Fred Langworthy and Susan O’Leary: Cultural Exiles

IMG_2437Since I wrote about an ancestor on my father’s side (one of his side’s anyway) from the 1920s, I thought the next story to introduce should be from someone on my mother’s side, from roughly the same time period.

But one generation later. And with a theme of religious intolerance. And possibly related to 19th century Irish-American history.

When I was growing up, I often heard stories about Great-Grandpa Fred. The stories usually ended with “and that’s why he was disinherited.”

As I got older, I wondered about my mother’s maiden name: Langworthy sounded awfully English, yet my mother insisted we were “Irish.” In fact, my father used to tease my mom for being Irish until he found out how much Irish was in his own tree (the Bushels were from County Tipperary, “old English” (sean gall) who turned native).

Also, my mother is a staunch Roman Catholic, like her parents before. Despite the Langworthy name. And her grandparents? Connally, O’Leary, and Lewis. Irish and French Canadian. All Catholic.

All but one. Fred.

Frederick Hiland Langworthy was the youngest of six children, two of whom died before he was born in 1881.

His ancestors were among the first wave of English settlers to what is now Rhode Island and Connecticut; the first Langworthy in the New World was Andrew Langworthy, a Devon native who helped to found Jamestown, Rhode Island, and who, with his wife Rachel Hubbard, was among the first members of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Baptist Church (more on the Hubbards in a later post!).

The Langworthys were numerous (very numerous) and spread quickly throughout New England and Upstate New York, and eventually to the Midwest. In Upstate, they were among the first farmers in the mountainous township of Thurman, whose eastern part became the hamlet of Warrensburg in 1814. My hometown. Well, one of my hometowns. (We moved three times before I was 12.)

Then, as now, the town (sorry, “hamlet”) called itself the Queen Village of the Adirondacks. It is surrounded by the Hudson River (“the Glen”) to the northwest and the Schroon River to the south and east, making it ideal for mills and other 19th century industry mainstays such as tanning and linen. Also great for camping, hiking, canoeing, fishing, skiing…

And farming? It must have been hard. Brutal winters, and short, hot summers. Poor sandy soil. Loads of maple syrup and cows and horses. (Maple farms and horse ranches abound even today.) Lumber and granite to build New York City.

In 1900, the Langworthys had a farm just to the north of the hamlet, which had just over 2,000 residents (today, this number is about double that). Warrensburg was and still is a popular destination for tourists needing to escape pressures of city life (and polluted air).

One summer day in 1905, Fred delivered fresh vegetables to a camp just outside of town, where he met a tiny (4’10”), wiry woman with a piercing gaze, sharp tongue, utterly assure of herself. He fell in love instantly with her: Susan O’Leary, the youngest daughter of an Irish immigrant and Pennsylvania coal miner, who had relocated to New York City and become first a stenographer, then a house servant / nanny.

She was Catholic. Irish Catholic.

Fred’s Protestant family was furious. His parents forbade him to even see her, let alone think of marriage. He ignored them, and in response his father kicked him out of the family farm, out of the family house, and out of their family entirely. He moved into town with his sister, Leonora Branch, who had become a successful shop proprietor with her husband.

The locals may have had some antipathy toward the Irish. The failed Fenian invasion of Canada (1860s-1880s) was still remembered by the town elders. Despite — or perhaps because of — the presence of local inn owner Patrick Heffron, an Irish immigrant who had gained grudging respect as a Civil War veteran, anti-Irish sentiment was strong among certain community members.

The recently established Saint Cecelia’s Catholic church (1875) with an Irish priest probably didn’t help matters. Nationally, the Haymarket Riots (1886) and rising numbers of immigrants sparked anti-immigration laws in the 1880s and 1890s. A Scottish anarchist was deported in October 1903 from New York City, and the Immigrant Act of 1903 was re-enacted at the end of June three years later.

Anti-Catholic, anti-Chinese, and anti-Irish sentiment was high in the small, isolated mountain community!

Or so the Langworthys may have felt, encouraged by pride in their family’s long history in the town. A nephew of Fred’s eventually became minister at the Methodist Church, but there is no other evidence that the family or other townsfolk were actually anti-Catholic or anti-immigrant. Only speculation.

What’s true is that Fred’s oldest brother Melvin tried to patch things up by inviting Fred back to the farm once the parents died in 1908. But then Fred married Susan in 1910, and he was exiled once again. Interestingly, he didn’t convert. As this was generally expected before Vatican II, his refusal to convert must have caused tensions within the family. In order for my grandfather Allison Mark to be baptised, the local pastor insisted that he be called “Mark,” as his first name was unacceptable to the Church. No doubt Fred thought the two names were a reasonable compromise. My grandfather was called “Al” by friends and family for the rest of his life, but at Confirmation and when he got engaged and married, the Church called him Mark A.

At any rate, by 1915, Fred’s brothers William and Lewis were sniping at Susan and Al on a nearly daily basis, despite their own marital problems (Lewis’s wife left him, and though he refused to grant a divorce, she remarried anyway). Or because of their problems? Or because they were staying in the inn run by a clearly successful Irish Catholic, and they harbored a grudge…

Whatever the reasons, they verbally abused Susan so much that she laid down an ultimatum to Fred: We leave together, or I leave with Al for New York.

37 Akin Road

Possible location of Fred’s final “truck farm” in Pittstown, New York, across the Hoosick River from his day job at the axe-making factory.

They left together. First east to Hudson Falls, where Fred worked at a paper mill (and likely contracted the illness that eventually killed him). Then south to Johnsonville, from where Al would take the train every day to the city of Troy — becoming the first in our family’s history to attend and graduate from high school.

But Catholic High was private, and expensive. And no doubt the daily train trip wasn’t cheap, either.

Union Station Johnsonville

Postcard from 1915 showing Union Station in Johnsonville, New York, on the Boston & Maine (B&M) line…running down south to Troy, where my father’s great-grandfather was a flagman. Grandpa Al was probably using this train the day his future son-in-law’s great-grandfather was run over.

Fred tried to start his own farm while continuing to work at local mills. But the strain was too much. He died at the young age of 57, in the midst of the Great Depression, with Al having just graduated and forced to wander town to town searching for jobs.

When he did find one, at the Cluett, Peabody, & Company Arrow Shirt factory in Troy “the Collar City,” mother and son relocated to Troy, so that Al could be closer to his job. There, he met the woman who would eventually become his wife, and my grandmother.

But not until a lengthy and eventful stay in US Army in Italy. But that’s another post…or novel…if I dare…


FHL-1909postcard-addyWe have no photos of Fred, and only a single postcard. Alone among his family, he enjoyed reading the news and wrote many letters to Susan. Sadly, their correspondence burned with all the rest of their possessions in two house fires in the 1920s.

We moved to the town in 1984. I had no idea my grandfather had been born there, in a house on River Street (bottom right of the top photo). Even now, in 2018, the Langworthys in Warrensburg generally refuse to acknowledge our shared family history. Fred has disappeared from their family trees, and memories. We are still the outsiders.

Because Fred left.

His lonely grave site, isolated in Pittstown, New York, miles away from that of any other relative, gives only his name with the simple inscription:

57y 7m 28d

One thought on “Fred Langworthy and Susan O’Leary: Cultural Exiles

  1. Pingback: The Apple Falls Far from the Tree – M Thomas Apple

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