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A number of people in my extended family are firefighters in Massachusetts and New York. Today I’d like to remember a member of my family who served in the FDNY many years ago and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect others.  

His name was John Joseph Ennis. I’ve already posted about my 3x-great-grandmother Catherine Ennis, who was John’s sister, and James Seferen Ennis, Jr., the grandson of John’s younger brother James who died in WWI. Now it’s time to tell John’s story.
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John was the third child, and second son, of Matthew Ennis and Anna Doyle, who had come to New York separately as children from the Belfast area. They married in 1835 at St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village and baptized their four children there. The church building, which was barely a year old at the time, is today the oldest Catholic church building still in use in New York City. As a student at NYU I had many occasions to walk past – and go in – the beautiful building, and I volunteered at the soup kitchen there, having no idea the church had been so important in the lives of my ancestors.

St. Joseph's RC Church, 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village
St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village, where my earliest Irish immigrant ancestors were married in 1835
By the 1850s the family had moved to the 30s near the East River, an area now considered part of Murray Hill but then thought of as the northern reaches of Kips Bay, because it was not on the actual hill, now mostly leveled, that constituted Murray Hill. The neighborhood was full of Irish immigrants and their children. Matthew Ennis sold liquors and cigars there. They stayed in this area for the next half-century before scattering to Brooklyn and the Bronx.

On April 30, 1861, just two weeks after Fort Sumter fell, the oldest son, John’s brother Joseph (who turned 24 later that year), enlisted in the 10th New York Infantry for a two-year tour. The 10th New York was known as the McChesney Zouaves though Col. Walter McChesney, who did the original recruiting, left the regiment in June 1861 (before it went into combat) and did not return. By May 1862 the unit was sent to Norfolk, Virginia. Joseph Ennis survived the battles of Seven Days, Malvern Hill, Harrison’s Landing, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Days after Chancellorsville, on May 7, 1863, Joseph Ennis and many other soldiers from the 10th New York were mustered out. The rest of the regiment (many had signed up for three years) would fight at Gettysburg eight weeks later.

10th NY Infantry monument at Gettysburg
The 10th New York Infantry monument at Gettysburg. The Ennis brothers missed the battle, Joseph mustering out several weeks earlier and John enlisting a few months later.
Joseph Ennis went home to New York City and quickly moved up to Boston, where he had job prospects with someone he’d met in the army. His stay didn’t last long. As the Civil War draft riots raged in his native New York City (which his early voluntary enlistment suggests he would not have supported), Joseph was drafted into Company G of the 16th Massachusetts Infantry, reporting for duty on August 19, 1863. That regiment participated in the Rappahannock and Rapidan campaigns before camping for the winter at Brandy Station, Virginia. In April 1864, when the regiment broke camp, Joseph was mustered out and went home to New York. He was fortunate, because the regiment suffered heavy losses that year at Spotsylvania and the Battle of the Wilderness.

But this story is about John, not Joseph. Born in the summer of 1842, John Ennis was five years younger than Joseph. He was 21 when, on March 9, 1864, he enlisted in the 10th New York, the regiment his brother had served in for two years but no longer was part of. John’s enlistment was part of a recruiting push to replace the three-year enlistees whose terms would end in April 1864. John joined the regiment in Virginia, where it participated in the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the disastrous Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg (being near the action at the infamous Crater explosion on July 30, 1864), before participating in the Appomattox campaign. The 10th New York was at Appomattox Court House for Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, then traveled to Washington D.C. in early May, serving on guard duty near Falls Church, Va. That month John Ennis would have participated in the Grand Review of the Armies parade through a Washington still mourning the Lincoln assassination. John, who had been promoted to Corporal in February 1865 and to Sergeant on May 1, 1865, mustered out on June 30, 1865 at Munson’s Hill, Virginia (near Falls Church), and returned to New York like his brother.

John's Civil War record; he was promoted twice in the war's last three months
There John Ennis resumed his pre-war occupation of plumber but also served as a volunteer firefighter. The New York City fire department was in a state of flux in those years. In 1864, the “War Democrats” split with the “Copperheads” (or anti-Civil War Democrats) and formed the “Republican Union” ticket with the Republicans. This coalition ticket narrowly won the state elections and the new, Republican-led state legislature passed a law in 1865 to minimize the power of the Democrats then running New York City. That law eliminated the municipal fire departments in New York (then only Manhattan) and Brooklyn (an independent city), replacing them with the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD), which answered to commissioners appointed by the governor rather than the mayors.
The hose carts in use around the time John Ennis joined the FDNY in 1872
The MFD initially had scant success (several huge fires caused massive destruction in 1866) but brought “military discipline” and merit-based hiring to the fire service, eliminating most of the volunteer firefighters. It remained in place until 1870, by which time the infamous Boss William Tweed had taken over New York City politics and the Democrats had taken over state government. They passed the “Tweed Charter,” restoring to New York City broad home-rule powers. The MFD was converted into the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), which has remained in place to this day. Although the existing volunteer firefighters were given preference in hiring for full-time MFD jobs, the preference tended to be for Republicans, and more generally for Protestants of English stock. Not until a while after the Tweed Democrats formed the FDNY in 1870 was John hired to a permanent position as a fireman at Engine Company 8, then and now based on East 51st Street in midtown Manhattan.
FDNY Engine Company 8 firehouse, East 51st St in Manhattan
Engine 8's station today. It did not look like this when John Ennis worked for the company.
My first clue into any of this came from the 1880 census, when John was single and living with my own direct ancestor, his sister Catherine, and her family. He is listed as a “fireman, city.” Suddenly I remembered that, in the 1870 census, there had been a “John Powell” of the same age living with this family and listed as a “plumber.” This was a source of great puzzlement to me. Catherine’s husband was Thomas Powell, but I’d traced his family and there was no John among his siblings. Was he a cousin? It now occurred to me that, perhaps, the “John Powell” was really “John Ennis,” and he was Catherine Ennis Powell’s brother, not her husband’s.

Happily, New York was such a crazy place in 1870 that the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a second enumeration. I located them in it, and sure enough there was “John Ennis” living with the Powells, this time as a “tinsmith” rather than a "plumber." The record said he was born in Ireland (which he wasn’t), but it also said his sister was born in Ireland (she wasn’t either). (The probable explanation for this is that Thomas Powell, the brother-in-law, did the answering. He was born in Ireland.)

John Ennis living with the Powell family, 2d enumeration of 1870 U.S. Census
So John Ennis was living with his sister’s family, a block or so from his parents, in 1870 and still in 1880. But other than an 1884 directory showing “John Ennis, fireman” living in the East 50s, I couldn’t find any trace of John after the 1880 census. I took to Google and discovered the awful truth. On August 30, 1885, this date one hundred and twenty-eight years ago, John J. Ennis was killed in the line of duty at the age of 43.

Still working for Engine 8, John responded to a major fire at the Gardner Holmes Chair Factory on 61st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. The weather had been hot and the varnish, turpentine, and wood in the factory made it a tinderbox. As the New York Times tells the story:

It was early apparent that it would be impossible to save the chair factory from destruction, and the work of the firemen was directed in the main to checking the spread of the fire, and to securing the safety of the surrounding properties. In this they were successful.

While the fire was at its height, the accident occurred which resulted in the death of Fireman Ennis. The company to which he belonged was the second due at the fire. The steamer took position at a hydrant immediately in front of the two-story building No. 330....The position was so much exposed to the heat that the men suffered terribly. They could not hold the pipe more than a few minutes at a time, and then their comrades were required to turn the hose on them to prevent their clothes from taking fire. The engine was also exposed to great heat, and as the position, although extremely perilous, was too valuable to be given up, horse blankets were hung over the side of the engine exposed to the fire and kept wet continually. Otherwise the steamer would have been burned up...Firemen John Ennis, Patrick Mead, John Ryan and Andrew McDevitt were at the pipe, relieving each other in couples when their position became untenable.

Ennis and Mead had just left the pipe...As Ennis was walking away, the engineer called to him to assist in arranging the blankets protecting the engine. The blankets had been arranged and wet down when Engineer Woodhull, looking up, saw the walls of the three-story building falling out into the street. He gave a warning shout and the firemen dropped the pipe and fled for their lives. The front wall fell with a crash into the street, and the gable end of this building fell on to the roof of the two-story building adjoining and forced the front walls of that building into the street. Ennis, in jumping out of the reach of the falling walls, tripped over a hose pipe and fell prone to the curb. The wall fell on him and he was buried beneath two feet of heated bricks and rubbish.

A stream was at once turned on the bricks and willing hands were in a moment busy in rescuing the imprisoned fireman. When his comrades brought him out, Ennis gasped two or three times and died. A large coping stone had fallen on the right side of his head, crushing in his skull.

Part of the New York Times story about John's death, issue of August 31, 1885
East 61st St between 1st and 2nd Avenues
The street where John died. The newer building on the left with the vertical banner is on the site of the 1885 fire. The bridge in the background is an offramp from the 59th Street bridge, which wasn't built until 1909.
Once again, genealogy caused me wonder and consternation. On and off from the late 1990s through 2010, I worked in the very neighborhood where John Ennis worked and died. I walked past the place where he died and his firehouse (it’s not the same one) many times. Many times over the years I’ve dropped into P. J. Clarke’s, a neighborhood saloon dating back to 1884, still in (the bottom two floors of) its original building; the owners made the developers build the 50-story skyscraper (a building in which I worked for four years) around it. It’s possible John Ennis, who lived and worked right around the corner, stopped in as well.
P.J. Clarke's at 3rd Av and 55th St. in Manhattan
"Historic" P.J. Clarke's, which opened a block from John's home when he was still alive
The saddest part of the story, for me, came at the end. It was another surprise:
He was married and lived at No. 334 East Fifty-Third Street. He had no children, but his widow is about to become a mother…When Mrs. Ennis was informed of his fate she hurried to the station house, where she fainted and was utterly prostrated.
Until the age of at least 38, John was unmarried and lived with his sister’s family. Now I learn that, weeks from becoming a father for the first time, he died protecting the neighborhood from inferno. I have spent a lot of time looking for records relating to John’s widow and child, if the child was in fact born alive, and have found essentially nothing. Although the Times article says Mrs. Ennis would receive $1,000 for burial expenses and a $300 annual pension, the FDNY itself was unable to locate anything in its pension records. I’ll keep digging, because I’d love to know what happened to them.

It was, I imagine, a very tough blow for John's side of the family as well. Exactly one week earlier John's father, Matthew Ennis, the immigrant and patriarch of the family in the United States, had died at the age of 73. John's mother Anna, who lost her husband and son in the same week, died herself a year later.

A final sadness, for me, in John’s story is that no marker adorns his grave. He was buried in Calvary (II) Cemetery in Woodside, Queens. A hundred yards away there is a large monument to his brother James’s descendants, but John’s gravesite is in a bare patch of grass surrounded by gravestones. It’s an oversight I’d like to remedy, so I’ve been saving up to put a gravestone there. Unfortunately, Calvary has no way to look up people by plot, only by date. Unless and until I find the names and dates of death for John’s wife and child, I’ll never know if they’re buried there with him.

Calvary II Cemetery, Woodside, Queens
This unmarked spot is where John is buried
Today, the anniversary of John Ennis’s death, seems an appropriate time to pay tribute to this brave firefighter and all those who put themselves at risk doing this dangerous, but essential, work.

Open thread, so have at it: any firefighters in your family? Anyone who died heroically? Or whatever else strikes your fancy...

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