The Violent Deaths of Irish Immigrants
By: Rachel Forsythe
Is it possible to find life through death? Through the Cincinnati birth and death records it is possible to piece together aspects of an individual’s life through their death. The target demographic for this study is Irish immigrants who died violent and often horrific deaths. These deaths include horrible accidents, suicide, and even murder. Throughout the years of 1865-1912, there were hundreds of instances in which Irish people died extremely violent deaths. Take in account the death of Elizabeth Bynes. At the young age of 34, Elizabeth ended her own life by purposely burning to death. Why are their deaths so violent and painful? It is impossible to know exactly why these people met this fate. But, by looking through history, it is possible to piece together a picture of the life of the Irish immigrant in the 19th and early 20th century.
The potato famine of 1845 lead to a large wave of Irish people emigrating to America. Irish people fled from their homeland in an attempt to escape starvation and disease. Between 1820 and 1930, an estimated 4.5 million Irish people left Ireland. Although some may have had hopes of becoming farmers like they were in their homeland, they often had to take low paying and undesirable positions. These jobs included working on railroads and canals, not only low-paying, but also extremely dangerous.
During the waves of immigration, several families would reside in subdivided houses originally intended for one family. There was usually no running water or sewage. Moreover, Irish workers could barely sustain their families and could not afford adequate living arrangements or medicine. Perhaps feeling as though there was no better option for them, some of these Irish immigrants made a deadly decision. In the Cincinnati birth and death records, there are 63 cases of suicide among Irish immigrants. These people took their own lives in several different ways, including shooting, drowning, hanging, and even poisoning themselves. Out of the 63 deaths, only 15 of these deaths were that of women. The average age of death was 50 years old and their age ranged from as young as 23 to 88. According to the chart below, suicide was most commonly carried out through poisoning. One thing that is particularly disturbing is the brutality of the suicides. For example, there are six cases in which the person slit their own throat and one instance where a woman burned herself to death. This also coincides with the large amount of people who hung or shot themselves. Irish immigrants were also murdered in very violent ways. Out of all 40 recorded homicides of Irish immigrants, 11 of these people were killed by being bludgeoned. Ten were shot to death and eight died from stabbing. These victims were almost all laborers or unemployed. Perhaps the high poverty rate and low standard of living could have influenced these crimes.
Irish laborers often worked in extremely dangerous environments. According to the records, there are 34 deaths of Irish laborers caused by accidents. It can be inferred that most of these accidents occurred in the workplace. For example, several of these deaths are caused by railroad accidents. According to Ryan Dearinger in The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West, Irish laborers were a heavy part of the workforce on railroads in the mid-19th century. But, the work was dangerous and railroad accidents took the lives of several Irish laborers.
The life of many an Irish immigrant in the 19th century was the complete opposite of the “American Dream.” Seeking a safe haven away from starvation and disease, Irish immigrants found themselves in danger of death and disease once again. For some, they found violent ends to their long journey.
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