Perhaps the greatest value of the Widow’s and Dependent Pension Files is in what they can tell us about the lives of female Irish emigrants in the 19th century. There is surely no other source that provides the same level of detail on Irishwomen in this period, particularly with respect to those who had fallen on hard times. That is particularly the case with respect to those women whose cases were subject to Special Examination by the Pension Bureau. These investigations, carried out by Special Examiners, took place whenever the Bureau wanted to establish certain facts with respect to a pension– for example whether a mother had abandoned children she was claiming for, whether she had remarried or was cohabiting with a man, or whether she was who she said she was. When a Special Examiner was called in, they conducted interviews– usually lots of interviews. These were meticulously recorded, providing us with a rare first-person insight into the lives of these Irish women. In order to give readers an insight into some of this material I am sharing below the story of, and the interview with, Eliza Desmond. A woman who had left Cork during the Great Famine, the answers given by Eliza and her friends to the Special Examiner’s questions suggest she endured an extremely hard life in the United States.

On a recent trip to America I took the opportunity to explore Annapolis National Cemetery, where I came across the grave of Daniel Desmond. An exploration of Daniel’s service reveals that he enlisted on 14th March 1864, at the age of 42. A tailor by profession, he became a private in Company E of the 51st New York Infantry. On 30 September 1864 he and the majority of his regiment were taken prisoner at Poplar Grove Church, Virginia. He spent the next few months in Rebel prisons, before being exchanged in North Carolina on 26th February 1865. However, his time in confinement had taken its toll. He made it as far as Camp Parole in Maryland before his death on 26th March 1865, expiring of “phthisis”, or tuberculosis. That death led to the creation of a pension file on behalf of his wife and children, which becomes the focus of our exploration. (1)

The grave of Daniel Desmond, Annapolis National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

The grave of Daniel Desmond, Annapolis National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

Daniel Desmond and Eliza Walton had been married at Grenagh, Co. Cork on 16th August 1848. They emigrated to the United States shortly afterwards; they are almost certainly the family group recorded aboard the Jamestown out of Liverpool, which arrived in New York on 17th September 1849. They were travelling with a young infant, Daniel Junior. The Census of 23rd August 1850 finds them living in the Fourth Ward, where Daniel was recorded as a 27-year-old tailor, Eliza was listed as 19-years-old, and their son was one. This information suggests that Eliza was no more than 17-years-old when the couple had married in Grenagh. They were still in the Fourth Ward in 1855; Daniel Junior was by now 6-years-old, and he had been joined by sisters Catherine, who was nearly two, and Ann, who was 10 months. The Desmonds lived with fellow Famine-era emigrants the Greadys, who also worked in the tailoring profession. The New York City directories show that at this time Daniel was plying his trade from 77 1/2 Roosevelt Street in the city. What emerges of the Desmonds by the mid-1850s is a picture of a growing family, with strong links to both the Irish community in the Fourth Ward and more specifically to the Irish-tailoring industry in the city. A decade later, things had changed radically. (2)

Eliza was granted a pension based on her husband’s military service in 1868. She was also entitled to an additional $2 per month for every child under the age of 16, and in her application she listed her surviving children. They were Mary Ann (b. 1856), Jeremiah (b. 1862) and Margaret (b. 1863). It would seem none of her other children were still alive– Eliza would later state that of ten children she had with Daniel, only three remained. It is hard to imagine what sort of toll such loss must have taken on Eliza, but she developed a problem with alcohol dependence, which led to her being committed to Blackwell’s Island on at least two separate occasions. Eliza’s alcoholism prevented her from caring for her remaining children, causing her brother William Walton to take them into his care at his home in Roanoake, Indiana. William successfully applied to have her pension diverted, claiming Eliza had abandoned the children due to intemperance, with Eliza being described as a “confirmed inebriate.” Eliza’s daughter Mary Ann would later write in support of her uncle’s claim on the pension:

Roanoake, Huntington Co., Indiana, May 1875

…I am living here under the care of my uncle & guardian Wm W Walton. I came from New York with him about eleven years ago about the time my father went to war. I remember seeing my mother intoxicated several times and it was the cause of their quarrelling on different occasions. What my uncle William asserts in reference to my mother is true and my aunt Margaret who was a half-sister to my mother but was living in this county when she went to New York in the spring of 1872 for her health and returned told me that she had been to see my mother on Blackwells Island and that she had been sent there several times… (3)

Immigrants in Castle Garden, New York in 1866 (Library of Congress)

Immigrants in Castle Garden, New York in 1866 (Library of Congress)

When Eliza’s last child had reached the age of 16, in 1879, she applied for reinstatement of her pension. A rumour had spread that she had died, leading the Pension Bureau to appoint a Special Examiner to investigate the claim. In doing so, he interviewed Eliza and a number of her friends and acquaintances on 25th July 1882. His aim was to confirm she was the same Eliza Desmond who had been married to Daniel, and also to satisfy himself that she had not remarried or been cohabiting with a man in the interim. These interviews offer us a rare opportunity to hear directly from Irish emigrants of the Famine-era.

Interview with Eliza Desmond, New York, 25th July 1882

Special Examiner: What is your name, age, residence and occupation?

Eliza: Eliza Desmond, age about 54, residence 218 Madison St. New York and by occupation a tailoress.

Special Examiner: When, where and to whom were you married?

Eliza: I was married to Daniel Desmond at Grenock [Grenagh] County Cork, Ireland in the month of August 1848, but I cannot remember the exact date of my marriage.

Special Examiner: When did you immigrate to America?

Eliza: I came here soon after our marriage.

Special Examiner: How many children did you have by him?

Eliza: Ten altogether but only three are now living.

Special Examiner: Please give the names and ages of those of your children are now living?

Eliza: Well Mary Ann was born on the 8th September 1856, Jeremiah was born on the 7th day of January 1862 and Margaret was born on the 5th day of October 1863.

Special Examiner: Where were they born and where were they baptised?

Eliza: All three of them were born in this city and they were baptized in St. James Roman Catholic church in Roosevelt Street.

Special Examiner: Who were their sponsors?

Eliza: Let me see, John Fitzpatrick, Patrick Fitzpatrick, Patrick Hartigan, and Margaret Hayes.

Special Examiner: Any others?

Eliza: Yes, but I cannot recall them now.

Special Examiner: Who was Catharine Desmond?

Eliza: Ah yes, Kate Desmond was my husband’s sister, but she is married to a man named Godfrey and lives somewhere near Chatham Street and Washington in this city.

Special Examiner: Were you ever a pensioner?

Eliza: Yes some years ago I was, but they took the pension away from me and gave it to my children through my brother who was appointed their guardian.

Special Examiner: Who is your brother?

Eliza: His name is William W. Walton and he lives out in Indiana. He was born at Oldham, seven miles from Manchester, England, and now he lives at Roanoake, Huntington County, Indiana. He has now the comfort of my children.

Special Examiner: Have you remarried since the death of your husband, Daniel Desmond?

Eliza: No sir, I have not.

Special Examiner: When did he die?

Eliza: He was killed in March 1865 or he died at An[n]apolis, Md, in that month.

Special Examiner: Where have you lived since his death?

Eliza: At different places in the fourth ward. I am well known there as a woman of good character. I can take you to some of the men in my neighborhood who know that I have not married again.

Special Examiner: But have you lived or cohabited as the wife of any man since his death?

Eliza: No sir, I have not.

Special Examiner: Have you assumed or answered to any other name than Desmond since his death?

Eliza: Well I have. When I was committed to Blackwells Island some years ago I took the name of Walton; that was my maiden name. My brother remonstrated with me for it and said that he would put me up for six months longer for doing so.

Special Examiner: I notice a deep scar over your right brow how and when did that occur?

Eliza: It was in the year 1874. I slipped through an iron grating in the sidewalk on the sidewalk and did it.

Special Examiner: Did your brother see you afterwards?

Eliza: Ah yes. He has seen the scar and he knows all about it.

Special Examiner: Have you made an application for the restoration of your pension?

Eliza: Yes I have. I went to Mr. Valentines office and he made out the papers for me.

Special Examiner: Who were your witnesses?

Eliza: Mr Reilly and Mrs Steward but Mr Reilly is dead. This woman here is his widow.

Special Examiner: Have you any further proof to show that you are the real widow of the soldier and that you have not remarried since his death?

Eliza: No sir, I have not, although I can bring you many more who can testify if it should be required. (4)


A map exploring the New York network of Eliza Desmond, based on the 1882 Special Investigation. Click on the icons to reveal the connections.

In addition to interviewing Eliza, the Special Examiner also spoke to a number of other individuals in order to corroborate her story. Aside from revealing more about Eliza’s life, it also firmly places the emigrant within not only New York’s Irish community, but within the city’s Irish tailoring industry. Extracts of some of those interviews are reproduced below.

Interview with Bridget Fitzpatrick, New York, 25th July 1882

[Bridget was 37-years-old and lived at 23 Centre Street]

Special Examiner: What means have you of knowing that she [Eliza] has remained the widow of Daniel Desmond, and have not remarried?

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Why we have often visited each other and she has never during this period referred to or attended to any man as her husband. She has never admitted that she has married again, I have never seen her in the society of any man and never learned or understood from her or from anyone else that she had ever married again or even expressed any intention of doing so. That is why I know she is still a widow and a single woman.

Special Examiner: Where has she lived since the death of the soldier?

Bridget Fitzpatrick: In New York. When her children were taken out West by her brother she broke up housekeeping and has since then been boarding.

The notice of examination (NARA/Fold3)

The notice of examination provided to Eliza Desmond (NARA/Fold3)

Interview with Mary Steward, New York, 25th July 1882

Special Examiner: What is your name, age, residence and occupation?

Mary Steward: Mary Steward. About 48 or 50 years old, came to this country 21 years ago, reside 218 Madison Street, New York, I keep a few boarders and have done so since my husband died.

Special Examiner: Has she [Eliza] ever been committed by any magistrate to Blackwells Island?

Mary Steward: Yes, once that I know of for taking a little too much whiskey and that was five or six years ago. I went up to see her. She also told me that she was up there once when her brother William came on from Indiana and called upon her. These are the only two occasions that I knew or heard of her being there.

Special Examiner: Under what name was she admitted?

Mary Steward: Her maiden name of Eliza Walton and she told her brother she had as good a right to the name as he had.

Special Examiner: What are your means of knowledge of her continued widowhood?

Mary Steward: I know it because she has lived with me nearly the whole time and I have been on very intimate terms with her and she has never even had any man- because she hates men- to live with at all.

Special Examiner: Has she lost any relatives by death since you have known her?

Mary Steward: I think her sister Margaret died some years ago and her brother William took her to Ireland.

Special Examiner: Did her sister die in this country or after reaching Ireland?

Mary Steward: Well I couldn’t answer that. I never knew her. The claimant told me of her sudden death and left five children that is all I know about her.

Special Examiner: What has been the claimant’s reputation?

Mary Steward: She is a tailoress and a very fine sewer indeed.

Special Examiner: Are you personally acquainted with her brother?

Mary Steward: Yes. A number of years ago she was living with me and her brother William came on here from Indiana on a visit to her. I then had a long talk with him and her together.

Special Examiner: With whom is she now living?

Mary Steward: She is now boarding with me.

Special Examiner: How long has she lived with you?

Mary Steward: For the last three years steady and for the last 14 years off and on.

The City Hall Post Office, where the Special Examiner interviewed Eliza Desmond and her witnesses (New York Times via Wikipedia)

The City Hall Post Office, where the Special Examiner interviewed Eliza Desmond and her witnesses (New York Times via Wikipedia)

Interview with John Fitzpatrick, New York, 25th July 1882

[John was a 46-year-old tailor at 35 Centre Street]

Special Examiner: How long have you known her [Eliza]?

John Fitzpatrick: Since the year 1854.

Special Examiner: Also acquainted with her family?

John Fitzpatrick: Yes. I knew her husband and children, and stood up as god-father for her child Mary Ann when she was baptised at St. James Church in this city a number of years ago.

Special Examiner: Have you lived near her since the death of her husband?

John Fitzpatrick: Well I was in the Navy and since my discharge in 1863 or 1864 I have lived in New York and a near neighbour to her and seen her nearly every month or so during that time.

Advertisement for Nicoll the Tailor, New York Irish American Weekly, 1880 (New York Irish American Weekly)

Advertisement for Nicoll the Tailor, New York Irish American Weekly, 1880 (New York Irish American Weekly)

Interview with John Burch, New York, 25th July 1882[John was a 50-year-old tailor at 228 Elizabeth Street]

Special Examiner: How long have you known her [Eliza]?

John Burch: Since 1849

Special Examiner: Were you also acquainted with her husband and her family?

John Burch: Yes, I boarded with her and her husband in New York, years before the war and I was married out of her house. Her husband stood up with me and also stood up for me of my children.

Special Examiner: What was her husband’s name?

John Burch: Daniel Desmond

Special Examiner: What regiment did he belong to?

John Burch: The 51st New York. He came to me at Petersburgh during the war.

Special Examiner: have you repeatedly seen her since her husbands death?

John Burch: Yes. I have often met her on the street and she also has repeatedly called upon me at my residence.

Special Examiner: What have been your means of acquiring knowledge regarding her condition in life since the death of her husband?

John Burch: Well I have often met her she has often called upon me. I have kept track of her during all this time and when her brother William Walton came on from Indiana some years ago he consulted me with reference to her and I had full opportunities of knowing all about her. Mr. Walton was the guardian of her children. She was not at that time of temperate habits. She had not properly taken care of her children and he was trying to secure the pension for the benefit of the children as I then understood, and I aided him all that I could. During all the time that I have known her since the soldier died, I have never heard of her remarriage nor known or ever heard of her living in marriage relations with any man.

Special Examiner: Have you ever corresponded with her brother since then?

John Burch: Yes. He wrote to me sometime ago asking whether I had heard anything about his poor unfortunate sister. I replied that I had not.

Taylor Map of Blackwell's Island in 1879 (Taylor)

Taylor Map of Blackwell’s Island in 1879 (Taylor)

Interview with Mary A. Reilly, New York, 25th July 1882[Mary was a 70-year-old Lodging Room Keeper at 94 Roosevelt Street]

Special Examiner: When did you form her [Eliza’s] acquaintance?

Mary Reilly: In the year 1850 in this country in New York, we occupied apartments in the same dwelling house together.

Special Examiner: Have you seen her after from that period [her husband’s death] until the present?

Mary Reilly: Yes sir. She has often visited me at my house and I also have frequently called upon her at her house.

Special Examiner: What have been your means of acquiring knowledge of her condition in life and circumstances so as to testify so positively about her?

Mary Reilly: Because she has often called upon me and we have been on the most friendly and sociable terms. She has never come to my house with any man. I have not seen her in the vicinity of any man. She has never told me that she was married nor have I heard any reports of her marriage from any source and all these facts convince me that she is still a widow and a single woman.

The New York the Desmonds knew. 1879 Currier & Ives maps (Library of Congress)

The New York the Desmonds knew. 1879 Currier & Ives maps (Library of Congress)

Interview with Margaret Murphy, New York, 25th July 1882[Margaret was a 45-year-old married woman at 32 Oak Street]

Special Examiner: How long have you known her [Eliza]?

Margaret Murphy: For about 18 years- since 1864.

Special Examiner: Did you know her husband?

Margaret Murphy: Yes. I knew him several years before I got acquainted with her because my husband and her husband were first cousins.

Special Examiner: How are you able to state these facts so definitely and positively?

Margaret Murphy: Because we have seen each other from time to time and she has never mentioned anything to me about her marriage nor have I ever seen, either at her house or elsewhere, any man in her society.

Special Examiner: Do you know her brother?

Margaret Murphy: Yes. William W. Walton. He has been in my house and I know him very well. He took her children and kept them. I recollect when he came to my house he said that his sister had been put up on the Island for taking a drop too much, and he did not want his name disgraced. She was put there under the name Walton and he was going to punish her for that. (5)

The additional Special Examiner interviews offer further insights into the life of this unfortunate woman. Perhaps most revealing is the comment made by her landlady and friend Mary Steward, who remarked that Eliza wouldn’t have been with any other man, as “she hates men.” This hints towards previous hardships she may have suffered at the hands of men within her community. The Special Examiner determined that Eliza was who she claimed to be, and that she remained a widow. Her pension was duly reinstated, and she continued to claim it until 1903. The additional insights interviews such as these offer us into Famine-era emigrants, whose real-life experiences are so often hidden us, further underlines the remarkable value of the pension files for those interested in 19th century Irish people.

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Daniel Desmond Widow’s Pension File, New York Muster Roll Abstract; (2) Daniel Desmond Widow’s Pension File, Catholic Parish Registers, New York Passenger Lists,, 1850 U.S. Census, 1855 New York State Census, 1857 Wilson 1857: 216; (3) Daniel Desmond Widow’s Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.;

References & Further Reading

Widow’s Certificate WC109086 of Eliza Desmond, Widow of Daniel Desmond, 51st New York Infantry.

New York Muster Roll Abstract for Daniel Desmond.

Catholic Parish Registers: Parish of Grenagh, Diocese of Cloyne.

New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.

1850 Census, New York Ward 4, New York, New York.

1855 New York State Census, Ward 4, New York, New York.

Wilson, H. 1857. Trow’s New York City Directory.