Irish ancestors and the 1918 flu

During St. Patrick’s Day week, when the NEHGS instagram account shared pictures of our Irish ancestors, I shared the picture at left of my great-great-grandfather Thomas Nelson Kelly (1853–1943) of Philadelphia. His parents, Joseph Kelly and Rebecca Nelson, both emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s and met and married in Philadelphia in 1850. Joseph and Rebecca are my only ancestors who arrived in the United States after 1776. I still do not know where in Ireland they came from (some family have said Belfast, some have said Donegal): I’m still searching!

However, my Kelly ancestors were Protestants, and known as “Orange Irish.” Joseph and Rebecca married at the Scots Presbyterian Church and their children were baptized Episcopalian. Their son Thomas, who marched in Philadelphia’s Orangemen’s Day Parade held in July every year, would later attend Tioga Baptist Church in the city. His wife Eliza Peltz was of mostly German ancestry. They had three children who lived to adulthood: John Peltz Kelly (1877–1955), my great-grandmother Mazy Nelson (Kelly) Helman (1883–1943), and Lidie Hilliard Kelly (1896–1986).

While all of my great-grandparents died before my birth, I did meet my great-great-aunt Lidie as a baby. My father and aunt told me stories of her that I had trouble verifying. They said she married an Irish-Catholic World War I soldier who died of the Spanish flu. My interest in this relative revived in the wake of our current pandemic. However, years ago I had searched Philadelphia marriage records for such a marriage and then came up empty.

Was there any truth to the story of this marriage?

Lidie lived with her father and brother until their deaths. In the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses, she is listed as unmarried. Aunt Lidie and her brother Uncle John contributed information to the author of a 1950 genealogy on their mother’s Peltz family, and even there, she is listed as unmarried.

Was there any truth to the story of this marriage? I asked my aunt for additional details. She had heard the story all her life: “It was an illustration of how fraught relationships were between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. I was told they married in the Roman Catholic rectory, secretly, and Lidie never admitted the marriage had happened, because she’d have to admit she agreed to raise the kids Roman Catholic. After they got married her husband went home, fell ill, his mom refused to let Lidie see him and he soon died. I’d wonder if the priest ever bothered to report the wedding if he knew the man was dead. So it might only be recorded in a parish register.”

Interesting! While I had searched the civil records of Philadelphia, I had never searched specific Catholic records. Philadelphia Catholic records are available on, and within a few minutes, I found their marriage at the Church of the Holy Child in Philadelphia. So who was this early 20th century “Romeo”? He had a very fitting surname — Thomas Joseph Montague!

Thomas and Lidie married on 2 October 1918. He did serve as a private during World War I, but was never overseas, and had been honorably discharged on 10 May 1918. The marriage was indeed short-lived, and he died just twelve days later on October 14. His cause of death was “broncho pneumonia,” with the contributory cause of “epidemic influenza.”

While Thomas Montague is listed as married, his wife was not the informant. His death notice in the Philadelphia Public Ledger (in which nearly two pages of deaths were mostly from pneumonia or influenza), only referred to him as the son of Amelia (née Gunson) Montague, so perhaps there was some truth to his mother not letting her son see his recent bride. Upon sharing these documents with my aunt she noticed from his death certificate that Thomas had been under the care of a doctor since October 9 (seven days after the wedding), and that Philadelphia had a big Liberty Bond parade on 28 September 1918. The incubation period for this influenza (per the National Institute of Health) was two to seven days, and probably Thomas went to the parade and was already getting sick by the time of the wedding.

So in the case of this family story, it indeed checked out, even if at first glance records suggested otherwise!

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

16 thoughts on “Irish ancestors and the 1918 flu

  1. Such a sad ending to the marriage. I have an instance in my own tree of a doctor in a remote town in northwest Wisconsin who died of the flu in October 1918, the husband of a first cousin twice removed, Isabel. She never remarried, and died in 1972. In today’s circumstances, I can well understand the fear and sadness that accompanied both the flu and the war. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

  2. Christopher…Two of my grandfather’s younger brothers died from the influenza epidemic in 1918. Very sad to find their death certificates in New York City

  3. His death in October 1918 coincides with the second wave of three waves from the Great Influenza. I am glad to see your report on the classic friction between certain Christian sects who heavy-handedly demand that children be raised in “THEIR” church or face excommunication. The sooner this ends the better!

  4. Great detective work. Some people wonder why we spend our time on genealogy research. This is a wonderful example of the reason. Intrigue, love, mystery, history — it’s all in the family story.

  5. An interesting and sad family anecdote well investigated, Christopher, but I would expect no less.
    As far as being married in the rectory, while it may well have been secret from their families, interfaith marriages taking place in the rectory would have been standard practice in the Catholic faith at that time. I was not surprised that your Irish immigrant ancestors were Protestant when I saw Rebecca as a given name, which while not totally unknown would have been very rare as a given name among Irish Catholics.
    Also, Philadelphia seems to have received a substantive emigration of Protestant Irish from Ulster right up until the early 20th century so not really surprising that tensions from the Oul Country were carried with emigrants of both traditions into the new.
    Thanks for sharing this story.

  6. The interdenominational friction plays a role in my family story as well. My maternal grandmother’s father was Irish Catholic, Charles Henry Boyle, Jr., from Philadelphia. Her mother Myrtle Hastings was Protestant, from rural Delaware. The story that she passed down to us was that, not long after she was born in 1915, her parents separated, and in March 1920 her father was killed in a railway accident at the Brandywine rail yards. Her father’s family never acknowledged the marriage, and after his death they completely shunned her, her older sister, and her mother and left them destitute (in the 1920 census, each daughter was boarding with extended family or friends). My grandmother (at various times in her life back and forth between the Methodist and Episcopal churches) was staunchly anti-Catholic, and very disapproving when my brother married a Catholic. I had traced Charles’ ancestors back to New York in the 1840s, including his Civil War veteran grandfather, and a very broad progeny of cousins.

    Then last year, I took a DNA test. Surprisingly, I had no matches to any Boyles or anyone who might be connected to the Boyles. But I did match to more than a dozen people in the 2d to 3d cousin range, all of whom had roots in Philadelphia, Delaware and Maryland.

    It seems clear that great-grandmother had an affair with another man — quite likely a co-worker of her husband at the railroad — and that the reason for her abandonment by Charles was the child that resulted. The story of Catholic-Protestant strife was a convenient excuse to explain my grandmother’s unhappy childhood, and entirely believable because of prevailing sentiments at the time.

  7. Good news, Chris! So glad to read you finally solved that marriage question. Looks like Thomas Montague and Liddie Kelly were back door neighbors. His address, 4619 N. Marvine Street backed up to her house at 4618 N. 11th Street. Now I must wonder how many other Roman Catholic marriages were not recorded at the city level. No Philadelphia marriage license was found for this couple, so certainly there was a story.

    1. Thanks Sandi! This part of the family lived in Philadelphia until the 1950s, Lidie later lived in Delaware near one of her nieces.

  8. I hope we do not have so many stories of loss with this epidemic.

    My great, great uncle Bishop White died on 27 Oct 1918 of bronchopneumonia at 33 years of age leaving a wife, 2 y/o son and another on the way.

  9. My grandmother’s first cousin Irene Wood (1894-1918) died on 1 October at her parents’ house in Pride’s Crossing (a section of Beverly), Massachusetts. She had married an English officer in January, and the New York Times noted that hers was a small, wartime wedding.

    Irene’s grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer) were in Georgia for the winter, so they did not attend the wedding; as it happened, both Frederick and Ellen Ayer sickened and died in Thomasville in March and April 1918. It was thought that Irene’s early death — and that of her brother “Billy” Wood in a car crash in 1922 — put her own father into a suicidal depression; he took his own life in 1926.

    A pretty clean sweep of the Ayer and Wood families, but in keeping with a tradition of stiff upper lips only one of my cousins ever spoke of it when I was growing up.

  10. The racism that underlies denominational battles cannot be denied.

    My own 4th generation American grandmother of Irish descent Florence fell victim to same when she ran off and married Harry, a 24 year old Scots Presbyterian born in Canada to poor emigres who met on the boat from Scotland.

    Florence’s father was the Chief Engineer of Detroit’s first fire boat “The James Battle” living on Beniteau. Harry’s father was a mason living on Lillibridge. Both were living with their parents not more than 300 feet apart in what is now called The East Marina District of Detroit. Clearly, Harry had not married beneath himself when viewed solely as an economic attribute.

    Harry’s parents were not having their only son married to “a filthy Irish Catholic” and insisted that he leave her under threat of disinheritance—in fact, Harry and Florence never lived together. My father was born 11 months after the marriage. A divorce and restraining order was granted more than 3 years after the marriage. After 12 years of searching I still haven’t found that marriage; thank goodness for divorce records!

    My father met his father Harry just 1 time in spite of the fact that they never lived more than a 2-hour drive away from each other. On Dad’s 5th birthday Harry and his mother Helen knocked on the front door of the Ward house on Beniteau. They offered Florence $3,000 if she relinquished her parental rights to my father and agreed never to contact him again. Harry and Helen quickly learned that “filthy Irish Catholics” don’t sell their children even for $3,000 in 1939.

    Seven decades later I found my father’s first cousins born of Harry’s only sibling Olive via my genealogical work. Both traveled from far away to meet my father and give him the chance to ask questions. They spent the weekend and kindly confirmed that their common grandparents went to their graves holding tight the belief that God really only loves Scots Presbyterians and Catholics of every variety are of the Devil himself.

  11. One thing that really surprised me in this story was that Thomas was discharged as a private on May 10, 1918. I’ve worked with quite a few records of soldiers in WWI, & have never seen one discharged that early; the only ones I remember were discharged at the end of the year, Nov or Dec. Any comment on that?

    1. That’s what his Wold War I service card says:

      Organizations served in, with dates of assignments and transfers: “Amb Co 320. 305 Sn Tn to disch”

      Served overseas “No”

      Honorably discharged: May 10, 1918 SCD

      In view of occupation he was, on date of discharge, report 12 1/2 per cent disabled.

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