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February 8 would be my grandfather's 100th birthday. I was going to post this one for the open thread on that date, and post something else this week. But I figured I'd go with the more cheerful diary for the open thread, and do this one today.

My grandfather, who died in 1995, would be 100 years old today. As I think about him, I remember also his grandfather James. Over the past year or so I’ve learned a lot about most of my sixteen great-great-grandparents, about whom I’d known very little. A number of them knew considerable hard times and tragedy, as was common in those days. James, in particular, stands out as having been asked by life to endure a lot.

James was born on November 26, 1840 in County Offaly (then called the King’s County), Ireland. In 1860, when he was 19, he left Ireland and came to New York. He settled in Flatbush, which today is in the middle of Brooklyn but then was a separate town surrounded by farmland. Ironically, his new home, where he would remain the rest of his life, was in Kings County just like the home he left behind in Ireland.

James quickly married Hester Nolan, a fellow immigrant from County Carlow, not far from his former home. Over the next twenty years they had seven daughters and three sons, not unusual for an Irish immigrant family at the time. James was a farmer, hard to believe if you see the neighborhood today, and appears on an 1873 map of Flatbush as the owner of a small tract. I can't imagine he raised much more than his own family would eat.

Flatbush, then a separate town, in 1873. Too small to see here, but James's name appears in the bottom right corner.
The Flatbush in which they lived was an old Dutch and Republican village, with many of the original Dutch families (for whom the major streets are named) still living there. In time, though, the original Dutch and Knickerbocker (Dutch mixed with people of Protestant English background) families lost influence, as the Irish Democratic population grew large enough to dominate the town’s affairs. Not until the mid-1890s was Flatbush merged into the larger City of Brooklyn, which in turn soon merged into the humongous City of New York. The street names in the neighborhood were almost all changed at the time of the annexation of Flatbush by Brooklyn, which forced me to do a little work in figuring out exactly where they lived.
James's house the last 30 years of his life
The house where my great-grandmother's family lived, right across the street
Tragedy first struck the family in April 1876, when their daughter Margaret, then two-and-a-half years old, died. A year later, in August 1877, their oldest child Mary also died. She was thirteen. A great many children died in the mid-1870s, a time characterized by the deepest economic depression of the nineteenth century. It is an era with great relevance for our own: burgeoning industrial development promoted an unhealthy concentration of wealth at the very top of the pyramid. The resultant inequality, and the harsh conditions and long hours of factory work in those days, made a mockery of antebellum conceptions of a uniquely American breed of yeoman citizen, economically self-sufficient and engaged in public affairs.
Even after losing two children, a large and growing family, 1880 census
Life went on, however, and James and Hester had five more children. In the early 1890s James helped found, with his son James Jr. and several others, the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. During this time he also was the Secretary of the local Democratic organization and involved in quite a few political tussles. James was a close friend of Judge James F. Kelly, a local saloonkeeper and member of the “McLaughlin ring” (Irish immigrant Hugh McLaughlin ran the Brooklyn Democratic machine for 40 years).

Judge Kelly was President of the Flatbush Democratic organization and was implicated in a number of corruption scandals relating to work on the streets and sewers. Reform Democrats, many of whom were German, sought to overturn the leadership of the local Democratic Party. The New York Times (then fairly Republican) took a keen interest in the matter and a keen dislike to Judge Kelly, who they reported “has no knowledge of law.”

The New York Times covers the ongoing squabbles among the Democrats of Flatbush, 1893
In September 1893, as the nation fell into depression again, James’s active political life ended when his wife of thirty years, Hester, died. She was only 49 years old. That blow would have been hard enough, but it only began a twenty-year stretch of tragedy the likes of which it is hard for me to contemplate:

• In September 1898, a month after the Spanish-American War ended, James’s 18-year old daughter Jennie (8th of the 10) died of pneumonia.

• In June 1900, the day after the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was founded, and the week my great-grandparents married, James's daughter Lizzie (7th of 10) died at 21 of tuberculosis.

• In January 1901, the month Queen Victoria died and oil first was discovered in Texas, pneumonia claimed James Jr., the oldest son and third child overall. He was 30 and left a young wife and baby.

• Less than three months later, in late March 1901, James Jr.’s only child Frances died. She was not yet three years old.

• In October 1903 James Sr.’s youngest child, Theresa, died of tuberculosis at 19.

• In October 1906 James’s second (and oldest surviving) child, Annie, died of tuberculosis at 38. She was a young widow with two children under 10, who came to live with James and his son George.

• In August 1908, while William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan campaigned for the Presidency, James’s 9th child Cornelia died of typhoid fever. She was 25 and had recently married. James had by now buried his wife, eight of his ten children, and his granddaughter.

• In October 1914 James’s son George, who lived with James, died at 36 after a long and extremely painful battle with cancer.

Now, of ten children, James had only my great-grandfather John left. John lived a few blocks away with his wife (whose father lived just down the street from James) and children.

My great-grandfather John, the only one of ten siblings who lived to see 40
James lived another few years after George’s death, apparently raising his two oldest grandchildren with the help of their father’s relatives next door. (Finding what happened to them is a major brick wall for me; they lived in a huge city with restrictive records laws and their names were Jennie and John Smith). He died at age 78 in his small house in Flatbush on March 2, 1919, the day of the first-ever meeting of the Communist International in Moscow. Family legend had it that James lost his will to live when the Eighteenth Amendment (prohibition) was ratified in late January of that year. I was told he said, “Is there no dignity left? At times a man needs a drink.” Looking at James’s life, it’s easy to understand why he felt that way.
Holy Cross R.C. Church, Flatbush
Holy Cross R.C. Church, the oldest Catholic church in Flatbush, as it looks today. Many funerals, but also baptisms and weddings, for my family were held here in days past.
When the first of the family's funerals were held here, the church looked like this.
The family plot in Holy Cross Cemetery, Flatbush, Brooklyn
Amazingly, James’s only surviving child, my great-grandfather John, lost his wife, my great-grandmother Nellie, on the very same day James died. They both were laid to rest in Holy Cross cemetery, right in the neighborhood, where James’s wife Hester and other children also were buried. My grandfather, the youngest of their four children, would be 100 next week but was only six when his mother died. My grandfather moved with his father, John, his three older siblings, and his mother’s sister Annie into James’s house, where they lived for the next ten years. The house is still there today, though it’s been out of the family since about 1928.
My grandparents on their wedding day, 1942
Almost twenty-five years to the day after James and Nellie died, my grandfather became a father when twins, a boy and a girl, were born. They were John’s first two grandchildren and, as far as I know, James’s first great-grandchildren. A few years later my grandfather’s sister had two sons. Except perhaps for the missing Smiths, those four grandchildren of John’s and their progeny are the only descendants of James and Hester. Even counting spouses, that’s only twenty-six living people, some on the East Coast and some on the West Coast, a remarkably small group. You would need an arena to house the descendants of most other Irish immigrant couples of their era who had ten children.
The next generation: My grandparents with their first two children, 1944
Other than my great-grandfather John, who lived until 1958, I never knew about any of James’s children until I started doing this research a year ago. I certainly had no idea all the tragedy James had lived through. When I think about James and Hester, I realize yet again how fragile life can be and how fortunate I am that my ancestors lived long enough to keep the chain going so I could be here. Those Irish immigrants were tough. They had to be.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 08:28 AM PST.

Also republished by Shamrock American Kossacks, Maryland Kos, and New York City.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)

    Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

    by fenway49 on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 08:28:35 AM PST

  •  Nice work in finding all this info! (11+ / 0-)

    I want to let you know, you need to fix the link to the church.  Just remove the http:// at the end and it'll work.  I did a little playing around and found the original print.  The main church looks the same, with a paint job and different windows.

    Gotta love the old structures that stay in use.

    "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

    by DrLori on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 08:44:17 AM PST

    •  Thanks (8+ / 0-)

      Fixed the link. You were right about the http://. Usually I erase that before pasting the link. This time I tried to paste over and obviously failed.

      They made the bell tower higher and put some kind of stucco or cement over the church, but it's the same building. Brooklyn's chock full of old churches.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 08:51:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  With old brick buildings you often see stucco. (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Jim H, edwardssl, brook, fenway49

        Old bricks are porous and need to be maintained with lime putty mortar.  They can't be painted but must be colorwashed with lime and pigment.  In short, they're a pain.  

        And before restoration experts got the upper hand, the contracting and maintenance world was filled with guys who thought "the more portland cement, the better."  They destroyed a lot of old brick buildings.  Stucco is actually a better alternative, because it coats and waterproofs the structure.  As long as the basement doesn't draw moisture, the maintenance problems should be lessened.

        "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

        by DrLori on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 10:51:10 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  That grave monument is so sad. (6+ / 0-)

    How do parents survive that without losing their minds?  After the shock of losing the first two or three, does one become numb to it?  I know these things were more common years ago, but still, that's a lot to lose in so short of a time span.

    I have a similar story with one of my ancestors in Germany.  It happened during the height of the famine that occurred in the Eifel region during the 1830s and 40s.  Ten children, only 2 survived past age 13.

    Theodore 1824-1882
    Johann 1826-1839
    Franz 1828-1836
    Katharina 1831-1843
    Jacob 1834-1834
    Lucy 1835-1875
    Anna Margaretha 1837-1837
    Johann 1839-1839
    Elisabetha 1841-1845
    Lucia 1844-1845

    The mother Maria Magdalena Schmal 1801-1845
    The father Johann 1791-1848

    The two surviving children, Theodore and Lucy, came to America, Lucy in 1857 and Theodore in 1864.

    Theodore never married.  Lucy was my g-g-grandmother and had 10 children before dying shortly after giving birth to her last in 1875.

    P.S.  Love your Grandparent's photos - and how the hell does she look so good after just giving birth to twins??  I looked like hell after giving birth to just one kid at a time!

    •  Ouch (5+ / 0-)

      That's a tough one. Eight of ten before thirteen. The parents didn't live too long after all that. She was still having kids well into her 40s, it seems.

      My grandmother was pretty young, about 23, when the twins were born.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 03:10:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Lots of infant mortality in the old days (0+ / 0-)

      Here's a list of Jon Larsen's children from my family tree (from Norway) from the 1760s to 1780s -- incidentally about the time of the American Revolution. They're all either Jonsen or Jonsdatter because their father was Jon. Only a few kids survived. My ancestor is #6 (Hans). Sometimes when a child died, they would use the name again (which is why #4 and #5 are both named Maren).

      i.    Fredrik Jonsen     1764 – 1833
      ii.    Lars Jonsen         1766 – 1823
      iii.    Berit Jonsd.         1769 – 1770 (died as infant)
      iv.    Maren Jonsd.       1769 – 1770 (died as infant)
      v.    Maren Jonsd.        1771 – 1771 (died as infant)
      vi.    Hans Jonsen Ryggen 1772 – 1850
      vii.    John Jonsen         1775 – ?
      viii.    Jakob Jonsen       1778 – 1779 (died as infant)
      ix.    Marte Jonsd.         1778 – 1779 (died as infant)

      “If you misspell some words, it’s not plagiarism.” – Some Writer

      by Dbug on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 10:27:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I feel so sad for James. (6+ / 0-)

    Today, we can barely contemplate a child predeceasing us, and it's not all that comforting to know that in those days it was a  common occurrence. My NYC Irish did not have really large families yet still had a couple of children who died young.

    Your research (and pictures) are (as usual) outstanding. I have found that it's a tough nut to crack. The missing 1890 info is no friend to any of us.

     My great-grandfather, Samuel Smith arrived from ? in Ireland, married, had 2 sons, one of whom had no children, the other being my father's father. Sam died, probably 1881-2 and at age 12 Grandpa went to work at the NYSE as a runner.

    Sadly, I don't recall that grandfather ever addressing me directly even though we lived under the same roof until I was in Jr. High. One exception - he yelled at me in Gaelic one night when Grandma had a gall bladder attack downstairs. She wouldn't have understood him either.

    Once again, your diary was a gem. I am inspired by how you breath such life into your story.

    •  I was lucky (6+ / 0-)

      I was looking up my great-grandmother. Because she died young, she was always a pretty big mystery. I see the same census page has a Fitzpatrick family. I followed up and happened to find my grandfather (as a kid) living at the same address many years later, confirming it was the same family.

      I actually stumbled upon the grave just by accident when I went to the cemetery to see another grave. I wasn't sure it was the same family, but the names matched up. I visited the NYC archives and pulled all the death certificates. They matched.

      Later I spoke with a cousin on that side, who put me in touch with his cousin (on his other side), who was a bit older and somehow knew all about them. She confirmed what I'd found, although she was born well after all those people died and didn't know all the details that turned up.

      I visited my cousin in Oregon this past summer and it was strange because he looks just like my grandfather. Nobody on my side does, I'm probably the closest. So I never see anyone who has those features. But he was like the spitting image. It was kind of unsettling since my grandfather's been gone almost 20 years.  

      My great-grandfather, who was born in 1874, was a pretty distant person. He more or less left his younger kids with his dead wife's younger sister. About ten years after she died he married again and wasn't really close to any of his kids. My father barely knew him. I have no way of knowing if he was always like that or if all the loss changed him.  

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 03:28:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, I'm glad you were so lucky. (6+ / 0-)

        It's like finding cookie crumbs in the forest and you kinda found a basketful. It makes us all hopeful.

        It's easy to imagine that so much loss would change a person.
        When you think of all the deprivation they suffered before they even got to the point they were able to fall in love and marry...
        with the high hopes having made it here from the old country...
        that they carried on with life at all is somewhat remarkable.

        •  It's true (6+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          marykk, edwardssl, brook, liz dexic, Jim H, Scioto

          They were tough, though. James would have been a small child when the Great Hunger hit, then made it though that to come here as a young man. Only to suffer all that loss. He still lived to be 78.

          I recently learned his mother (whom I'd not been able to identify) is buried in the same grave. She lived a long life but died when my ggf was a child. She didn't live with them but lived a block or two away.

          Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

          by fenway49 on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 05:58:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  If I may ask... (6+ / 0-)

            how did you find out that they were buried in the same grave? I bet that happened more than we would think, given the circumstances. Might be a good thing for us all to keep in mind during our searches.

            •  The NYC death certificates (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              edwardssl, brook, Jim H, Scioto

              list the place of burial (the cemetery only). I noticed one of the married children named on the monument was listed as buried in a different cemetery. The next time I visited, I went to the cemetery office and asked who was in the plot. It's a large cemetery with regular staff.

              Turns out James's mother and his wife's mother were buried in that plot, but the married daughters were not. One was with her husband's family in the same cemetery, the other (as per death certificate) in a different cemetery altogether.

              Another part of my family is in the same cemetery (it was the first Catholic cemetery in Brooklyn) and they have 19 people buried in one double plot.

              Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

              by fenway49 on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 06:10:58 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Thank you. (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                fenway49, Jim H, Scioto

                I do have a reference to a NY burial for one early Irish relative in NYC. This may be quite helpful in finding a couple of others.

                •  Where? (3+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Jim H, marykk, Scioto

                  I'm pretty familiar with the NYC cemeteries.

                  Bad news: the ones for the Archdiocese of NY (as opposed to Brooklyn) can't tell you who's in the plot. They can give you a grave location only with name and exact date of death. Records are not cross-referenced. It's a major drag.

                  Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

                  by fenway49 on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 02:36:39 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Calvary Cemetery (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    fenway49

                    I know one Baby was buried there - with the internment  date so perhaps there is more for me there. I think I may have some at St. Raymond's in the Bronx. And there's a Samuel J. Smith at Green-Wood who might be my great-grandfather. Or not. Death certificates for NYC 1880-1905 or so have not turned up much for me - a drag as you say. Must keep "digging". ;-)

                     

                    •  Calvary-ugh (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      brook

                      beautiful place but that's one of the ones for which you need exact dates. St. Raymond's also, I think. Both Archdiocese of NY. Green-wood, which is not Catholic, is a pleasure to work with. Though they charge somewhat hefty fees for some things, they have the database online.  

                      NYC death certificates generally can only be seen by going to archives in person. It's four hours from me but I go there often enough for family things and try to make it to the archives when I do. They get $11 per certificate so I usually just write the info on a nifty form I designed for that purpose.

                      Are you familiar with Italian Gen's database? I've found a lot of them through that. If you have a list of names to look up, I can take a look when I go next.

                      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

                      by fenway49 on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 07:00:37 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

  •  Great work, great story, (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    edwardssl, brook, liz dexic, fenway49, Jim H, Scioto

    great legacy.

    It seems unfathomable the grief that must have pervaded daily life.  Just last night I got an email from a geneaology buddy who's a rellie of a rellie

    Others I sought today were from my mother’s side. Her mother’s sister Marie Sterling Hughes lost a baby boy on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1928, her daughter a day short of a year later, and her husband five months later, leaving her two months pregnant with the one child who would reach adulthood. I can’t imagine how she endured it, but I remember her as the friendliest, most welcoming, sturdy person I’ve yet to meet.
    Looking at those dates, it means the woman lost her second child in March of '29, and her husband just a few weeks before the October market crash, meaning she brought her last child into the world, fatherless, at the dawn of the Great Depression.

    I can't even imagine.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 06:41:42 PM PST

    •  I can't imagine either (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      edwardssl, marykk, Jim H, Scioto

      One great-grandmother lost her six-month-old baby in October, her husband the next March, leaving her with two young children. Then her mother died unexpectedly the same May, her sister during childbirth in August, and her father (who was very ill and senile) the next January. She moved in with her sisters and brother, and the brother died in a sudden accident a couple of years later. But everyone said she remained kind and pleasant and a joy to be around.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 06:24:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  BTW (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    edwardssl, brook, liz dexic, Jim H, Scioto

    I loved the way you tied the life events to the historical events that took place at the same time.  Really helps place the story into context.  

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 06:44:07 PM PST

  •  Very interesting (0+ / 0-)

    While doing family history the past 3 years, I've seen a lot of tragedy.  Thankfully, not to the extent of your great-great-grandfather.  

    Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary. Does it improve the silence. (Courtesy Kos)

    by Scioto on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 06:50:29 PM PST

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