Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Moses McCarty Flanagan

Moses McCarty Flanagan

I first knew Moses by his name -- that seemed to be his most distinguishing feature: Moses McCarty Flanagan, my great-grandfather. In a family full of Toms and Bills and Pats, "Moses" stood out. [1]

But as I gathered more information about Moses, I found he was star-crossed. Like the biblical Moses, this Irish Moses led his family to St. Louis but failed to see the promised land.

Some time ago I wrote a piece on my grandmother Kitty. She suffered so many tragedies in life and yet she always bounced back, always managed to counter sorrow with song. When I was writing her story, I wanted it to say something universal about the Irish character. I wanted it to say that the Irish could be melancholy, but that good humor and good friends would always transform that sadness.

But then my gaze would shift to her father -- and a darker story would overshadow my bright tale of optimism and resilience..

Moses McCarty FlanaganLittle is known about his boyhood. My grandmother's birth certificate states he was born in Limerick in the early 1860s. The oral history: He was the youngest of five sons. At some point he moved to Dublin, where he attended school (a matter of pride) and where his mother worked as a sea cook on the Irish Sea. His brother John emigrated to Australia. Like Moses, his brothers Jeremiah "Jerry," Timothy, and Dennis emigrated to Chicago.[2]

Around 1877 or earlier, Moses emigrated to the U.S. We only know this because he became a naturalized U.S. citizen on 6 Nov 1882 -- a process that required at least 5 years of residence.

He joined the Chicago immigrant community and married Maggie Keville on 6 Jan 1888, at Holy Angels Church. In a flourishing hand, he wrote poetry to Maggie in her autograph book.

Their first two daughters Nellie (1889) and Catherine Margaret "Kitty" (1890) were born in Chicago before the family moved to Edwardsville, Illinois, In Edwardsville, they had three sons Thomas J. (1893), Joseph Timothy (1895), and Moses Rafael "Modie" (1896).

Finally, they moved to St. Louis, where Maggie and Moses had two more daughters, Mary Ethel (1898) and Loretta Julia "Baby" (1901). My grandmother remembered these as the golden years of her childhood, when the family prospered and when she and her sister Nellie were able to take voice lessons and piano lessons. (Details on the children can be found here.)

Then, in 1903, with children ranging from 2 to 14 years old, Maggie died. She was 38 and the diagnosis was uterine cancer. The family was devastated.

Moses was left alone to care for seven children. The story goes that he had two Chicago-based sisters-in-law willing pitch in. His widowed sister-in-law Delia Keville Walsh moved in with her own two daughters, but that didn't last long. Then family lore says he married Bridget Mehen Flanagan, the wife of his brother Jerry, who also died in 1903. She is the likely step-mother that Kitty Mom remembered beating her sister Ethel on the head with a frying pan. (More on these women here.) Little Ethel suffered seizures after these beatings.

Still, Moses was successful enough to own a home in a north St. Louis neighborhood far from the infamous Kerry Patch ghetto of Irish immigrant. Shortly after he bought new furniture and carpets, and a piano for his daughters, the house burned down. It was January 25, 1908. The speed of the conflagration suggests an incendiary origin. Famously, 19-year-old Nellie saved Ethel's life, then commandeered her brothers to help her push her beloved piano out onto the porch and got her photo in the newspaper for her effort [more on the fire here]. Also saved was a precious family autograph book [details about it are here].

Sadly, by the time we catch up with them in the 1910 census, both Ethel and Baby had been institutionalized at Guardian Angel Industrial School. By 1919, Julia was dead. Ethel was transferred to the City Sanitarium, where she lived out her life as a psychiatric patient. (More on these girls here.)

By 1913, Moses had watched his two older daughters take starkly different paths. Kitty left home as soon as she could, living in boarding houses and with her Uncle Pat and Aunt Delia Keville. By 1910, she was a Bell Telephone switchboard operator. In 1912, she married the ambitious grocery entrepreneur Thomas Barrett. Nellie married a bookeeper Harry Kralemann in 1913, then stunned her family by dying of an induced abortion, only weeks after her wedding. (More on Nellie's tragedy here.)

Moses' sons also fared poorly. Tommy became an alcoholic, who ultimately died in a state of delirium tremens at age 33. Somehow, according to his WWI draft registration, Joe lost a couple fingers as a youth. He wound up dying of pneumonia before age 30. The youngest brother Modie went down in flames the same year his baby sister died. He had become a gangster and was murdered in a hail of gunfire on the streets of Chicago in 1919. (Modie's story)

Moses Flanagan & Patrick Keville

Moses did try to keep his own life afloat. In 1911, on Valentine's Day, he married May Gaines. We don't know much about this except that it "didn't work out."

Known to my mother as a cabinet-maker, Moses worked in various aspects of the carpentry business -- for much his career at a planing mill. He worked as a clerk, foreman, draftsman, estimator, superintendent, and salesman. By 1919, he had opened his own business as a carpenter and builder.

On April 16, 1919 -- 2 weeks after Catherine gave birth to twins -- he wrote this rambling letter to her on his new letterhead:

My Dear Daughter -- Mrs. Tom Barrett, I was most pleased to receive your letter 4/14 ultimo this month and am most exceeding glad to learn by it that you became the mother of twin sons. And I presume that both of you are extremely overjoyed, and I hope that the Father & Mother of the twin sons and also the twin sons, that is best wish from me to Tom Barrett, his wife and hope it will come to pass.

Again my Dear Mrs. Barrett, I was not sick at all, only in this way. I had a man working for me and while I laid out all the work for him and showed him how to erect it, when I returned after one (1) day and a half, I found that he had all the work spoiled and I remained up three (3) consecutive days which losing so much sleep until 2 o'clock in the morning for several days made me act queerly and sleepy even in cars and traveled too much too far on account of losing so much sleep. I again wish you and your husband, and your babies good luck happiness from Your Father M.M. Flanagan

I am no longer living at 3931 St. Ferdinand. If you want to write again, address as per card & letterhead.

This was his last letter to her and she carefully saved it. In fact, he only lived a few blocks away. It makes me think they didn't see each other often -- perhaps a strain in their relationship or just busy. He evidently didn't show up somewhere he was expected and she inquired whether he was sick. If he gave up his apartment to live in his shop, perhaps things weren't going well for him.

And things did go downhill from there. A month later, In May, his son Modie was shot down. In September, Loretta died of pneumonia. The 1920 census reports that as of February 6 Moses was residing in St. Vincent's Institution for the mentally ill, where he died (at age 51) on May 6 of "general paralysis of the insane," an infectious central nervous system syndrome.

His bright candle had flickered out.

It's hard for me to pull a "universal" out of this tragic tale. I can't pull out any insights about "the Irish," or about "the immigrant experience," or about "poverty." What I see is vulnerability and ignorance, the thin line between thriving and crashing. Better medical care, antibiotics, and a few social services might have saved the bunch of them. And of course, the psychological devastation to a family when a mother dies. Nothing more magical than that.


[1] MAODHÓGgenitive — id. (the same), Mogue, (Aidan, Moses); a variant of Aodhán. The initial M represents the possessive pronoun Mo, my, prefixed as a term of endearment to the names of saints, while -óg is merely another diminutive termination. Latin — Maidocus.

[2] Brothers [oral history, KBPrice]:

Details from documents found

Here is a family Timeline

1890 Chicago Voter Registration. 4446 Cottage Grove Av. Residence in precinct - 8 mo; county - 6 yr; state - 6 yr. (Did he live somewhere else between immigration and residence in Illinois?)

1900 Census. 4267 Kossuth Av, St. Louis MO. (Rented) Listed with wife and 6 children. Occupation: Planing Mill Clerk. **Lists arrival date in U.S. at 1875, which would have made him only 7.

1901 - 1902 City Directory
4267 Kossuth
Occupation: Foreman

1903 - 1909 City Directory (no listing in 1906)
4221a Farlin Av
Occupation: Foreman

1910 City Directory
6227 Newstead Occupation: draftsman, 6200 Minerva

1910 Census. 4245 Lexington Av, St. Louis MO. Listed with 2 teenage boys Moses and Joseph. Occupation: Estimator for a Planing Mill. Was at this address as of 3 Apr, when he placed his two youngest daughters in Guardian Angel Industrial Schoo. **Lists U.S. arrival date as 1876.

City Directory

4245 Lexington Av
Occupation: Superintendent

Marriage License
14 Feb 1911 Married May Gaines (42 yo)

1912 City Directory
No entry

1913 - 1916 City Directory
4241 Evans Av
Occupation: Salesman

1917 [No City Directory available]

1918 City Directory
3931 St. Ferdinand Av
Occupation: Clerk

1919 City Directory
3931 St. Ferdinand Av
Occupation: Carpentry Contractor, 3837 Easton Av (own business)

1920 Census
listed as a patient in St. Vincent's Institution for the mentally ill [St Charles Rd, St Louis County]


Books by Susan Barrett Price:

THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) Thailand: lovers of ancient treasure tangle with international black markets. Delia Rivera pulls Martin Moon back into the game and their quest turns deadly. In paperback and Kindle editions.

TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) Time after time, Mary asks herself: Do I go or do I stay? She finds her power in her ancestors: Smart women turn discontent into action. An illustrated memoir in paperback and Kindle editions.

PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008) The twin forces of revenge and redemption drive Nellie MacKenzie and Taylor Jackson on a crazed adventure into the heart of Central Asia. They grapple with issues of ethics, trust, rage, and bitter heartbreak -- as well as the intrigue of the international antiquities trade. In paperback and Kindle editions.



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