigilantes wanted to prevent them from leaving the camp to get medical help and supplies for the many men who were sick with the cholera. Of these bodies, they were only able to positively identify John Ruddy due to a rare genetic abnormality that affected his teeth and that several present-day Ruddy family members share.

Members of the Duffy’s Cut project had the six who are unidentified reinterred at Philadelphia’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery last year. On March 2, 2013, Bill Watson, Frank Watson, and Earl Schandelmeier of the Duffy’s Cut Project, along with Sadie, James, and Bernard Ruddy, accompanied John Ruddy’s casket to its final resting place in Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland. In 1832, John Ruddy was just eighteen years old, a poor Irish immigrant who needed any work he could find when he made his westward journey, first to Philadelphia and then just thirty more miles to a cut in the woods. He has returned to Ireland at last.

Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are?

Richard III Royal Collection

Richard III Royal Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard III’s bones were found under a car park, Henri IV’s head was kept in a jar, Louis XVI’s blood was soaked into a decorative gourd. All of these remains were recently proved real by DNA testing and publicized with splashy press releases. Each had met a violent end: Richard hit over the head on Bosworth Field by a pretender to the throne, Henri stabbed to death by a religious fanatic, Louis guillotined by revolutionaries. None of those stories were ever in doubt yet the positive identification of these relics has made international news. One wonders why. Ghoulish fascination? Henri’s head was, after all, mummified. Perhaps it’s related to the rise of the royals as pop culture icons. Even more than her wedding, Lady Di’s funeral brought the world to a standstill. It might be all those forensic science shows. What’s been called the “CSI effect”—or our television induced belief that we know our way around a crime scene—has proved strong enough that it’s changing not only the behavior of jurors (who now expect evidence to be DNA tested) but also that of criminals (who have learned how to destroy crime scene DNA traces). A mixed blessing to say the least.

Our relationship with DNA testing is fraught. The CSI effect has also tended to make people believe in the infallibility of the process when, in reality, genetic matches are based on probabilities and not certainties. Belief, in other words, hinges on faith even now. Reliquaries always relied on magical thinking for their power. The image on the Shroud of Turin can be proved a fake over and over and yet its power persists: the image is miraculous. With bodily relics, the science and the magic come together. Royalty, after all, can only be maintained by a belief in bloodlines. In a world where royals exist outside of real political power, we can trade skepticism for escapism with little harm.

Yet if forensic science can ratify the fame of the named, it can do the same for the nameless. While the power of DNA evidence in popular culture feeds our fairytale fantasies, it also fuels our desire for justice. It goes far beyond the wrongly convicted who are freed by the analysis of a decades old crime scene sample or the coldest of cold cases that finally comes to a conclusion. Ordinary people have bloodlines, too. has made a fortune off of this insight and its ingenious infomercial series, Who Do You Think You Are?, managed to sprinkle star dust on genealogical research. Ancestry, of course, is record and not DNA-driven, but when African Americans Blair Underwood and Emmitt Smith guest starred on the show their ancestral searches took inevitable turns toward genetic science. For some people, the paper trails stop cold. After the Middle Passage, the enslaved lost their connections to their homelands and only the rise of DNA databases has been able to bridge that gap. Smith located part of his ancestry in Benin, while Underwood got to meet a (very) distant cousin in Cameroon who seemed a little confused by the premise of the show but threw a party anyway.

These DNA matches aren’t perfect. But they’re also close enough to the truth that no one can deny what they reveal. Witness the recent announcements about Michelle Obama’s mixed race ancestry and the discomfort it has caused for what it says about the American past. DNA-based revelations about Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings certainly helped lead to the recent statement by a well-known scholar that Jefferson was “one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” Skeletons just don’t stay in the closet anymore. Even now archaeologists are exhuming the bodies of the mistreated and forgotten at a Florida reform school. In Pennsylvania, at a site called Duffy’s Cut, a team of dedicated historians, students, and scientists have dug up the remains of Irish railroad workers believed to have died of cholera in 1832 and revealed that they were murder victims. One was identified as John Ruddy in part by an abnormality in his teeth that matched that of living descendants. They hope to repatriate the body to Ireland. If so, Ruddy will be like Richard. Both king and commoner can rest in peace at last.

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