Mary Kenney O’Sullivan: ‘A noble young woman on fire for her cause’
A bronze likeness of Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, on exhibit in the Boston Statehouse.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
The likeness of Mary Kenney O’Sullivan is depicted in bronze at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. The monument, titled “Hear Us,” was dedicated in 1999 by State House Women’s Leadership Project, and honors six women of distinction.
O’Sullivan, one of those six women, was a champion for women factory workers during her lifetime (1864-1943), as well as a suffragette.
Born during the Civil War in Hannibal, Mo., Mary was the youngest daughter of Irish-born Michael and Mary Kenney’s four children. Michael worked as a laborer. When Michael Kenney died circa 1878, financial circumstances led 14-year-old Mary into the workforce.
According to printed biographies, her first job was at a book bindery in Hannibal, where she earned $2 a week. Four years later, as a supervisor for the company, she moved with the firm to Keokuk, Iowa, all the while living with and supporting her mother. By that time, circa 1885, she was earning $5 per week.
The bindery company failed a few years later, forcing Mary to seek new employment. She left Keokuk, moving with her mother to Chicago, where she quickly found new work in the book binding field.
John Galvin, a Boston writer, penned a biographical piece on Mary Kenney O’Sullivan for the Boston Globe, published as a Labor Day tribute on Sept. 3, 1984. He offered intimate details of O’Sullivan’s personal life, which he obtained via research at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.
He wrote: (In Chicago) “She was appalled at the squalor of the city, ‘the tragedies of meagerly paid workers, the haunting faces of undernourished children, the filth.’”
She, in turn, set forth to organize the bookbinders union for women in Chicago.
By doing so, she was able to improve working conditions for women, and increase their pay as well.
She told the Boston Globe in 1907 that as a book binder in Keokuk she worked her way up to $11 a week before leaving the trade, at which she had worked 14 years without a vacation.
Once again quoting Galvin: “Tall, comely, with wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks, Mary Kenney was - as Wellesley professor Vida Dutton Scudder later described her - ‘a noble young woman on fire for her cause.’”
Mary Kenney continued her work on behalf of labor unions, leaving Chicago for New York, and then on to Boston in 1892. In Boston, she served as national organizer of the American Federation of Labor.
She met and married John F. O’Sullivan, labor editor for the Boston Globe. Both continued on their crusade to improve working conditions for men and women.
A newspaper report noted that their son, John Kenney O’Sullivan, died of diphtheria shortly after his first birthday, in 1896. They had three more children: Mortimer Kenney O’Sullivan, (1898-1964); Roger J. O’Sullivan (died in 1962) and Mary.
The family, settled at Beachmont, Revere, Mass., suffered its greatest tragedy on Sept. 22, 1902, when John F. O’Sullivan, 44, was hit and killed by a train at Lynn, Mass.
The news of O’Sullivan’s death spread across the news wires, and was picked up and reprinted in the Quincy, Ill., Daily Herald on Sept. 23, 1902.
“He had come to Lynn to address a meeting and on leaving his train, fell across another track upon which a train was making a flying switch, and he was beheaded,” the newspaper reported.
The tragic death sent shock waves through the labor and newspaper circles in Boston.
The Boston Globe, for which O’Sullivan worked, expressed its concern for the widow.
“The greatest sympathy for the widow of Mr. O’Sullivan is felt, and though bearing up bravely under the terrible affliction that has befallen her, her friends are deeply concerned for her welfare.”
Understandably, she did suffer a breakdown following her husband’s death, and later publicly told that she was treated for a time at a sanitarium.
At the sanitarium, she was taught to sleep outside in winter as a preventative, as well as a cure for tuberculosis, she said.
Love for labor
She never again worked as a paid advocate for labor issues, but never stopped her quest for improved working conditions for members of the labor force. She said that her actions on behalf of labor, from the time of her husband’s death, were done out of love for the cause.
After her husband’s death, she made her living managing property in the Boston area.
In 1914, Kenney was appointed to the position of factory inspector by the Department of Labor, and she held that job for the next 20 years.
In 1907, while she was the manager of a tenement building at 88 Warrenton street in Boston, she drew the attention of a Boston Globe reporter.
Atop the building, she had constructed a shanty made of rough sawed wood, with a layer of rubberoid outside the boards.
Following the example she learned at the sanitarium, she slept in this shanty - on the tenement building’s roof - for the entire winter, sleeping on a hair mattress with a heavy pad, covering herself with blankets.
“Three years ago, to be sure, I broke down and went to a sanitarium where I learned to sleep out of doors. Ever since then I’ve been looking for a way to get back to it but only this winter have I found what suits my conditions,” she told the newspaper reporter.
The coldest night of the winter was 14 degrees below zero.
Mary’s sister, Rose (Bridget) Kenney Robinson, also settled in Boston. The 1910 and 1920 census records reveal a close business association between the two. The widowed sisters were associated with property on Dudley Street, Boston Ward 13, Suffolk, in 1920 described as a bath house. Rose Robinson was named the matron, and Mary O’Sullivan was a real estate agent. Both were widows with children.
Mary Kenney O’Sullivan died in January, 1943, and is buried at Saint Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury, Suffolk County, Mass.
Buried with her are her husband, her son who died in 1896, and her mother, Mary Kenney, 1835-1899.
She was survived by her sons, Mortimer and Roger John O’Sullivan, who in 1950 were both captains in the United States Maritime service; and her daughter, Dr. Mary E. O’Sullivan, a neurologist from
In addition to her aforementioned sister, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan also had two brothers, Thomas Kenney, born in Iowa circa 1858, and Michael Kenney, born circa 1867 in Hannibal.
Note: Paul Kenney has published a book based on the life and accomplishments of Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, titled “Angel from the Dust.” It is available in paperback from: amazon.com
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Montgomery.email@example.com Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com
John F. ‘OSullivan. Photo was published in the Boston Globe March 13, 1902, following his tragic death. He was married to Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, a native of Hannibal, Mo. newspapers.com
The O’Sullivan family gravestone at Saint Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury, Suffolk County, Mass. Findagrave by redsxfan
The shanty where Mary Kenney O’Sullivan slept in 1907. The structure was atop the tenement building at 88 Warrenton street in Boston. She slept outdoors for an entire winter as a preventative health measure. Photo: Boston Globe, May 12, 1907, newspapers.com
Denison House, Boston. Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, her husband and children lived at Denison House in Boston for several years during the 1890s. The original Denison House was located at 93 Tyler Street, a red brick row house. It quickly outgrew that space, and the adjoining house was added on. By the 1920s it occupied five row houses with a shared entrance at number 93. Source: WikiVisually.com
A sketch of Mary E. Kenney, published in the Los Angeles Evening Express June 16, 1892. newspapers.com