Mary Hogan emigrated from Co. Clare to America with her family around 1851. There she and her husband Michael–almost twenty years her senior–settled into life among the Irish community of Cincinnati, Ohio. Michael was among a number of Clare emigrants to secure low-paid but reliable employment working for the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railroad, a firm that employed many who had known the Hogans in Ireland. Normally, we would expect detail of the day-to-day experiences of such working-class Famine-era emigrants to be beyond our reach. Yet the American Civil War led to the creation of a unique documentary record, which has preserved for us the words of Mary Hogan and other illiterate voices from among that Famine generation. In them we can hear Mary describe the tough life she led–one made all the harder for both her and her children by Michael’s drinking habits, and his seemingly relentless pursuit of women.

Mary’s words were preserved in early March 1887 by a man called Charles J. Forbes. Forbes, a Special Examiner for the Pension Bureau, had been sent to investigate discrepancies with Mary’s pension claim. By then in her sixties, Forbes characterised Mary as “a very religious and respectable old Irish woman, but illiterate and ignorant as to any business matter.” Suspicious of the man’s motives, Mary initially refused to discuss the case with Forbes until her adult son could join them. The pension payments that were the subject of the investigation were based on the death of her eldest son John. The former brickyard labourer had enlisted during the first wave of enthusiasm for the war; unfortunately he was also destined to be one of the first to die. A member of the 1st Kentucky Infantry, he had been shot in the head in an apparent friendly-fire incident in Virginia on 13th July 1861. A few short months later Mary’s husband Michael was also dead, run over by an engine at the railroad depot. Mary’s problems lay in the fact that her original application had incorrectly stated that Michael perished first. As she was required to prove her son had contributed towards her support, this discrepancy raised questions about the veracity of her original claim. Charles Forbes was there to determine if her son had indeed helped to support her, and if so, why her husband had not been fulfilling his obligations towards his family. In making her case, Mary had little option but to reveal aspects of her long dead husband’s character that she had left undiscussed for decades.

Forbes’ first action was to ask Mary to set out where she lived, and her relationship with Michael Hogan:

I am about 63 years old and my post office address is No 296 East Pearl St. in this City. I have been living with my daughter for about 3 years, I married Michael Hogan in Ireland but I have no papers to show it. Dennis and John Woods my brothers who live near Greensburg, Jennings County, Indiana were present.

Next he asked Mary to describe her soldier son, and the nature of his support for her:

…he was about 18 years old when killed. He was the only boy we had of any size. The other children then [in 1861] was aged, Anna Maria 6 years, died about the age of 15 years, Ellen 3 years, Michael about 7 months old, my husband then was about 55 years old, I don’t know his age exactly, he was then a flagman at Hamilton and Dayton Railroad Depot in this City. He was getting 75 cents or a dollar a day wages at the time of the death of my son…when my son John was home he worked in the brickyard and he gave me all his wages as he was steady and did not drink and with this and what his father earned we lived plainly. Even then I washed and cleaned house when my children was not too young to leave at home and after my son went to the army I had to do more washing and I missed his wages very much. He never sent me any money for I don’t think he ever drew any pay, for I got his back pay after my husband’s death…we got only one letter from him it came even after we saw an account of his death in the papers, and I don’t know what was in the letter, for my husband took it away and would not read it to me because I had taken it so hard about my son’s death…

John Hogan died so early in the war that even the Southern press reported on his death. Here his name is mentioned in South Carolina’s Charleston Courier in July 1861 (Charleston Courier)

John’s death had come so early in the war that it warranted mention in both the Northern and Southern press. As a result, Mary had found out about it through the newspapers, before official word arrived. Her husband also exercised control over the household correspondence, refusing to grant Mary access to the last letter from her son. His mastery was all the more complete as Mary’s illiterate status meant she not only had to obtain the letter, but find someone to read it for her. She succeeded in neither. Clearly, her husband’s decision to forever deny her knowledge of what was contained in those lines still rankled after the passage of more than a quarter century. Forbes next asked Mary to recount where she had lived over the previous 25 years. Aside from painting a picture of a rapidly changing cityscape, her answer also highlights how Irish Americans had to remain highly mobile within their communities, a symptom of the inability of the majority to reach the level of property ownership:

…When my son was killed and also when my husband was killed I was living at Corner of 6th and Harriet Street the house was not numbered, it was right against the railroad track and the ground has since been sold to the railroad company and the house torn down. I lived there about one year, then I moved to a tenement house on Front Street between Harriet and Mill Creek. I lived there 2 years, the house has since been torn down. I stayed a short time on 3rd Street and I then moved to Hopkins Street…lived there only a few months and I moved to 184 Cutter Street and I lived there 9 years, and about 1880 or 1881 I was broke down by hard work and the Doctor told me I would not get well unless I went to the Country and I moved to my brother’s Dennis Woods near Greensburg Indiana and I stayed there about 9 months and I came back to this City and got rooms on the corner of Noble Court and Clark Streets and I lived there 2 years and 3 months and I then quit housekeeping soon and since then I have lived with my daughter Ellen Handley at 296 East Pearl Street…

The next topic was that of her husband’s death. Here Forbes even recorded Mary’s thought process, as she first remembered it as occurring in late 1861, but as she considered all the details realised in had in fact been January 1862:

…my husband was killed in December 1861 after my son was killed in July, I know it was in the winter and bad weather when he was killed and only a few days after Christmas yes it was after the New Year’s Day in January 1862. The Switch Engine ran over him and killed him. He had sworn off from the drink then and was sober when he was killed, he had been a tolerably heavy drinking man at times…[my husband] never had any [property] except our household goods and that was generally used in one room and a summer kitchen he always worked for wages. He never lost much time but was not very strongman physically he always had a cough he was broke down by hard work in Ireland in supporting his father’s family. He always said he had to have me help support his own family by washing.

Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railroad Map from 1873 (Snile via Wikipedia)

The implication that Michael had been physically impaired by the hard labour he was required to do prior to his emigration from Ireland is a fascinating one. However, the most detailed element of the conversation ultimately centred around Michael’s failings as a husband. Mary’s description of his moral shortcomings was a difficult topic, and one she had sought to conceal from their children:

I know that while the war was going on he had fell asleep while under the influence of liquor and the cars ran off the track on account of his not being on hand to flag the train, he was discharged for this. I made a mistake about this being during the war it was just before the war, for I recollect I sent my soldier son who had not then enlisted to find out where his father was, and he had been arrested and put in the Station House with two women, with whom he had been quarrelling because they had stolen his money from him in Cherry Alley while he was drunk. He got his place back as flagsman just before my son was killed…my husband and I did not get along well together not on account of his drinking but on account of his running after other women, he used to keep one woman Mary Ann Cahill about his switch house for a week at a time, though the Rail Road knew nothing about this, he then did not provide so well for us, and as I was strong enough to wash and work hard I supported the children when he failed to provide for us. I supported all my children in that way after my husband’s death. I spoke more favorably to you yesterday about my husband that I ought probably for the reason I have always hated to speak ill of my children’s father before them…I was ashamed to tell all before my children…I did not speak out plain about it…

Mary counted on a number of other Clare emigrants to assist her during the investigation, principally by providing details as to her marriage and her husband’s failings. The first to be interviewed by Forbes was Thomas McNamara of 69 Ochler Street. The 67-year-old Clare native was a first cousin of Mary’s mother. We know Mary stayed in the room during this interview, as she also asked Thomas some questions. The first topic related to the marriage:

…my sight has failed me and I cannot work anymore, and I was a laborer, I was working for Cincinnati, Hamilton and Ohio Railroad for several years before and during the war. I lived about 3 miles from Michael Hogan in Ireland when he was a young man and before he married Mary Woods. I was not present when they married but I knew they did get married I heard of it at the time and I saw them housekeeping for I could not go to Mass of a Sunday without seeing their house.

During his years with the railroad, Thomas McNamara and Thomas Hogan socialised together, more evidence of the bond that tied emigrants from the same locality together in the United States. He freely admitted his own failings, along with those of his former friend:

[John] was a steadier man than his father, indeed he was a steadier man than his father or myself either for Michael and I both drank liquor and spent a good deal of our wages in that way. I did not drink as much though as Michael Hogan, and he had another fault I did not have, he was inclined to keep company with bad women. I never saw him in bad houses but I was told about his being company with the women, a very respectable woman who lived in the same house with us Ann Burns told me privately that she saw him and Rosa Burns a woman of bad character, in an empty freight car together. This was before the war, and from that time on up to his death when the engine ran over him and killed him he was the same way and every now and then I could hear of his name in this way, mixed up with these bad women and I knew his habit in that way as well as if I had seen him. I knew there was no doubt about it for I plagued him about it and he owned to me once that he went over to Covington Kentucky with a woman one night to satisfy his desires. I told him he did and he said it was so, this was before the war also, of course he had to spend money with these women. We got one dollar a day for wages in 1861, and I know that I had a family of my wife and only two little girls, and my wife had to wash to help me support my family and I know that the wages Michael Hogan got would not support his family, without the help of his wife and son’s wages, even if he had taken all of it home and spent it properly, which I was satisfied he did not do, for he had double in number that I had to support. Of course I spent some of my money for an occasional drink, for I never lost a day on account of liquor, but if I had spent no money in that way my wages would not have fed my family and paid house rent, which Hogan and I had to do…Michael and his wife did not live agreeably on account of his spending his money on other women, she complained to me that she had to make most of the living on account of Michael’s habits. He was not a drunkard for he could not afford to be at our wages, but he drank pretty steady and at times he would spree of a night or Sunday but he never lost any time during the day, except one time he was discharged for not turning the switch right and allowing the cars to be run off the track. I don’t know whether he was drinking then or not, he was out of work a while but it was sometime before he was taken back…I think I recollect now that Hogan and I both were drilled as Home Guards a night after we quit work before he was killed…I know I paid the men for digging his grave, his wife sent me to do so, but still I can’t fix the time I can’t write or read and I cannot keep track of dates. His wife does not talk much of his faults since his death, it is a general rule among Irish people not to speak ill of the dead we let their faults go with them, but when he was alive she used to complain to me of Michael’s faults, mostly about the women. [Mary Hogan asked Thomas if he remembered “the men turning loose the hose on him and two women in a frame house on 6th Street and washing them out of the house”]. Yes, I recollect of hearing the people laugh about that, that was before the war.

The “W.H. Whiton”, an 1862 locomotive, with President Lincoln’s car attached (Library of Congress)

McNamara chose to note the Irish tradition of not speaking ill of the dead as one reason Mary Hogan had not divulged her husband’s shortcomings, and this was surely a factor. He cites his inability to read and write as a major impediment in seeking to remember dates, a difficulty that led to the common problem of “age-heaping”, the tendency of illiterate individuals to round their age to the nearest 5 or 10 years. During the course of the conversation Mary had brought up yet another incident where her husband had been caught with other women, apparently being hosed out of a house during the course of his activities. Michael McNamara may well have not had any encounters with the “women of ill repute” who his friend liaised with, but even if he had he was unlikely to disclose them, given that his own wife was one of the other interviewees. Catherine McNamara, also of 69 Ochler Street, was 64-years-old at this time. She had yet more stories to add to the litany already told about Michael Hogan’s dalliances with other women:

I know one night he [Michael Hogan] was trying to get in a window where a woman lived in her cellar Rosa Carlin who was a woman that had bastard children and I saw Michael Hogan and another man running away up the alley…of course he spent some of his money with these women, he drank liquor once and a while, I don’t know what wages he got but my husband got one dollar a day during the first of the war, my husband worked 17 or 18 years for the same railroad company Michael Hogan did, they were working near together when Hogan was killed by the Engine running over him. Mary Hogan complained to Michael of his not doing right, I heard her doing it, she complained of his being out of nights with other women, and I have often heard him tell her, he was not depending on her to sleep with he could get plenty from others…I think Michael spent some of his wages on other women from what I heard him say to her, when they were quarrelling, he was cheerful pleasant kind of a fellow and was always making a laugh, his fault of running after women caused a good deal of disunion between him and his wife. He was not a drunkard. but he drank some. I never saw him drunk, my husband and Mike Hogan both drank now and then, my husband did not get enough to support us with what he spent for liquor, Hogan and he were about the same as to drinking.

Aside from corroborating Mary’s account of Michael’s misdeeds, Catherine McNamara did not hold back about what she thought with respect to her own husband’s drinking habits–bearing in mind he was likely in the vicinity (if not in the room) when she offered forth the chastisement. Yet another Clare man interviewed was Michael Brogan, of 273 Carlisle Avenue. He was 63-years-old, and had served as a policeman between 1861 and 1863, before joining the railroad and rising to Yard Foreman in the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton:

I knew Michael Hogan and his wife in Ireland before they were married. I was not present when they were married, but I knew when it occurred and I have heard plenty of people speak of the wedding that were present, there is no mistake about their marriage…I heard his wife complain that he spent some of his money unnecessarily, she complained that he spent it for liquor and on other women she told me this when I was a Police Officer and before Michael Hogan’s death she told me one day he was not giving her his wages as he ought to, I simply had her word for it. I heard of it that he drank and was inclined to run after other women from others besides her but I did not know it myself. I don’t know what conclusion I came to about the matter, it has been so long ago, sometimes they lived agreeably and sometimes not. I know I was called upon to quiet them once while I was an officer, but I made no arrest and I don’t remember the cause of their quarrel them, I don’t know what kind of a support Michael made for his family, that is pretty hard for an outsider to tell…I heard since the death of her husband that Mrs Mary Hogan during the life of her husband had to go out to work, to wash I think, I heard this spoken of by her neighbors…I have the belief that she worked out before and after her husband’s death, but I can’t say how I got it, and I know times were hard for poor people in this City in 1861, as a policeman I only got $1.60 a day.

Brogan’s testimony further demonstrates the extent of the Co. Clare network in Cincinnati. Indeed, it seems probable that his Clare roots were instrumental in him getting a position with the railroad when he did. Another interesting aspect of his testimony is his memory of how hard times were economically in 1861. Many early war Irish volunteers complained of the lack of employment opportunities prior to their enlistment, and similar hardships appear to have remained fresh in Michael Brogan’s mind. Mary Brogan, who was 46-years-old, was apparently Michael Brogan’s wife, and also lived at 273 Carlisle Avenue. She provided the final nail in Michael Hogan’s reputational coffin:

Michael Hogan himself says he spent a good deal of money around town, but he never said how, except he said himself he had other women than his wife. He said it in earnest, and I heard that he did have other women besides his wife from others I thought that was one way his money went…

The litany of witnesses convinced Charles J. Forbes, and at his recommendation Mary had her pension restored. She would undoubtedly have greatly preferred never to have had her family’s dirty laundry aired in such a public setting, but felt she had no choice given the risk to her pension. Her misfortune has been the historian’s boon, as the interviews offer a remarkable insight into some of the struggles of the poorest among Ireland’s emigrant community. It provides a further demonstration of the wealth of social data on 19th century Irish life waiting to be uncovered in American Civil War pension files.

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Cincinnati in 1841, a few years before the arrival of the Hogans to the city (New York Public Library via Wikipedia)


John Hogan Dependent Mother’s Pension File.