My Grandmother's Early Life
In Allegany County
J. Terrence O'Herron
My grandmother, Josephine Muldoon O'Herron, was born on July 9, 1884, in Allegany County near the small village of Belfast. The first eleven years of her life were spent on a farm located not far from that village. These early years near Belfast must have been memorable ones since she never tired of telling her grandchildren stories of all that she could recall of her childhood. Many of her tales were of events that she actually saw and lived through, while others were those that someone else had entertained her with when she was a child. These stories, like a good wine, always seemed to improve with age. It appeared as if her memory grew sharper as she got older since a myriad of details were added to each successive retelling. While I am not able to attest to the veracity of her facts, my better judgment and childish belief tells me to accept each and every detail as the gospel truth. Without this faith, her stories were meaningless.
It has been seven years since I last heard these tales of my grandmother, but she had told them so many different times that I doubt that any details will be left out. Anyway, she never told the same story twice in exactly the same manner.
Since some of the events involved relatives, a genealogical chart has been added as an appendix.
On May 17, 1837, in Dublin, Ireland, Patrick Muldoon took Marie Donahue for his bride and immediately set sail for Canada. Patrick Muldoon was an educated man in a day when having an education was something of a distinction. He was being sent to Canada with a surveying outfit by the British Government. Nine weeks after leaving Ireland they landed in North America. After working in Upper Cornwall, Canada, for about a year, the Muldoons drifted across the border into Western New York where the father acquired twenty acres of land in Allegany County near the present village of Belfast. Perhaps the building of the Genesee Canal at that time lured him to this region. Surely Pat Muldoon must have known of its construction, possibly from the British surveying outfit he was with in Canada. However, family tradition has it that he became a farmer and we can only speculate as to whether he ever actually did any work on the Genesee Canal. In the next twenty years Patrick and Marie Muldoon had three daughters and six sons born to them, the youngest of which was Frank Muldoon, my great-grandfather.
In the year 1848 on the twelfth day of July, an immigrant from England named Samuel Osborn wed a young lady named Abagail Johnson. Originally they settled in Ohio, but wandered back into New York State. By 1850, they, too, had settled in Allegany County. The Osborns raised two sons and five daughters, the second youngest being Harriet Osborn, my great-grandmother.
Frank Muldoon took Harriet Osborn as his lawful wedded wife on November 17, 1882, and they settled down outside of Belfast on the Muldoon farm to raise their family. All of the older Muldoon children, except a brother Edward, had either married or moved away from the home, so it was natural that the youngest son should stay behind to care for his aging parents. It was on this small farm on July 9, 1884, that my paternal grandmother, Josephine Muldoon, was born. Two years later a sister, Mary, arrived to complete the family. They were to live on the Muldoon farm until the year 1895.
Stories from Belfast
Belfast, New York, wasn't much of a community when my grandmother lived there as a young girl, nor does it amount to much at the present time (1967). Today there are less than five hundred inhabitants in the village and on the surrounding farms. Many of the buildings located there are the original structures erected almost one hundred years ago. My grandmother, on her periodic visits to this site of her birth, would comment on how little things had changed in the last fifty years, and then would proceed to point out where this family lived or that man ran his store. She loved to remember things, which as a a result, turned her into a magnificent story teller.
Life on a farm consists largely of routine work with little to entertain a small child. Thus, when something unusual did occur, it was bound to be retained for future reminiscing. Many hours must have been spent listening to local gossip and watching the adults at work. One of my grandmother's favorite pastimes was to go down to the village from the farm to visit her grandfather Osborn at work in his shop. "Grandpa" Osborn was not only a skilled carpenter, but also the local undertaker. One profession complemented the other since he was able to make his own caskets for his customers. Into the cacophony of the workshop my grandmother would wander to watch her grandfather bang away with the tools of his trade. In order to supply power to his crude machinery, especially the lathe, "Grandpa" Osborn had a horse walking on a treadmill in constant procession. This apparently fascinated the young Muldoon girl, and to entertain herself on a dull afternoon she would walk the treadmill alongside the horse, trying to keep up the pace with her short legs. She must have been quite young when engaging in this activity since she always said she had "a devil of a time keeping up with that darn horse." This statement usually would be followed by a fit of short laughter and a stifled grin conveying the pleasure of these past memories.
"Grandpa" Osborn was also the subject of another family story, which has always been my favorite. I used to tease my grandmother into telling it over and over again hoping to catch her in an inaccuracy that would indicate that it really wasn't true. But to the day she died she swore that it really happened, and, whether it is true or not, it makes for an unusual tale. It was related to me in the following manner. One day "Grandpa" Osborn was hard at work making some furniture in his shop down in the village. While using his plane to smooth out the surface of the wood, he inadvertantly got his hand in the way and sliced off the end of one of his fingers. Having no medical knowledge and knowing that no doctor was to be found in the area, he reacted quickly and wisely. Picking up the severed fingertip he dipped it into his glue pot and stuck it back on his injured stub. Wrapping the wound up with bandages, he went home, never sought any further medical attention, and "saved his finger."
An aunt of my grandmother named Abbie Etta Osborn married a man named Fred Hutchinson, and this couple raised my grandmother after the death of her own mother in 1895. It was from Fred Hutchinson that my grandmother heard another good tale, admittedly a secondhand one. As a very young child, Fred Hutchinson's mother had been brought to Western New York with her family when this region was nothing more than a wilderness. They lived in a log cabin that consisted of nothing more than a large common room with a stone fireplace at one end, and a loft for sleeping that was reached by means of a crude ladder. At night after retiring to their beds in the loft, the family would haul up the steps behind them. This was to prevent any unannounced visitors from taking advantage of them while they rested. One night while the family was secured in their loft, the door of the cabin suddenly crashed open, and in walked three Indians. (I've always wondered why that door wasn't latched.)
The three figures never spoke a word, but simply went over to the fireplace and lay down to rest on the heat of the hearth. Up in the loft a little girl watched wide-eyed and frightened, having heard of the past savagery of these aborigines. But before dawn they picked up their belongings and left as silently as they had arrived. No words had been exchanged; no damage had been done. My grandmother explained that was apparently the custom on the frontier in those days in the early nineteenth century after the Indians had been subdued. So logically I asked what there was to be frightened about. Her reply, unusually given in an octave above her normal voice, was "Because these dirty savages were the same kind that had murdered the Jemison family and carried their little baby, Mary, off in captivity." Apparently the story of the Jemison slaughter, which had happened in the Genesee River area was still an incendiary subject. This was many years after the incident yet it was remembered by a good many people living in Allegany County. I'm sure that my grandmother never saw a real Indian, but if she had, she would have immediately hated the "dirty savage."
It was concerning the Muldoon side of the family that the greatest wealth of reminiscences was gathered. Two of my grandmother's uncles, John and William Muldoon, usually were brought up in any of her storytelling sessions. John, who was the oldest of the Muldoon boys, had volunteered to serve in the cavalry with the Union forces during the Civil War. He quickly rose to the rank of a captain and participated in a number of engagements. Three times he had his mount shot out from under him, and he was also cited for bravery. Eventually he was wounded. He died a few years after the war from the effects of these wounds.
All these events took place before the birth of my grandmother, but that didn't prevent her from being an expert on the Civil War. She would tell us of those "dirty rebels" coming up to Gettysburg and of the "thousands of young boys that had been slaughtered." "Brother fought against brother, and sometimes whole families were divided. It was terrible, terrible, terrible."
Her emotions were only natural for one who had been raised in a family where the death of the eldest son could be attributed to the Civil War. Thus, she spoke of those "dirty rebels" with the same look of fire in her eyes that she also had been referring to the Indians as those "dirty savages." And to emphasize her words, a session would end with my grandmother trudging off to her storeroom to produce the cavalry saber that her Uncle John had carried through so many battles.
My grandmother's attitude toward the Confederate forces as well as towards the Indians is a good indication of how prejudices were inherited in small communities by people who lived years after the actual events had occurred. Nevertheless, her passions and hatreds were just as strong as the feelings of those who were alive to witness the causes of these emotions.
The hero of all the many stories of the Muldoon family was another uncle, William Muldoon. He had left the farm in Belfast before the birth of my grandmother, and had ended up in New York City as a policeman. Being a huge man with a bent toward athletics he got involved in wrestling, and in 1880 defeated Thiebaud Bauer for the Greco-Roman Championship of the World. (Muldoon: The Solid Man of Sport, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1929. See page 55.)
He had become an expert on physical fitness and also followed the boxing game. In 1889 he became acquainted with John L. Sullivan, "the strong boy of Boston." Sullivan, who had won the heavyweight boxing title by defeating Paddy Ryan seven years before, was preparing to defend that title against Jake Kilrain down in Mississippi. However, Sullivan was at this time a sad wreck of an athlete, having become quite fond of drinking and carousing, and being grossly overweight. It was to William Muldoon that Sullivan turned for help in getting him back into shape. Thus, in the Spring of 1889 William Muldoon brought the great John L. Sullivan up to the family farm in Belfast to train him.
At this time my grandmother was only a little girl five years of age living on that same farm. She would recall all the men out in the barn "sweating and straining and doing all sorts of exercises." But especially she remembered one "huge, gigantic Irishman who stood well over six feet in height with a massive beer-barrel chest who swore constantly." She always claimed he was the biggest man she had ever seen.
While watching her mother churn butter one day in the kitchen, the back door was thrown wide open and in rumbled the great John L. Without uttering a syllable, he marched across the kitchen floor, put his hairy arms around the butter churn, lifted it up to shoulder height, and took a long draught of the buttermilk floating on the top. Setting down his heavy load, he wiped the excess off his mustache, and swaggered back out the door to the barn. When telling of this incident, my grandmother might jump up, throw her shoulders back and strut across the room to demonstrate the scene she had witnessed as she had hidden behind the dress of her mother many years before in Belfast. The recollection ended with the afterthought that Sullivan went on to defeat Kilrain in 45 rounds in what was the last of the bare-knuckle championship bouts. Some accounts of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight say that it lasted for 75 rounds, but 45 rounds was the figure always given to me by my grandmother. Never were we allowed to forget that it was my grandmother's uncle that had been the trainer of the great John L. Sullivan, and that she herself had seen that most famous of Irish-Americans.
This same uncle, William Muldoon, had had some experiences with a circus as a strong man, which was natural for a man so well known for his physical prowess. From his experiences he acquired a beautiful white circus horse, which he kept up on the farm. One winter night the people in the farmhouse heard the fire gong sounding down in the village below. Looking down the hill they could see that a fire was raging in the vicinity of the Catholic Church. My great-grandfather, Frank Muldoon, decided to go and give what assistance he could. He ran to the barn, mounted the big white circus horse belonging to his brother, and started down the hill to Belfast. Being the middle of winter, however, the roads were all covered with ice and the poor horse couldn't get his footing on the steep slope of the hill. So, as my grandmother told me, her father side-stepped the horse all the way down the gradient, a step the horse had learned in the circus. My grandmother recalls seeing from the second floor window "the most beautiful white horse in the world with a long bushy tail, silhouetted in the night by the flames of the burning building, feeling his way slowly down the slippery slope. Now that's what I call an intelligent animal."
The story of the burning Catholic Church always brought up another point about our family history. Most of the Irish that had come to America in the early 1800s were Roman Catholics. However, as family tradition has it, Patrick Muldoon had a disagreement with the parish priest back in the "old country," and, being a stubborn Irishman, left the Church. Consequently, when he raised his family in Western New York they became "good, God-fearing Baptists." My grandmother explained that when the family migrated to Belfast the predominate religion was Baptist, so, for want of another religion to join, the Muldoons followed the example of their neighbors. As Baptists, the Muldoons considered Sunday to be a day of rest. No work would be done on the farm at all, and there was no time for play. Any form of recreation consisted of "going visiting" friends, neighbors, or relatives. And woe to the Muldoon that desecrated the Sabbath. Perhaps it was on such visits that my grandmother heard many of the stories that she was to recreate for her grandchildren over a half century later.
All of the tales of life on the farm in Belfast were gathered by my grandmother before she was eleven years old. In 1895 she moved to Elmira after the death of her mother. However, the memory of her early years was most vivid, and I always suspected that what she couldn't remember she made up. Nevertheless, she was an excellent storyteller and a grand old woman. Many of her tales were secondhand and I'm sure she seasoned and spiced them up a bit before passing them along to her grandchildren. But she really was the last link in our family to the dying art of the oral tradition. I hope that nothing is lost in the tradition of her stories when they are related to my own grandchildren.
© 1996, J. Terrence O'Herron