52 Ancestors in 53 Weeks

52 Ancestors in 53 Weeks
Amy Johnson Crow, on her blog No Story Too Small, has challenged fellow bloggers to post 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. Click on the image to navigate to the blog site.

Monday, February 3, 2014

52 Ancestors #5 – Recent Immigrant Catherine Higgins (Kate) What’s the Truth?

Research doesn't always yield what you think you might find--and that is one of its pleasures. Family lore: love it, hate it, or somewhere in the middle? I usually like it, it helps me to connect the “whys” and find a trail gone cold. However, when it comes to my father’s grandmother, I lean towards hating it. I’m not saying she lied—but you know what the Irish say about a good story…
She was from County Sligo Ireland, her name was Catherine Higgins AKA“Kate” (her daughter-in-law was also Catherine).

The doctor who delivered my grandfather put down her name as “Bridget” (as Irish ladies were often called in America at that time, a generic first name). Lore has it her husband was a driver who was killed in an accident when my grandfather was very young. Documentation contradicts this. Her naturalization petition has proved to be most consistent with the truth (more later). She had to get her neighbors to swear that she was telling the truth—and by then she’d been in America for decades.

She was born in County Sligo, when it was still pretty rural and spoke Gaelic, she had several (seven, if memory serves) brothers. She outlived them all, and inherited the family farm. She didn’t deem it worthy to give up what little she had in America to return to the auldcountry.

She was dark-haired and had brown hair. In March 1934 when she was a middle-aged widow, she was 5’6” and 200 pounds. According to my father who ate at her house after school now and then, not a particularly good cook (but which never stopped his brother Joe).

Both records and family lore tell us that she was born on December 28, 1882  and immigrated around 1900-01 (abt 18 years old) to NYC–she says March 1, 1900.  She worked as a cleaner and as a house servant for some well-known actors including the Barrymores.

I don’t believe she was ever married to my great grandfather as there is contradictory information. I think Kate arrived unmarried and it's my guess is that the father of my grandfather was someone she knew.  She lived like any immigrant of the time—in close quarters on what she could earn as an unskilled laborer. Ethnic groups mingled with each other mostly—even if they were joined by a like religion (as Irish and Italians were). Kate described was dark-haired, while her son Jack (Victor) was red-haired and freckled all over. 

Kate had Jack in the Maternity Hospital of New York Mothers' Home of the Sisters of Misericorde which was at 531 East 86th Street, New York, NY—a charitable hospital for unwed mothers. You could say she was a widow, that’s why she had her baby there—but her son’s birth certificate says UNKNOWN where the father’s name would be. That is telling-and other support is in a 1927 document. Victor (AKA Jack)'s birth certificate:

1905 Birth Certificate of Victor Higgins to Bridget Higgins
Why she named him doesn't matter--he only ever called himself Jack and so did everyone else. So, he was born in 1905. Now back to Kate:
The census of 1910 puts her in Ward 9, Manhattan, NY at 28 years old, with a child not quite 5 years old and no husband. She had to work and to care for her son, she had no close relatives.
I have to supplement this with information from Jack’s life: the 1915 census has Jack at age 9 ½  living as a boarder quite possibly because Kate worked and she could bunk where she worked—but couldn’t keep him with her. Being a boarder doesn’t mean he had his own room, possibly a bed (or shared bed). It may sound irresponsible, but she likely had an arrangement with friends she could trust—and the arrangement worked out for both parties.

How long he was boarding I can’t say. Less than 3 years later, when she was 35 ½, Kate married Patrick Devaney in Feb 1918 and all three of them had a proper place to live.

Two years later (the 1920 census) has them living at 305 West 147 St, NY, NY: Patrick (& Catherine, now 38 years old) Devaney’s stepson Jack is listed as living there with them as well as sons Joseph and Tom. (Slightly confusing because Jack also has a parallel life at 84 West 147th St, NY —but that’s the cenus!).
Devaneys as adults-my father John Higgins-between them. Taken in Sullivan County many years later.
Husband Patrick was naturalized two years after this in 1922 (He was Irish, too, surprise!). Four years later when he was 42 years old he died -- it was 1926. She had been married for 8 years and she's back to being alone with children to care for. By then, Jack was living on his own but Joe and Tom were still young.

Kate was not in the best of health, being diabetic (a common ailment in the Higgins family). As an immigrant she was still not entitled to state support, and what means she lived on, I’m not sure. Having determined to remain in America, she made an Application for Naturalization in 1927 (she was 44).

However, the process was slowed down for some reason. It was 6 years later in 1933, that her petition is properly put up. The most detailed information comes from the application for this. In her petition for naturalization Catherine identifies her son Victor (Jack, my grandfather) as illegitimate.

Kate's Petition for Naturalization in 1933, granted in 1934.
At the time she applied she lived at 1887 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY. My grandfather married in this time btween 1927-1928 (?) and their first child dies soon after she’s born. But my father is born in 1929, he and his parents live on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, as well. Quite possibly with all together?
The final time Kate appears in a census in New York City is 1930 when she was 48.

By the April 1940 census (at 57), she is now a US citizen living in Neversink in Sullivan County, New York.
During the 1930’s my grandfather Jack (Victor) was working for the NYS Dept. of Corrections (prison). When they built a prison in Sullivan County, he worked there. He persuaded his mother along with his half-brothers, Joseph and Tom Devaney (Patrick was dead) to move “upstate.”

For a short time they all—the Higgins family and Devaneys lived in one house till the Devaneys found a place to live. Kate eventually was able to draw a small sum of state support.

She attended St Peters Roman Catholic Church 1950-1960 in Liberty, NY (records say). She died in December 10, 1960 in Liberty, NY in Sullivan County at 77 years old.

Kate was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Liberty, NY. My memories are few and far between—I was young, we had to go see her. When I did see her it was in Woodbourne, NY  (though I may have a vague recollection of a stop-in in Liberty on the hill). I can recall her Irish brogue—and that she seemed to be a big woman.

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