Friday, February 17, 2012

The Right Annie Moore

by Sheila Connolly

This week my husband and I joined our daughter at a local Trivia evening, held at a bar slash bowling alley. She plays there regularly with several other people, two of whom were also there. In age they fall midway between the rest of us. One of them is scarily knowledgeable about almost anything (good man to have on your side!). I think our daughter invited us just to make sure we acknowledge how clueless we are. (Our team came in fourth out of ten or twelve.)

The Ellis Island statue
One of the last questions of the evening was about Annie Moore, the first person to enter this country through Ellis Island when it opened on January 1st, 1892. The Trivia question was, what was her nationality?

I had never heard of Annie Moore. And she was Irish. I bow my head in shame—I had grandparents who came through Ellis Island in 1907. Of course I had to fill in this conspicuous gap in my knowledge after I came home.

For the distinction of her arrival Annie received a $10 gold coin. She was either 13, 14, or 15 on that day (the ship's manifest says she was 13 but it was apparently wrong, and her birthday was January 1st, so she would have turned 15 on the 1st). She left from Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork, and spent twelve days at sea on the S.S. Nevada, as one of 148 steerage passengers, which also included two of her brothers. They arrived on December 31st but were not processed until the next day. Then she disappeared into New York, to join her parents.

Ship manifest:  Annie's entry is the
second line

That would have been the end of that little footnote in immigrant history, except for the erection of a bronze statue of Annie Moore during the renovation of the Ferry Building on Ellis Island, completed in 2008, when her story was revived.

Problem is, they got the wrong Annie Moore. And the wrong one became famous.

This little mix-up was discovered by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who was working on a documentary on immigration and wanted to track down the descendants of Annie Moore (as she told host Renee Montagne in a 2006 NPR interview). She did a little digging and discovered that documents for the Annie of the statue showed a birth location of Illinois. All right, mistakes happen in immigration documents all the time (and now and then, people lie!). Then she found more with the Illinois reference, and wrong Annie's cover was blown.

What was the source of this mix-up? Ms. Smolenyak says that after an earlier PBS documentary about Ellis Island, that referred to the correct Annie, somebody claiming to be from her family called the makers of the documentary and said, hey, that's my great-grandmother. And theirs became the accepted story—without any documentary verification. Maybe it stuck because it was an appealing story—the wrong Annie lived a difficult life in Texas and died tragically. The right Annie lived out her life in New York and had eleven children. Half did not live to maturity, but the rest did well for themselves.

When Ms. Smolenyak called the descendants of the right Annie, most of them said, "sure, we knew that." It didn't seem to bother them that some other Annie was getting the credit.

In these days of rampant identity theft, and poaching of people's information from any number of Internet sources, it's interesting to step back to a time when your life could be measured by a handful of documents—birth, marriage, death, maybe a deed or two—and your story was passed on (and often mangled) orally by family members. And it's also interesting that the dramatic story rather than the more ordinary one captured the public imagination.

Is it any wonder that genealogy is great training for writing mysteries?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My parents both came through Ellis Island, my dad from the Ukraine in 1905 and my mother from Hungary in 1906. Although both were very young at the time (6 and 4 respectively), both remembered the huge arched windows of the big hall when they visited right after it was opened to the public. (It must have been some time between 1976 and 1984, before the major renovation that was completed in 1990.) A couple of years ago, I was able to go online and see the passenger lists of the ships they traveled on. There must have been plenty of mistakes on those lists, because I found both my parents easily, but could not find my grandmother, with whom my mother and her older sister definitely traveled, and the sister, who was 7, was listed as age 13 and traveling alone on another ship. (Or if that was another girl of the same name, she wasn't listed at all.)

Debbie L. said...

I can't believe you never heard of Annie Moore! Glad you found the correct information on her. I had read that a few years ago. Looking forward to the Irish mystery series!

cttiger said...

You've never heard of Annie Moore? Even the Irish Tenors sing her glory (Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears). My great grandparents all came through Ellis Island from Ireland and Germany. So glad they made it through!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Hi Sheila,
I learned about Annie Moore when I visited Ireland in 2003 (Here's a link to a photo of that statue, w her two younger brothers:

My mom, her brother, my sister & I went on that trip, and we conducted genealogy research at the Westmeath Genealogy Centre, and met relatives that my mom & another brother found years earlier, via a land map. Meeting with them at a pub, while the men played instruments and sang (as they do weekly) was one of the many highlights of our trip.

The genealogy bug bit when I was in 11th grade & I took an elective course (Ethnic Studies), in which the major project was a family tree. I got my mom & my uncle into it, after I wrote to the siblings of my maternal grandparents & they wrote me letters with great info (we still refer to those letters, to this date).

I have conducted years of genealogy research, and I've been able to go back about 8 generations on my paternal grandfather's side (thanks to the excellent census records of England, and the subscription to Ancestry that my library provides to patrons while visiting; it's not a database u can use from home). The key to opening the floodgates, however, was a form my paternal great-grandmother filled out that included her DOB (my aunt gave me many old family photos, and the form was among them).

I have uncovered several family mysteries, for my family and my husband's, through the research at the library (in addition to census records, the WWII draft registration cards have been very interesting). I certainly agree that the research is great training for writing mysteries :-)