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, 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.