Category Archives: Death

Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.


[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.

1 Comment

Filed under Death, Events, Irish History, Labour History, Nineteenth Century, Social History

A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.

As well as the many more straightforward entries into the books of the business over the course of almost sixty years, many other entries that form part of the digitised collection stand out.

In that period, before the motor car was common, hearses were typically pulled by horses and the records reveal something to us about these. For instance, entries in the books that run from 1874 to the early 1900s, we see that Thompson’s bought a good number of horses. In April 1892, for instance, the business bought a bay horse from a Mrs. Murphy for £20 even, while in 1893, they bought a brown horse from a Mr. Knox of Bakehouse Lane for the considerably more pricey sum of £30. [1] Horses were a vital part of the business, and had to be kept healthy. Thus in one set of records we find recipes for various ailments afflicting horses, like this one “for soars [sic] or galds on horses also Greece in heels” from 1905:

1 pennyworth of ground Alum

1 pennyworth of Sulphur

1/2 Pint of Vinegar

add a small quantity of warm water and then put in a bottle

Or this one, from the same time on worms in horses:

get some Guilea from the country

and grind it up in the oats

it will kill all the worms

There’s also a rather more involved recipe for treating mange:

6d worth tincture of iodine

3d soft soap

4d Black Sulphur

I dram Arnicker (spirits)

This is just once facet of the day to day running of the business which emerges from the books. Among the most fascinating elements of these records is that it shows that more than simply catering to the needs of individuals who were bereaved and had dead to bury, who went to Thompson’s in  a personal capacity,  Thompson’s were also involved in collecting and burying the dead from a variety of institutions including the District Lunatic Asylum (“A Silum” as it appears in some of the very earliest records), The Little Sisters of the Poor, The Poor Law Union, and Waterford’s Prison. [2]

Going through the records and seeing the many nameless in the books who belonged to institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor makes for difficult reading, but shows something of the way in which the destitute were treated in Irish society, given over to charity, the only ones who would in death, see they were buried in something approaching respectable circumstances. Over two remarkable pages, at the beginning of the books that cover the period 1910-1918, almost seventy entries of paid funerals come from the Little Sisters of the Poor. [3]

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Click to enlarge.

Equally distressing when you delve into the books is the number of “small coffins” or “very small coffins” which are required by various families to bury children who did not live long. In no instance was I able to find a case where the child themselves was named, but usually the entries followed the form of “for Mrs. x’s child”. Unlike the burials of adults, there was no extensive list of hearses, broughams, sidecars, or drink. These were quiet, sad, heart-rending affairs which to judge by their frequency in these books, were indeed very common. Indeed, one set of figures looking at mortality rates in Ireland across the twentieth century indicates that around 1 in 13 or 14 children born died soon afterwards in the 1920s and 1930s, when these digitised records end. [4]

Thompson’s business though wasn’t solely undertaking to bury the dead, as in the case of their individual customers, or organisations like the Poor Law Union or the Little Sisters. Their business for instance with the prison service in Waterford was mainly to do with the transport of prisoners. In one of the books now available online, there are terms of an agreement with the prison set out, including the price of fares for different jobs which reads as follows:

Contract for Horsing Vans And Supplying Cars to H.M. Prison Waterford from April 1st 1909 to 31st March 1910.

No. 1) Horsing Van when requires from Prison to Courthouse and Vice Versa at per day 15/-
No. 2 ) Horsing Van when required between Prison Railway Station at per double journey viz. from Prison to Station in the morning & from Station to Prison in the evening 6/-

3) Horsing Van for any one run viz. between Prison & Station or between Station & Prison 4/– 3/-

4)Inside or Outside Cars when required from Prison to Rly. Station or Steamers or vice versa at per journey from and to Prison 1/3

5) Inside or Outside cars when required from Prison to COurthouse, Workhouse or Asylum at per double journey viz. come to the Prison when ordered go to any of the above places and return to Prison 1/9

6) Rate per single journey between Prison & the above mentioned places not returning again to the Prison 1/3

Date this 19th day of March ’09

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson's cars for the Prison Service.

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson’s cars for the Prison Service. Click to englarge.

Thompson’s contract with the Waterford Poor Law Union about the price of coffins is also present in the records. For the Union, Thompson’s provided three sizes of coffin, as follows in 1907:

Adult coffins 4/3

middle size 2/6

small size 1/6

This small tidbit about their coffin prices for the Poor Law Union are made all the more interesting by the recording of their competitor’s prices, which are given as follows:

Whittle’s prices

4/3

1/9

1/5

Whittle’s offered cheaper on the middle and small coffins, but both businesses offered the same for adults to the Union. Incidentally, both firms appear to have helped each other frequently, charging each other for the use of spare horses, broughams and the like, presumably when one or the other was short of these things but had more than one funeral a day. This is one small glance at the more business oriented side of undertaking, and is invaluable in showing us how such things as the Poor Law, charities, and the prison system operated locally and on a day-to-day scale in either transporting or burying those in their care.

We’ve already seen the highly pragmatic inclusion in these records of a variety of recipes for looking after the horses which were so central to the running of the business, but the books contain recipes relating to human ailment too.  Take for example this entry on “Mugworth” [sic] :

Boil a handful in two qrts of beer

then leave Mistletoe simmer for one

hour strain bottle & Cork.

Dose:- Half a cupfull every

morning. if full dose proves too

difficult to take reduce it to a quarter

cup Morning and Night.

Or this one on Mistletoe:

1/2 lb of Mistletoe boiled in two

quarts of Water. leave simmer

until the liquid is reduced to about

a quart. Mix 1.2 pt. of common black

Treacle with it. liquid to be strained

before Treacle is added.

Dose:- Wineglass full every

morning fasting

“Mugworth is useful in

female irregularities.”

Equal quantities of Pennyroyal

and Southernwood added to it increases

its value.

Mistletoe – Useful in Hysteria, Epilepsy, St Vitus dance

and other nervous complaints, also used

as a tonic especially for the heart:-

These are but a few of the many recipes from the books, more of which I’ll be sure to post in time. For now though, this brief examination of these wonderful records, which are available for anyone to view truly do provide a unique insight into what was and remains one of the most intriguing aspects of social history.


 

[1] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1874-1892

[2] These are scattered throughout all four sets of the funeral books which have been digitised.

[3] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1910-1918 under “L”

[4] These figures are based on the following working paper: http://www.ucd.ie/geary/static/publications/workingpapers/gearywp200943.pdf

Leave a comment

Filed under Death, Irish History, Labour History, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized

Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford

In popular representations of Irish culture, few things are more celebrated, while all at once, shrouded in mystery than our death rituals. Between removals, wakes, masses and burials, there is scope for rich tradition and variation in seeing off our dead. Famously of course, the Irish wake has taken on something of a life of its own, immortalised in song and story, from Finnegan’s Wake to Johnny Jump Up, two songs where the life-giving properties of whiskey are extolled in raucous fashion.

In Finnegan’s Wake, Tim Finnegan, laid out and all his friends assembled when:

Mickey Maloney ducked his head when a bucket of whiskey flew at him
It missed, and falling on the bed, the liquor scattered over Tim
Bedad he revives, see how he rises, Timothy rising from the bed
Saying “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, t’underin’ Jaysus, do ye think I’m dead?”

Meanwhile one sorry soul from Cork’s Poor Law Union went through this unfortunate experience:

A man died in the Union by the name of McNabb
They washed him, they laid him outside on a slab
And after O’Connor his measurements did take
His wife took him home for a bloody fine wake

 

Well, about twelve o’clock and the beer it was high
The corpse he sits up and says he with a sigh
“I can’t get to heaven, they won’t let me up
‘Till I bring them a quart of Johnny Jump-Up

While both songs present something of a comical vision of the wake, nevertheless, underlying this humour both songs manage to get to the heart of something important in how the Irish did, and still do, wake the dead before burying them. The wake, and the drinking often done at them, was a central part of the experience, it seems, from some sources. As Noel Hughes, one of those interviewed by Kevin C. Kearns for his book Dublin Tenement Life, had it:

“And everyone would come. You got people who came that didn’t know them. If they heard there’s a good drink they’d come and have a drink. Didn’t know them but they’d know they were going to get a couple of bottles of stout.” [1]

As well as these fabled songs, and the oral testimonies like those collected by Kearns, with the availability of a new source online, from Thompson’s funeral home, of their records from the 1870s right into the early twentieth century we can learn something more again about the practices of death, dying and drinking in early Ireland, and specifically early twentieth century Waterford.

Entries from 1910 for instance show us that drink was an important element of the arrangements made by many people. In the case of the death of Mrs. McTigue from Roanmore, as well as the elm coffin, the hearse, horses, broughams, and habit to cover her face, the account book of Thompson’s notes an order for two dozen stout at the price of five shillings. [2] A few pages down it is noted in the details of the arrangements for the death of Catherine Barry, also of Roanmore, that as well as the hearse, broughams and other more typical expenses of the funeral, there was to be supplied by Thompson’s five dozen stout (at a cost of 12s 6d), two dozen and four minerals (3s 8d), a bottle of whiskey (3s 6d) and a bottle of wine at two shillings. [3]This specificity wasn’t always present with some entries noting simply the addition of “drink” which was sometimes as much as £1 16s or figures such as 17s 6d, as was the case in the death of John O’Brien of Buttermilk Lane in 1915. [4]

When Nicholas Quinlan of Green’s Lane was to be buried later that same year, no expense was to be spared with a “best oak coffin” and driver to Ballybricken at £10. In addition, there was ordered four bottles of wine costing 3s each, with another two bottles of wine prices at 2s each, and finally, a dozen bottles of Bass ale. [5]

In the new year, when Patrick Sutton, who had been resident with the Little Sisters of the Poor, passed away and was to be buried by Thompson’s, part of the funeral expenses included the rather more modest half pint of whiskey (1s 8d), a bottle of “stout and rum” priced at sixpence and further three bottles of stout at a cost of ten and a halfpence. [6]

As with the kind of coffin in which people were buried, so too the kind of drink bought as part of the funeral arrangements said something of the people’s social standing, as the last two examples illustrate most effectively.

As well as buying drink to lubricate those waking the bodies, one woman, Pauline Jones, relates in the film Barrack Street, so-called “crying women” could be bought to attend a wake to cry for the deceased, getting four women for 6d. Jones reckoned that “they’d be half drunk, anyway…” and when asked about what prayers they said, Pauline suggests that “they probably did, made up prayers of their own if I know them, I can imagine….”, she finishes by saying that “the louder they cried and the further they were heard, it was a good wake.” [7]

Such business of course, and such open policy as to who attended wakes as indicated by the testimony of Noel Hughes above, could often lead to trouble, and even legal action. One such example from Waterford in the early part of the twentieth century comes from a court case reported in the paper between John Breen of Bridge Street, and Thomas Dunphy a blacksmith from Ballybricken, a son-in-law of the deceased, and Jane Flynn, the niece of a late Captain James Harpur. Breen was seeking the return of a sum of money, £2 4s 6d, for goods bought by Dunphy and Flynn as part of the wake for Captain Harpur. However, Jane Flynn insisted that all of the money used and spent was not for the benefit of Harpur’s wake but for Dunphy and his friends, including three dozen bottles of stout. The court found in favour Breen and the cost of paying fell to his niece, the damage between the family members was not, of course, recorded. [8]

Drink, then, was a vital and sometimes controversial part of the waking of bodies in Waterford in the early twentieth century. This isn’t the only thing which comes through from the records of Thompson’s funeral directors about the nature of death and burial in early twentieth century Ireland, so keep an eye out here for more in the coming weeks.

 


 

[1] Kevin C. Kearns, Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan 1994, p.200

[2] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, June 12 1910

[3] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, June 23 1910

[4] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, April 19 1915

[5] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, December 23 1915

[6] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, January 6 1916

[7] Mark Power (dir.), Barrack Street, 2013, see 20:36 to 21:08 in particular.

[8] Munster Express, January 11 1908

5 Comments

Filed under Death, Irish History, Social History, Twentieth Century