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Immigrant Number One


In an age when the average life expectancy for white Americans was 47, and surely lower in the slums, Annie would have expected some children to die. Life was a cup of sugar: borrowed, replaced. Perhaps it didn’t grieve Annie the way it grieves us today. When Somerstein, who works in a pharmacy, asks me to read aloud the causes of death of Annie’s children as recorded in the Mormon archive—“aedema of lungs, exhaustion w/tubercular pneumonia”; “merasmus” (severe malnutrition); “diphtheria and broncho-pneumonia”; “haemophilia … bleeding from mouth continuously”: “enterocolitis for 24 days”; “chronic valvular disease”—she starts to cry.

“Diseases of neglect,” she whispers.

“Of poverty,” I suggest.

“Neglect,” she insists. “I hear that list and I think of Angela’s Ashes. I don’t want Annie to be an Angela! I think the Irish brought that kind of hard life with them. It has to do with the British presence. If you can have national low self-esteem and at the same time be very arrogant, that was Ireland.

“I guess I’m just comparing it to what happened to Jewish immigrants. My father, who was Jewish, was just as poor as my Irish relatives, but no one in his family died as a baby of malnutrition. The Jews created a lot of organizations almost immediately because no one helped them for thousands of years. The Irish trusted the church. What I don’t understand is how the church they were so loyal to betrayed them.”

This Annie was not the kind of hero American stories are made of; no wonder the world seemed bent on wiping out any vestige of her.

But perhaps the church didn’t betray them completely. How else but with its help could Annie, if not Mrs. Doherty, have managed to bury so many children?

The “wrong” Annie’s family, notified by Megan Smolenyak, was “cool about it,” she reports. They’d had a nice run for more than decade, being fêted and hobnobbing with the president of Ireland. It was all perfectly innocent: “You could say it was wishful thinking.”

The “right” Annie’s family had a more complicated response. They were fascinated to meet one another, for the first time, at a genealogical gathering in New York, and to discover how diverse the line had become, with Dominicans, Chinese, Jews, and Italians now among their ranks. They could not fail to note how much better off and better educated they were, too. Putting food on the table is no longer a top concern for any of them.

That a legacy has no monetary value does not, however, mean heirs won’t squabble over it. After Smolenyak split the $1,000 bounty between Somerstein and Commissioner Andersson, problems began. Both pledged their winnings toward the creation of a headstone to mark Annie’s grave in Calvary Cemetery, but by the time another branch of Annie’s descendants started asking Somerstein for her contribution, she and some other relatives had become leery of the whole hagiographic project. The design alone was budgeted at $12,000; it featured a Celtic cross in Irish blue limestone, Celtic knots, an Irish harp, two garlands of shamrocks, an etching of the $10 gold coin, and a sprig of cherry blossoms to represent Annie’s years on Cherry Street.

“I’m glad she didn’t live on Broome Street!” Maureen Peterson harrumphs. “Instead of such an exquisite headstone, a plainer one would have been appropriate, and then send some money for poor children here or in Ireland. To me, it’s just a weight on her chest.” As for Somerstein, she eventually gave her winnings to Jane Goodall’s foundation.

Nevertheless, the stone was dedicated at a ceremony in 2008. Among those in attendance was the tenor Ronan Tynan, singing the still-inaccurate ballad.

At a political moment in which new immigrants are welcomed with ever-higher walls, the competition to embrace Ellis Island’s first seems almost poignant. Formerly one kind of symbol, Annie Moore is now becoming another. But of what? The nearly bankrupt Save Ellis Island website lists a $500 membership level called the Annie Moore Society. A Gaelic phrase carved on the tombstone means “May their noble souls rest in peace.” “Some family members want everything to be holy,” says Peterson. “For them, she should have walked over on water instead of taken the ship.”

In truth, the Moore family story is not so noble; they were shanty, not lace-curtain, Irish, says Somerstein. Their story included, as many do, premarital pregnancy, heavy drinking, and, in the case of Annie’s mother, years in an institution. Or are those once-shameful facts now inseparable from nobility? “When she got off the boat, freezing her big butt off, her walk up Broadway was not to a fancy home,” says Shulman. “The great miracle is that starting with this totally down-and-out Irish immigrant, look what’s become of her family! And in a relatively brief period of time, compared with other countries. It’s the American Dream.”


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