History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 March 2014

For St. Patrick's Day: Exploring my own Irish Roots

Some years ago, I performed the title role in the romantic comedy PEG O' MY HEART. One night, an audience member, impressed with my Irish brogue, approached our house manager and asked, "That actress with the red hair who plays Peg -- is she really Irish?"

Dear Rhonda, who is an irrepressible comedienne, quipped, "She has Irish hair-- with Jewish roots."

In truth, I do have Irish roots through a single ancestor, Captain William Haggerty (b.1797), my maternal grandfather's great-grandfather.
portrait of Capt. William Haggerty painted bet. 1830-35

Family lore had it that he was born on the Old Sod in Ulster (and we assumed therefore that he was likely a Protestant) but in the 1850 census, when (at age 53) he was residing in North Brunswick, Middlesex NJ, he claimed to have been "born on the ocean." Doing the math, he would have been born sometime in 1797 or at the beginning of 1798 -- tense times for Ireland. Just a few months later, the region erupted with The Rebellion of 1798, which lasted from May to September of that year. Could our family, with a pregnant Mama Haggerty, have been Catholics, seen the writing on the wall and fled the threat of British persecution? Or were they indeed among the Protestant "dissenters" that helped foment the uprising? Or were they not political folk at all and just wanted a better life in America?

We know nothing of Capt. Haggerty's parents or their true port of origin. What little we can piece together, looking backward on my ancestor's life raises more questions than it answers. When I began to research this post I contacted my uncle Bruce, the family historian, who found all sorts of fascinating tidbits about the life of "Grandpa Haggerty"; however, they remain snapshots in time and it will take lengthy threads to stitch his entire story together.

As a young man he ran packet boats along the North River (later renamed the mighty Hudson) -- the same river that formed the geographical westward boundary of my childhood in the North Bronx and my adulthood and career on the West Side of Manhattan, both Upper and Lower, the river I bounced along on my father's motorboat, performed beside as an actress, fought to clean up with the recently departed Pete Seeger's Clearwater Revival, and sailed along at the helm of an acquaintance's ketch while he tried to woo my friend.

But by his mid-30s, Captain Haggerty was proving himself to be quite a scallywag. Evidently, at one point before this time he had owned a sloop that ran trips between NYC and Albany. At the northern end of his route he must have met a woman, married, and sired three children. But he was not a faithful husband and in 1832 he abandoned his wife and returned to NYC --with the kids --where he took up residence in a house of ill repute at 112 Leonard Street, run by the notorious Mrs. Bowen, with whom he had been intimate for at least a year prior to taking up permanent residence at her establishment.

Leonard Street and nearby Thomas Street formed part of the red-light district of lower Manhattan at that time, a stone's throw from Chinatown and the infamous Five Points slum district. These brothels were also conveniently located to the courthouses, the prison known as the Tombs, and City Hall. In 1836, the murder of the beautiful redheaded Helen Jewett, a well-known prostitute from the bordello located at 41 Thomas Street, a vicious slaughter committed by one of her jealous regulars, and the subsequent trial of the 19-year-old murderer, a clerk from a wealthy Connecticut family, spawned the birth of yellow journalism and was considered in its day the crime of the century.

At least my ancestor only committed adultery. Four years before the Jewitt murder, according to an account published December 19, 1832 in the New York Commercial Advertiser (which they took from the New York Courier), Captain Haggerty, who had once been the owner of a packet sloop somewhat fittingly named Ransom (so he evidently lost ownership at some point), deserted his "virtuous and amiable" wife to become the paramour of Mrs. Mary Bowen, the "old bawd" of the brothel at 112 Leonard Street.

Reneging on his agreement that the boy and two girls who were the progeny of his marriage were to be boarded and educated in Troy, my rake of an ancestor had determined that they were better accommodated in a bawdy house and brought them down to Manhattan. In a subsequent court hearing, it was decided that the children should be returned to Troy, but the abandoned wife's attorney never appeared in court on her behalf, so Capt., Haggerty's counsel won his client's fight for temporary custody, despite the fact that said wee ones were to be housed and raised in a brothel pending their remand upstate.

Savory, huh? It gets better.

Well, the jilted Mrs. Haggerty had more than a few sympathizers, among them a Captain Fisher, who organized a revenge party on her behalf. According to the Courier, Fisher corralled 20-30 of his pals for the express purpose of tarring and feathering her wayward seafarer of a husband. 

Mrs. Bowen had been forewarned, however, so Capt. Haggerty, with his own posse of her watchmen stationed within the house was waiting for the intruders, ax in hand, on the landing of her staircase. When Fisher's gang rushed in, a brawl broke out, Mrs. Bowen's men clubbed several of the intruders, many men on both sides were injured, the madam lodged a complaint with the local magistrates who levied a fine of $500 (massive at the time) against their court appearance. All fines and prison fees, amounting to three dollars twelve and a half cents per man (on both sides), were thereafter paid in full and everyone was released on his own recognizance.

In the 1830s, it was popular among those of the merchant class with means to have your portrait painted. But we have a clue to the status of William Haggerty's fortunes in the mid-1830s, even when he may have been heading toward the peak of one of his boom periods. The face was painted by a master, but the rest of the portrait was done by amateurs -- apprentices from the master's studio. While my ancestor's face is full of expression and character, his hands are plump and undefined -- hardly those of a man of the sea, or even a man. And his suit (which a professional cleaning approximately 165 years later revealed to be bottle green, not black) and background are amorphous. The family believes the above portrait was painted in the mid-1830s, presumably after he sorted out the sordid business with Mrs. Bowen and returned to the straight and narrow straits of the North River and respectability.

We now believe that Captain Haggerty did get on the right side of the law eventually. We know this from newspaper articles written in 1838, just a few years later, in which William A. Haggerty (unless it's a different guy) is listed as the incumbent Whig Party candidate for tax collector for the Seventh Ward, which seems to be the same area (or near it) as Mrs. Bowen's establishment. 

At some point during his middle age, before the 1850 census was taken, he crossed the North River and became a resident of New Jersey. Presumably while he was a resident of this great state, Grandpa Haggerty missed the opportunity to make his distaff descendants heiresses when he turned down an offer from his NJ neighbor, fellow sea captain Commodore Vanderbilt, to become an investor in what would eventually become the New York Central Railroad, insisting that people would always prefer boats to iron horses. 


My second missed opportunity to become an heiress came when one of Grandpa Haggerty's grandsons-in-law, Ed Harzfeld, a retailer out in Chicago and an acquaintance of Mr. Sears, declined the latter's invitation to get in on the ground floor of his catalogue business. Nah, I don't think it'll fly, the myopic Harzfeld is said to have replied (and I paraphrase). People want to come into a brick and mortar store to feel the merchandise before they buy.


My third blown shot at a trust fund came about a century after Grandpa Haggerty turned down Commodore Vanderbilt: his great grandson also missed the boat. My grandfather was invited to invest in another new invention, Ampex Tape. It'll never go anywhere, Papa scoffed. 

Well ... I guess it's not so bad to have had to earn a living. I certainly appreciate every nickel.

According to one clipping unearthed by my uncle, Haggerty suffered at least one reversal of fortune. In the 1850 census, he listed his profession as "none"; and although the census taker wasn't terribly thorough when it came to checking other boxes, it would appear that on the census form Grandpa Haggerty did not own any property (which would indicate that he did not even own his own home).  

Yet in 1850, he had a 19-year-old male laborer living in his household (race not listed by the census taker) as well as a 10-year-old girl from Virginia named Alice Palmer.

The discovery of Alice made me jump. Why (and how) would a 10-year-old girl from Virginia get to northern New Jersey? Was she a slave? Sounds unlikely. Yet the census taker did not mark whether Alice was in school or not. Was she a rescued child off the Underground Railroad? Was she an orphaned child of former slaves? Was she white? If she was born in VA in 1840 and was in NJ by 1850, my best guess is that she was an African-American child. I'd be eager to hear other theories. Was my ne'er do-well ancestor employing child labor in his household? I shudder to imagine that this might have been the case.

Capt. Haggerty in his later years, probably in his 60s.

One thing we know for certain, because she was my mother and uncle's great-grandmother: William Haggerty had a daughter named Leonora, whose mother purportedly died in childbirth (so, ostensibly this would not be the wife he abandoned in Albany in the early 1830s, unless she eventually took him back and they had more children, which seems highly unlikely). Leonora also asserted that her mother died in childbirth, so she could not have been one of the two daughters brought to Mrs. Bowen's bordello in the early 1830s, because the mother of those children was very much alive and well and livid, although, per the article, she was not a well woman, mentally or emotionally, and Capt. Haggerty may not have judged her fit to care for their children, hence the agreement that they be boarded and schooled across the river from Albany in nearby Troy. 

Was Leonora's mother the abandoned wife, a previous wife, or a later one? Or -- possibility number four --not a wife at all. Could I be descended from a madam? Given what we know from the 1850 census, #1 would seem to be the truth.

Leonora, who was 20 at the time of the 1850 census and living with her father, may have maintained the lie that her unfortunate, "distracted" (according to the article about the riot) mother had died in childbirth, in order to cover up her father's sordid behavior and the fact that she spend her terrible twos in a bordello.

Leonora, also called Leah, married one Jacob Strauss (b. 1827), a German Jewish immigrant -- which is how my paternal grandfather's side of the family became Jewish, because in Jewish tradition a child's religion is that of the mother, the only parent one can be absolutely sure of (no "warming pan"/smuggled babies  incidents in our religious history). Mysteriously, Leonora lists on her marriage certificate both parents as being born in NY, which contradicts Grandpa Haggerty's "born on the ocean" contention in the 1850 census.  

Leonora Haggerty and Jacob Strauss (who became a U.S. citizen in 1855) were wed two years later and had three children, the youngest of which was my great-grandmother Bertha. She married a lawyer named Lucius Weinschenk who, as a young bachelor (thanks to documents sent by Uncle Bruce) had his own troubles with the law, it seems, before he cleaned up his act. Bertha named her only son Carroll (b. 1902), after her oldest sister Caroline ("Carrie") who died in 1900. In Jewish tradition, one does not name a child after a living relative. It's done -- but it's rare.

Around 1920, when my paternal grandfather got his first byline as a writer, he changed his last name, jettisoning the very German sounding Weinschenk, which not only would have been unpopular in post WWI America, but also sounded "too Jewish" in an (sadly) anti-Semitic business world. For the rest of his life he was known as Carroll Carroll. My own historical speculation for the name change aside, my mother tells me that it had everything to do with commerce instead. My grandfather was writing two regular columns for the same newspaper: one poetry, the other prose, one under the byline Carroll Carroll and the other under the byline C.S. Weinschenk. The editor-in-chief received fan letters from readers who thought that Carroll Carroll was really humorous. He also received letters telling him that C.S. Weinschenk guy couldn't write! 

Or so my grandfather said.

CC remained proud of his Irish heritage (ok, that was before we just found out, thanks to the Internet, what a scamp he was, because my grandfather was the paragon of devoted husbands). And the portrait of Capt. William Haggerty hung proudly on the wall of my grandparents' living room in Manhattan. There, as a young girl from the Bronx it was a treat to stay overnight on their living room sofa. But I will now admit that I slept with one eye open, because the portrait of Grandpa Haggerty hung above me and I was convinced that his eyes followed me about the room and gazed down upon me. 

Captain William Haggerty died December 9, 1867 in New Brunswick, NJ, at the age of 72. According to his obituary notice in the local newspaper, his funeral was held at his residence on Albany Street (which sounds a bit like a shiva announcement to me). Perhaps his now-Jewish daughter and son-in-law and their children did not want a church service. Perhaps the old guy was never religious to begin with and wouldn't have wanted one, anyway. Perhaps he was just an unrepentant sinner. We'll never know.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone. Erin Go Bragh!

Do you have an Irish ancestor you'd like to tell us about?


Blogger Isobel Carr said...

What a fascinating history! I'm sure there's some Irish somewhere in the family woodpile, but I have no documentation for it on hand. The European side of my family is Welsh, Scottish, German, and Italian from what I've been able to make out over the years.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I'm really a mutt; Irish from Grandpa Haggerty -- but my grandfather also told me about some French Huguenot ancestor, and my maternal grandmother had Hungarian antecedents and her side of the family was also related to the composer Felix Mendelsohn. On my father's side, there's Russian and German and English. My paternal grandmother's grandfather (her mother's father) was Chief Rabbi of London during the second half of Queen Victoria's reign.

12:13 PM  

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