A great strength of letters drawn from the widows and dependent pension files is the openness of their content on social and familial issues. With letter collections passed down through families or donated to major repositories, we always have to consider the possiblity that selective-curation may have-understandably-taken place, as individuals sought to keep private certain aspects of their lives. But for prospective American pensioners, the only factor that determined whether or not they submitted a letter to the Pension Bureau was if it contained information supportive of their claim. As a result, the correspondence in the files (which they had no expectation of ever becoming public) often provides us with extremely honest and personal insights into their troubles and trials. Such was certainly the case for Bessie Conway. In an effort to prove her husband’s identity and her relationship to him, Bessie submitted three of his letters to the Bureau in the late 1860s. Those letters also laid bare major fractures in their relationship, which had gone a long way towards destroying their marriage.
Bessie would have hoped for a better future just a few short years earlier. She had wed Frank Conway in Cork City’s South Chapel on 22nd March 1862, when she was in her early twenties and Frank was in his late teens. In what was a common practice in this period, the couple emigrated in the wake of their wedding. They appear to have initially settled in New York, where Frank took work as a laborer. It wasn’t long before he had fallen in with a bad crowd.
Prejudiced stereotypes of the 19th century Irish played up their fondness for alcohol. While the characterisation of Irish drinking as uniquely exceptional was unwarranted, there is no doubt that alcohol abuse was a major problem. This was something recognised within Irish communities themselves. Its impact could be particularly damaging among the working-class urban Irish, who lived on the economic margins. It also laid the foundations for conflict in many marriages, and recurs frequently as a factor in cases of abandonment. In New York, young Frank Conway appears to have been among those who fell under its spell. Though clearly their marriage was already in difficulty, in 1865 Frank’s drinking seems to have reached new heights. Problems at home and within the wider community caused him to leave Bessie, and he journeyed west, to Chicago. The evidence indicates he did not involve her in this decision. She likely knew even less about his next move, which saw her husband being whisked off to a new life in the 3rd United States Infantry.
Frank enlisted in Chicago in October 1865. Rather than using his own name, he entered under an alias, Charles O’Malley. Bessie later recalled that he did so in order to conceal his movements from his family and friends: “my husband left home and went to a distant city and enlisted in the U.S. army under an assumed name (not wishing his friends to know it).” On his enlistment, Frank was recorded as a 22-year-old Dublin-born laborer, with blue eyes, sandy hair and a light complextion. He stood 5 feet 9 inches tall. The first surviving letter that he wrote from the military, dating to 21st February 1866, was not addressed to Bessie, but to a Mr. Armstrong. Evidently, he had a favour to ask this mutual friend (or relative):
Jeffeseron Barracks Mo [Missouri]
February 21st 1866
Dear Mr Armstrong
I am sure you will wonder very much at receiving a letter from me, but I hope you will not discard it but let me know what I ask you in it. I know that I have lost every good opinion that any person of my acquiantance had about me but I hope you at least will answer this letter. What I have done was not premeditated but whiskey was the medicine that left me as I am today and is generally the case of throwing water on a drownded Rat. I have understood as much from Thady whom I have seen in New York that there were certain parties who was in the company with me gave me a very bad character. I wonder would they have said so if I was face to face with them. But no matter I may come across them yet. I hope I am not annoying you by my talk but indeed I cannot help it, for I am bad enough without lies being told of me. What I want you to do is to let me know how Bessie, Johnny and her mother are without Mrs Armstrong or any one else knowing anything about it.
Now I hope you will do this much for me. I hope all the family are well, and hoping to hear from you soon. I remain,
I changed my name when I was enlisting. Direct your letter for C. O’Malley, Co. D, 3 U.S. Infantry, Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri
It is apparent from the tone and tenor of this letter that Frank felt he could not contact his wife and child directly given his actions. He was also aware that he was held in extremely low esteem by many in his former home. Somewhat paradoxically, he expressed both remorse at where his drinking has brought him, and also railed against perceived wrongs done to his reputation. Nevertheless, he was aware he had responsibilites towards his family (at least at the time of writing the letter). Despite his previous behaviour, it seems he was keen to discharge them. His next correspondence was dated a little over a month later, on 31st March 1866:
Jefferson Barracks Missouri
March 31st 1866
My Dear Bessie,
I am just after receiving your letter and I am sorry to say we have got marching orders to leave here on the 10th of April for the plains in Kansas. If I was only left here I could be of some use to you but out in a wilderness where there are nothing but Indians and perhaps only have a chance of writing to you once in 6 months I cannot do anything. I may be out for my whole 3 years but I will write to you any chance I can get. I hope you will pray for me that I may get safe through all and be once again happy. I would not approve of your coming as you nor Johnny could not stand it. I will do all that lays in my power to aid you and I need not say you will not forget me during my absence. Since we were married there was always something going wrong and I think it was in a good measure our own fault but we may be happy yet. When you write to me do not forget to send you and Johnnys likeness. I asked for the old I would rather have it but if you do not send your own you need not send any. I will have time enough to get an answer from you before I go. Write as soon as you can do not forget. I have not any thing more to say but will write to you before I leave. Kiss Johnny for me and accept the same yourself from
Yours till death
Direct as before
Perhaps thanks to his communications with Mr. Armstrong, Frank and Bessie were in direct contact. Evidently the prospect of she and Johnny journeying to Missouri had been mooted, but Frank was not keen on the idea. He also sought to temper any expectations that there would be opportunities for regular correspondence. Clearly he was aware he was on thin ice, given his salutations and his acknowledgement of the fact that Bessie may choose not send him her likeness. Nevertheless, he was apparently genuine in his desire to save their marriage- though it is doubtful Bessie shared his view regarding their shared culpability for their troubles. As ever, when left with only one side of the correspondence, we can only wonder as to the realities of what they had previously experienced, or the trials they had faced. Whatever the truth of it, Frank’s final letter to Bessie was penned in St. Louis a few months later:
St. Louis, Missouri, August 31st 1866
My Dear Bessie,
So you have gone home, but you might have written to me to let me know you were going. The last letter you got from me, I told you I would not write until I could send you some money. Well, I kept my promise, and was writing all over the Country to find out where you were, until at last Mr. Armstrong said you were going home, and that Mr. Pembroke got the money. Well I hope you will not forget me, I am here now alone but I think if I can get enough money I’ll go home. I am sorry you went home for we have just come to St. Louis and we could get on very well on 65 dollars a month. But that cannot be helped now. I will send you all the money I possibly can. I will not say any more now until I hear from you. I will send you my likeness and I hope you will send me yours and Johnnys.
I hope all your friends are well, and hoping to hear from you soon and that you are both well.
I remain, Yours only,
Direct to C. O’Malley, Hd. Qrs. Dept. Mo., St. Louis, Mo., U.S.A.
By August, whatever hopes there were for a proper reconcilation between Bessie and Frank seemed to be fading fast. It is not clear where Bessie had “gone home” to, but she had done so without alerting Frank, or leaving a forwarding address. Perhaps she had journeyed out to Missouri in the intervening period, but had grown frustrated at Frank’s constant military absences. Either way, she was fortunate not to be anywhere near the Barracks. Just twelve days after writing this letter, Frank was dead. He had fallen victim of the cholera epidemic that wrought havoc on the army in 1866, passing away in the Sisters of Charity Hospital in St. Louis on 12 September (For more on the impact of the cholera epidemic on immigrant and African-American families, see here).
Even the notification of Frank’s death was impacted by the physical and emotional distance that had grown between the couple. The official letter was sent to Bessie’s old address, only to be returned via the ‘dead letter’ office. Having since moved to Washington D.C., Bessie was eventually notified of Frank’s fate by telegram more than four months after the fact:
Dated Ft. Leavenworth Jany 23 1867
Received at Washington Jany 23
Mrs E Malley
Charles Malley died at St Louis twelfth (12) September last you were informed by mail but the letter was returned through dead letter office
Jas C Fisher
Bessie applied for her pension from 139 D Street between 9th & 10th, Washington D.C. in 1867. She faced an uphill battle, given Frank’s use of an alias and the fact that she did not know any of the men he had served with. Eventually, the letters she supplied were taken as sufficient proof that she was who she said she was. She did not record Johnny as a dependent in her application, an omission which suggest he may also have died around this time. Whether Bessie found any joy in her remaing years remains a mystery, as I have not yet been successful in tracing her later fate.
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