Sunday, January 24, 2016

Nellie Hickey & Her Father

Nellie Hickey stands at right outside Chicago's Medinah Temple, 1915;
image is backwards 
(Chicago Historical Society)

Mount Vernon lies just north of the New York City, a twenty-nine minute train ride from Grand Central Station. It was Nellie’s hometown.  

Across the railroad tracks on Second Avenue, the public library endowed by Andrew Carnegie houses a local history room established in 1976 with bicentennial money. It is rarely open because the library can’t afford to staff it. The tables are piled with files and boxes spilling over with papers.

Lying on a dusty desk is a photograph of two women delegates at a 1915 peace convention in Chicago’s Medinah Temple. The caption states that one of the women is Nellie J. Hickey of Mount Vernon, N.Y.  

Who was she? Perhaps a peace activist or suffragist who worked with Jane Addams? She could have been prominent in local political circles or even on the national scene.  There ought to be information about her in the cabinets arranged like a maze through the dark room, creaky wooden drawers crammed so tight that nothing breathes.

But it turns out that Nellie doesn’t occupy even one folder.  Instead there is much about her father, Daniel C. Hickey, a 19th-century Democratic Party operator, borne out in headlines.      

The Democratic Town Convention.

Throw Down Sheriff Duffy

 Keen Competition for the Churches

It was all about political battles. Nellie’s father had a long reach. He probably kept his shady dealings out of the house or at least on the front porch. But the children surely were introduced to a few important visitors; for example, the power-broker William Bourke Cockran, a brilliant orator and congressman who championed Irish home rule.

Further down the road, Cockran would align himself with German-American opposition to U.S. entry into World War I. That made sense because the Germans and the Irish shared a furious loathing of England. 

Thus, although he died years before his daughter went out to the Chicago peace convention – which was, in fact, a pro-Germany rally – at home in Mount Vernon, Nellie’s father had made associations that would shape her future.  


Back in time, when Nell’s father schemed and triumphed all over New York State, he had to pinch himself to remember that he came penniless from Ireland in 1840. From his office at 48 Dey Street in downtown Manhattan (right near the site of the World Trade Center), Hickey built a fortune as a railroad contractor. 

Hickey met equal success in politics. With astonishing whitewash, the author of a 1913 history of the county wrote:

Hickey engaged in politics as a pastime, a recreation from the cares of business, an enjoyment that cost him large sums of money, as he was not an office seeker for himself nor did he expect other pecuniary reward.

It was the polite language of the day, but of course Hickey’s pastime had many rewards. After all, he played politics inside the most notorious big city machine in American history: the Democratic Party’s Tammany Hall.

Tammany’s origins lay in late 18th century New York where its first leader, Aaron Burr, transformed it from a society of speech-makers to a political machine. Through the mid-19th century the Irish came to dominate the organization.

After the Civil War, William Marcy Tweed became Tammany’s first boss, presiding over the ward system through graft, fraud, and plunder. Everything was corruptible. Although the repulsive Tweed was indicted and died in prison, Tammany arose again under the bosses John Kelly and Richard Croker, both good friends of Mr. Hickey.

Hickey the Master of the Situation!

However, by 1894 when he died from a cold he caught while overseeing railroad construction in the Lehigh Valley, Hickey no longer was master of the situation. Tellingly, the governor had recently ignored several of his patronage requests.

You can bet that the Tammany politicians jostled each other on the steps of the Church of the Sacred Heart in the flat light of that funeral morning. The men put their heads together to figure out the next play while the widow Ellen Elizabeth Bird Hickey and her six children sat shocked in the chapel.

The family did not need to worry about money, however. Within a few weeks, the papers reported that Daniel Hickey left no will but his estate included $93,000 in personal property and $75,000 in real estate.

 Church of the Sacred Heart,
Mount Vernon, N.Y.

See also January 20 + 28 posts, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how unapologetic machine politicos were about the system at the time. Shameless and blatant even.


The Little Time Traveler

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