Four Mistakes and an Obituary

By J. L. Starkey

There are two tellings to every story.”

-Irish Proverb

“I downloaded John Reedy’s death certificate,” I said to my husband. After struggling with computer issues on that early spring morning, I was finally able to open the file for the first time.

“Does it have any new information?” he asked.

“Well, let’s see…” I said, skimming the document. “The dates are correct…the address is correct…and over here – “

Suddenly, I stopped reading.

“Um…can you look at this?” I said as I pointed to the screen. “Do you see what it says there? Is that – ” I stopped, unable to go on.

At that moment, I knew – absolutely knew – that I’d found the correct document. But it wasn’t a discovery to celebrate.

Not on that morning, and not for that ancestor. When I finally found John Joseph Reedy, my only thought was, “I hope this is all a mistake.”

Wasn’t his name changed at Ellis Island?

When I started researching my Reedy line, several people told me that the surname was originally “O’Reedy,” but the O was dropped at Ellis Island. Wasn’t I looking for that name instead of Reedy? Wouldn’t that lead to more discoveries?

In a word, no.

We’ve probably all heard some version of the name change myth, but in reality, names weren’t changed at Ellis Island. Immigration agents were tasked with matching arriving passengers with the names listed on a ship’s manifest, not with rewriting the list itself. Those manifests were created by employees of a ship’s parent company, not by immigration agents at Ellis Island.

Was my great-grandfather an O’Reedy? He was not. The spelling may have differed over the years, but the Reedy surname did not originally begin with the letter O.

The Reedy family, ca. 1922 [Family photo collection]

The first records were easy to find: John Joseph Reedy was born in Ireland in the early 1870s and immigrated to the United States around 1895 [1]. He became a naturalized citizen before 1900, and he married Annie Kennedy in 1904 [2]. He worked as a motorman for Chicago Surface Lines (now known as the Chicago Transit Authority), and he and Annie raised a family of six children [3].

I almost expected the search for John’s family in Ireland to be a simple task. After all, I knew his immigration year, surname, and marriage information. Additionally, everyone knew that John was an only child from Tipperary (or was it Cork?), and that he immigrated alone.

“An only child? Careful what you assume,” my inner skeptic whispered. I didn’t listen to that voice, of course.

Do you see it? It’s the next mistake – and it’s right over there!

Wasn’t he an only child?

No one knew much about John Reedy’s extended family. Who were his parents? Did he have siblings? Maybe these unanswered questions caused his descendants to assume he was an only child, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

The first record that disproved the only child assumption was the 1900 census. I had narrowed my search down to the most likely “John Reedy” candidates in Chicago, and first on the list was an Irish immigrant who lived with his sister on Sholto Street [4].

John Reedy in the 1900 census – but is it the correct Reedy? [FamilySearch image]

“I think I found your grandfather in the 1900 census! Did you know he had a sister?” I was excited to tell mom the news about my latest discovery.

“No, I don’t think he had a sister,” she replied. “He did have a daughter named Sarah, but I don’t think he had siblings in Chicago.”

Was it time to go back to square one? Had I found the wrong John Reedy again?

Not this time. After completing a great deal more research (along with a DNA test), I concluded that the 1900 census record was correct. John Reedy, my “only child” great-grandfather, actually came from a large Irish family [5].

Civil registration birth record for John Reedy

Still, the part about John immigrating alone was true, wasn’t it? What a neat bit of family history! The young man strikes out on his own in search of success in a new country…it was like an adventure story in real life. That part of the story just had to be true.

John Reedy, meet mistake number three.

Didn’t he immigrate alone?

The RMS Teutonic [Public domain image]

Though he apparently didn’t talk much about his extended family, John had at least eight siblings, and at least half of them lived in Chicago after emigrating from Ireland. Several Reedy cousins also settled in the same part of Chicago as John and his family [6].

John Reedy – the only child, the loner – was never alone. Not in Ireland, not in Chicago, and not even on the voyage to America.

John Reedy and cousin Edward Powell on the RMS Teutonic’s manifest.
[Ancestry image]

John made the journey to America with his cousin Edward Powell on The White Star Line’s RMS Teutonic. The men traveled as steerage passengers and arrived at Ellis Island on 18 July 1894 [7]. (Fun fact: Unlike her notorious sister ship, Teutonic set a record for fastest Atlantic crossing.)

Grand staircase on the RMS Teutonic [Public domain image]

Just four years after John arrived in the United States, another Reedy from Carrigatoher made the same voyage. According to the RMS Umbria‘s manifest, James Reedy planned to join his brother in Chicago.

And who was the brother of James [8]? It was none other than John Reedy, who lived with his sister Sarah on Sholto Street!

James Reedy arrives in America to join his brother in Chicago [Ancestry image]

Things had come full circle. I had finally found the correct John Reedy, but he was not the person we thought he was.

Still, I hoped that just one assumption about him was correct.

According to family members, John’s children loved America. My grandfather in particular was so proud to be a citizen that if someone asked if he was Irish, he would respond, “No. I’m American!”

Was it too much to hope that his father felt the same way?

He was happy…wasn’t he?

My husband looked at the computer screen on that early spring morning, and then he looked away, as if trying to decide how to proceed.

A portion of John Reedy’s death certificate

“I see what you’re talking about,” he finally said. “It says – “

“- it does, doesn’t it?” I responded. “Asphyxia due to hanging by the neck.”

My great-grandfather didn’t live the American dream as I had hoped. Instead, he died by suicide just one day before his 64th birthday [9].

John left a note stating that he was ill, but no medical records have been found to prove that statement. No questions were answered for the survivors he left behind.

Family members described John as a man who loved a good joke and was the life of the party. He never learned to speak English very well, and he never lost his Irish brogue. When he told a joke to my gram, he would say, “You can laugh now, Mary!” after the punchline, because he knew she had a hard time understanding him.

But the life of the party was hiding a great deal of sadness and regret. John never stopped missing Ireland, and he often said he wanted to return to the land he loved so much.

The Chicago Tribune ran a short article about John’s death on what would have been his 64th birthday [10]. No obituary was printed, and no tributes were paid to this man who saw no end to his pain.

The death of John Reedy [Chicago Tribune]

If I could, I would request a correction to that article. It would look like this:

John Joseph Reedy, 63, died on 7 March 1936 in Chicago, Illinois. Funeral services will be private, with burial in Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleum in Alsip, Illinois.

A native of Carrigatoher, Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, John was the son of the late Michael and Margaret J. (Butler) Reedy. He came to America in 1894 and settled in Chicago, where he worked as a Motorman for Chicago Surface Lines.

He was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Annie (née Kennedy), and by his sisters Mary, Judith, and Sarah.

He is survived by six children: Sarah (Clement) Kincaid, James, Michael, John (“Swede”), Marion (Victor) Smith, and William. Survivors also include siblings James and Margaret (Michael) Dooley, both of Chicago; and Patrick, and Josephine (Joseph) Carey, both of Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland.

Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time for help.


  1. World War I Draft Registration Cards,” digital images, ( accessed 14 Sept 2019), John Reedy registration, serial number 704, No. 378 (right side numbering), Draft Board 76, Chicago, Illinois, citing World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, NARA microfilm publication M1509, no specific roll cited. (See also: “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch [ : 23 June 2017], Illinois>Cook>Chicago Ward 19>ED 839>image 19 of 36; citing NARA microfilm publication T624, Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.)
  2. “Illinois, Cook County Marriages, 1871-1920,” database, FamilySearch ( : 10 March 2018), John Reidy and Annie Kennedy, 22 Jun 1904. (See also: “Marriage Licenses,” The Inter-Ocean, Chicago, Illinois, 19 Jun 1904, p. 13, col. 6. Retrieved from; and “United States Census, 1920,” Census Place: Chicago Ward 32, Cook (Chicago), Illinois; Roll: T625_350; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 2004. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.)
  3. “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 8 December 2015), Illinois>Cook>Chicago (Districts 0501-0750)>ED 713>image 55 of 60; citing NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: NARA, 2002).
  4. “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch ( 5 August 2014), Illinois>Cook>ED593 Precinct 10 Chicago city Ward 19>image 26 of 32; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.).
  5. See parish records for Michael Reedy (als. Reidy) and Margaret Butler, Killaloe Diocese, Youghal Arra, National Library of Ireland, Microfilm Number: Microfilm 02483/01. Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016.
  6. Suburbanite Economist, Chicago, Illinois, 2 May 1930, p. 5, col. 6-7. Retrieved from
  7. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Outwards Passenger Lists. BT27. Records of the Commercial, Companies, Labour, Railways and Statistics Departments. Records of the Board of Trade and of successor and related bodies. The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England. (See also: Year:1894; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 629; Line: 18; Page Number: 6. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.)
  8. Year: 1898; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 0016; Line: 17; Page Number: 3. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.
  9. “Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947,” database, FamilySearch ( 27 December 2014), John Reedy, 7 Mar 1936; Public Board of Health, Archives, Springfield; FHL Film 1,926,850. (See also: Death certificate, John Reedy, 7 Mar 1936, Certificate no. 7285, State of Illinois Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics. Genealogical-purpose-only copy in possession of author.)
  10. “Motorman Hangs Himself,” Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 8 Mar 1936, p. 22, col. 2. Retrieved from

11 thoughts on “Four Mistakes and an Obituary

Add yours

      1. I’ve had similar experiences, so I understand the shock. I wrote about one recently in my “Untethered” post. The other one I have not written about. I hope I don’t find any others!!


  1. This family history business seems to cause many emotions for those we never even met . . . Grief, Joy, Shock just to name a few. I hope future generations find your version of the obituary.


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