Born at sea

Mary Ledwick Dunn’s life came to a tragic and violent end in Lowell in 1875, and it seems that her birth must have been a difficult one as well. In searching for immigration records for her parents, James and Mary, I came across what seems a likely match. On April 10, 1847, James and Mary Ledwick, ages 25 and 20 respectively, arrived in New York aboard the Ellerslie, having embarked in Liverpool. The ages match well with the parents of the woman who would eventually marry Daniel Dunn, but there is no infant Mary Ledwick listed among the passengers. There is, however, a “U Ledwick”, the U presumably meaning “unknown” or “unnamed”. And instead of an age, “U Ledwick”‘s record has the notation “Born at Sea”.

So it appears that the James’s wife was pregnant when they embarked for America, and gave birth on the steerage deck that was their “compartment” as the immigration record terms it.

Why did the Ledwicks choose to emigrate knowing that Mary was pregnant? It probably wasn’t a choice: 1847 was the peak of the Irish Potato Famine. Their only other choice was probably starvation.

I haven’t found any information on the Ellerslie- no doubt it was a sailing ship: steamships had only started crossing the Atlantic on a regular basis a few years before. But the conditions on board were probably similar to those described later in 1847 by Anglo-Irish reformer Stephen De Vere. De Vere decided to see for himself the conditions the emigrants endured in the crossing to North America, and traveled in steerage with a group of Irish emigrating to Canada:

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered Man. How can it be otherwise?

Hundreds of poor people, men women, and children, of all ages, from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the diseased; by their agonised ravings disturbing those around, and predisposing them through the effects of the imagination, to imbibe the contagion; living without food or medicine, except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without the voice of spiritual consolation, and buried in the deep without the rites of the church.

The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked, in consequence of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking does not allow for washing. In many ships the filthy beds, teeming with abominations, are never required to be brought on deck and aired; the narrow space between the sleeping berths and the piles of boxes is never washed or scraped, but breathes up a damp and fetid stench, until the day before the arrival at quarantine, when all hands are required to “scrub-up”, and put on a fair face for the Doctor and Government Inspector. No moral restraint is attempted, the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness with its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is profitable to the Captain who traffics in the Grog.

It’s hard to imagine surviving such a trip on the North Atlantic, never mind giving birth. But that, apparently, is how Mary Ledwick Dunn entered this world.

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