Almost two centuries before Hurricane Katrina wreaked devastation upon the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, a different type of villain stalked the city.
That villain was hunger. It rooted itself in the poor parishes of the city, and its tentacles clutched at the hundreds of orphans in the streets.
One woman waged war against it: Margaret Gaffney Haughery.
Born in County Leitrim, Ireland, in 1813, Margaret emigrated to America at the age of five with her parents and two siblings. Arriving at Baltimore, the family settled into a hardscrabble life until 1822, when a yellow fever epidemic killed both the parents within days of each other. The fever also took the youngest child.
Orphaned at the age of nine, Margaret was then separated from her older brother when he wandered off into the city and simply disappeared. A neighbor woman offered Margaret sanctuary in her home, but insisted that Margaret start working as a domestic washer-girl to earn her keep.
By the age of ten, Margaret had joined the American work force, but her wages went solely to her guardian.
Twelve years later Margaret left domestic servitude by marrying Charles Haughery. The young couple relocated to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Unfortunately, the climate did not agree with Charles, he soon contracted a sickness and died. A few months later their infant child, Frances, also perished.
Bereft and left alone once again, Margaret faced destitution, but she knew how to launder and press clothes. She sought employment at the St. Charles Hotel and soon had a place to live and a steady paycheck. On her days off, she volunteered at the nearby Poydras Orphan Asylum run by the Sisters of Charity.
The plight of the orphans must have struck a chord deep within Margaret’s soul. Perhaps she saw in them a former version of her younger self.
She began to save every penny from her job, eventually buying two cows which allowed her to start up a modest milk-selling business. Each morning she would pull a milk cart through the city and sell her milk door to door. At each house she asked for any left-over food she could take to the orphanage.
Whether she had the luck of the Irish, or good business sense, her two-cow dairy grew within two years to a herd of forty cows. In addition to milk, she began to offer cream and butter as well.
With the success of her milk business underway, Margaret decided to expand and thought about the type food she could provide the orphans on a daily basis.
Bread was the answer. With grit and determination Margaret opened one of the earliest steam bakeries in the South. The added bonus was that Margaret could now offer employment to others, and she increased her financial holdings.
With the success of the bakery, Margaret used her own money to finance the openings of four additional orphanages.
A further testament to Margaret’s tenacious personality occurred in 1861 when the Civil War reached New Orleans. Union General Benjamin Butler occupied the city and declared martial war with curfews and no-cross boundaries. Margaret ignored the warnings and drove a wagon herself to deliver a load of bread flour to an orphanage situated behind enemy lines.
When she died in 1882, pallbearers at her funeral included two Lieutenant Governors of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans. During her funeral cortege, as her coffin was carried in the streets, thousands of people stopped what they were doing and stood by the side of the road to pay their respects.
Two years later, the city of New Orleans erected a statue in her honor. It was the first public American monument dedicated to a woman and the money had come in donations of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollar bills. At its unveiling, children from every orphanage in the city stood in attendance.
In spite of her generous charitable contributions through the years and her own sparse lifestyle, Margaret had still amassed a considerable estate. In her will, she left every penny to the different orphanages of the city; regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity.
Her will was signed with a simple cross. Too busy with feeding the poor, Margaret had never learned to read or write.
Thank you to Eileen Rice, follower of this blog, for alerting me to Margaret’s story.
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~ Linda ~