Building from a life of destitution

Posted 4/19/23

The average American earned between $500 and $1,000 per year. Bread was four cents a loaf, a quart of milk cost nine cents and sugar was priced at 30 cents per pound. It was the autumn of 1899 and, …

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Building from a life of destitution

Elizabeth O'Connor's granddaughter, Elizabeth Doyle.
Elizabeth O'Connor's granddaughter, Elizabeth Doyle.
Submitted photo

The average American earned between $500 and $1,000 per year. Bread was four cents a loaf, a quart of milk cost nine cents and sugar was priced at 30 cents per pound. It was the autumn of 1899 and, for many single-parent families, pennies meant the difference between life and death.

Elizabeth (Harrison) O'Connor was a 37-year-old mother of six; Margaret, 13; Mary, 10; Ellen, 8; Anna, 5; John, 4; and Willie, 2. About a month earlier, in August, Elizabeth had moved herself and her children to the village of Merino which had been a possession of Johnston until claimed by the town of Providence in 1898. There, the seven of them were packed into a small tenement which consisted of a kitchen and two bedrooms on the top floor of an aged wooden structure behind the stone houses near Merino Mill.

Elizabeth, an English immigrant, had been married to John O’Connor, and Irish immigrant, since 1886. The 40-year-old man did not live with his family or assist with their support. On the morning of Sept. 11, 1899, Elizabeth was desperate. The children were all sick with what appeared to be malaria, a parasitic disease spread by mosquitos. At about 12:30 that afternoon, she decided to walk to Olneyville, over a mile away, to somehow procure quinine, a medication that killed the parasites associated with malaria. She had been gone for almost an hour when the woman who lived on the bottom floor of the structure heard the children crying. She went upstairs to check on them. A few minutes later, Providence police received a call from the superintendent of the Merino Mill. He stated that one of the O’Connor children was deceased in her bed.

A police officer immediately started for Merino, stopping only to inform the Medical Examiner of what had occurred. The two men arrived at the tenement at the same time and ventured into one of the worst scenes of destitution that either had ever witnessed. Teenaged Margaret lay in bed, shivering with chills. Beside her, little Ellen lay cold and still. The other children, also sick but not in bed, clustered around the two men, scared, starving and crying.

The Medical Examiner believed that Ellen had died of malaria. However, her death certificate would later declare that her cause of death was deficient nourishment. The M.E. believed that the other children were suffering from malaria as well and doubted that Margaret would survive.

Margaret did survive. She soon obtained a job as a mill spinner and she and Mary moved into another residence with their mother on Hartford Avenue in Providence while Annie, John and Willie were placed at the St. Vincent De Paul Infant Asylum. Willie died there at 9:00 on the morning of Jan. 11, 1900 of oral gangrene caused by malnutrition. He was laid to rest in the old Catholic Cemetery in Providence.

By 1910, John O’Connor Sr. had come back into the lives of his wife and what were left of his children. The family lived on Wendell Street in Providence and John Sr. was employed as a department store salesman. All of their surviving children lived them with. Margaret was a cloth inspector at a worsted mill while Mary and Anna were winders there.

By 1930, the family had moved to Althea Street in Providence. Margaret had married James Doyle on June 15, 1920 and moved out. By 1940, however, she was widowed and living with her parents and

18-year-old daughter Elizabeth at the Althea Street home. She worked on sewing projects for the Works Progress Administration and, in the years to come, her daughter would become a social studies teacher working at middle schools in both Providence and Barrington.

Elizabeth had graduated from Assumption Junior High School, St. Xavier High School and the Rhode Island College of Education, where she was an editorial assistant on the college newspaper “The Anchor.” She had served as class vice president and secretary on the student council, taken part in the Dramatic League, studied both French and Latin and been named to Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.

Elizabeth married Major Gerald Precourt, a graduate of LaSalle Academy and a member of the U.S. Army Air Force. Trained to fly B-29 bombers, Precourt served in the military for 42 years. After graduating from the College of Manhattan, he went to work for the State of RI’s Department of Public Works Division of Roads and Bridges. Upon Elizabeth’s death, they had been married for 51 years.

The journey from a little wooden shelter void of food or heat and overhung with the shadow of death, to a severely broken home and children placed in an orphanage, Elizabeth Harrison O’Connor had no reason to believe that life could ever get better. Then, somehow, it did - and her descendants built their own foundations of the back of her resilience.


Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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