The McLaughlin’s and McKenna’s: Tragedy Across Three Generations

Mary Hogan McLaughlin and daughters Sara & Mary, mid-1870’s.
In researching families, one always hopes to find the explorer, the king, the famous hero. But life does not work that way, and neither does genealogy.
The migration of Irish folk to America in the wake of the Great Famine was a godsend for so many. Yet, all of their problems were not solved by coming to America. In fact, new problems arose and old problems were exacerbated.
Such is the sorrowful and heartbreaking story of the McLaughlin family.
Bernard, known to his friends as Barney, son of James and Bridget McLaughlin, left County Derry, Ireland in the fall of the first year of the Great Famine, arriving in Boston on 1 November 1846.
Barney’s Naturalization Document, listing his arrival on 1 November, 1846, in Boston.
He was living in Smithfield, Rhode Island by 1851, and in 1852, he and his wife, Mary Ellen Hogan McLaughlin, had their first child, James, named for Barney’s father
A year or two later, Barney and Mary moved to Federal Hill, where he got a job at the New England Butt Company, the same company that employed Peter McKenna and many other Irish immigrants.
Barney and Mary went on to have at least six more children, John (born 11 August 1853 in Providence) and probably named after Mary’s father, William H. (born 15 November 1855 in Providence), Mary Jane (born about 1858 in Cranston), Sarah Ann, my great grandmother (born 15 May 1860), Elizabeth (born about 1864 in Rhode Island) and Thomas Francis (born about 1868 in Cranston).
After moving from Federal Hill, the family lived variously in Johnston and Cranston. Because these towns frequently changed their borders, it is possible that they lived in only one place.
Sometime in the mid to late 1860’s, things went terribly wrong for Bernard and Mary, and by about 1872, Bernard and Mary were living apart.

It certainly wasn’t Barney’s hard work and ability to save. In the 1870 U.S. Census, he is listed as owning $3000 in property. That was a considerable amount of money to save at a time when the prevailing wage for an unskilled worker was considerably less than ten dollars a week. One hint of the pressures on the family is contained in those same census records. Their daughter, six-year-old Lizzie, was listed as “foolish.” This must have been very hard on the parents, and especially on Mary. But whatever the problems were, they drove Barney and Mary apart, and contributed to his despondency.

The McLaughlin family in Johnston (1870 U.S. Census)

That same census reported that Barney worked in a cotton mill. Two years later, Barney, while still working in a woolen mill, was living in a boarding house at 75 Oak St., near Federal Hill, away from his family.  He continued living there until shortly before his death. Near the end he went to live with his brother, James. Eight years later, on Saturday, September 4, 1880, Barney, as brother James later reported to the Providence Evening Bulletin, left his work as an employee in the picker room of Taft & Weeden’s textile mill in Olneyville (a Providence neighborhood not far from Federal Hill). Barney acted strangely for the next several days. Then, on the evening of Tuesday, September the ninth, Barney did not return home.

The next morning, an article describing a fatal railroad accident, appeared in the Providence Journal, reporting a death from the night before.

In part it said that “a shocking and fatal accident occurred on the Stonington Railroad…, about 7:20 p.m.” Passing the West Providence depot, the engineer, Nathan Horton, thought the train had hit something and stopped the train. The fireman, in looking under the engine, “discovered that the cross-bar was out of place.”

Locally called the Stonington Railroad

The brakeman, Benton A. Warren, was sent out for a look. As night was coming on, Warren grabbed a lantern and, as he walked in the dusk, began to find body parts. The description of my poor great great grandfather is so gruesome that this writer can not bring himself to write it.

The coroner, Charles H. Thurber, was called to the scene, but in searching the victim’s clothes, found no clue as to who he was. A large crowd had gathered, but none among them could identify the man.
The engineer told officers Wilbur and Lindson that he thought that he had seen two mean, but a thorough search by lanterns found no other body.

In what is perhaps the best description of any of my ancestors, the officers’ described him as “apparently an Irishman, between 35 and 40 years of age (he was, in fact, 51) , dark hair, without any whiskers or moustache, appears not to have shaven for two days, blue eyes, about five feet eight inches tall, would weigh about 140 pounds, was dressed in dark clothes, wore a white shirt, but no collar, and had on when struck by the train a pair of shoes.”

Returning from work that morning, James McLaughlin read of the incident in the paper, and thinking it might be Barney, went to the morgue and identified the corpse as that of his brother.

That same day, in the Providence Evening Bulletin, a second article appeared. In it, the paper reported that James McLaughlin told their reporter that, “the deceased had a family of a wife, four girls and two boys, but on account of some domestic difficulty… has not lived with his family for about eight years, but boarded with a family on Oak Street.”


The New York, Providence and Boston Railroad Commissioner’s Report confirmed that the accident had been a suicide. According to the Railroad Commissioner’s Report, as the train approached, coming around a bend near Benedict Pond, Providence, Bernard lay down on the track. There was no time for the train to stop.

The Railroad Commissioner’s Report
Yet, that was not the end of tragedies for the family. Apparently, Barney left an estate of $960.37. And it seems that some members of his family, including brother William, and possibly his divorced wife, Mary, tried to hide that money from Bernard’s children.
On 14 September 1880, the children hired Herbert B. Wood of Johnston, Rhode Island, to administer the estate.
Two months later, when she had failed to appear in court per a court summons, Mary Ellen McLaughlin was commanded by the court to appear to answer charges that she “concealed, embezzled and conveyed away certain personal estate left by said Bernard McLaughlin.”
It took nearly two years, but on 15 August 1880, six of the children were awarded $94.45 each as their part of the inheritance. Wife Mary was not part of the settlement.  It is a curious thing that Bernard, an illiterate and unskilled laborer, had amassed such a large some of money. For a person whose life was literally a train wreck, he was a responsible and hardworking man.
What happened to Mary Hogan McLaughlin, wife of Bernard, is unclear. But on 31 December 1887, one Mary McLaughlin, aged 65, died at the State Insane Asylum, commonly called Howard. This Mary McLaughlin was born in Ireland about 1822 and may have been listed as a widow (the document is difficult to read). It would not be surprising if it turns out that this is our Mary. Her life was that tragic.
The next tragedy in the McLaughlin family is that which befell Bernard’s daughter, Sarah Ann.
Sarah and Patrick Aloysius McKenna married in 1880, and together they raised nine children. But about the year 1919 or 1920, their daughter Agnes (born 1900) was denied her request to marry one Frank DeMaio, an Italian immigrant who had a gas station on Federal Hill, not far from where the McKenna family lived.  Patrick put his foot down. Agnes was not to marry the Italian boy.
Patrick and children in the late 1920’s
This led to Agnes becoming a nun, and it may also have resulted in Sarah being committed to the same insane asylum as Mary. Her death certificate indicates that she had had “manic oppressive insanity” for eight years prior to her death in 1928. According to cousin Madeleine Crowley, the reason Agnes left Rhode Island for Iowa was that she couldn’t abide what her family had done to her mother in having her committed.
Life was harsh for those immigrants and their children who fled the poverty and disease of rural Europe for the noisy, filthy, disease-ridden cities of America. The exact causes of the disasters that befell the McLaughlin and McKenna families will never be known. But it is a reminder that we must all show our sympathy for those fellow human beings who are in hardened circumstances.
Barney worked under nerve-destroying circumstances. I still remember my experience back in the 1970’s, visiting the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. Even with ear plugs supplied by the museum, the sound of the nineteenth century textile machinery was deafening. The work was dangerous. Workers lost fingers and limbs when getting to close to the machines. And workdays that could last over twelve hours made for a miserable existence.
As for Mary, she divorced Bernard at a time when it just wasn’t done, and especially with Catholic women. The violence that must have led to that move is imaginable and not pretty. The ostracism from her community had to be powerful. And then there was the difficulty of raising six children on her own.
Her daughter, Sarah, married a man who is remembered as a fine man. But Patrick McKenna, who had gone to work in the mills at age nine to support his mother and siblings, had little money to take care of his family properly. That and custom and religion made Patrick a strict disciplinarian. To his last day, he lived with some of his children because he couldn’t afford to live alone.
However, all was not dark for the McLaughlin family. Perhaps taking advantage of the inheritance to start businesses, family members purchased the McMurrough & Todd Funeral Home at 1754 Broad Street in Cranston. They also owned considerable farmland and an ice house where a large park is today.

Cousin Madeleine Crowley, who lived with Patrick McKenna as a young girl, talked of “Uncle Will” McLaughlin, who used to come to their house with a big bag. That would have been in the late twenties or early thirties when the depression hit the family very hard. He would give them money. This must have been Sarah’s older brother, William.Finally, the last tragedy to befall the McLaughlin family. Here is a picture of Barney and Mary’s grandchildren. Peter F. McKenna (named for his grandfather), was crippled as a boy and lived with a deformed body. My grandfather Bill, was crippled as a result of a stroke at age 32 and never able to work again. Agnes carried a secret wound. Again, according to Madeleine, on Agnes’ occasional trips back to Providence, she would always have someone drive her past Frank Demaio’s house. And in 1959, when Bill died, Agnes came to our house in Warwick. There, forty years after being spurned in her desire to marry him, she was reunited with Frank Demaio. As they sat and talked, it was clear to Dad that there was a strong affection that they felt for each other. After all the years, they were still in love.Today is a different age, thank goodness. Mental illness is much better understood. Divorce, while often tragic, is something that is a human right. People of different nationalities and ethnicities marry freely. And progressively, men can marry men, and women, women. Would that things had been different for the McLaughlins and the McKennas.

Siblings Peter Francis, Agnes and Bill McKenna
Ray McKenna
3 August 2012

One Comment

  1. Great read. I can relate to the story about Agnes McKenna and Frank DeMaio. My Grandparents, both from Federal Hill, had a similar experience around that time. Edward Fitzpatrick and Mary Alienello met while getting their high school equivalency diplomas. at night. They got married and my Grandfather’s family shunned him for marrying an Italian girl.

    February 5, 2017

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