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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.

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The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920

I have done a good deal of running around in America seeking the best place, but all my sorrow I have lost by it. The American country is gone.

– Letter from Patrick Kearney to John Kearney, 21 December 1890[1]

Migration is often perceived as a two-stage journey: departure and arrival. The letter quoted above from Patrick Kearney to his brother reveals that often a migrant’s journey did not end at the first port of call. His pitiable disappointment at having little to show for all his years of “running around” challenges the myth of the American dream. As one historian notes “the emigration movement…is heroic to look back on… but for the individual emigrant it was often a personal tragedy.”[2] Historians have challenged the assumption of destined success, but many continue to focus on either the negative or positive experiences of migration, neglecting the breadth of possible outcomes and opinions for a more limited binary either/or explanation. Different feelings on this movement can be found within the same ethnic group and social class. Irish-born Seamus Ó Muircheartaigh and Kate Flanagan both moved to several countries and states across America in search of work but their views display a certain dissonance. In “Mo chiach mar a thána” (“Alas that I ever came”) Ó Muircheartaigh wrote  “Sin mar a chaitheas-sa tamall dem shaol,/Ó bhaile go baile gan toinnte ar mo thaobh” (That’s how I spent part of my life,/Going from place to place, with no company at my side).[3] Some held a much more positive opinion, like Kate Flanagan who wrote to Mike, her brother-in-law in Ireland, telling him that “I can’t help but think it would be better for all the family in Ireland to come to this country,” humorously adding “if it was only to get away to a more agreeable climate.”[4]  Remembering that we can move beyond a dichotomy of good or bad, or immigration as from origin to destination, would allow for more novel attempts to explore the varied experiences among different ethnic groups, and more importantly, to highlight and explain the importance of transience among immigrants in the Unites States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. How frequently did people move from one place to another? What were the impediments or facilitators of this movement? Was transience purely an economic decision? How were communities affected by the changes over time and place? What were the networks that sustained them and how were these networks in turn sustained?

Of course you can question, why should we focus on immigrants and mobility when looking at American workers? The first response to that question is that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed a huge movement of people to the American continent enabling the industrialisation of the United States. We should keep in mind a notable recent work documenting this process, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America by Aristide R. Zolberg, which reveals that the popular image of uncontrollable waves of people entering the US is a false one and that the American government was capable, when willing, to limit this movement.[5] Another answer to this question lies in the large numbers of people. While only 13 percent of the population of the United States are classed as foreign-born in 1880, 42 percent of those engaged in manufacturing or extraction industries were immigrants.[6] This number grows into an overwhelming majority if we include the children of foreign-born and African Americans. The importance of immigrants in the development of American industry is hard to overstate.

Simultaneously there are problems with categories, as people are often grouped into broad headings based on religion, nationality or ethnic group that might not be particularly useful. If we scratch the surface of these broad communities and we find further important differences; northern and southern Italians, Corkonians and Fardowners, Cornish and English to name a few. Nationally based fraternities (e.g. the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the case of the Irish) tried to foster ethnic cooperation and promote a hyphenated identity reconciling their Old World origins with their lives in the New World, a somewhat paradoxical effort, and again we should try to bear in mind to local complexities when detailing particular groups. Likewise leaders in trade unions also engaged in contradictory efforts to remain loyal to both their own ethnic group while promoting unity with workers from other backgrounds. Immigrants also exhibited similar diversity in their patterns of movement. ‘New immigrants’ from eastern and southern Europe bucked earlier immigration trends, with larger numbers returning ‘home’. Historians estimate that fifty percent of Italians returned home between 1908 and 1923, compared to single-digit repatriation rates for Russian Jews and the Irish.[7] Contemporaries noted this difference at the time with usage of the label ‘sojourners’ rather than ‘immigrants’, but few historians have addressed the question of how this affected their views of movement and migration.[8] A continuing reexamination of immigrants bearing these problems in mind might reveal that immigrants had a more nuanced sense of self and association than historians have previously ascribed to them.

Sixty-three years ago the historian Eric Hobsbawm opened his article “The Tramping Artisan” with the statement “the story of nineteenth-century labor is one of movement and migration.”[9] While his article represents an attempt to explain the personal and social impact of frequent dislocation on skilled journeymen in Britain, the premise applies equally to immigrant workers in America. The development of transnational history has seen a reevaluation of borders as the defining parameters of historical phenomena and the scholarship related to them. Some of the exciting new work on Irish America includes Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the American West 1860-1910, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race and The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900, and they each forcefully challenge traditional historical assumptions on the Irish in the West, Irish identity and organizations.[10]  Transnationalism in turn has led to the reexamination of people’s movement, formerly through the prism of migration, through the more broad term of mobility.[11]

Many questions are waiting to be answered by future projects. Some questions that can be raised about American studies follow, but many other similar questions could be asked of other sub-fields of nineteenth and twentieth century history. What effect did the staggered migration have on working-class ethnic communities? Did it impede or encourage ethnic, fraternal or union organization? How did the immigrant experience in eastern cities differ from the American West? Were there significant similarities or differences in both the experience and perception of mobility between ethnicities, occupations or classes? Some of these questions have been partly answered in relation to specific groups, for example Liping Zhu and Sue Fawn Chung’s pioneering work on the Chinese communities in the American West.[12]

Simultaneous with the advent of these new approaches has been the comparable decline of the study of labor and trade union history and in response historians should try to reengage with the history of workers, offering fresh perspective and utilizing the new historiographical approaches that have emerged in the intervening decades. Craig Calhoun recently presented an important challenge to labor history in The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements, arguing that not all social movements were inherently progressive and that these groups expressed a much broader spectrum of goals and beliefs, often more conservative, than historians have credited to them. It can be hoped that further research will uncover more stories of people’s lives, with their accompanying perceptions and convictions and help us determine whether these are valid assertions. For my part I fully intend to keep digging for answers.



[1] Séamus De Búrca (ed.), The Soldier’s Song: The Story of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Dublin: P.J. Bourke, 1957), p. 251.

[2] Terry Coleman, Passage to America: A history of emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century (1972: London: Hutchinson & County), p. 248.

[3] Seán Ó Dubhda, Duanaire duibhneach : i bailiú d’amhránaibh agus de phíosaibh eile filidheachta a ceapadh le tuairim céad bliain i gCorca Dhuibhne, agus atá fór i gcuimhne agus i mbéaloideas na ndaoine ann (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1976),132-133. English translation by Dr Bruce D. Boling, Brown University, from Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xiii.

[4] Kate Flanagan to Mike in Ireland was more positive Napa, California to her brother-in-love, Mike 31 March, 1899. Flanagan Family Letters. Private collection generously shared with me by Professor Kerby A. Miller, University of Missouri, Columbia.

[5] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[6] U.S. Tenth Census, 1880, Report on the Manufactures of the United States (Washington, D.C, 1882), pp. 17, 36.

[7] Mark Wyman, Round-trip America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 9-12.

[8] Two important exceptions are the collection of essays in Dirk Hoerder (ed.) Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies. The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Donna R Gabaccia, Italy’s many diasporas (Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2000).

[9] E. J. Hobsbawn, “The Tramping Artisan,” The Economic History Review, New Series 3 (1951): pp. 299-320.

[10] David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), Bruce Nelson, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[11] Transnationalism does not ignore nationalism or the nation-state rather it prompts historians to simultaneous consider “differing geographic scales – the local, the national, and the transnational.” Ian Tyrell, “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review 96 (1991):  p. 1033.

[12]  Liping Zhu, A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997); Sue Fawn Chung, In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchant in the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

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Understanding Irish America

'St Patrick' in the 2009 Dublin parade

‘St Patrick’ in the 2009 Dublin parade (photograph by the author)

With the importation of American-style parades, sequined shamrocks, and green beer, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland has come to seem more and more Irish-American. Meanwhile the mass exodus of politicians to the US and other parts of the world for March 17th continues as they court the now-powerful descendents of Irish emigrants. Buried under a landslide of books for my PhD and assailed by news articles and ads on the upcoming holiday, I have realized that few critically question these developments or our assumptions about them – if we say St. Patrick’s Day is Irish-American, then what is Irish America really? Viewed historically this presents less of a problem: successive waves of Irish immigrants settled largely in urban areas where they worked and lived with other Irish people, participated in Irish cultural events, went to the local Catholic Church where there was often an Irish priest, and wrote letters to relatives in Ireland and across the globe. But what about today? Historians speak about ethnic groups in an amorphous sense but few engage with the more ambiguous markers of ethnic identity in the present or only seem to notice those who actively participate in maintenance of that identity, those who take Irish dancing or language classes or, in the case of The Gathering last year, those with enough money to make the trip across the Atlantic to the ‘old country’. What about the rest?

Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Irish America is rooted in history, particularly the Famine of 1845-9. Social anthropologist Reginald Byron’s book, misleadingly titled Irish America (it’s about Albany, New York), attempts to link that history to contemporary identity. While putting the Famine at the centre of the Irish American experience places Byron in good company, his account of Irish history and the history of the Irish in America largely ends with the mid-nineteenth century and he is vague about how many of his informants might actually be descended from famine-era immigrants as opposed to earlier or later generations. After all, while approximately 1 million people left Ireland in the famine decade, emigration had begun before then and 3.5 million left between 1855 and 1921 and in all cases a large proportion ended up in the United States, though sometimes by more circuitous routes. The danger of focusing so intensely on the Famine as to give it a mythic quality is that doing so can ‘obscure the diversity of Irish migration and its changing character over time’.[1] Byron’s repeated emphasis on the ‘famine generation’ belies his otherwise patent goal to ‘dispose’ of ‘pervasive myth’.[2] Irish America was never one homogenous entity, never solely the victims of starvation and oppression; that in itself is a myth. It was and is more akin to a historically grounded, continually negotiated, and multi-faceted idea, aspects of which individuals might choose to accept or reject.[3]

When we say an idea or ethnic identity is rooted in history or a sense of the past, what does that mean exactly? Whose history? What history and where? Byron focused his questions on two areas: Irish history and family history, but found his informants’ knowledge of both lacking when he asked them to name major events in Irish history and why their ancestors left. He concludes, ‘for the great majority of our informants, the links with the past had been broken, and no family traditions of Irish history or stories of the circumstances of their ancestors’ emigration have been passed down to the present generations.’[4] Is it really so surprising that people in the 1990s (when he carried out his research) do not know the exact reasons their ancestors left Ireland a hundred-plus years ago? How many people do know their full family history back five or more generations? Byron seems interested in these ‘links with the past’ only when they pertain to Ireland – why not the experience of the Irish in America?[5] By asking about Irish history and reasons for leaving Ireland he seems to query the authenticity of Irish America in calling itself Irish at all, as opposed to examining what it is in and of itself. Irish immigrants and their descendents worked as everything from miners to mayors, domestic servants to democratic senators, but in the process they often faced discrimination, company exploitation, and poor housing, all of which have shaped the historical narrative.

For me, the more interesting questions are related to why individuals today want to have an ethnic identity and how and why those of mixed ancestry end up emphasizing one branch of the family over another.[6] What does it mean to be Irish-American or ‘of Irish extraction’ today? How does drinking green beer have anything to do with it? Is being ‘ethnic’ in America anything more than a fad, a by-product of embracing multiculturalism? The commonly quoted statistic is that roughly 40 million Americans write ‘Irish’ in the ethnic section of the census form, but what this means may differ between individuals. For some, it may simply be a fact of ancestry. For others, it surfaces in the form of participation in St Patrick’s Day celebrations or a holiday in Ireland. For others, it may be more a part of everyday life.[7] When Humans of New York published this photo and caption, the comments zeroed in on questioning the man’s Irishness, not the central lesson of tolerance.[8] Both Ireland and Irish America may have a lot to learn about each other and about the value of accepting diversity in what it means to be Irish.

[1] Kevin Kenny, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), p.29.

[2] Reginald Byron, Irish America (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999), p.54.

[3] Kathleen Neils Conzen, et al., ‘The Invention of Ethnicity in the United States’, in Jon Gjerde (ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1998), pp.22-9.

[4] Byron, Irish America, p.82.

[5] This is despite the fact that he realizes, ‘by and large, our informants’ recollections of their family histories do not extend back to Ireland, but begin only in America’ (emphasis added). Bryon, Irish America, p.80.

[6] For a more thorough assessment of these issues see: Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (University of California Press, 1990).

[7] Christine Legrand examines the implications of ‘being of Irish extraction’ and argues that it is ‘a matter of personal choice’ influenced by family and the feeling of shared history or values. ‘Nation, Migration, and Identities in Late Twentieth Century Ireland’, Narodna Umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research, vol.42, no.1 (June 2005), p.51.

[8] Sheila Langan, ‘A Black Irishman in New York Gets the Internet Buzzing’, Irish Central, 21 January 2014, http://www.irishcentral.com/news/A-black-Irishman-in-New-York-gets-the-Internet-buzzing.html


Filed under Irish History, Social History