Those Nosy News Reporters

I love them! Were it not for a nosy news reporter, I would know far less about my maternal 3rd-Great-Grandmother than I do.

Luckily for me, she knew Abraham Lincoln.

Were it not for that tiny fact, Malden Jones, the reporter, would likely not have been interested in Honora Roach O’Neil (O’Neill) [1], age 96, at all.

There was, we had been told, a venerable creature living somewhere south of the city–a woman who might have known Lincoln or his family or his friends. The pursuit of Lincolnia [sic] has always been a matter of great concern to members of the middle western press.

It was in this state that we plodded posthaste during the middle part of the past week in the general direction of Iles Junction…

Malden Jones, Daily Illinois State Journal, page 10, 02 February 1930 [2]

I owe a lot to Malden Jones because this one article, nearly 3-columns long, is chock-full of tidbits about Honor that are just not common to find in the genealogy world. Things like:

  • Where she lived: Not just the the place, Iles Junction, south-southwest of the city [Springfield, Illinois], but that it was a “two room cottage about fifty paces west of the junction rails… a modest dwelling… built in 1872.”
  • Who she lived with: her son Peter (66) who “appear[ed] strong and accustomed to hard labor… tall and burly…sharp features…”
  • What she was like: Jones describes Honor as “a character of quaint charm, possessed of a strong, firm voice and given much to rippling sallies of Irish wit and laughter… a drawn face, thin but determined hands and a frail body.”
  • Her life in Ireland: She was born in the Parish Collenburn [3], County Galway, Ireland; she has a vague memory of the 1828 hurricane [4] that hit Ireland’s coast; she left in 1852, following the potato famine, with her brother John.
  • Her trip to America: She and John traveled on the 3-masted ship Equator, a trip that took 3 months and included a three-week period after a storm had broken all three of the masts in which they waited while carpenters repaired the structures so they could get underway. [5]
  • How she came to live in Illinois: Honor and her brother took a steamship from New Orleans to Alton, Illinois where a cousin worked on the construction gang building the new Chicago & Alton Railroad line. Both her and John took jobs associated with that construction–she as cook and he as laborer.
  • How she met her husband: Honor met her husband, Owen O’Neil [6]–a railroad worker–while she and her brother worked on the Chicago & Alton line. They were married in 1854 and they lived in Woodside, a township in Sangamon County, now part of southwestern Springfield.
  • Her relationship with Abe Lincoln: After she was widowed, Honor started hiring out her services as a housekeeper. Among those she worked for: Dr. & Mrs. Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s in-laws, as well as several other prominent citizens of the day. [7]

Perhaps my favorite part of the article is the quote attributed to my 3rd-great-grandmother [8] when the reporter said they wanted to take her picture.

“Of what interest is my picture,” she chuckled. “All of my sweethearts are dead.” [9]

Sources & Notes

  1. There is a lot of back and forth on the spelling of O’Neil. Early records have it with two Ls. Honora’s sons, John and Peter, actually started spelling it with one L. (source: Find-a-Grave memorial)
  2. The entire newspaper article text (or, to be more accurate, most of the text; it differs slightly from the hardcopy article that I have) can be read here.
  3. I’ve been unable to find any evidence in County Galway of the Parish Collenburn that Jones references in his article. I’m wondering if perhaps he meant Parish Clonbern? Depending on how thick the brogue [10], those two words might have sounded similar?
  4. That 1828 hurricane is proving to be pretty elusive. There’s this record of a hurricane in 1839. Honora was old (96) at the telling of her story to Jones; perhaps she misremembered the year?
  5. Unfortunately, all the New Orleans passenger manifest records from 1851-1852 have been lost. [source: Louisiana Secretary of State Historical Resources] So it’s impossible, from the United States, to confirm that Honora and John were aboard the Equator. I might be able to find evidence from Irish or English records (hmmm, another trip perhaps? After my trip to Jamaica? <whispers: I’m still waiting for someone, perhaps with a sailboat, to suggest going to Jamaica>)
  6. You, perhaps, remember the story of Honora’s husband Owen O’Neill?
  7. There is family lore that Honora actually worked for the Lincolns as well as for Mary Todd Lincoln’s parents. I have been unable to confirm this claim, however.
  8. What exactly is my relationship with Honora? Her and Owen’s daughter Kate married Patt O’Brien and their daughter Katherine married Frank Chilcoat and their daughter Clara Chilcoat Weddle is my maternal grandmother.
  9. That’s pretty dang sassy language for a lady of 96!
  10. An interesting bit of trivia… Did you know that an Irish accent is called a brogue while a Scottish one is called a burr? A very nice Scots gentleman from my days working at Bechtel shared that with me. (BTW, Scots are quite offended if you call their accent a brogue.)

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