Saturday, 12 November 2016

Hickey cousins in New York

Like generations of Irish before them, Mary Anne Byrne, my great-grandfather’s half-sister, was tempted by the promise of a better life in America. She married Michael Hickey at home in Co. Kildare in July 1886 and in August 1887 gave birth to her son John in Manhattan. Sadly, the Hickey family did not find the streets of New York paved with gold after all. Their lives, at least the ones I’ve been able to trace, mostly ended early, and some in the most unfortunate circumstances. 

On the face of it, their American dream started off well enough and appeared quite typical of an Irish emigrant’s experience in New York. After John, sons Michael and William were born, followed by a daughter Theresa in 1893, another son Andrew in 1896, and finally, twins James and Paul in 1898.

Within twelve years of their arrival in the U.S., Michael applied for citizenship. The family lived at 356 10th Avenue in Manhattan and Michael worked as a paver. A clerk at the Supreme Court, George Sweeney, provided a character reference, describing Michael as ‘a good, honest, steady, working-man’. Michael, and by proxy his wife, became U.S. citizens shortly thereafter.

And then, everything started to go wrong for the family. 

One of the twins, baby Paul, died on 10 August 1899. He was just eight months old. His mother, Mary Anne, my half-great-grandaunt, followed him on 8 December 1904. She was only thirty-nine years old. Michael never remarried.

The three eldest boys, John, Michael and William, may well have married and started a family, but so far everything indicates they too died young. John’s death, at the age of thirty-one years, occurred on 25 October 1918, and a 1939 newspaper account of Andrew’s death indicates he left behind his father, his sister, and only one brother, James.

When Andrew Hickey signed up to serve his country during World War I, he was twenty-two years of age, five foot, five inches tall and of slender build. He had blue eyes and red hair. Andrew was a corporal in the 52nd Pioneer Infantry and saw combat in France. He was honourably discharged at the end of the war and returned home, supposedly unwounded.

Headstone of Andrew Joseph Hickey (1896-1939),  Long Island National Cemetery
Headstone of Andrew Joseph Hickey,
Long Island National Cemetery

But, Andrew Hickey died just twenty years later. His father and sister came home and found his body on the floor in the bathroom, near an open gas jet. The local newspaper said Andrew was unemployed for a considerable time. The police had not at that stage ruled his death as either accidental or suicide.

What compounds this tragedy though is that, a few years later, his sister Theresa followed his example. She married William Sharkey in 1919, but it was not a happy match. They seemingly had no children. And, at the time of her death, they were separated – Theresa lived in Astoria, while William lived in Brooklyn. On 10 April 1943, neighbours smelled gas coming from her apartment and called the police. Déjà vu for her father and brother James!

The police knocked down her door and found Theresa’s body on the couch, with a man named Edward Feely lying dead on the floor nearby. There were four open gas jets on the range in the next room. Although they did not leave a note, the police immediately listed the case as a suicide pact. It was not Theresa’s first attempt at killing herself. The previous month, she was found semi-conscious in her apartment with two gas jets open. When revived, she refused to go to the hospital.

Isn’t that so sad? What could have gone so terribly wrong for this family in New York? These were my grandfather’s first cousins – well, half first cousins – sharing their grandfather, John Byrne.  

Their father, Michael Hickey, reached a good age. He was well into his eighties when he passed away in July 1946, leaving his youngest son James alone in the city of his birth. It is James I feel sorry for, most. At some stage, he moved to Chester, in Orange Co., New York, where he died in 1970. 

Sources: ‘New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909’,  ‘New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795­1949’, New York, ‘New York City Marriage Records, 1829-1940’, FamilySearch; ‘New York, State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1794-1929’, ‘New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919’, U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 ‘, Ancestry (subscription); Long Island Star–Journal, 4 Nov. 1939, p. 1, and 10 Apr. 1943, p.1, Old Fulton New York Post CardsImage: Headstone of Andrew Joseph Hickey, added by XCHIEF, Findagrave.

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. So sad. Lives that began with promise, ending in despair. But they won't be forgotten.

  2. Wow. What a heartbreaking story, and very well written.

  3. Suicide is difficult to understand, but multiple cases in the same family is even more difficult. I know a family in which the mother and one son both committed suicide within years of each other, and both by the same method - tying a plastic bag over their head. Supposedly another member of the family had done the same years earlier. Choosing the same bizarre method is more puzzling to me than the suicide. In your family's case, the gas jets were easy and convenient and I suppose "painless." Sad all around, nevertheless.

    1. That is tragic, Wendy. I can't imagine how they overcame their natural response to save themselves as they suffocated. So sad, it must be devastating for those left to mourn them.

  4. Dara, I'm sorry to read about this family and all its tragedies. At least their names and their stories will live on through you.


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