‘Ladies first’, hollered a burly Russian stevedore, ushering Annie Moore and her two small brothers ahead of the other passengers. As the three youngsters walked down the gangplank towards the glistening new immigration station on Ellis Island, they could see the Statue of Liberty towering over the city of New York to the south. It was New Year’s Day 1892, the day that seventeen-year-old Annie Moore from Cork City became the most famous emigrant in American history.
The station on Ellis Island, which lies just off the New Jersey coast, marked the first serious attempt by the American government to control immigration into the USA. Ireland alone had dispatched at least three million people to New York over the previous seventy years. The opening of the new station was the PR event of the winter for the US Government and they made sure that all of America’s major newspapers were there to capture the event.
It suited everyone that the first person to register her name should be a sweet young Irish girl, described variously as ‘bareheaded’ and ‘buxom’ with a ‘woolly sack buttoned closely about her’. Annie Moore’s name was telegraphed down the wire from Los Angeles to London and a legend was born.
Annie was born in the spring of 1874 in a cottage on the Old Youghal Road, near present day Collins Barracks, in Cork City. Her father Matthew Moore worked a labourer but, in about 1885, sailed for New York with Annie’s mother Julia (nee Cronin) and two older siblings. Annie and two younger brothers went to live with relatives elsewhere in Cork City.
At length, Annie’s parents raised the necessary money to pay for their three younger children to join them in the Big Apple. On 20th December 1891, the trio departed from Queenstown (now Cobh) aboard the Guion Line’s s.s. Nevada. The triple-deck steamship, which offered ‘superior accommodation for all classes at low rates’, was the same ship that had sailed Eamon de Valera’s mother Kate Coll to New York twelve years earlier. She had arrived off Holyhead on the 15th, left Liverpool for New York at noon on Saturday 19th December and picked up Annie the following day.
Annie’s ten-day voyage across the Atlantic was not an easy one. As steerage passengers she and her brothers would have slept in bunk beds near the bottom of the triple-deck steamship. The stench of vomit must have been unbearable, for this was an era of severe weather, heavy gales and high seas. On Christmas Day, an enormous wave broke over the ship, smashing the bridge and fracturing the leg of the captain who was on the bridge at the time.
The Nevada arrived in New York at 3:50pm on Thursday December 31st 1891 and docked at the Hudson pier, from where the first and second-class passengers disembarked for a cursory customs inspection. However, the steerage - or third class - passengers were kept on board until the following day when taken by barge to Ellis Island for a legal and medical examination.
Normal inspections would later last between three and five hours but, given the high profile nature of this first day, Annie’s case was probably studied with greater haste. Symbolic of the importance, she was questioned by Charles M. Hendley, private secretary to the US Secretary of the Treasury. Accompanied by ‘a festive din of bells and steamer whistles’, she was officially registered, presented with a $10 gold piece by the superintendent of immigration and ‘set free in the land of opportunity’. A New York Times journalist reported that Annie told him ‘she will never part with [the gold piece], but will always keep it as a pleasant memento of the occasion’. (Alas, there has been no sighting of the gold piece in modern times).
Later that afternoon, three more large ships docked in New York and a further 700 European immigrants were registered at Ellis Island. By the close of the first year, nearly 450,000 people had been clocked at the station. The fate of Annie Moore vanished into the melee.
Over the ensuing decades, Annie’s story became emblematic of the Irish-American experience. She was hailed as a symbol of all that was courageous, self-sacrificing and noble about Irish emigrants. In truth, few people really knew what became of Annie or her brothers. Until just two years ago, it was believed that they left New York shortly after their arrival and went west to fulfil the American dream. Annie was said to have reached Texas and married a descendant of Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator. That story became all the more dramatic in 1923 when Annie Moore of Texas was run over by a streetcar and killed at the age of 46.
In 2006, American genealogist Megan Smolenyak discovered that Annie Moore of Texas was, in fact, born in Illinois. Thus she could not have been the Annie Moore who arrived at Ellis Island from Co. Cork. Intrigued, Smolenyak offered a $1,000 reward for any further information on Annie. To her delight, this yielded the naturalization certificate for Annie’s brother Philip Moore who was listed in the 1930 census as a chauffeur in Brooklyn. From this detail, Ms. Smolenyak was able to establish contact with Philip’s grandson.
It transpired that, from Ellis Island, the three Moore children were quickly reunited with their parents who were then living in a five-story brick tenement on Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan’s Fourth Ward, the rough-and-tumble tenement area where the bloody gang wars and draft riots of the 1860s took place. Annie remained in the Fourth Ward for the rest of her life. Shortly after her death, this would become the site for the Knickerbocker Village complex of rental apartments and the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public project constructed in the early 1950’s and named for the governor who grew up nearby. One of Annie’s granddaughters, now deceased, lived here until her death in 2001.
She was buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery in Queen’s, New York, alongside five of her children who died young and a sixth child who died aged 21.
Annie’s brother Anthony Moore, who arrived with her on the Nevada, died aged 24 in the Bronx and was buried in a potter’s field. Her other brother Philip was hit by a car and killed on 21 June 1941 at which time he had a job as a sweeper.
In 2006, Ms. Smolenyak’s discovery prompted Cork historian Tim McCoy and a team of 11-year-old students from Cork City’s Scoil Oilibhéir to make a short film about Annie. You can check out the film they made for Roots Television by clicking here. It was during the research for this film that the Moore family’s original home in Cork City and Annie’s baptismal records were revealed. This in turn led Cork City Council to unveil a plaque to Annie’s memory at Rowland’s Lane, the only house left standing where she once lived.
In October 2008, Annie’s small grass-covered grave was marked with a monument of Irish Blue Limestone by master carver Francis McCormack of Tubber, Co. Clare. Ronan Tynan performed at the ceremony, singing ‘Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears’ by Irish composer Brendan Graham. New York’s County Cork Pipe and Drum Band also performed at the ceremony.
Annie’s memory is also recalled by two bronze statues by West Cork based sculptor Jeanne Rynhart — one at Annie’s port of departure in Cobh and the other at Ellis Island, her port of arrival, holding her hat in the harbour breeze.
Prompted by Mrs. Smolenyak’s investigations, Patricia Somerstein, a great-niece of Annie Moore, and Maureen Peterson, a great-granddaughter, have now come forward with photographs. The first dates to the late 1890s, perhaps six or seven years after Annie’s arrival. The second, inscribed ‘Ma Schayer’ on the back, was taken within a few years of her death and shows her as a rather formidable and matronly figure. A third photo almost certainly depicts Annie and her brothers actually at Ellis Island on that famous day but, frustratingly, nobody can yet prove this is definitely them.
Between 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Annie Moore from Cork City was the first of them.
Anyone with further information on this story should email firstname.lastname@example.org or read Megan's thoughts on it all by clicking here.
With thanks to Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Tim McCoy.