If that image was until recently lost, others, largely fanciful, filled the void for the few immigration hobbyists and Hibernians who valued her. In 1986, one such image, on a Belleek commemorative plate titled “First Sight of Miss Liberty,” sparked the memory of an elderly woman named Margaret O’Connell Middleton. The bonny young Annie on the plate, Middleton announced to her family, was her mother: an Irish girl who had come through Ellis Island, moved to Indiana, and kept going west. In Texas, she married a man descended from the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Together, they were among the earliest settlers of Clovis, New Mexico, where they owned the town’s first hotel and where her husband died in 1919, a victim of the flu pandemic. Four years later, on a trip back to Texas, the feisty widow was mowed down by a streetcar, leaving five orphans, including the 10-year-old Margaret.
This American story—plucky immigrant turned pioneer discovers wealth and dies picturesquely—hit a nerve. Once family members excitedly announced themselves as her descendants, and provided photographs and lore to annotate the tale, the Widow of Clovis took her place as an iconic American. An Irish-American group began raising money for a statue on Ellis Island, which now included in its materials her prototypical tale. Within a few years, Annie Moore was being celebrated in the names of pubs, in bronzes, in brochures, and even in song. “And the first to cross the threshold / Of that isle of hope and tears,” warbles Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, “Was Annie Moore from Ireland / Who was all of fifteen years.”
Fifteen, seventeen—what’s the difference? The girl arrived in New York closer in time to George Washington than to us. How much can you recall of your great-grandparents? Could you vouch for what you think you know?
When Geraldine Donovan heard about this New Mexican Annie, she told her relatives it was baloney. Her grandmother was the real Annie Moore, she said, and she’d never lived farther west than Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, a stone’s throw from where Geri herself still lived.
For it turned out that during the years of Annie’s obscurity, there was a private legend being kept alive by that invaluable fixture of every immigrant clan: the crazy maiden aunt. It was a difficult tale to pin down because this Annie had died before Aunt Geri was born. But Geri frequently visited Annie’s husband—no descendant of Irish nobility but rather the son of a German baker—before his death in 1960. Pop Schayer, as she called him, was a warm, dapper old man, with marvelous blue eyes, a neat bow tie, and, despite the waves of tragedy in his life, a happy disposition. He was full of funny stories, like the one about his wife’s getting a gold coin at Ellis Island.
Geri wrote to churches and the Irish Echo, trying to set the record straight. But she was a woman of little means for whom the Internet didn’t exist—and it did not help her credibility that she also insisted that Pop Schayer’s father, Simon the baker, had invented the macaroon.
Meanwhile, the Widow of Clovis reigned. It would be fifteen years before anyone questioned her story. But when Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, a professional genealogist whose double last name is the result of her marrying a tenth cousin, was researching Annie Moore for a 2002 PBS documentary, it became clear that something didn’t match. Document after document showed that the widow wasn’t an immigrant: She was born in Illinois. Smolenyak contacted Ellis Island, which is run by the National Park Service, and a historical society in Ireland, but they were, she says, uninterested: “They probably thought I was crazy.”
The only solution was to find the “right” Annie Moore—though, to a genealogist, hers was a wretchedly common name. Without knowing whom she married, it was needle-in-a-haystack work. Smolenyak dropped Annie from the documentary and put the matter aside but remained troubled. It was one thing for there to be no Annie Moore, quite another that a false one was still being promoted. In 2006, she took to her blog and issued a challenge to the “genie” community: $1,000 to the first person to figure out what really became of Ellis Island’s inaugural immigrant.
Even if she’d read blogs, it was by then too late for Aunt Geri. She had died in 2001, still frustrated that the truth—her truth—was unknown by the world and would probably always remain that way.
That truth was a harsh one. The five-story brick tenement at 32 Monroe Street to which Aunt Geri’s Annie Moore was taken after arriving in Manhattan sat at the center of a one-eighth-square-mile rectangle in which, having traveled 3,000 miles to get there, she would spend the rest of her life. The Fourth Ward was at the time “one of the oldest and worst sections of shantytown in the city,” as Caleb Carr described it—the home turf of dozens of Irish gangs named for the very streets Annie would live on, shop on, pray on. They make a litany: Water Street, where her parents soon moved. (It was common for tenement renters to change locations every May Day, when many leases were up.) Batavia Street, “the most Dickensy street in New York,” in one contemporary description, where Annie probably met her husband, who lived above his father’s bakery there. James Street, where in 1895 she married him at St. James Church—surely the only beautiful place she’d ever know in the neighborhood. Rutgers Street, where the couple set up home and where their first known child, William, died at age 20 months in 1898. New Chambers Street, where the 1900 census found them living with daughter Catherine and son Joseph Jr. Oliver Street, their home for more than a decade, where Theodore and Julia were born and Winifred, Walter, and Edward died at, respectively, 3 months, 3 years, and 3 days of age. Finally, Cherry Street, where Mary Anne was born; where Henry, Annie’s last known child, died in 1919; and where Annie herself died in 1924—so fat, says a family story, that firemen could not carry her down the stairs. They had to haul her out the window.