‘Debilitated By Having Borne 13 Children’: An Irish Emigrant Recounts Her Family Story, 1871

In May 1871 an elderly Monaghan woman, ‘infirm and broken in body’, came into Chicago from her ‘Irish Shanty’ on the open prairie outside the city. Possessing little other than ‘her scanty wardrobe’, she had come to meet her attorney. It was not her first visit. Earlier that year, she had dictated the story of her family and their hardships in extraordinary detail, part of a process she hoped would help her secure a pension based on her son’s Civil War service. By May that pension had still not materialised. She now sat in tears in the attorney’s office, as her husband lay on his deathbed in the family shanty. Jane had not made the trip lightly.

Illinois Prairie Grass, from which the Murphy Family made their livelihood (Robert Lawton)

Illinois Prairie Grass, from which the Murphy Family made their livelihood (Robert Lawton)

Jane’s attorney was moved to immediately write a letter on her behalf as a result of this second visit:

Chicago, May 18, 1871

Dr. Trevitt,

Dear Sir,

For special reasons, I ask that Jane Murphy’s claim, No. 194,826, as dependent mother of Michael Murphy, deceased Private, Co. G, 90th Illinois Vol. may be taken up out of it’s regular order and disposed of.

She is in my office today; debilitated by having borne 13 children, by prolapsus uteri, and by a 6 inch tumor on back of her neck; and in tears, having walked four miles, from her shanty home on the open prairie, to see about her pension.

She reports that her husband has been, for about two months, unable to leave his shanty, by reason of ill health from induration of the liver and chronic inflamation of the stomach, and is in a dying condition.

Their invalid son James is confined at home with white swelling of the knee, and helpless.

The additional evidence that I have today forward to the Pension Office by the mail that takes this letter, makes a strong, meritorious, urgent claim, and discloses a special emergency and need of her pension.

Very Respectfully,

On behalf of Mrs Jane Murphy

J.W. Boyden, Her Atty.

Jane Murphy’s family made their living from the prairie grass that surrounded their shanty, a few miles west of Chicago. With her husband suffering from long-term illness, the family looked to their son Michael to help with their support. He did this by cutting prairie grass and bringing it to market in Chicago where he sold it as hay, and by growing vegetables. When war came, Michael enlisted in the 90th Illinois Infantry, ‘Chicago’s Irish Legion.’ Upon joining up the Monaghan man gave $25 of his bounty money to his mother, and during the rest of his service sent another $90 home. That all ended on 25th November 1863, when Michael was killed in action at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Tennessee. As part of her application, Jane included the only letter she had remaining that Michael had written to her:

Head Quarters 90th Reg. Ill. Inf.

Camp Sherman Sept. 15th 1863

Dear Mother,

I received your letter on the 7th inst and I am sorry to hear that you are not well. I am also sorry that I cannot send you any money as there is no signs of us been paid for some time- Dear Mother I am surprised at you not mentioning my Father or Brother James in your letters and I wish you to let me know in your answer to this how they are- I am glad to hear of your receiving the money I sent you last March- I was very sorry to hear of John & Charles Hudsons death, also of Mrs Floods death. Let me know what Regiment Jas O Donnell is in and what place and if Mr Kenney gets any word from John- Enclosed find my likeness and I would like to have yours and Annes likeness by Leut Duffy or Sargt Mc Namara that is going to Chicago- Let my Father know that I will send him money by next Christmas anyhow. Patrick Smith [who was also a native of Monaghan] sends his best Respects to you all and he enjoys as well as me good health

I remain your

loving son

Michael Murphy

Jane also included a number of Physician’s reports in her application, which elaborated on the situation that she and her husband Patrick found themselves in. She had difficulty proving that Patrick was unable to work, as he could not be examined by a Pension Agency Surgeon. On 18th May 1871 it was outlined how he ‘has not been out of his shanty, two months past, is in a dying condition, and cannot be brought safely 4 miles to be examined by a Pension Surgeon in Chicago, and has no money to pay the Board or any member of it to go out examine him.’ The original Physician’s affidavit had been prepared on 13th March 1871. He recorded that Jane was ‘about 57 years old; has a fibrous tumor on the back of her neck, about six inches in diameter; also, prolapsus uteri, or falling of the womb; is and has long been a confirmed invalid and disabled from supporting herself by manual labor, for at least 10 years last past.’ He further noted that Patrick was ‘about 65 years old, and is and long has been disabled from supporting himself by manual labor, by reason of induration of the liver, chronic inflamation of the stomach and general debility, and is and long has been incapable of supporting his wife.’ He added that the couple had ‘long lived out on the open prairie, on a small patch of ground, west of the settled portion of the City; and by a recent act of the Legislature, the land in their vicinity has been nominally included within the City Limits. Their means of support have been the raising of vegetables, keeping a cow, and cutting wild prairie grass or hay, and selling this wild hay, that costs only the cutting and hauling into the city, which brings a few dollars per ton in open city market.’

In further support of their application, one Physician described the couple as ‘poor, worthy old people’, and their son Michael as a ‘large, stout, industrious young man, the prop of their declining years.’ The pension was eventually approved, payable to 975 West Madison Street, Chicago. Patrick Murphy did not live to benefit from it. It transpired that he was suffering from stomach cancer- the Irishman passed away on 12th July 1871.

The pension application process that the Murphys went through has left us with significant documentation about their lives. However, one of the submissions stands out to provide a window in the life of nineteenth century Irish emigrants; that is the statement of Jane Murphy herself. Unusually for such affidavits, it is written in the first person, as Jane charted her life from her 1830 marriage in Monaghan through to the death of her son in Tennessee. Along the way she outlined the circumstances and fate of each of her 13 children. Jane Murphy endured great hardship during her life. Her voice resonates to us across more than 140 years:

…I was married, December 25, 1830, in Ireland, to my husband Patrick Murphy, I have never owned any property, except my wearing apparel, and have had no other means of support than my own labor when in health; my husband’s labor when he was able to work, and the labor of our two sons, James and Michael Murphy.

I have given birth to thirteen children: John, the oldest, in 1851, left me in Ireland and emigrated to America, probably to some Southern state, and I have never, since 1851, seen, or heard from him. James, the second, emigrated with me in 1853, has always lived with me, unmarried, has done nothing, by reason of pulmonary consumption, during ten years past, more than enough to pay for his board at home and clothes.

Mary came, in 1851, with John to America; worked as house servant till her marriage, about 1858, to Thomas Hudson; has had 7 children and neither she, nor her husband have contributed to my support, nor can they, having all they can do to support their family. Ann, my 4th, is unmarried, consumptive, works out as house servant; does and can do nothing towards my support; nor can Catherine, my 5th, nor her husband, John Whalen, who live in Texas, at Houston, nor are they able to contribute to my support. Michael, my 7th, was the soldier, born in October, 1842, and was killed, when 21 years and 1 month old. Peter, my 8th, was born and died in Ireland in 1846. Patrick, my 9th, died in 1864, at 16 years of age. Another Peter, born in 1850, died Feby 14, 1868, and was my 10th, Jane, my 11th, born in 1853, has lived in Texas with Catherine since she was 14 years old [where the sisters worked as dressmakers]. Francis, my 12th, born in 1858, and Robert, my 13th and last, both live at home, but are both too young to contribute towards my support. My husband and James and Michael helped support me by keeping a cow and raising a few vegetables, but chiefly by cutting and hauling prairie grass, or hay to Chicago hay market, when they were well.

Michael Murphy was always large and stout for his years. He left off going to school, in 1855, when almost 13 years old. During the seven years thereafter, till his enlistment in October 1862, Michael lived at home, worked in the garden, tool care of the cow, but earned his money by sales of prairie hay in Chicago market, hauled, and cut or mowed by himself, assisted by his father and brother James; at from 50 to 60 loads annually, for $2 to $4 per load, All his earnings were applied to the support of the family, including myself; as well as $25 Bounty he gave to me at enlistment and $90 sent home to me of his pay; and $200 Bounty received after his death by his father; who has no property except a prairie lot, shanty, cow house, old furniture & clothing, all worth not over five hundred dollars.

*This file was brought to my attention by friend Jackie Budell, who made this post possible.

References & Further Reading

Michael Murphy Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC153520

Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database

Swan, James B. 2009. Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War

Robert Lawton Image of Prairie Grass

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Categories: Battle of Missionary Ridge, Illinois, Monaghan

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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6 Comments on “‘Debilitated By Having Borne 13 Children’: An Irish Emigrant Recounts Her Family Story, 1871”

  1. December 6, 2014 at 8:14 pm #

    A heart-rending tale – I hope she got the pension! And I imagine that Mrs Jane Murphy was not the only woman in such a predicament following the US Civil War. I wonder if her son John ended up in the Confederate Army? Now THAT would be tragic!

  2. December 6, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    Such a sad story, no doubt just one of many… beautifully written.

  3. December 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    What a heart wrenching story. Thanks for bringing this to light and making their story available to us.

  4. December 10, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  5. Gerrard S. Barr
    January 10, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    All too-often our perceptions of people in the past are that they have become mere shadows, have run their race and are now of little, or any, importance. It would be well to dwell on the notion that they, as human beings (with the same hopes, fears, anxieties and dreams) were once as we are now and that we will be as they are now. We should be inspired by these stories of human endeavour, be they heroic or despairing. It is this inspiration which encourages to help our fellow man, to try and right wrongs…..Jane Murphy you have not been forgotten, you have been an inspiration and we all hope you got your well-deserved pension.

    • January 12, 2015 at 9:36 am #

      Hi Gerrard,

      Very well put- many thanks for the comment.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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