Just the ticket. Every mother wanted to win.

Mother’s Pride: A Prized Golden Ticket worth $100

The following column by historian Jonathan Smyth is almost like something from Willie Wonka by Roald Dahl, and there is also a short piece about the mother of General Phil Sheridan...

In July 1889, a New York City newspaper the Evening World ran a competition to find the mother who had the ‘greatest number of living children’. The unusual competition had a touch of Roald Dahl’s Willie Wonka about it, as mothers raced to file their claims with the editor. Three successful mothers from the thousands of entrants received would be in line to win the ‘coveted’ prizes. The competition was open to the mothers of New York, Brooklyn, Jersey City and Holoken and when word got out, there was a massive rush of contestants, all clambering for the significant prizes on offer. Not to miss an opportunity, the first and fastest participant to reach the editor’s office was a Cavan-born woman living at 430 West Forty-Ninth Street New York City, New York.

The winners were to receive some ‘mighty fine’ awards, the first prize for having ‘the largest brood’ was a $100 gold certificate, the second prize a $50 silver certificate and in third a $20 gold piece. The rules stated that each entrant needed to reside in the specified cities and the mothers must send to the editor their ‘own full name’, name before marriage, exact age, date and location of marriage, name and age of the father or fathers of the children and the nationality, each child’s full name, date of birth and present-day residence. The mothers were required to send a written statement confirming their claim and, in addition to the statement, they must have a brief note from a well-known individual, for example a priest, doctor or a mayor to confirm that the particulars offered by the contestant was authentic.

When the advertisement appeared, it must have created quite a stir. For no sooner than it went on sale, Mrs Mary Reilly Smith, originally from County Cavan, was keenly banging on the editor’s door, the first ‘metropolitan mother’ to enter the competition. Mary’s offspring were 11 in number and to build a clearer picture of the candidate, it was arranged for a journalist from the Evening World to pay the lady a call-out. The reporter was pleased to interview the Cavan woman, describing her as a ‘comely woman’ of fifty, bearing no mark of ‘trouble or sorrow'. Mary welcomed the reporter to her home, as she smoothed the ‘brown tresses’ of her youngest, seven-year-old daughter Jennie. Then proceeding to tell her tale, she began: ‘Ah sir’, says she, ‘I have eleven’ and ‘I was born in County Cavan, Ireland, in February 1839’, and further enthused, that she was married to Peter Smith whom she called a good man, and added ‘God bless him.’

Peter and Mary were married by Fr Reilly in St Paul’s Catholic Church, Court Street, Brooklyn, on November 3, 1864 and in those days, he had worked for the Eight Avenue Railroad Company firstly as conductor, then ‘driver and stableman’ and she spoke of how he had grown from a boy to an old man in the company’s service, even though he had just turned fifty-two the previous Christmas. Then a strike caused his hours to be cut and when it ended, they did not restore his hours, so he got work with the Brooklyn Crosstown line of cars instead. Mary was thankful that all her children had lived, and exclaimed, ‘God be praised’, ten were baptised in St Paul’s and the eleventh in the Forty-second Street Church.

Manners and respect

The reporter took note of the hard times through which the Smiths had come, while teaching each child good ‘manners and respect’, even though they no longer had a spare dollar. Peter and Mary’s children were as follows: Mary, the eldest was now married to Andrew McMahon of Harlem, and was a good wife; Patrick was 23; Katie was 20; Eddie, 19; Petie, 18; George, 17; and Lizzie was 14. Patrick and George were both training as bricklayers and earning a couple of dollars and Eddie got work as an elevator boy in a hotel where he ensured the safety of guests as each stepped from the lift (elevator). Petie was employed in the ‘Singer toy shop’ and Katie worked at a silk mill and when the wages came in, everyone in the family home pooled their earnings together towards the weekly expenses. And what of the remaining children? Well, Lizzie was there to help her mother with the housework and to look after Maggie, aged 13; Nellie, 11; Tommy, nine; and Jennie the youngest. Even though Mary Reilly Smith was the first to set her vying eyes on the prize, alas, she did not win the any of the coveted certificates.

On September 3, 1889, the overall winner of the competition was announced. The winning mother was Mrs Elizabeth Lang who had 15 children and it was with great fanfare that the Evening World reported on her collection of the yellow-backed golden $100 certificate. The second prize of a $50 silver certificate went to Mrs George Neggesmith, the wife of a policeman who had 14 children and the third prize a gold double-eagle went to Mrs George Trabold of Manhattanville who had 14 children born within 20 years.

General Sheridan’s mother

On 12 June 1888, Mrs Mary Miner Sheridan, widow of the late John Sheridan and mother of General Philip Henry Sheridan died in Somerset, Ohio. According to the Washington Critic, published on the following day, Mary Miner was born in County Cavan on April 10, 1801, and later aged 19 years, she married John Sheridan in the same county in 1821. The Sheridan family emigrated to Quebec in 1829 and in the following year moved to Albany before finally settling in Somerset. Mrs Sheridan was survived by three sons, General P.H. Sheridan, General John L. Sheridan, and Colonel M.V. Sheridan, and her many grandchildren. She was pre-deceased by her husband John who died in 1875.


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