Over the years the site has featured a number of posts about the tattoos and marks on the bodies of Irish American men, such as Marked Men: The Tattoos of New York Irishmen, 1863; Inked Irishmen: Irish Tattoos in 1860s New York and Scarred Men: The Disfigurements of New York Irishmen, 1863. Now regular guest writer for the site Brendan Hamilton returns to add to that list, with a fascinating piece drawing on his research into Reform School and House of Refuge boys (you can catch some of his previous pieces on this topic here and here). As is always the case with Brendan’s contributions, it makes for fascinating and compelling reading:
The case history records of America’s state-run reformatories offer intimate snapshots of the lives of its mostly working class juvenile delinquents, many of whom ended up in the United States Army and Navy. Among the details that are often included in these records are descriptions of their tattoos. Their subsequent military enlistment and pension records sometimes fill in further details. Below are brief profiles of seven boys, Irish immigrants and sons of immigrants, who were incarcerated in the New York House of Refuge and the Massachusetts State Reform School before enlisting to fight in the Civil War.
Thomas Goodwin: Straight Line, Dots, Cross
Thomas Goodwin was born in New York City in 1843 to Irish immigrant parents. At the time of his commitment to the New York House of Refuge for stealing a pair of spectacles in 1857, he and his family were living in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. The fourteen-year-old umbrella-maker’s skin was decorated with multiple tattoos–a straight line and dot on his right arm, and a cross and five dots on his left. His case record describes him as having black hair, hazel eyes, and a light complexion, indicates his companions had been “young thieves” and “vagrants,” and characterizes his family’s influence as “bad.” Goodwin was Roman Catholic, and attended both mass and Sunday school, but he had been arrested once previously for playing on a Sunday. The House discharged Goodwin to the care of his parents in 1858, but he returned again the following year after being convicted of grand larceny. He and eight other boys attempted a dramatic escape in April 1861, rushing through an open gate, throwing stones at the guards and brandishing sticks, but they were eventually cornered and forced to surrender. Goodwin was discharged two months later to enlist in the 65th New York Infantry, or the “1st U.S. Chasseurs,” at the age of seventeen. He served with this regiment through the Peninsula and Antietam Campaigns, but deserted near Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862. (1)
Patrick Smith: Crosses, Anchor, Indiscernible Marks
Patrick Smith was a native of Ireland who had lived with his parents in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood. He enlisted in Company H of the 6th New York Infantry, known as “Wilson’s Zouaves,” directly from the New York House of Refuge when he was seventeen. Smith was sentenced to the House at age thirteen for picking a lady’s pocket of two and a half dollars. Despite his young age, his arms were heavily tattooed when he stood for his physical examination upon entrance to the House. His right arm bore two crosses and a large anchor, while his left arm had several “indiscernible marks” on it. The House of Refuge’s case records mention numerous boys who bore small tattoos described as “indiscernible” or “indefinite” and sometimes likened to irregular dots. It is possible this is evidence of amateur work performed by friends or even the boys themselves. Smith was freckled, had dark hair, hazel eyes, and his face was pitted with small scars, possibly the result of smallpox. His case record characterizes his family’s influence as “poor” and his companions as “thieves” and it notes he had previously been arrested twice for stealing. Smith told the House staff he attended Roman Catholic Church and Sunday school and neither drank nor smoked. In September 1858, a year and a half after arriving at the House, Smith was indentured to a lady in Monmouth, New Jersey to assist her with farm labor. She sent him to New York City the following March on an errand but he never returned. He was arrested for petty larceny that May and sent back to the House, where he spent two more years before finally being discharged to enlist in Wilson’s Zouaves. Smith survived the Battle of Santa Rosa Island before being discharged for disability at Fort Pickens, Florida, in January 1862. (2)
James Noland: Initials, Dots, Figure 8
James Noland (or Nolan) was born in 1844 in Orange County, New York to Irish immigrant parents. His mother died when he was a young child, leaving him in the care of his father, who drank. By 1857 he lived on East 21st Street in New York City and had worked for a time in a pocketbook factory. Noland was sent to the House of Refuge that August after joining a group of boys in stealing “a quantity of butter” from a home on 21st Street. The thirteen-year-old’s case record describes him as having brown hair, blue eyes, and a light, freckled complexion. His right arm bore a tattoo of his initials as well as several dots, while his left arm was decorated with a figure eight. The number eight may have reflected his affiliation with a fire company, though his record makes no mention of it. It does, however, say that his companions were “young thieves and vagrant boys” and indicates that he regularly attended theaters and slept out at night. While Noland had a home address, he, like many other working class boys of Manhattan, opted to spend his nights outside. This decision may have been the result of mistreatment from his father, or he might simply have preferred sleeping in the open air than in a crowded tenement house. Charles Loring Brace recounted in his memoirs that many New York tenements were “so filthy and haunted with vermin, that the lads themselves leave them in disgust, preferring the barges on the breezy docks, or the boxes on the side-walk.” A Roman Catholic, Noland also attended both mass and Sunday school, and neither drank spirits nor used tobacco. In 1858, after over a year at the House of Refuge, Noland was indentured out to a farming family in Sextonville, Wisconsin, as part of a relocation program that later came to be known as the “Orphan Train.” Adjusting to life in rural Wisconsin was likely a difficult transition for the boy. In 1860, his master gave a “rather unfavorable” report of Noland in a letter to the House. In 1862, at the age of seventeen, Noland left the farm in Sextonville and enlisted in the 19th Wisconsin Infantry. He served through the siege of Suffolk and the 1864 campaigns before Richmond and Petersburg, survived a stint as a prisoner of war, and reenlisted as a veteran volunteer at the end of his three year enlistment term. He was discharged for disability in May 1865. (3)
George Behan: Anchor, Dots
George Behan was born in Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland in 1843. He was committed to the New York House of Refuge in 1857 at the age of thirteen for vagrancy. Behan’s mother was dead and his father, who was ill and unable to provide for him, had indentured him to a hatter in Newark, New Jersey the previous year. Young Behan returned to visit his father in Brooklyn, but finding no place there to live, he took to sleeping outdoors, where he was caught and apprehended by the Brooklyn Police. At the time of his admission into the House, Behan had light brown hair, blue eyes, a light, freckled complexion, and had an anchor and several dots tattooed on his left arm. He did not drink, but chewed tobacco. He was Roman Catholic, and occasionally attended mass and Sunday school. The House indentured Behan out to a hatter in Orange, New Jersey a month after his enrollment. In 1861, at the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the 70th New York Infantry, or the “First Regiment, Excelsior Brigade.” Behan was mortally wounded at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5th, 1862, and died on June 9th. (4)
Edward Bradley: E.B. Co. E. 17 R.N.Y., Heart, Crossed Cannons, Woman
Edward Bradley’s wartime ink may have displayed pride in his military unit while allowing his body to be more easily identified in the event of a disfiguring death on the field of battle. Bradley was a native of Newton, New Jersey who was admitted to the Massachusetts State Reform School in 1857 when he was eleven years old. His father was an Irish immigrant while his mother was native of New Jersey. They were Protestants, owned a farm “in comfortable circumstances,” and were “respectable” and “honest” people who prayed both morning and night and said the blessing at mealtime. According to his case record, Edward stood out in stark contrast to his parents. The Reform School staff described him as “untruthful, profane, and obscene.” He stole money from his own father and was ultimately arrested by the police in Worchester, Massachusetts for breaking into a store and stealing pistols and ammunition. He apparently adjusted well to his incarceration; a staff member described him as a “good boy” and noted he was only punished twice (likely by public flogging with a rattan cane or rope yarn “cat”)–once for talking, and once for making poor quality shoes while working as a contract laborer in the Reform School’s shoe shop. After his release from the State Reform School, Bradley made his way to Port Chester, New York, where he enlisted in May 1861 at the age of sixteen in the 17th New York Infantry, or “Westchester Chasseurs.” He served a full two year enlistment, through the Peninsula Campaign, 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, mustering out with the regiment in June 1863. Bradley returned to Massachusetts by the following September, enlisting as a landsman in the US Navy at the Boston rendezvous. His enlistment record describes the tattoo he bore on his left forearm– “E.B. Co. E. 17 R.N.Y.” with a heart and two crossed cannons. His pension record indicates he subsequently added a tattoo of a woman to his right arm. Bradley served out a year’s enlistment aboard the USS Tuscarora and the USS Macedonian. He reenlisted again after the war, serving aboard the USS Portsmouth between 1869-1871. (5)
Owen Sullivan: American Coat of Arms, Goddess of Liberty
Owen Sullivan was born in 1848 in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, Ireland. He lived with his parents and nine siblings in Randolph, Massachusetts. His case history describes his parents as “not exactly” temperate, and indicates that while Owen Sullivan did not drink, he did use tobacco. He was Roman Catholic, attended both mass and Sunday school, and worked as a shoemaker. Sullivan was arrested and convicted in 1863 for breaking and entering with intent to steal. At the time of his commitment to the Nautical Branch of the Massachusetts Reform School in May 1863 he was 5’2 ½” tall, 105 lbs., and had black hair, gray eyes, and a dark, freckled complexion. The school released him the following September at the age of fifteen to enlist in the US Navy with the rank of First Class Boy. He had no tattoos at the time of his enlistment, but his pension file describes the tattoos he likely received during his service on the USS Sabine and the USS Niagara. Sullivan bore an “American coat of arms” on his left arm and a “Goddess of Liberty” on his right arm. (6)
John James Doherty: Anchor, Heart, Star, J.J.D.O.H.
John James Doherty was already inked when he was admitted to the Nautical Branch in June 1863 at the age of fifteen for “stubbornness.” His tattoos then included an anchor, star, heart, and the letters “J.J.D.O.H.” all on his right arm. A native of Nova Scotia, Canada, Doherty was the orphaned son of Irish immigrants. His father died circa 1850 and his mother circa 1860, leaving him in the care of John Rogers of Lowell Street in Boston. He was Roman Catholic, attended mass, drank beer, used tobacco, and was employed in chair painting. At the time of his admission he was 5’2” tall, 104 lbs., and had brown hair, gray eyes, and a light complexion. Doherty was released in October 1863 at the age of sixteen to enlist as a First Class Boy in the US Navy, and served aboard the USS Niagara and USS Hartford. (7)
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(1) New York House of Refuge Case Histories, New York House of Refuge Daily Journals, New York Muster Roll Abstracts.
(2) New York House of Refuge Case Histories, New York Muster Roll Abstracts.
(3) New York House of Refuge Case Histories, Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York, Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865.
(4) New York House of Refuge Case Histories, New York Muster Roll Abstracts, Widows’ Pension Records.
(5) Massachusetts State Reform School History of Boys, New York Muster Roll Abstracts, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous Records, US Navy Survivors’ Certificates.
(6) Nautical School Case Histories, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous Records, US Navy Survivors’ Certificates.
(7) Nautical School Case Histories, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous Records.