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Chapter One: The Immigrant World
On the twelfth of February, 1863, on a morning described in the Boston newspapers as "below freezing" and "cloudy" with a cold wind blowing hard from the north, a tiny boy, John Francis Fitzgerald, not yet one day old, was carried by his father to St. Stephen's Church for baptism.
For the father, Thomas Fitzgerald, the rushed baptism spoke to the extreme fragility of life in the North End, the immigrant quarter of Boston, where three infants out of ten died before the age of one. Believing that an unbaptized child would be forever prevented from entering the kingdom of heaven, condemning his parents to haunting visions of a little soul howling in the night, searching for water that would never be found, Thomas had arranged for the baptism within twelve hours of the baby's birth.
The journey to the church from the wooden tenement house on Ferry Street in which the baby had been born took the father and son through a maze of narrow alleys and dark lanes, dignified by the name of streets, as Ferry emptied into North, North wound into Richmond and Richmond opened onto Hanover Street, the bustling, congested center of commerce in the North End.
Turning north on Hanover Street, the child and his father passed by dozens of narrow storefronts, crowded one beside the other, housing apothecaries, grocers, saloon keepers, watchmakers, tailors and dressmakers, all just beginning a long day of work, until they finally came to a large majestic structure that stood in commanding contrast to its congested surroundings, a breakwater of order and elegance against the chaotic tide of life in the slum.
St. Stephen's Church, considered then by many observers the most beautiful of all the Catholic churches in Boston, had originally been commissioned in 1802 as a Congregational church by the old Boston families of learning and wealth. Designed by the city's most famous architect, Charles Bulfinch, to echo the beauty of Italian Renaissance churches, this stately red brick structure boasted a splendid classical interior: it was symmetrically proportioned as a perfect square, its dimensions all determined by the height of its Doric columns, its every detail related in perfect harmony to every other based upon the ideal proportions of the human body.
But its life as a church of Boston's elite had not lasted for long. For within fifty years, with the onrush of the Irish immigrants into the narrow cobblestone streets surrounding the wharves, the North End had become Boston's most densely populated slum. The old Protestant families had fled to Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, abandoning their homes and their churches. With their worshipers gone, the Protestants sold their Bulfinch church to the Catholics, whose ever-expanding population provided an instant membership of over five thousand people.
Having been through the baptismal ceremony three times before with the birth of his first three sons, Thomas Fitzgerald understood that when he arrived at the church he was to knock on the door to announce his presence and then wait outside with the baby and the baby's sponsors while the parish priest, the Reverend Charles Rainoni, prepared the holy compound of oil and balm, the blessed salt and the natural water to be used in the sacrament.
Once his own preparations were completed, Father Rainoni, carefully attired in a flowing white surplice and a long purple stole of embroidered silk that was to be worn only for baptisms, advanced to the threshold, where he asked the name of the child to be baptized.
By Catholic custom at the time, the selection of a name was a serious task, for the people believed then that a child would develop the characteristics of whomever he was named after. Even the poorest of Catholic parents owned Butler's Lives of the Saints so that they could choose a saint by whose example the child might be excited to a holy life and by whose prayers he might be protected. Other considerations also prevailed in the naming of an Irish child, such as the desire to honor a grandparent or another close relative. And, at a time when the death of a child was a common event, a new baby would often be named for a dead one, emphasizing its role as a substitute. Thus, the Fitzgeralds' first son, born in 1858, was named Michael after both Michael the Archangel and his paternal grandfather, Michael Fitzgerald, and later, after the first baby Michael died of hydrocephalus before he was two, another Michael was christened in 1864. Their next son, James, born in 1860, was named for both Saint James the Apostle, and for Thomas' younger brother James, while Thomas Junior, born in 1861, obviously carried on his father's own name as well.
As for the name John, it was said at the time that if parents wanted their son to be either a great writer or a great orator he should be named John, after Saint John the Apostle, the author of the mysterious Book of the Apocalypse, or after the golden-mouthed Saint John Chrysostom.
History does not record which ancestors, if any, Tom Fitzgerald and Rosanna Cox had in mind in choosing the name John. We know only that once the name was chosen by that generation, it would be passed on for generations to come.
When the chosen name had been announced, Father Rainoni put a grain of blessed salt into the mouth of the infant. By this ancient ceremony, reflecting the Biblical saying "the salt of the earth," the child was admonished "to procure and maintain in his soul true wisdom and prudence, for which salt is an emblem inasmuch as it seasons and gives a relish to all things." Then the priest proceeded to the solemn prayers used to cast from the soul the Devil under whose power all humans were born by original sin. "I exorcise thee...in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."
All these initial ceremonies the priest performed in the entry of the church, to signify that the infant was not worthy to enter into God's place of worship until the Devil had been cast out of him. But after the prayer for exorcism, the priest placed the end of his purple stole on the child and brought him into the church, saying, "John Francis, come unto the temple of God, that thou mayest have part with Christ unto life everlasting. Amen."
At the baptismal font, the priest anointed the child upon the breast and between the shoulders with holy oil, which outward unction was to represent the inward anointing of the soul by divine grace, fortifying him against his passions and his sexual desires. Then, with both godparents holding their godchild, the priest poured the water upon the infant's head three times in the form of a cross, saying at the same time these exact words: "John Francis Fitzgerald, I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."
The ceremony over, the priest recorded the event for history in the large black baptismal book which has been kept for more than a century, its leather bindings now torn and frayed, among the records of St. Stephen's, so that even today we can read Rainoni's original entry penned in black ink on a blue page: "Feb 12 Bap John Francis born I I inft of Thomas Fitzgerald and wife Rosa Cox."
From what we know of the texture of the daily life of the Fitzgerald family, it is easy to understand the magic of the Catholic Church at this time and in this place. For the sheer beauty of the church building alone opened up to them, as to all their neighbors in the North End, an inner world of sounds, smells and sights in stark contrast to the world outside.
Against the clamor of the teeming life in the streets — where Thomas Fitzgerald worked from dawn to dusk as a peddler — the church provided a hushed and solemn refuge. In the soft, gray silence, broken only by whispered talk and the rustle of footsteps, one could find that rarest of possessions in the city slum — privacy. In the din of the cramped tenement house, as Irving Howe has observed in World of Our Fathers, 14 space was the stuff of dreams; a room to oneself, a luxury beyond reach." Yet here, in the dark, vaulted silence of the church, amid the gleam of the soft brasses of the candlesticks on the large elaborate altar, each worshiper could feel utterly alone.
And there was a rich, musty smell inside — not the unbearable odor rising from the one water closet which the Fitzgerald family shared with all their neighbors in the tenement house (twenty-four adults and thirteen children) along with the customers of the saloon which occupied the first floor, nor the stench of rotting food and waste only intermittently carted away by a neglectful Sanitation Department, but the fine smell of aging wood and the clinging fragrance of burnt incense.
A contemporary observer, writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1868, explained the pull of the Catholic Church on the immigrant community in these terms:
If there is any such thing as realized, working Christianity, it may be seen in one of [the] poor, densely peopled Catholic parishes, where all is dreary, dismal desolation, excepting alone in the sacred enclosure around the church, where a bright interior cheers the leisure hours; where pictures, music and stately ceremonial exalt the poor above their lot; and where a friend and father can ever be found...All in their lot, all in their surroundings, is mean, nasty, inefficient, forbidding — except their church.
Amid the rich surroundings of his church, an immigrant's mind could soar high into the realm of hopes, away from the world of facts, hunger, dirt and despair, away from the tyranny of the here and now to a mysterious romantic regime dominated by the promise of life eternal in a celestial community, governed by its own rites and images, filled with its own possibilities.
Poor and unfortunate though these immigrants might be, they were admonished to find compensation for their miserable lot in this world in the knowledge that a far loftier role awaited them in the next. In the standard nineteenth-century spiritual book Catholics were told:
You may be a poor man — striving by wearying, ceaseless toil for a poor living, you may have had little schooling, you may lack comforts of this life and feel envious sometimes to see your Protestant friends so much better off in this world's way...but there is something you possess which our poor friends with all their wealth cannot purchase — the true religion of Jesus Christ.
Acceptance of one's position was the central message pervading Catholic readers, daily catechism and Sunday sermons in the nineteenth century. This religious dictum reinforced the self-denying and pessimistic view of the world which the Irish peasants carried with them across the Atlantic, their mental baggage from the Old World. In the New World, this gospel of acceptance was to bear bitter fruit, for "no slum was as fearful as the Irish slum." Of all the immigrant nationalities in Boston, the Irish fared the least well, beginning at a lower rung and rising more slowly on the economic and social ladder than any other group. The degradation endured for generations by the poor peasant in the Old World combined with a Catholic value system in which the preparations for one's death and rebirth eclipsed the affairs of the immediate present to produce an acceptance of conditions in the New World which few other people would have tolerated.
Yet the story of the Fitzgerald family is the story of the slow escape from the grind of mere subsistence. It is a tale not of acceptance but of gradual progress and achievement; of mobility, not resignation, and of ever-expanding horizons. In the immigrant slums, Oscar Handlin has argued in Boston's Immigrants, one in a hundred lived and prospered and stood to be looked at as a living monument of the American dream, but ninety-nine in a hundred were lost, never to be heard of. What do we know about the early experience of Thomas Fitzgerald in Boston that numbered him among that "one in a hundred" who lived and prospered and distinguished the story of his family from that of the overwhelming majority of Irish immigrants?
The home at 30 Ferry Street to which the Fitzgerald party returned after the christening consisted of two doorless rooms no larger than closets, which were used to house the pilings of straw that served as beds, and a kitchen twelve by ten feet. Six short steps from the outer wall to the hall measured the full extent of the family's living quarters. Behind a makeshift wall lived the family of the tailor Owen McLaughlin, his wife, Bridget, and their two children, and next to them the family of a laborer, Michael Sullivan, his wife, Nancy, and their three children. On each of three floors, the same pattern prevailed: the lives of nine families separated only by the thinnest of walls and a dark, open well of stairs.
If there was no escape from the crowded conditions of tenement life, the Fitzgeralds' quarters were on the top floor and their kitchen fronted onto the street, providing them with sunlight, a considerable advantage in their struggle for survival. Of all the ills associated with tenement housing, an investigator in Boston singled out insufficient light and air — occasioned by the haphazard partition of apartments and the building of one tenement house right up against another — as the primary cause of death and disease. In the typical tenement building, the investigator reported, "all the lower rooms are very dark...in some rooms on the ground floor the ceiling is only 6 1/4' high...in the rear houses the only windows...look on 3 and 5 storied walls only 4.4 inches away." From such buildings — with the exception of some of the rooms on the uppermost floors — sunlight was almost completely excluded.
A vivid testimony to the value that tenement dwellers placed on the golden sun is provided by Jacob Riis in his classic work on tenement life, where he describes a conversation with a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a Polish capmaker, whose fondest dream was to move to a front room where "sunlight comes right into your face." In her rear rooms, she knew the exact month — June — and the exact hour of the day when the sun's rays shone into their home, providing a momentary respite from the gloom of the gray walls.
John Francis Fitzgerald, too, long remembered his own family's description of the warmth and the pleasure of their Ferry Street kitchen on a sunny day. And it was there in that kitchen on the twelfth of February, 1863, that the Fitzgeralds held the customary christening dinner, to which the parish priest, the baby's sponsors and the family's relatives were invited.
Since the thirty-two-year-old mother Rosanna had given birth only the day before, the duties of preparation most likely fell upon the baby's paternal grandmother, Ellen Wilmouth Fitzgerald, who was living right around the corner on North Street. Evidently lack of space did not prevent the assembling of the whole Fitzgerald clan, which included Thomas' three younger sisters, Bridget, thirty-five, and Hannah, thirty-four, both married with children, and Ellen, twenty-four, who was about to be married. Also present at the christening dinner, and central to the story of the Fitzgeralds' rise from poverty, was Thomas' youngest brother, James, a forceful young man of twenty-five with dark-blue eyes and a deep, gruff voice, who, in the tangled course of events following the family's immigration to America, had become the person upon whom the rest of the family pinned its hopes.
The invisible loyalties which brought the Fitzgerald sisters and brothers together, on this as on so many other occasions, particularly those surrounding birth, marriage and death, had been born across the ocean in the boggy countryside of western Ireland where the small farm and the ancestral graves they had left behind provided a common stock of memories, myths and values that would stay with them all the rest of their lives. In the little farming community of Bruff where the Fitzgeralds had grown up, the christening of a baby was considered one of the central events in a person's life, occasioning a large, joyous celebration at the crossroads, to which all the members of the village were traditionally invited. Here, however, in the cramped world of the city, the christening celebration was typically a much smaller, less important affair.
But this particular christening held an importance that went beyond its appearance; for at the gathering of the clan an agreement was reached which changed the direction of Thomas Fitzgerald's life. After years of dreaming that he would eventually settle on a farm in the Midwest, Fitzgerald decided on this day to go into business with his brother James and to build his family's future in the old North End.
A broad-chested, powerfully made man with a handsome face and a ruddy complexion, Thomas Fitzgerald, or Cocky Tom as he was commonly called for his having one cocked eye, had lived in America for more than ten of his forty years, and seven of these years had been spent right where he now was, in the heart of Boston's Irish slum. Yet, all these years the city had remained for him an alien and forbidding place — a place he had never intended as his home but only as a way station until he could save enough money to move his family away from the port of landing, through the interior cities of transit to the farms of the Midwest, where the open lands reached away in plenty and where once again he could be in a position to till the soil, the only livelihood he had ever wanted, the only labor he considered worthy of a man.
In the Old Country where Thomas was born, nearly every boy was brought up to be a potato farmer. At the age of seven, under the direction of his father, Michael Fitzgerald, Thomas had learned to dig the trenches for the potatoes, and by the time he was ten he was involved in the sowing of the fields. While he worked beside his father, his sisters were thrown in with their mother, learning to feed the pigs and the chickens, to rake the ashes in the hearth and to prepare the big meal at lunchtime when the men and the boys came back from the fields. For every member of the family at every age, there were a special set of tasks, allowing them all to share in the common enterprise of cultivating the soil, creating among them all, as Thomas later explained to his sons, an unbreakable bond with each other and — he thought — with the land.
John Fitzgerald later said that when he listened to his father talk about his childhood in Ireland, he thought there must be no more wonderful place in all the world to grow up in. For though the family slept on a mud floor in a one-room thatched cabin on a tiny plot of rented land, and though, like all Catholics in Ireland, they were prevented by British law from voting, holding office, owning land or even attending school, they had all the food, warmth and companionship they needed to feel spirited and gay.
But, as anybody who knows the history of Ireland knows, the potato failed. It is now understood that the blight of the potato in 1845 — which caused the failure of four successive crops, sentenced one out of every six peasants to death by starvation and forced more than a quarter of the Irish population to emigrate — was caused by the invasion of a fungus which can be treated by spraying with a copper compound. But when this microscopic organism made its first appearance on the potato plant, in the fall of 1845, as a whitish fringe, there was no comprehension of the nature of the blight nor any understanding of how to stop its spread. Under ordinary weather conditions, the fungus might have died of its own accord over the cold winter months, but the unusual warmth of January and February and the extraordinary wetness of the spring of 1846 favored the spread of the blight to an extent which had not been recorded before or since. First, the endless weeks of rain allowed the diseased shoots left in the ground from the year before to form millions of new spores, and then the continuously moist earth provided an underground system of canals allowing the destructive spores to swim from plant to plant and field to field, working their way into every leaf and tuber, reducing green and healthy plants to decay, turning entire fields into blackened, stinking masses of decomposing rot.
So completely did the conditions of life and the existence of the people in this least industrialized of all Western nations depend upon the soil, and in particular upon the potato, that the partial failure of one year's crop and the total failure of the next produced a national famine. Helpless before the fate overtaking them, the starving peasants turned to the British government for help, but the relief measures which the British adopted proved indescribably inadequate to the scope of the disaster.
Before the Great Famine, as it came to be called, the Irish had regarded the idea of leaving their country as the most appalling of fates. But now, terrified and desperate in the wake of starvation and fever, they made their way out of Ireland by the tens of thousands. The first major exodus took place during the winter and spring of 1846 and 1847, when hordes of panic-stricken peasants simply fled, borrowing or burrowing their way onto the great "coffin ships," so named because of the great numbers who died on board, their precise destination mattering less than the desire to escape a land they now believed to be cursed. As would be expected, the poorest class of farmers went first; all those who retained even the slightest resources for survival stayed behind in the hope that the next year's crop would see them through. But when the two succeeding crops also failed, hope turned to terror, and by 1848 even the better and more energetic farmers readied themselves to leave.
It was in this second wave of emigration, which lasted roughly from 1848 to 1855 and presumably encompassed the better class of farmers, that the Fitzgeralds came to America. In what order and by what means they came we are not sure, though family tradition suggests that James, the youngest boy, came first, followed by the three girls and their mother, Ellen, who is listed upon her arrival as a widow (evidence that her husband, Michael, had died before they left), and still later by the oldest brother, Thomas, who, legend suggests, clung to the family's land until there was absolutely no hope of survival.
"As I heard it told," second cousin Mary Hannon Heffernan recalled, "James came over as a little boy in 1848 or 1849 with his uncle Edmond Fitzgerald and his first cousin, Mary Ann Fitzgerald, Edmond's daughter. He was only ten or eleven at the time and he got desperately sick on board the ship. Everyone in the family was terrified that if the captain saw how sick the boy was, he would think it was typhus and simply throw him overboard. But there was a wonderful woman on the ship, a Mrs. Williams, who took care of him. Day and night she kept him covered up with a blanket, insisting that it was only a bad cold. Then, near the end of the voyage, they ran into a terrible storm with winds so high that the ship turned itself completely around, and they were sure they were headed back to Ireland until the moment they landed in Boston."
That after a raging storm and six weeks at sea their sense of direction could have deceived them is not at all surprising. But the sensation of turning around suggests the possibility that before the storm the ship was headed somewhere else, perhaps to New York. In other words, had it not been for the high winds blowing them north, the first Fitzgeralds might have ended up in Brooklyn or the Bronx and a different tale would now be told. For, once the first members of the family settled in the North End, all the others came, drawn as by a magnet to the same congested spot.
It is a fragmentary memory, yet powerful in its suggestion of the severe emotional dislocation experienced by millions of immigrants at this time who were forced to separate themselves forever from the whole circle of people and places on which they had depended, sailing across an unknown ocean to an unknown land. What internal terror there must have been for so many people to take such a spectacular risk, and how the terror must have persisted long after their arrival in America! For many of the Irish, the Church was the only salve for their anxiety, but others, the Fitzgeralds among them, found a powerful substitute for loss in the prevailing American ideology, the ideology of opportunity and success.
Family tradition holds that when Thomas Fitzgerald first arrived in Boston, he accompanied his cousin Mary Ann and her new husband, Michael Hannon, to the little farming community of Acton, twenty-five miles west of Boston, where he worked as a farm laborer for three years in the hope of saving up enough money to buy and cultivate his own plot of land.
But his meager wages as a laborer apparently kept him living so close to the margin that he was unable to accumulate the surplus he needed to alter his position, and by 1857 he had moved back to Boston, occupied as a peddler. Although his original intention was to stay in the city only as long as it took to save up the money to travel to the Midwest, he, like so many thousands of his fellow immigrants who harbored similar dreams, was somehow trapped, destined to live the rest of his days separated from the world of nature, fenced off from the realm of birds and beasts and growing things that had once given meaning and structure to his entire being.
What thwarted his escape from the city? That he started out as a peddler seemed at first a fortunate choice, for in the nineteenth century, in the days before retail stores or supermarkets, there was money to be made in peddling, though success usually called for the peddler, his bag of stock upon his back, to move widely and freely about the country, traveling for hundreds of miles to far distant points where his supply of tools, clothes, books and candlesticks was needed and his news from the city eagerly awaited. For those with ingenuity, ambition and an entreprenurial spirit, there were, already, some inspirational examples of thriving enterprises and large fortunes built upon the peddler's trade: by such men as Daniel Drew, Jim Fisk, Collis P. Huntington and Cyrus H. McCormick.
But unlike the classic peddler, fueled with the thirst for adventure, Thomas Fitzgerald never took to the open road; he became, instead, a street peddler with a narrow route of trade circumscribed by the wharves and the docks of the immigrant district. Up each morning before dawn, carrying a large wicker basket under his arm, he would meet the returning fishing boats at Lewis Wharf and spend the morning tramping up and down the crowded cobblestone streets until he had sold all the codfish and haddock his basket could carry. Then, back to the wharf for the afternoon's catch and another strenuous route. It was, in the words of Irving Howe, "backbreaking and soul destroying work."
That Thomas never developed a wider route of travel is not to be wondered at when we consider that his five years in peddling coincided with marriage and the rapid growth of his family. On the fifteenth of November, 1857, only one month after he had obtained his peddling license, he was married to Rosanna Cox, daughter of Irish immigrants Philip and Mary Cox. Rosanna was twenty-three when they married at St. Stephen's Church; Thomas was already thirty-five. But like so many of the Irish, who tended to marry later in life than the native Americans, he soon made up for lost time: in the first five years of his marriage, four sons were born.
Nor should we wonder at the difficulties Thomas faced in trying to save up his meager profits for his distant dream. Though the dollars he earned, measured in terms of potatoes, compared favorably with what he had earned in Ireland, here for the first time he was faced with the necessity of purchasing his own food and clothing and at costs high beyond anything he could possibly have imagined at home.
Yet before six years had passed Thomas had saved up the money he figured he needed to pick up his family, move to the Midwest and purchase a farm. Then, just before he planned to leave, came the christening dinner for John Francis where, according to the story he later told, he received an offer from his younger brother James to stay in the city and go into business with him. The year before, James had purchased a small grocery store at 310 North Street, which he now wanted to expand; if Thomas joined him in the business and contributed his savings, they could add a supply of "bottled goods" to the stock of food already there and operate the store together as grocer and clerk. Though the idea of becoming a clerk in a store failed to correspond to any vision of happiness Thomas had hitherto entertained, he accepted his brother's proposition. From that moment on, the city became his permanent home, the locale in which the life experience of all his children would be played out.
When asked later by his son John why, against his deepest wishes, he had given up his vision of a life in the country and accepted his brother's offer, Thomas listed three reasons: his wife, his relatives and his church. That at the moment of decision he should have been held to the city by these associations is not at all surprising: millions of immigrants were.
All during the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Irish were implored by politicians, by newspapers and by social agencies to leave the cities and go west. Typical of such entreaties is the following passage in an article in the leading Catholic newspaper, The Pilot, in 1864:
If we could sit by the side of every emigrant at home, this is what we would say...America...has room and work and wages for every soul of the starving poor of Europe...The emigrant who comes with a spirit of active industry and enterprise may soon gain an independence for himself and for his children. But it is not by lingering in the crowded haunts of men that he will do this. The cities are overrun, thronged with candidates for labor...But there is a resource which is always open, always inviting, which is never glutted, which always has room for more and that is the land — employment upon the land.
Despite these oft-repeated words of advice and the splendid image of green meadows and open fields, only the exceptional few, estimated at less than ten percent, became farmers, among them Henry Ford's grandfather John Ford, who cleared what was then primeval forest near Dearborn, Michigan, and made a farm; the vast majority remained huddled together in the grassless cities. Possibly if when they first landed they had had enough resources to push their way into the country, this concentration would not have occurred, but the Irish had always been a highly social people, and once they had tasted of the close life in the city, where they could meet their friends and relatives on every corner, they were unwilling to give it up. It is said that the women, especially, were afraid to cut loose from the streets and the stores and all the objects of daily life that had now grown familiar; they had already experienced the harrowing process of leavetaking when they said goodbye to the land of their birth, and one such grief was enough.
Contributing to the immigrants' fear of moving, if the choice actually arose, were the bleak tales told of the isolation of life on the American farm, where, in contrast to Ireland, the ample space was too ample, creating an emptiness that seemed more troubling than the overcrowding of the slum. Then, too, there was the fear of losing their church and finding themselves in a faraway place without a priest close by, a loss the Fitzgeralds no doubt contemplated more carefully than most, having experienced the special aesthetic pleasures of belonging to a church as magnificent as St. Stephen's.
Though the explanations Thomas gave for remaining in the city centered mainly on the fear of leaving the familiar for the unknown, it is reasonable to suppose that he also felt drawn in a positive way to the opportunity of going into business with his brother James. John Fitzgerald later remembered his father saying that he had always felt there was something special in his younger brother's character, that from the very first months when he had watched his brother working in the grocery store, he had sensed in his bones that James possessed an uncanny instinct for business which would lead him someday to achieve considerable success. And Thomas' instincts were right, for eventually James became one of the wealthiest men in the North End.
The story that comes down to us suggests that James, of all the Fitzgerald children, adapted the most readily to the challenge of life in the New World. Whereas his sisters and brothers retained all their lives many characteristics of western Ireland, James, with his ready will and raw intelligence, made himself thoroughly comfortable in the city.
The first job young James found turned out to be that of an assistant in the very grocery store he would eventually own and operate for fifty years. Apparently, the boss was pleased with the way the boy handled himself and he made sure that James acquired a thorough understanding of the store, its goods, its prices and its customers. Shrewd and clever, with a faculty for judging people, James learned to recognize which customers could be given credit and which could not. Always alive to necessity, he educated himself in the arts of weighing, measuring and reckoning, of bargaining, selling and even purchasing, and by the time he was sixteen he had risen to the responsible position of clerk.
In his twentieth year James made the acquaintance of his future wife, Julia Adeline Brophy. Julia, possessed of an educated mind and refined temperament, was the granddaughter of Thomas Cass, a sharp-witted, successful trader who had accumulated a substantial amount of property in the North End. How it came to pass that she, who no doubt had other more suitable prospects, could have chosen a barely educated clerk remains an interesting question of history and most likely a revelatory comment on James's special character.
Through his marriage, James developed a business relationship with his wife's uncle Cornelius Doherty, one of the most successful grocers in the North End, which enabled him, when he was only twenty-four, to get his start as an independent proprietor. Though the exact nature of the business relationship is unclear, it is recorded in the city records that in 1862 James Fitzgerald received a sum of over $1,000 from the merchant Doherty. It is also recorded that in that same year James became "the grocer" at 310 North, and, considering that the average salary of a clerk at that time was two dollars a day, it is reasonable to assume that Doherty's loan provided the cash Fitzgerald needed, beyond his own savings, to purchase the store.
Upon becoming a grocer, James had entered one of the few spheres of business in which immigrants had an advantage over their native competitors. "Where they relied on the patronage of their compatriots, they prospered," Handlin observed. "Food dealers — butchers, fruiterers, and above all, grocers — dealt directly and intimately with immigrant women who preferred to purchase from those who spoke their own language, carried familiar food stuffs and served them as a friend, confidant and advisor."
But the best money in the grocery business came when the grocery doubled as a saloon, ministering to the needs of the women by day and the men by night. Such expansion was the rationale behind the partnership James offered to his brother Tom; for with Tom's savings he could stock his store with supplies of beer, gin, whiskey and wine, while at the same time keeping his barrels filled with the conventional supplies of sugar, flour, potatoes, crackers, tea, soap, candles and kindling wood.
As a combination grocery-groggery, the store at 310 North came to serve as an informal social center for all manner of neighborhood folk, and it was, as well, the locale for some of young John's earliest memories. Shopkeeping in those days was a family business; whenever she could — that is, whenever her state of pregnancy allowed her to be up and around — Rosanna Fitzgerald worked with her husband in the store. All his life John would remember the room in the back where he and his brothers were left to play amid the wooden casks and the barrels filled with flour while their mother handled the customers out front. For some children, the confinement of the small, cluttered room would have been torture, but not for John, who, as he recalled, "loved the sense of being right in the middle of everyone, where everything was happening." Later he could remember his mother telling him that when he was an infant all she ever had to do to keep him from crying was place him on a blanket in full view of the store, where he would sit contentedly for hours totally absorbed in the passing scene.
The traffic would begin soon after dawn, when the neighborhood women streamed in to fill their cans and their jugs with flour and milk for the morning meal. Then, in the afternoons, they were back again for more flour and their daily supply of meat — there being neither money to buy nor room to store articles bought in bulk. For the typical immigrant family, depending as they did upon the credit of the storekeepers, the cost of food was very large — nearly half of their income — while the quality received, in a business noted for its sharp practices, was generally very low.
Yet the combination of meager wages and irregular employment which forced the typical immigrant into a relationship of credit with the storekeeper, and trapped him into buying inferior food in small quantities at high prices, assured a good profit for the grocer, and gradually the store at 310 North began to prosper. With a growing margin of profit behind them, Tom and Rosanna were able to provide their own family with a steady supply of decent food, affording them a measure of control over their daily life which few of their neighbors were able to enjoy. In contrast to the dominant experience of the slum, where food was a constant source of worry and concern, John Fitzgerald long relished the memory of good food and pleasant mealtimes at his home; he spoke of eating fish as well as meat and of having fresh vegetables every day, and he particularly remembered Sunday nights when his mother made flapjacks which he loved to drown in butter and syrup or molasses.
If the store did well by day, it thrived by night as the neighborhood men, home from a long day of hard work, began to drop in for drinks. The saloon at that time was not simply a bar as we know it today. In the twelve-block area of the North End, over 540 different establishments — ranging from groceries like the Fitzgeralds' to billiard parlors and bowling alleys — served liquor; and in none of these places, according to a study by a Committee of 50 in the 1880s, was drinking the sole function. The typical "saloon" in the immigrant quarters, as committee chairman John Koren described it, supplied
many legitimate wants besides the craving for intoxication. [It] is here the workingman's club, in which many of his leisure hours are spent, and in which he finds more of the things that approximate luxury than in his home...In winter [it] is warm, in summer cool, at night it is brightly lighted, and it is almost always clean...it is not enough to say that [the] sense of discomfort pervading the dark tenement house, with its tired, unkempt wife and restless children, leads to its use. No, at bottom, it must be a craving for fellowship underlying the unrest of the workingman's hours that draws him into the saloon.
It has often been said, only partly in jest, that among the Irish there are only two types of drinkers: alcoholics and teetotalers, those who give in completely to liquor's seductive appeal and those who guard themselves completely against it. In this context, it is curious to note that of the nine sons eventually born to Thomas and Rosanna Fitzgerald, three followed their father's path to success by entering into some aspect of the liquor trade at some point in their lives, while three ended up as heavy drinkers and died young. It seemed as if the blessings that accrued to some members of the family as a result of the liquor trade had brought a curse upon the others, as if the profits built upon the backs of stumbling men had exacted a price in the ledger of family accountability. "Whenever anything bad happened in the family," a Fitzgerald relative remembered, "my mother would sigh deeply and then with fear and bitterness in her voice she would say, 'It's the curse of the liquor money, I know it.'"
By the fall of 1866, when Johnny was three and a half years old, his father, Thomas, had accumulated enough money to move his family into larger quarters in a three-story brick building at 435 Hanover Street. By this time, Johnny and his two older brothers, Jimmy, six, and Thomas, five, had been joined by two younger brothers, Michael, two, and William, one, and Rosanna was pregnant with Edward, who would be born the following March. But the move was more than simply a move of necessity compelled by the growing size of the family. For with the assistance of his brother, who had invested in real estate himself the year before, Thomas was able to buy the entire three-story building from Micah Dyer for $6,550, thereby shifting his status from tenant to landlord and solving another major concern of all immigrant families — the disproportionate share of income that had to go for rent.
Though nothing, at first glance, could seem less similar than the experience of owning and operating a tenement in a packed city slum and the situation Thomas had originally hoped to create for himself of owning a farm in the country, the signing of the papers, which marked him for the first time in his life as an owner of property, provided him with a great feeling of accomplishment. Many years later, John Fitzgerald remembered his father saying near the end of his life that "beyond his family, nothing he had done before and nothing he accomplished since meant as much to him as the possession of that small white document that testified to the fact that Thomas Fitzgerald at the age of fortyfour was finally the owner of his own home."
In the long view, the change from tenant to landlord brought a substantial increase in the degree of control Thomas was able to exert over the physical conditions of his family's daily life: windows that were patched up, a workable fire escape, a lighted hallway, stairs that were kept in repair, a clean toilet. "Only people who have never known the absence of these rudimentary amenities," observed Irving Howe, "would be inclined to minimize their values."
In their new quarters, behind a storefront which Thomas would eventually convert into his own grocery store, allowing him to go into business completely on his own, the Fitzgerald family boasted a parlor with two windows and a kitchen heated by a coal stove, and, for the first time in their married life, Tom and Rosanna enjoyed the privacy of their own bedroom, separated by a flight of stairs from a big room in which all the children slept together, with their beds "lined up like a dorm." Though the physical conditions were still a long way from the next generation's vision that in a comfortable home each member of the family should have a separate room, the fact that the children were separated from their parents had a significant impact on their growing up. In most of the tenements at that time, the children slept in the same room if not in the same bed as their parents, a circumstance which inevitably led to their sexual precocity and made it difficult to put them to sleep before the parents themselves were ready for bed. In their new home, however, as John Fitzgerald later recalled, there was a clear distinction between the boys' room upstairs and their parents' room downstairs. Only when his younger brothers were infants did they have to sleep in their parents' room; once they were able to crawl, they were allowed upstairs with the rest of their brothers.
Many years later, John Fitzgerald told a friend that sometimes, when he watched one of his little brothers being carried to bed in his parents' room, he wished he were smaller so that he too could be allowed to sleep there. The wish itself is testimony to the progress the Fitzgeralds had made: only a boy who did not consciously remember the terribly cramped conditions of his earlier house at 30 Ferry Street would have wished away his separate bedroom.
In the course of his long life Fitzgerald spoke only in the most positive terms of the "warm and wonderful house" in which he had grown up; but every now and then, for a political speech on his "rise to success," he liked to use as his starting point a description of "the dingy tenement on Ferry Street," where he was born, "that had no bathroom or electric lights or any other conveniences — not even a humble accordion, let alone a harmonica or piano"; and then, having roused his audience to sympathy and not wanting to break the rhythm of their emotions, he conveniently forgot to mention that the brick home on Hanover Street where he actually grew up represented a marked improvement over the ratty wooden tenement in which he was born.
Another interesting sign of the gradual betterment of conditions at 435 Hanover Street emerges in the body of statistics gathered for the census, the city directories and the reports of the tax assessors which suggest that from 1868 oft, at any one time, at least twelve people, on the, average, occupied the uppermost floor as boarders. As cramped and limiting as life had once been for the Fitzgeralds, so it now was for the families of Cornelius Mahoney, a stevedore; Michael Conlan, a fisherman; Thomas Cochran, a laborer; and Thomas Acorn, a painter. While the Fitzgerald family spread out on two floors, these four families had to live huddled together behind a jumble of thin walls on a single floor.
There is no way of knowing how Thomas treated his renters at 435 Hanover, but stories abound that, once secure in the possession of property, the Irish landlord, "like an apt pupil...merely showing forth the result of the schooling he had received, reenacting in his own way the scheme of the tenements, collected rents with the same avidity as the Yankee owners had from him." And we do know that, with the money he earned from his rentals in just three years, Thomas was able to buy two additional tenements, at 4 Webster Place and 379 Hanover.
With time, as these properties added up, Tom Fitzgerald grew more worldly, learning from the experience of his brother. Though he himself never became in any sense a wealthy man, as his brother eventually did, Thomas was able, through his business, to get a grip on his life and to achieve a mastery of sorts over the struggle for existence. If he accumulated little more through his long years of toil as a peddler on the streets and a clerk in a groggery, this in itself was a substantial achievement, for, with food and shelter guaranteed by the store and the tenement, his children experienced the small pleasures of life — a bed with a mattress, a vacation at the seashore, a bath at the public bathhouse, the chance for an education — that broadened their horizons and transmitted to them a feeling of power at odds with the dominant fatalism so characteristic of the slums.
Copyright © 1987 by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Posted October 16, 2008
No text was provided for this review.