The Washerwoman’s Genes

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June 15, 2006. We’re planning a trip to Ireland. That is probably the reason why I started searching for the my mother’s Irish side again. I have Jennie, washerwoman, widow, in 1920 in Woodmere with the four kids. I have James, 1900, gardener, living solo before he meets her, in Hempstead.

I looked back at that 1900 record and saw somethings I hadn’t noticed: it says James is born in NY of Irish parents. But his children report in 1920 that both parents are Irish, and I had always heard he was an immigrant. There’s even a space left for year of immigration and it’s blank. Yet it is my guy: right age, gardener. The other fact: he’s widowed. I had never heard that.

I decided to dig for 1910. I changed the vowel in the last name—not in the last syllable, which the family itself altered at some point—but in the first. They popped out right away. Woodmere, it says at the top of the census sheet, crossed out, with the town name Hempstead written in. (Woodmere is a “hamlet” with no self-government.) There’s James, gardener, age 40, immigrant in 1887. Marital status: M2. There’s Jennie, no profession, age 38, mother of two children, immigrant in 1890. Married five years. There’s Uncle Ed: Edward, age 2, and Aunt Jean: Jennie, age 1. And surprise: a son James, age 13.

My grandmother Jennie was a step-mother, and she was a second wife. Weirdly, my mother was also, marrying a man her own age who was a widower with an eight-year-old son. James would have been about eight when Jennie married his father. And I am also a second wife, my two step-children eight and ten at my wedding. It’s a hard life: I hope my daughter breaks this chain. All of us, Jennie, Margaret, and I, were fatherless to some extent. My mother most of all, with James dying when she was two. Jennie also: my understanding is that her father abandoned his Irish wife, went to England, and started another family. And my dad died when I was in college. So all of us married a contemporary, but one who had already had a family, one who was already a father: responsible, nurturing, mature. Much better, I realize, than shacking up with an older man but still, a harder life than marrying your young sweetheart and starting life together—harder than being a first wife.

It seems that young James lived apart from his father in 1900, perhaps only joining him after he remarried. Then, when his father died about 1914, did he return to the other relatives who had sheltered him after his mother’s death? Or did he—at age 15 or 16—just go out into the world? My mother, who was two when her father died, never mentioned a half-brother, so it seems he was not in the household as she grew up. I always knew Eddie as her only brother. (Now I know why Eddie was not James, Jr.)

There are numerous Jameses with this last name. Without a middle initial, I am having trouble trying to track him. In 1900, he doesn’t turn up, a three-year-old living as nephew or grandson or boarder in a household. By 1918, young James would have been old enough to register for the draft, but he’s not popping out of those records either. Did he also die?

Trying to find James Sr. in the immigration records has also not gone well. Knowing his birth year and his immigration year should be a help. And I assume he arrived in NY. But there are many men of similar age, but none that quite fit. I have been looking through the Ancestry records, since this month all records are free to me. I should try Castle Garden. The ship manifests are woefully vague, however, taking minimal information. Also, I wonder if my presumption that NY was the starting point for this family is incorrect. Perhaps it was Boston or Philadelphia. Or—was there such a thing as illegal or undocumented immigration? In 1900, James, Sr., seems to disguise his status as an immigrant in the census.

And young James—could he have been in an orphanage until his father remarried? Just as my own half-brother and my mother did not get along, is it possible he left shortly after his father died because of friction with Jennie? It does seem that Jennie had a hard life, with no support from anyone, as if her husband James had no family to come to her aid. That’s why I have assumed young James had lived with relatives of his mother, people with a different name.


I talked with my cousin J., who was raised by our grandma Jennie. She knew about James Jr. She said after his father died, James left the family and went to California, She said grandma didn’t really want to raise a child who wasn’t hers.

I have looked some more for James, Jr., with no luck. Also, I have not been able to find Jennie and the children in 1930,. My mother would have been 18, the others slightly older, but I can’t find any of them in the census for that year.

J. told me many more details about the family. I have successfully traced Jennie’s sister Nellie (Ellen) and her husband William from 1900 through 1930. They lived in the Bronx. Jennie’s siblings, two brothers and a sister, scattered throughout the NYC area: apparently Jennie was the suburban one. Michael lived in Manhattan; I have to ask J. if she knows where Patrick lived.


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