On This Day in 1909, John Francis Burke, passed away. He was 62 years old. He was my great great grandfather.
In 1847, the great famine in Ireland was in full swing. Food prices had skyrocketed and those who needed food the most, couldn’t afford any. The summer’s crop of potatoes survived, but the crop was inadequate to feed the masses because everyone was afraid to plant. The British Relief Association raised money throughout America and Europe to send assistance. Soup kitchens opened, and people actually collapse and died of starvation trying to get to them. People poured onto ships bound for Canada and America. One shipwreck in April, killed 250 emigrants. In May, one sailed to Canada and was the cause of a typhus epidemic. When all was said and done, between 1845 and 1852, one million people died of starvation and another one million emigrated from Ireland.
This was the atmosphere John Francis Burke was born into. He was born in Dublin on February 27, 1847. One can imagine that his parents were very resourceful, perhaps with the negative connotations of that trait: stingy, tight-fisted, and ungenerous. They spent years struggling to feed their children, and when the potato blight was over, they probably didn’t break the cycle of struggle, just in case it should happen again.
Not much is known about his parents or his childhood. A family member told me his sibling had the same names as his children, so I expect there was a Patrick, Robert, Emmett, Nina, Virginia, Kathleen, David, and/or an Edmond somewhere in the bunch. When he was a young lad of 15, he snuck down to the shipyard and stowed away on an American-bound ship. After they set sail, the captain found him en route and told him the ship couldn’t take him back home. He replied to the captain, “If I wanted to go home, I wouldn’t have stowed away.” We don’t know the relationship or lack of one he had with his parents and siblings, but we can imagine his mother searching for her fifteen-year-old son and being heartbroken. I don’t know if he ever contacted his family after leaving Dublin.
The ship dropped him off in Miami, Florida in 1862. Yes, 1862, during the middle of the Civil War. Confederate War Records show a couple men with similar names that could be him serving in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The 1870 census shows a couple names that could be him: one in Florida and one in Alabama. He finally shows up in the 1880 census as being a “ditcher” and living with his new in-laws, the Spencer family.
On December 10, 1879, at the age of 32, he married Nancy Didama Spencer in Lauderdale County, Mississippi. Over the next fourteen years, they had six children: John Patrick 1880, Robert Emmett 1883, George Washington 1886, Nina Virginia 1889, Kathlene L 1892, and David Edmond 1894. These children prove John and Nancy must have liked each other a little bit, but a new snag appears in 1900.
The 1900 census shows Nancy living at home with all the children and listed as a “widow.” I didn’t understand this because John’s headstone clearly says he died in 1909. Finally a cousin told me Nancy did not believe in divorce, but she and John lived in the same house and did not speak to each other for the last fifteen years of their marriage. This also explains why they are buried in different rows at the cemetery. From a psychological standpoint, I wonder if he left Dublin because of his father’s personality and then became just like the man, causing his wife to dislike him. What could someone do that was so bad to tell a census taker he was dead? After John’s death August 18, 1909, the 1910 census shows Nancy as a widow with five children still at home. John is laid to rest at Liberty Baptist Church Cemetery in Duffee, Mississippi, among children and grandchildren.
On a lighter note, I know his son John Patrick “Pat” (my great grandfather) was a fiddle player on the weekends at barn dances. I wonder if Pat learned to play from his father. Playing the fiddle is such an Irish thing to do, don’t you think?