Thursday, May 5, 2016


Although Boston now has one of the largest Irish populations in North America, it was originally settled in 1630 by a group of Puritans from England.  As a progressive city, Boston established the first public school in 1635, abolished slavery in 1783, and opened the first public library in 1849; yet, descendants of the original settlers carried with them ingrained biases against anyone who differed in their beliefs and values, including the Irish, well into the 19th and even 20th century.  They didn’t want them in their midst.  The earliest Irish immigrants came to Boston in the 1700s as indentured servants, merchants, sailors or tradesmen.  The numbers were relatively small.  Most were skilled workers and, to some extent, assimilated into the community.1  

When news of the Irish famine in the 1840s reached Boston, the community was very generous in responding to the needs of those afflicted.  The city raised $150,000 in relief money.  Catholics in the city raised $20,000 in one day.  They also collected 800 tons of food and clothing which was shipped to Ireland to aide famine victims.2  However, Bostonians exhibited a different attitude when news reached them of the mass exodus of Irish to large cities in North America.  Montreal and Quebec had fever epidemics carried in by many of the Irish immigrants.   The fear of fever and financial drain on the city to provide for so many impoverished people was understandable.   While they were willing to provide aid to them in Ireland, Bostonians did not want Irish on their own soil.3  In 1847, with very large numbers of destitute people arriving in Boston, a receiving station was set up on Long Wharf in Boston harbor to isolate anyone exhibiting signs of fever.  Those people were sent to a quarantine hospital on Deer Island.4   Ships captains had to pay “head money” for each passenger to ensure they would not become dependent on the city.5   Truly, the Irish immigrant in Boston, “was an unwelcome visitor . . .”6

"Irish" areas of Boston in 1840s and 1850s
(click to enlarge)
The Irish settled primarily into two very impoverished sections of the city, the North End and Fort Hill.  These areas are highlighted on the map to the left.7  Many immigrants were taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords who sub-divided former family homes and warehouses into wretched tenements with entire families living in a single nine-by-eleven foot room with no facilities – water, sanitation, ventilation or daylight.  As many as a hundred people could be housed in such places.  Makeshift shanties and shacks were built on the grounds and gardens of former homes covering backyards and alley ways leaving barely a vacant spot.  In the Fort Hill area in particular, many structures were built into the hill further blocking out daylight and ventilation.  Some of the buildings had businesses in part of the ground level space consisting of shops selling food and spirits.   And for all this, they were privileged to pay $1.50 a week; $2.00 if it was a cellar since they were warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.  Housing beyond the city center was generally not available to the Irish because of the steep tolls required to cross bridges into other parts of the city, forcing the Irish to stay within the vicinity of employment opportunities.8

Most famine immigrants were unskilled laborers, and as such, had very limited sources of employment settling for whatever work they could obtain on any given day.  Although they could earn up to a dollar a day9 for fifteen-hours of hard labor, because of the sporadic jobs available, they were hard-pressed to earn enough to maintain a family.  Men and boys would have wandered the streets and wharves looking for the arrival of ships where they could find work unloading cargo, or perhaps a shop or mill that needed some assistance.10  There was stiff competition for jobs that were available with other Bostonians resulting in “No Irish Need Apply” signs being posted across the city.   Everyone had to contribute to the support of the family and Irish single girls, if they were clean, may have had an easier time finding employment as maids in hotels or single households.

Cholera hit Boston in 1849.  The first death was reported on June 3, 1849 and quickly spread, not surprisingly, through the Irish communities.   Although it was estimated that over seven hundred people were taken ill, the actual number of cases is not known.  Since deaths were required to be reported before “any permit for burial is granted” an accurate number of deaths, over six hundred from cholera, were recorded.   Of those deaths, 560 were adults from Ireland, and 49 deaths were children of Irish parents.  The last death recorded from the epidemic was on the 30th of September.11  

View of Half-moon Place show "Jacobs's
Ladder" to Humphrey Place
A report on the cholera epidemic was produced on December 30, 1849.12  While a single cause of the disease was not given, the report states that the unhealthy and crowded conditions of certain neighborhoods contributed greatly to the spread of the disease.  The report mentioned streets occupied by the Irish population as being extremely “wretched” and “dirty,” with the worst being Half-moon Place.  The report stated that “about two hundred cases occurred within a circle, having a radius of a few rods only, whose centre was in Broad Street, near Burgess’ alley.  The population of this district is enormous.” 13    The health report also gave the number of deaths by residence: 65 on Broad Street; 21 on Hamilton Street; and seven deaths at one home at 4 Humphrey Place.14  

The Health Department responded by attempting to clean the areas.  Notice was given to each residence requesting them to “thoroughly cleanse their houses, yards, privies, and drains, and deposit all decayed vegetable and animal matter, and other deleterious substances in the streets opposite their dwellings on certain specified days.”15  Each street was cleaned twice a week.  Squads of police then inspected the area to ensure compliance with the regulations.   That was the environment our Brown family found when they arrived in Boston in January, 1949.   

Death Register - (click to enlarge)
Cholera did strike the Brown family.  Little Ellen, whom we just discovered, was taken on September 16,  1849 from a “diseased bowel” which is

attributable to cholera.16  There are three records that give
Vital Records (click to enlarge)
information of Ellen’s death and confirm her as part of the Brown family.  
The first is the Massachusetts Death Record which names Ellen, age 12, and her father, Timothy, as being born in Ireland.17  The second comes from the Massachusetts Town and Vital Records and gives additional information that she resided on Humphrey Place.18  The
City Directory (click to enlarge)
third piece of information was found in the 1849 Boston City Directory.  This record shows “Mrs. Hannah Brown” residing at 4 Humphrey Place.19   Humphrey Place in is the Fort Hill area of Boston.  Additionally, Ellen was numerated in the 1850 U.S. Census Mortality Schedule.   

Below are two maps showing more detail of the area where the Brown family lived. The first map is a Sanborn Fire map from 1867.20  Although this is sometime after the Brown family left Boston, the footprint of the buildings match a map from 1852, around the time of their residence.  I have chosen to use the Sanborn map because it gives more detail.  The purple arrow is pointing to the house at 4 Humphrey Place.  Zoom in on the map to see the house numbers given in front of the buildings.    The yellow buildings behind Humphrey Place are frame structures, probably those thrown up to house additional refugees.   An “S” within a structure indicates there was a “store” in the lower level.  Large circles at street intersections show where hydrants were located.
1867 Sanborn Fire Map-Detail of Fort Hill area
(click to enlarge)

Boston Old and New-Detail of Fort Hill area
(click to enlarge)
The second map shows an 1880 street map of Boston superimposed over a  map of the Shawmut Peninsula.21  I have chosen to include this map because it does show, topographically, the area around the Brown residence.   Again, look at the purple arrow pointing to Wendell Street (Humphrey Place was renamed Wendell Street22) and notice the slope of the ground where they lived.  Their building would have backed into Fort Hill.  The blue line was the original water line; green would have indicated low lying or swampy areas.

I do not know if the Browns lived on Humphrey Place the entire time they were in Boston; I only know they were living there at the time of Ellen’s death.  Since this population was very transient, they may have lived somewhere else, or many other places, during their stay.  Like many other Irish families, they certainly must have questioned the wisdom of leaving Ireland.  For some, incredible as it seems, it would have been an improvement.  For others, it was worse and those are probably the ones who left the coastal towns for other opportunities. 

And so, it was with our Brown family.  I don’t know if the entire family moved as one unit, or, if one or both older boys went ahead, but our Brown family next traveled to Vermont, and, that will be our next stop on this journey.

1.     History of Boston, Wikipedia, online at

History of Irish Americans in Boston, Wikipedia, online at
2.    Mass Moments, Bostonians Respond to Irish Famine, available online at:    

3.     Lord, Robert Howard, History of the archdiocese of Boston in the various stages of its development, 1604 to 1943, Boston, Pilot Pub. Co., 1945, p450, available online at:;view=1up;seq=450 

4.     Stevens, Peter F., For many famine Irish, Deer Island proved their only glimpse of America, Boston Irish Reporter, 1 Mar 2013, available online at

5.     The last entry on the passenger list of the John Murray filed with the Massachusetts Archives states that, “head money was paid for 142 – 3 more bonded.”

6.     Lord, op.cit.

7.     Wikimedia Commons, A New & Complete map of the City of Boston, Nath’l  Dearborn, 104 Washington St., Boston, 1850, available online at:

8.     Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger, Harper & Row Publishers, New York and Evanston, 1962, p.246-252

Lord, op.cit.  p.453

The History Place, Irish Potato Famine, Gone to America, available online at: 

Handlin, Oscar, Boston’s immigrants, 1790-1880: a study in acculturation, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991, p.109

9.    The History Place op.cit.

10.   Handlin, op.cit., p.60

Table XIII shows a “Distribution of Occupations by Nativity, Boston, 1850.”  Domestic servants and laborers are by far the largest occupations for the Irish immigrant.  Of the 3,249 domestic servants in Boston, 2,292 were Irish.  Likewise, Irish laborers made of 7,007 of the 8,552 laborers in the city.  The next most common occupation for the Irish was that of a tailor.  There were 1,045 Irish tailors out of the 1,547 in the city. Of the 43,567 employed in the city, 14,595 were Irish.  The three occupations described above made up 10,344.

11.   Internal Health Department, Report of the Cholera in Boston in 1849 Presented to the Health Commissioners of the City of Boston,  J. H. Eastburn, City Printer, Boston, 1850 pp. 9, 179-180

12.   Ibid.

13.   Ibid. p.14, p167-169.  Half-moon Place is situated in the rear of Broad street, and is formed by a kind of excavation into the side of Fort Hill . . .”   The only entrances to the block were from Broad Street, an archway from Burgess’ alley, and a “battered staircase, ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ which led to the comparative heaven of Humphrey Place” about 50 feet above.  Image of Half-moon Place is from the Report of the Cholera in Boston.

14.   Ibid, p.  176-179

15.   Ibid. p.5-6

16.   I was discussing the discovery of Ellen’s baptism with Marion.  She did some quick searches and located the death record for Ellen on Ancestry.  This discovery put the family firmly in Boston at this time.

17., Massachusetts Death Records. 1841-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc. 2013

18., Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 [database on-line].  Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc. 2011

19., The Boston Directory: The City Records General Directory of the Citizens, July 1849 to July 1850, [database on-line], Fold3 by Ancestry.  No entry was found for Hannah in 1848 or 1850.  No entry was found for Timothy in 1848 – 1850.

20.   Sanborn Fire Map, 1867 Boston, section 18, available online at:

21.   Historic maps of Boston, New England, and the world, Boston Old and New. From the Norman B Leventhal Map Collection, available online at:

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library – The map was created ‘by superimposing the outline of the original Shawmut Peninsula onto an 1880 map of Boston.”

22.   A Record of the Streets, Alleys, Places, Etc. in the City of Boston, City of Boston Printing Department, 1910.  Humphrey Place was laid out in 1825 and ran from Hamilton Street east.  It was later extended to Broad Street and included part of Half-moon place.  The name was changed to Wendell Street in 1870.  



  1. Mary Ann, I am enjoying the blog do very much. Not knowing much about doing research myself, I wonder how you go about finding all the references you use to document your story. Well done!

  2. The information concerning the death records was found by Marion. As far as the other information, I do have some of the books cited in my personal library. However, most of the information came from doing Google searches using a variety of search terms. I think the best find for this post was the report on the cholera epidemic. I believe everything I used is cited somewhere in the footnotes

    1. Yes it is. I need to do some experimenting. I just do not have the expertise at present to do intelligent google searches or find information like you have been able to find. But seeing what you have done is helping me learn.Now the key for me is to practice.