Much like the ‘information wanted’ ads that appeared in 19th Century Irish American newspapers I am posting this notice seeking information on an Irish American living in New York City in the late 19th Century. His name was Michael J. Kerwin, formerly of Philadelphia, and usually was identified either as Colonel or General Kerwin.
I am researching General Kerwin from my home in Sammamish, WA for an article about him for the New York Irish History Roundtable’s annual journal. I have access to digitized historical newspaper archives and have scoured the internet.
Kerwin was commented on frequently in the New York City newspapers from the mid-1880s until 1900, but I have found no collection of personal papers, there is no file on him at the National Records Administration archives in St Louis and I have found just two images of him. Given his higher visibility and notoriety in the papers of his day, I’m hoping materials exists about his time in New York from 1870 to 1912, tucked away somewhere in New York.
General Michael J. Kerwin arrived in New York City in mid-1870. Though only 33 he had already lived a life packed with adventure. But more was in store. At the end of his life, in 1912, he would be described as a brave soldier, wounded four times and nominated for the Medal of Honor. An ardent supporter of freedom for his native land, he was imprisoned in Ireland in 1867 for plotting rebellion. Subsequently, a shadowy figure in the Clan na Gael and political partisan, editor of a political weekly and a Republican ward leader. He was a professional office seeker, he held appointments with the US Postal Service, the US Treasury, the New York City Police Department and the Department of the Interior. He is buried along with his second wife in Arlington Cemetery.
In his day Michael Kerwin was said to be one of the most influential Irish Americans in the city of New York, and yet no one has written substantively of his life there. Of his Civil War exploits much has been written. From infantry private in 1861 to cavalry brigade commander by 1865 his was a remarkable record. In 1866, he joined a band of former Army officers and covertly traveled to Ireland, to lead an army of Fenians thought to be waiting in the shadows.
Instead, Kerwin and the majority of these former Army officers were quickly rounded up by the Crown’s administration and jailed. It took the intervention of the US government to secure Kerwin’s freedom. He returned to his home city of Philadelphia, married, fathered a daughter, and dabbled in short-term employments while he pursued a most pressing business, mobilizing the American Fenians for military action.
There are competing theories about why Kerwin abruptly departed Philadelphia in mid-1870 for New York City, leaving behind family and familiar surroundings. Lacking source primary source materials, we may never uncover Kerwin’s reasoning, but his arrival in New York City follows directly upon the heels of the ‘Fenian Fiasco’, as the press labeled the second invasion of Canada.
Whatever the reasoning, Kerwin turned his back towards Philadelphia, shook its dust from his sandals, and set forth for New York City.
If you have materials in your collection related to Kirwin in New York, researcher Ed O’Shaughnessy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Michael Kerwin.