The Strong Rise Up

Our family is all familiar with Grandma’s father, TJ Downey, who was a successful businessman in town, but few know the tale of his parents. This is another story that shows the strength of our family and what people are able to do when they are backed up against a wall.

TJ’s father was James William Downey, who came to American from Ireland in the early 1860’s and initially settled in Indiana. (Why oh why Indiana is still a mystery to me!)

James enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and fought in the Civil War for three years, mustering out in Chattanooga, Tennessee. What he did for the next six years after his discharge is another puzzle, but what I do know is that Grandpa Jim ended up in Morristown, where he married Mary Nolan of Boonton at the Church of the Assumption. Mary was originally from the small village of Killenaule, in the county of Tipperary, Ireland.

After the birth of their third child, John, the Downey family relocated to Jersey City. Our grandfather worked as a laborer, both as a gardener and grave digger. Unfortunately, he died from tuberculosis at the age of fifty, leaving our grandmother with four children between the ages of five and fifteen. She was in deep trouble now. How would we all react to Mary’s dilemma?

Mary earned her living by “washing and nursing,” collecting a meager salary of just $15/month. It was a difficult life for her, and within three years of our grandfather’s death, Mary became ill herself. She applied for a widow’s pension, but sadly, the application was lost or misplaced. With her two youngest children under the age of sixteen, she was entitled to $12/month—eight dollars for her and two dollars for each of her sons. As my mother would say, “Whoopee!”

Due to her declining health, our great-great grandma had to cut back on her work, so she was then earning only a mere eight dollars each month, and at times, not even that much.  She was dependent on her three boys to supplement her income. Her daughter, Johanna was also ill.

Within six years of her husband’s death, Mary was totally incapacitated from labor of any kind due to being in the advanced stages of TB. She had no means whatsoever due to “her wretched condition of health,” according to her family physician. Because of her illness, it is doubtful that she would have been able to witness the marriage between her son TJ and his bride, Jemima Blue. Happiness kept eluding poor Mary.

More than two years after applying for her widow’s pension, Mary returned to Boonton, probably to be closer to her mother and siblings. She had a lot of guts, because she decided to file an affidavit, throwing the attorney who misplaced her application under the bus by providing his name and location of his practice. Remember, in 1892, women did not speak out against men. She was a brave and desperate woman.

Tragedy struck again in March of that year when her mother was struck and killed by a train.

Two friends from Boonton, John Barrett and John Dunn, corroborated her statements by verifying that Mary had no “other means of support other than her own labor, and a trifle that one of the boys brings in.” Mary then submitted a special action application, stating that she was dying, having been sick for more than a year and in bed for the past eight weeks. She had no source of income except for $3/week which our great grandfather TJ was able to give her.

The application was finally approved on May 6, 1893, 2 ½ years after she first applied. By then, our poor Grandma Mary had died. I wonder if our own grandma, who was born just two years after her grandmother’s death, was ever told the story of James and Mary Downey.

Makes you think twice when you believe your life is bad, doesn’t it?

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