Friday, March 6, 2015

Weaving the Story Mary Kavanagh, Postmaster of Lawrence

Mary Kavanagh, who lived at the turn of the 20th century in Lawrence, New York,  is a mystery waiting to be uncovered.

Alfred Bellot, in his History of the Rockaways (1917), devotes one line to
"the late Mrs. William J. Kavanagh, a resident of Lawrence for many years,and a well-known Indian scholar and literary woman..."
Map of Lawrence, 1891
The only facts related here are 1) Mrs. Kavanagh's husband's name was William J. and 2) she died sometime before 1917.

It was my goal to reconstruct Mrs. Kavanagh's life from readily available Internet sources and subscription databases through the H-WPL database page.    Combined, these individual facts will show that she was a wife and mother, an author, educator and, in an era when women rarely had professions outside the home, she was a notary and Postmaster.

William J.Kavanagh and his wife, Mary lived in the Town of Hempstead (then a part of Queens County)  in the 1880 U.S. Census and the 1892 New York State Census with their four children: 
  • William L. born 1866 (died 1892)
  • Victor Frank, born 1868  (died 1901)
  • Edmund Arthur, born 1873 (died 1935)
  • Mary Gabriella,  born 1876 (died after 1917)
William was born in New York in 1840.  Mary, born in 1834,  emigrated from her native Ireland in 1842.  Working backwards, it was then possible to verify them in the 1870 Census with the two older boys, as resident of New York City.

There are several William Kavanaghs listed as New York Civil War veterans in various databases.  One lived to collect a pension; the beneficiary was his wife Mary.  This William Kavanagh served with several cavalry units, spent some time as a Quartermaster Sergeant and a Regimental Sergeant Major,  and ended the war as a commissioned First Lieutenant.  He lived to collect a pension, of which Mary was the  beneficiary.  This Quartermaster experience may have prepared him for his profession as "leather dealer." (as "our" William is listed in the 1880 U.S. Census).
Articles from local newspapers of the era provided some insight into the lives of the Kavanaghs, who had a home with a beautiful garden in Far Rockaway (South Side Observer, July 7, 1882).  During a crime wave in 1882, the home was the site of an attempted burglary (SSO, October 19, 1882).  That same year, Mrs. Kavanagh purchased the property of Jacob L. Wood in Lawrence (probably located on West Broadway) in the hope of making it "a handsome and very desirable country home." (SSO, April 27, 1882)
Cedarhurst Post Office block, c.1910
In 1883 (SSO, November 17, 1883) Mrs. Kavanagh is credited with "organizing a first class private academy for a limited number of pupils" in Far Rockaway.  The Kavanagh sons established themselves as real estate and insurance brokers in the Branch communities.   William J. was appointed Postmaster of Lawrence in March of 1886.
Unfortunately, the Kavanagh's good fortunes were not to last.   Mention is made of Mrs. Kavanagh in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of July 13, 1889 as "a lady of fine literary tastes" who, at the time, was suffering from nervous prostration.   In June 1892, the oldest son, William L., died of consumption at the age of 26.  Unable to recover from the loss of his son, William J. fell into a deep melancholy and took his own life the following year.  The elder remaining son, Victor, died of consumption in 1901.
Late 19th Century Postmistresses (Cushing. The Story of our Post Office) 

The appointment of a Postmaster was a political appointment.  Although he only served for one term, Major Kavanagh, a Democrat,  was a respected veteran cited for his integrity and was endorsed for a second term by both parties.  With the election of Grover Cleveland, the widowed Mary Kavanagh was appointed Postmaster of Lawrence in 1893 and again in 1897.

She advertised "two fine homes, fully furnished; all improvements, with stables and five acres of ground, located on main road. in the New York Herald of March 1, 1896 and moved to smaller quarters  on Maple Avenue in Cedarhurst with her daughter, Gabriella.  Mary Kavanagh died in Lawrence on March 26, 1917;  her funeral was held at St. Joachim's Church (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 27, 1917, p. 8).(blog updated 5/14/2015)

At the present time, I have not definitively verified a maiden name for Mary Kavanagh, although she is regularly listed as Mary A.S. Kavanagh and she appears as "Mary Ann Stevens O'Reilly Kavanagh" in transcriptions of  birth records of two of her children.  I also have not verified why she was considered an "Indian scholar" by Bellot, though The History of Queens County, New York (Munsell, 1882) refers to her article on another historical subject.   Hopefully, more research will shed more light on this interesting woman and her accomplishments.

Further information:

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