Blood, sweat, and tears of the Irish: The story of Mary, Ellen, and Bridget

1860 census document that lists the three Irish servants in the Packard household

Last week I wrote about John H. Packard, beginning with a letter by a Union soldier and ending with a discussion of how he was a renowned surgeon, at a time that the use of “pathological anatomy remained remote from most areas of practical medicine” and the reform of the medical field had not happened yet (it would occur after the Civil War). He had a personal estate worth $5,000. That has an inflated worth, according to Measuring Worth, of about $161,400 today, putting him in the top 10% (or even higher) today, if we use calculations from CNN Money. Like anyone in a respected profession such as his, he got there by standing on the backs of others. What he did would have been impossible without the labor of others. This is made clear in the 1860 census for Philadelphia’s Eighth Ward, which lists, as I noted in that article, three Irish servants. [1] They are Mary Hassan, a 47-year-old woman, Ellen McBride, a 25-year-old woman, and Bridget Welsh, a 22-year-old woman. They are called “domestics.” As people’s historian Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, they came at a time that immigrants from Ireland were “fleeing starvation there when the potato crop failed,” coming to the United States, packed into “old sailing ships.”

Before getting into the specific histories of Mary, Ellen, and Bridget, I’d like to give some historical context beyond what Zinn has pointed out. Immigrant  women who came from Europe often became domestic servants, sometimes in a state of debt peonage, especially Irish women because they often spoke English. They were paid with low wages, with many families hiring them, with the wealthiest hiring ten or more at a time, with these servants cleaning houses, caring for children, cooking meals, and other tasks deemed “domestic.” Many would begin a 4-7 year labor term, and if they fled they would be tracked down, or could even be sexually assaulted. As historian Andrew Turban points out, [2] before 1920, the majority of the servants in Boston, Philly, and New York City was comprised of Irish women, who were replaced by Black women from the South beginning in 1920, when the Great Migration picked up. Unmarried Irish women especially served as a “crucial economic lifeline for family members who remained in Ireland.” One travel writer, writing in 1864, observed that “vast numbers of Irish girls had found employment as servants in families.” [3]

These Irish women were among the “hundreds of thousands of indentured servants” who traveled to North America from the 1600s to the 1800s, one of the many waves of migration to the content. While labor from enslaved African laborers took the place of indentured servants in West Indian colonies controlled by the British by the 19th century, indentured servitude was still an important institution in the Atlantic World itself. [4] Some have even argued that without domestic servants it would have “been impossible to run a 19th century urban home” while the Library of Congress notes that many Irish women became domestic workers or servants, while Irish men labored in coal mines or built canals (like John Mills, maybe?) and railroads. In terms of Philly itself, in 1857, three years before the 1860 census which listed Mary, Ellen, and Bridget, Irish immigrants were integrated into the city itself and became “proof of the American promise that hard work, skill, and persistence could ultimately lead to remarkable achievement.” In Philly, many of these servants lived in overcrowded rowhouses, with the words servant and Irish becoming synonymous almost, and were often demeaned by the wealthy families they worked for.

Even so, as should be clearly stated, indentured servitude was NOT the same as enslavement, which some members of the Packard family were involved in, as I’ve noted in past posts on this blog. Originally, indentured servitude came out of a “need for cheap labor” but landowners soon turned to enslaved Africans as the cost of indentured servants increased. As the Institute of Black World describes it, that while they are both forms of chattel bondage, “indentured servants expected to be in bondage for a set number of years, and then freed.” As others pointed out, indentured servitude was not lifelong or hereditary like enslavement of Black people, with White servants having legal rights and were not considered property. As such, there were not “White slaves” as Liam Hogan rightly argues on the topic. It is a myth that some have bought into to benefit their ideological aims, especially reactionary groups in the United States, and others who should know better. Furthermore, as Rebecca Gatz points out, many domestic servants in Philly in 1800 were “immigrants who were sold into servitude on their arrival” in order to pay for their passage, although many became  servants “usually for a term of four years.” These servants were a “permanent feature of middle class families in 19th century America,” often single Irish women, who had a “favorable bargaining position,” as noted by historian Laura D. Kelley. Some were able to get concessions like the ability to practice their Catholic faith and since room and board were provided, these servants often sent money back to their families in Ireland, and maintained their “own financial security with remarkable success,” gaining wages, having safe living conditions, and food to eat. Even so, they were still exploited by those they worked for, in terms of their labor and skills, although they received higher wages, along with other benefits, than those who worked in factories at the time. In Pennsylvania, in 1860, female servants received monthly wages of $7.88, coming to a total of $94.56 per year, with servants in New York and New Jersey paid slightly more per month, $8.33 and $9.55 respectfully. [5] This compared to laborers who had a wage of $5.88 an hour or machinists who had a wage of $9.48 an hour the same year. According to Measuring Worth, the amount earned by servants in one year ($94.56) would have an inflated worth of $3,053.01 and a relative income worth of $22,929.23, at the low end, and $43,527.76 at the high end.

With that, let me move back to Mary, Ellen, and Bridget. We know, from the federal census, that they were living, in 1860, in the Eighth Ward of Philly. According to The Library Company of Philadelphia’s Philadelphia on Stone project, the Eighth Ward, after the consolidation of Philly in 1854, was “between Schuylkill River and Seventh, Spruce, and Chestnut streets.” Using a map from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Map Collection, in 1865, we find a map of the whole ward. Its amazing, I’d say. While the Philly Department of Records has a map of the city’s wards in 1854, it is an inaccessible image which is small and cannot be examined in detail, sadly.

Sadly, the map is blurry, so zooming in did not help and neither did some other maps of the ward (including this one) unfortunate to say.

They were, from my research, living in a building on 1924 Spruce Street, where John H. Packard lived until the early 1900s. [6] While those records point to residence there in the later 19th century, it appears he lived there before, because the Daily Evening Bulletin posted a message in April 1864 where he listed his office as 1225 Spruce Street as a Medical Examiner. [7] This is supported by papers with similar notices the same year. While I know that the “Packard Residence” of one John H. Packard in Chestnut Hill is not him, as that is in the wrong part of Philly, I did find an image of the dwelling as it looked in 1896, according to The Athenaeum of Philadelphia:

Using the PhilGeoHistory Maps Viewer I was able to find more about where they were living. This resource showed me that the house was near a paper factory, down the street from a lumber yard and church, and over 17 blocks (eastward) from what I believe is the hospital. Packard himself was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, as an appeal in June 1871 indicates, where he, and others, advocated for money to build a new hospital near the university.

The black dot indicates where the house was located

Now that we know where they lived, what about the lives of Mary, Ellen, and Bridget specifically? Unlike in England where there was a servant hierarchy, these three women were domestic servants who helped around the house. Taking the assumption that all three women stayed in Philly before and after 1850, that eliminates many false drops I uncovered in searches through digitized records on FamilySearch. [8]

With Mary, it was tough as the name “Mary Hassen” is a somewhat common, leading to issues like having two Mary Hassens in Philly’s Seventh Ward in 1870. [9] One is living on the north side of Lombard Street, [10] and the other on the south side of Naudain Street. [11] Of these two individuals, both are equally likely. Lombard Street is only a mile away (or seven blocks southward, after traveling one block westward) from 1924 Spruce Street. Naudain Street is less than half-a-mile away, which translates to only eight blocks southward, after traveling one block westward. Whichever one of those is the Mary who was a servant of the Packard family in 1860, is clear she stayed in the same area of Philly. The 1880 census makes this clear, listing a person who is mostly likely her. [12] Operating with that assumption, in this census, she is noted as “keeping house,” referring to “domestic” work within a household, with another family, possibly meaning that she is still a servant. She would be living at 1224 Haines Street, which was over 23 miles north from the Spruce Street residence where she had lived in 1860, joined by various boarders from Ireland: 35-year-old James Brown, 50-year-old J. McIntyre, 50-year-old Ellen McIntyre (wife of J.), and 40-year-old Andrew Lacy (and his two children, 38-year-old James and 8-year-old Mary), to name a few. A 48-year-old woman named Ellen Hassett was the head of the household, living there along with her two daughters (Mary and Sarah), and three sons (George, John, and Charles). There is also a death record of a “Mary Hasson” in 1900 but I think it would be too presumptive to say that it is her.

While it is hard to extrapolate details of Mary Hassen’s life from the federal census documents, it is more possible to do so for Ellen McBride. In 1870 she was still living in the Eighth Ward of Philly. She was a domestic servant for the family headed by 57-year-old man named Alfred Stillé, a Doctor of Medicine whose real estate was worth $45,000 and personal estate worth $55,000. In the same household were three other domestic servants from Ireland: 45-year-old man named James Cole, 50-year-old woman named Sarah Cole (wife of James), and a 30-year-old woman named Rose McBride. [13] Considering that Rose has the same surname as Ellen, it is possible that Rose is her sister. The same page of the census lists families led by stockbrokers (John W. Freed), Doctors of Medicine (Addinell Hewson), a presumed widow (Mary V. Vertz), and another doctor (John Ross) as their neighbors. Also in the household was Alfred’s 55-year-old wife, Caroline C., and their 20-year-old son, Louis, a student of medicine. If you add his real estate and personal estate together, it would come to a total of $100,000, which is an inflated worth of over $2.1 million, as of today, according to Measuring Worth! [14] As such, he would, using a Forbes calculator in October 2019, be in the top 6.67% in today’s standards.

They were living at a house numbered 920, possibly on Spruce Street. I say Spruce Street because Stillé’s obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1900 says that he died at 3900 Spruce Street. The same obituary calls him a “venerable professor of theory and practice of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania” and says that his wife was Katherine A. Blakiston, who he married in 1899, meaning that Katherine was his second wife. The obituary claims that Caroline, who is listed in the census was “insane” even when he remained devoted to her, and that she died six weeks before he married Katherine, with obtiary claiming that “only death released him from the burden he had borne for years.” The obituary goes on to call him “one of the most honored names in the role of America’s medical and scientific leaders.” Philadelphia newspapers also noted that he published a book on medical law in 1860, was on the Sanitary Commission in the city in 1862, and did medical lectures at the Philadelphia Hospital in 1866. [15] Clearly, he was a prominent fellow in Philly. The fact that he had servants, like Ellen, means that he could only do what he did because of the labor of others. This is an important fact to point out, because biographies of him from the American Medical Association, in William Osler’s American Medical Biographies, or University of Pennsylvania do not mention it. These biographies, however, do say that his wife, Caroline Christiana Barnett, had mental illness and was in an asylum for FIFTY YEARS! Writing a post on her is a subject for another day. Anyway, it is sad that we know more about Stillé than the servants in his household, like Ellen McBride. There are five Ellen McBrides in Philadelphia in 1880, but I don’t believe that any of them are the same as the Ellen I have described in this article. We do know, however, that Rose remained a domestic servant, as she is listed in that role in the 1880 census in a household headed by Richard Zeckwer, a German-born music teacher, with him, his family, and others at 154 Pine Street, but Ellen is not with her. [16] Zeckwer was a prominent man in the city’s coeity, as he started the Philadelphia Music Academy with three other musicians in 1870 and was director of this same academy from 1876 to 1917, which was located on Spruce Street. The mystery deepens and I’m not sure where to look next in order to piece together her life a little more. If you wish to continue the search, go here. I would welcome your discoveries on that front. There are other Rose McBrides I found in my searches, but I can’t sure if any of them are her.

We finally get to Bridget Welsh. She likely immigrated in 1857 as person of that name is listed on Philly passenger lists for that year. [17] Discarding the tavern keeper with her name in Philly in 1880, she would have been the servant in the household of Annie E. Massey in Philly the same year. [18] This record shows her as living in a three-person household, with the only person other than Annie in the house being Annie’s sister, a 75-year-old widowed woman named Letita Cresson. All three of them lived at an abode at 50 Arch Street, which is about two miles away from 1924 Spruce Street, as shown in a Google Maps calculation of the distance between both locations. We find her again in 1900, living in the 27th Ward of Philly, still as a servant, and in a family headed by Emile Camille Geyelin, a French-born hydraulics engineer, who is married to Estella Antoinette, adopted daughter of J. Richter Jones. [19] In the household are three other servants: a 61-year-old Irish woman named Lizzie Walsh, a 40-year-old French woman named Louisa Maire, and a 50-year-old English woman named Emma Fellows. It is not known if Elizabeth “Lizzie” Walsh is related to Bridget or that it is a coincidence that both have the same last name. An image of the census is shown below.

They were living on 4227 Chestnut Street, with this street described as a “major historic street” in Philly by Wikipedia as it runs east-west from the waterfront on the Delaware River, through he center of the city, through West Philly, and then crosses the Schuylkill River, and onward from there. This was, reportedly, not far from the Fairmount Waterworks where “one of his turbines was installed.” Although I couldn’t find anything on Annie E. Massey, I did find that her sister died in 1888, and that Geyelin was an acclaimed engineer who installed water turbines in many cities to improve their water systems, while his great-grandson was Philip Laussat Geyelin, editor of the Washington Post. Like with Stillé, not one of the biographies, whether in Fire Engineering, his obituary in 1900, Volume 18 of Engineers and Engineering, or letters by descendants, ever mentioned that Irish servants in the household he led. This is not a surprise, to be honest, and it makes articles like this one all the more important, to uncover realities which are not acknowledged.

This article has shown that three men (John H. Packard, Alfred Stillé, Emile Camille Geyelin) and two women (Ellen Hassett and Annie E. Massey) in Philly benefited from the labor of Irish women who were deemed “domestics.” Again, what they did in their lives would have not been possible without the work of these women. And that should be acknowledged. Of course, my research here is likely only scratching the surface. With that, I’d like to hear your suggestions about what resources and records I should look at next, as I’d like to expand this story into something broader.


[1]  “United States Census, 1860“, database with images, FamilySearch, 11 November 2020, John H Packard, 1860; page 6, household ID 27, NARA M653, affiliate film number 1158, GS film number 805158, digital folder number 005171158, image number 10, indexing project batch number N01813-6, record number 218.

[2] Andrew Urban (August 2009), “Irish Domestic Servants, ‘Biddy’ and Rebellion in the American Home, 1850–1900,” Gender & History, 21(2):  264; accessed January 3, 2021.

[3] Thomas Low Nichols. Forty Years of American Life (London,1864), 71; quoted on “The Irish Girl and the American Letter: Irish immigrants in 19th Century America” page.

[4] Reuters Staff, “Fact check: First slaves in North American colonies were not “100 white children from Ireland”,” Reuters, June 17, 2020, accessed January 3, 2021; Michael Guasco, “Indentured Servitude,” Oxford Bibliographies, December 11, 2015, accessed January 3, 2021.

[5] Edward Young, “Special report on immigration…in the year 1869-’70 /,” Government Publication Office, 1871, p. 216.

[6] “1924-26 Spruce Philadelphia, PA 19103,” Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc., Accessed January 3, 2021. This is also asserted on Redfin. The listing describes the house as “a remarkable and rare Italian Renaissance Mansion housing 12 residential apartments in the heart of the Rittenhouse neighborhood,” saying it was “built in the late 1800’s at a time when fashionable architects were employed by prominent residents making their mark on the city of Philadelphia. An early elevator residence, this magnificent building has been home to prominent Philadelphia families such as Dr. John Hooker Packard, one of the most prominent American surgeons of the late 19th century.” His residence there is asserted by the Journal of Sociologic Medicine, Vol. 2, p. 419 for 1889, page 1455 Boyd’s Philadelphia Combined City and Business Directory in 1895, Page 183 of the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s report on historic places in Philly calls it the “Earl. P. Putnam House.” His obituary transcribed on Find A Grave says he died at 1926 Spruce Street.

[7] “Have You Protected Your Family For Life?,” Daily Evening Bulletin, April 6, 1864, Philadelphia, Page 4, Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive, accessed January 3, 2021. Also see notices in the April 9, 1864 paper, April 14, 1864 paper, April 12, 1864 paper, April 16, 1864 paper, April 19, 1864 paper, April 26, 1864 paper, and April 28, 1864 paper.

[8] For instance, there is a “Mary Hassin” in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in Northern Liberties Ward 2,  and another “Mary Hassen” in Moyamensing Township, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.

[9] Specifically, a 50-year-old Mary Hassan and a 55-year-old Mary Hassan.

[10] “United States Census, 1870“, database with images, FamilySearch, 4 January 2021, Mary Hassen, 1870; line 12, NARA M593, GS Film Number 000552919, Digital Folder Number 004278862, image 514, indexing project (batch) number N01638-5, record number 20160.

[11] “United States Census, 1870“, database with images, FamilySearch, 4 January 2021), Mary Hassen, 1870; line 32, NARA M593, GS Film Number 000552919, Digital Folder Number 004278862, image 494, indexing project (batch) number N01638-5, record number 19380.

[12] “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch,: 13 November 2020), Mary Hassen, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; citing enumeration district ED 121, sheet 94B, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,255,170. Ellen Hasset and her family is mentioned on the previous page.

[14] “United States Census, 1870“, database with images, FamilySearch, Ellen McBride in entry for Alfred Stille, 1870; line 16, household 964, NARA M593, GS Film Number 000552892, Digital Folder Number 004278816, image 366, indexing project (batch) number N01635-8, record number 14485.

[14] There are other measurements, but I believe this one is the most accurate to use here in this article.

[15] “The Army Medical Department Bill,” The Press, Philadelphia, January 20, 1862, Page 2, accessed January 4, 2021; “New Law Books,” The Press, Philadelphia, October 13, 1860, Page 3, accessed January 4, 2021; “Our Medical Schools,” Daily Evening Bulletin, Philadelphia, February 6, 1866, Page 1, accessed January 4, 2021.

[16] “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch, 13 November 2020, Rose Mc Bride in household of Richard Zeckwer, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, British Colonial America; citing enumeration district ED 133, sheet 264C, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,255,170.

[17] “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists Index, 1800-1906,” database with images, FamilySearch, Bridget Welsh, 1857; citing ship Saranak, NARA microfilm publication M360 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 419,569. There’s also a person of that name which came to New York City in 1856, but I threw that one out of contention with the assumption that she stayed in Philly.

[18] “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch, 13 November 2020), Bridget Welsh in household of Annie E. Massey, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, British Colonial America; citing enumeration district ED 162, sheet 94B, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,255,171.

[19] “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch, 4 January 2021), Bridget Walsh in household of Emile Geyelin, Philadelphia city Ward 27, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 669, sheet 3B, family 75, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,241,469.

© 2021 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

1 thought on “Blood, sweat, and tears of the Irish: The story of Mary, Ellen, and Bridget

  1. Pingback: Approaching Packard family history with a more critical eye | Packed with Packards!

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