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In search of Charles Dineen

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

Charles Dineen, an Irish immigrant who stepped off a ship at New York harbor in about 1861, is probably unknown even to his descendants, but researchers at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum would like to make him famous. They have high hopes for this man who worked as a store clerk, married a fellow immigrant named Bridget, and fathered three children.

Dineen lived in several apartments in Lower Manhattan, and moved for a time to Pennsylvania, but when he walked into the dark hallway of 97 Orchard St. in 1864, and on up to his apartment, which was illuminated by a kerosene lamp, he may well have stepped into history.

In 1988, work began on the upper floors of 97 Orchard St., a half-century after they’d been abandoned by their last tenants and sealed off; in 1998, in recognition of the museum’s achievements, President Clinton designated the building a national historic site. Last year alone, 84,000 public visitors to its apartments got a glimpse of key moments in the lives of four families who lived in them: the Gompertzes in 1880, the Confinos in 1916, the Rogarshevskys in 1918 and the Baldizzis in 1935.

Even before the Rogarshevsky apartment was unveiled in December 1998, following years of painstaking research, the museum set itself perhaps its biggest challenge to date: to find and tell the story of an Irish family that lived at 97 Orchard St., preferably when the building was new, at the end of or immediately following the Civil War. The plan is to open a new apartment in 2001 or 2002. So far it has been a story of patient detective work, with tantalizing leads and thrilling discoveries.

There have been several obstacles, however, not least is the fact that people often changed address in the working-class immigrant neighborhoods, rarely staying long enough in one place to leave many clues. An estimated 7,000 people lived in 97 Orchard St. in the 71 years it was a 20-unit tenement building. And only a small percentage of those, it seems, were Irish. In Charles Dineen’s day, the building was in the heart of Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland.

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Researchers, under the direction of museum curator Steve Long, scoured city records looking for Irish immigrants with the address 97 Orchard St. beside their names. They found about a dozen from various decades and began “tracking” all of them. “We identified four main prospects,” Long said. “Three in the Civil War draft records — Jeremiah Sullivan, Thomas Driene and Charles Dineen — and a fourth, Thomas Feeley, who was from Leitrim, in the records of the Immigrant Savings Bank.” At this point, Long has the most information on Dineen, particularly after he left 97 Orchard, but as yet no one Irish family has emerged from the mists of time to take its place alongside the other families.

Long’s research falls under three main headings: “genealogy,” “objects” and “context.” The genealogical search goes in the opposite direction to the usual. “We start back then and come forward,” Long said. “The descendants are now probably spread out all over the country.” In past searches, descendants have provided vital information and photographs.

The museum has a specialist curator, Pamela Keech, whose job is to identify and then purchase authentic objects and furnishings for the apartment. “What would be the likely way an Irish family would decorate their home?” Long said. “For the 1860s, this is especially difficult; there are no photographers like Jacob Riis [the social reformer and writer] going around as there are in later periods.”

Trade catalogs of the time are essential in this regard. “What is being offered to Irish families? What kind of books? Would they have steamship tickets about to send to relatives back home? Are there pictures of saints? What sorts of beds are for sale? What is the immigrant of the 1860s going to be able to afford?” Long said.

The museum’s interpretation of one Irish family story will be informed by the immediate context in which they lived. “For example, are there articles in Irish newspapers about people moving into a primarily German neighborhood?” Long said. “What sorts of jobs are the immigrants taking? What is the definition of a clerk?”

Before the apartment is opened to the public, Hunter College professors Edward O’Donnell, who is also the Irish Echo’s “Hibernian Chronicles” columnist, and Bernadette McCaughley will review the museum’s exhibit plan for accuracy.

Symbolic portal

If the area was German after the Civil War, it became Eastern European later. The Lower East Side is still largely identified with the great waves of Jewish immigrants who arrived from Russia and Poland in the decades before World War I. But the district is a symbolic portal to America for many groups.

“People from more than 20 countries lived at 97 Orchard St.,” said Ruth Abram, the Tenement Museum’s founder and president. Abram herself is from a mixed religious and multinational background. Her mother was a convert from Methodism to her father’s Judaism and she has family roots in Ireland, England, Prussia and Romania. She also knows what it is to be an outsider. She was raised in a Jewish home in Atlanta, the daughter of the civil rights lawyer Morris Abram. Martin Luther King Jr. was a visitor to her family home when she was a child. Her parents advised her not to mention the famous guest at school, where she’d already experienced anti-Semitism. The museum’s stated mission reflects these early influences: “To promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.”

Said Abram: “The reason for interpreting at all is that there are so many parallels with today. We’re very anxious that visitors get these parallels.”

The museum is involved in a variety of programs with the local communities of people from Asian and Latin American countries. “We’re teaching English to people in our neighborhood,” Abram said. The museum has developed a curriculum using the diaries of immigrants of previous generations. “Today’s immigrants are discovering how much they have in common with those people, and that they are also part of the American saga,” she said.

It was in this multi-ethnic and multiracial milieu that the Irish, a rural people, became urban and part of the American saga. “They were no longer what they had been,” said writer Peter Quinn. “The difference between being Irish and being Irish American was the contact with other groups. Sometimes it was a positive mingling, and often it was marked by constant tension. Whichever it was, they weren’t staying the same.”

Unrecorded lives; discovery

The Lower East Side is very much part of the Irish American story, according to Quinn. “As a result of the Famine, one million Irish came through the port of New York,” he said. Most moved on but some stayed, including his father’s maternal grandparents. “My father was born on Drydock Street in 1904, above his father’s bar,” he said.

Peter Quinn’s novel about 19th century Irish immigrants, “The Banished Children of Eve,” is largely set in the 1860s, the same decade Charles Dineen was making his way in America.

“I think the lives of these people have gone unrecorded, in terms of their daily lives, whether they succeeded, whether they failed,” Quinn said.

“What the museum is doing is not only positive, it’s important work. I just hope they don’t dig up any information about the criminal past of any of my relatives,” he added, joking.

Much of the initial detective work, namely looking through microfilm records, has been done by interns. “For the most part, they get excited by it,” Steve Long said. “It can be really frustrating at times, but finally they’ll come across the needle.”

Rebecca Hinde a graduate of metropolitan studies at NYU, who worked at the museum her entire senior year, found more than one needle. For instance, she suggested that the “Charles Dencen” of 97 Orchard St., who they’d been tracking without luck, might really have been Charles Deneen. From that point they could follow in outline the life of this immigrant clerk. The name was spelled a few ways by those keeping records, but Charles Dineen stayed at addresses long enough for researchers to track the variations.

It was when Hinde searched the handwritten records of nearby St. Mary’s Catholic Church that she made her most interesting discovery. “I found a baptismal record for a child in 1864 whose father was named Jeremiah Sullivan. The sponsor was Charles Dineen. There was no address but they would seem to be the two in the Civil War draft records,” she said.

There were other Jeremiah Sullivans in Lower Manhattan, which has made following the one at 97 Orchard difficult, but there’s only one Charles Dineen. “It was too much of a coincidence. They had to be the two guys we were tracking,” Long said.

Hinde also searched in vain for any record of the birth or death of a baby in the Dineen household in the years 1864 and 1865. “The museum would like someone who was giving birth. It would be possible then to focus on pre-natal care, infant mortality and so on,” she said.

“I really enjoyed the research. You have to be conscientious, but sometimes I was overly conscientious,” said Hinde, a Massachusetts native whose mother’s family is Irish. “And it’s easy to go off on a tangent. The big payoff was the baptismal record, which refers to Jeremiah Sullivan and Charles Dineen. That was a very exciting but it wasn’t the one great moment we were looking for.”

The museum is still looking for the breakthrough piece of information that will provide the basis of an Irish story at 97 Orchard St. In the case of the Rogarshevskys, for example, it was the 1918 death certificate of the head of the household, Abraham. The baptismal record of Jeremiah Sullivan’s child may turn out to be a significant find, but they haven’t found an official birth certificate, which would have an address. The Board of Health, which still supervises these records in New York City, was not created until 1866.

Death by “exhaustion”

Hinde’s discovery of Dineen’s real name led in time to finding his death certificate. Charles Dineen died on Sept. 9, 1873 at 11 Crosby St. He was 35, the certificate recorded, and had been in the country for 12 years. The immediate cause was listed as exhaustion. The primary cause of death is given as “phithisus pulmonalis,” which is probably tuberculosis. His wife, Bridget, bought the family plot the next day and descendants paid for its upkeep until 1960. The census records of both 1870 and 1880 show that the couple had three living children: Dennis, born in Pennsylvania in 1867, followed by Catherine and James in New York. After 1880, the family disappears from view, at least for now.

It will take more work and finance to help Long in his search. The museum has established a fund-raising committee under the chairmanship of Jim Gill, managing partner at Robinson Silverman. Gill was one of the honorees at the Tenement Museum’s annual dinner in June.

“I certainly hope the Irish apartment will be a lot fancier than the Jewish and the Italian apartments,” he quipped on that occasion. “I called on all the Irish people I know,” Gill said of his committee. “It’s a good group.” Its first event will be a cocktail party at the museum after the November elections.

“The apartment will recall a time when the Irish were scorned and spit upon,” Gill said. “They had it rough. And they had courage, when you think of people like Annie Moore [the first person to be processed at Ellis Island], who came at age 17 without any relatives in this country. But they became part of the melting pot with groups such as the Jews and the Italians. They were the foundation on which the nation was built.”

Said Quinn: “In the Lower East Side there was a confluence of Irish and New York history. It’s really an unwritten chapter in the history of Ireland and an unwritten chapter in the history of New York. Too much history is about kings and queens and about the rich and the infamous.”

Meanwhile, Steve Long continues in pursuit of the crucial piece of evidence that will anchor the Irish story. “We’ll keep looking and looking, and we’ll find it,” he said.

The Tenement Museum can be reached at (212) 431-0233 or at its web site www.tenement.org.

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