By J. L. Starkey
“She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way.“– Harper Lee
“Melcena? You’re writing about my middle name? But…why?”
I can only imagine my grandma’s reaction to this week’s post. If she were alive today, I would have told her about the topic while we played a few hands of Ninety-Nine (which she rarely lost) or Pinochle (which she never lost), knowing full well that the conversation might not be pleasant.
“I never liked my middle name,” she would remind me. “Your mom told you that, didn’t she?”
“Of course she did, but -” I would try to answer, but she would keep on shuffling those cards, pausing only to look me in the eye and say, “Maybe you’ll write about something else.”
That last remark would have been a statement – not a question – because that’s how grandma rolled. And while I rarely disobeyed her, I would have done so this week.
After all, some stories simply must be told.
Love it or loathe it, Melcena (or /mel-SEEN-ə/) is a real name, and it’s been in my family for over two hundred years. It reached its peak of popularity in 1923, when a grand total of five Americans were given the unique moniker. Today, it is holding steady at 99,693rd place on the baby name popularity scale .
According to some onomastic experts, girls named Melcena seldom win first prize…or any prize, for that matter . It seems that while Melcena is friendly, she often “depends upon others for support and encouragement,” and she displays “…a lack of confidence [and] indecisiveness.”
Grandma would beg to differ with that assessment. So would her namesake, my great-great-grandmother, Melcena Irvin Millison.
Come to think of it, so would her namesake, my fourth-great-grandmother. Her name was Melcena Irvine O’Neill, but I call her the first Melcena. I’ve often wondered why her name was bestowed upon her descendants. Was she famous, or even infamous? Did she live a life of adventure and intrigue?
I thought I was prepared for anything when I researched the first Melcena, but learning that she perished in the Great Chicago Fire left me speechless. The discovery absolutely shocked me to my core.
Especially since there wasn’t an ounce of truth to it.
Traumatic Childhood, Early Mistakes
Born on 30 October 1818 in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the first Melcena was the daughter of Thomas and Tabitha (Clark) Irvine . The second youngest of nine children, she married a promising young law student before she was twenty, became a widow before she was forty, and started a new life in Chicago before she was fifty.
That was her story on paper, anyway. In reality, Melcena’s life was far more grim. Her childhood, which probably seemed idyllic to outsiders, was marred by her parents’ abusive marriage. An Irvine descendant would later describe Melcena’s father in heartbreaking detail:
[Thomas Irvine was] a bad bad man [who] drank, kept a low hotel, would steal, lie, and whipped his wife regularly. When Old Tom would whip [his wife], she would stand before the glass and say to herself, “Is it possible? Is this Tabitha Clark?”– Elizabeth Thompson Rowe, Irvine Clan website
Women’s options were limited in the early 1800s, and Melcena may have viewed marriage as the only way to escape her violent home. To that end, on 16 May 1838, she married George Payne O’Neill, a law student from nearby Kenyon College . She probably craved security and stability, and she may have assumed that George was the answer to her prayers.
She was wrong.
In February 1841, the Melcena and George welcomed their first child, a son they named Thomas. Three months later, George took out a mortgage for two lots in a Mount Vernon neighborhood . The price (over $130,000 in today’s terms) was a bit steep, but the young lawyer had a promising future ahead of him, didn’t he?
George O’Neill signed the mortgage paperwork on 27 May 1841.
He would never make a payment on the note.
The Real George Payne O’Neill
According to Irvine descendants, George was hardly the man of Melcena’s dreams. On the contrary, he had “…an irritable disposition, was quarrelsome…short tempered…and was thoroughly improvident.” The description was extremely unflattering, and sadly, it was also accurate.
Six years and one month after George signed the mortgage paperwork, the O’Neill family lost their home to foreclosure . By 1850, in what was surely a nightmare scenario for Melcena, they were living in a home owned by Thomas Irvine. To make matters worse, George refused to support his family, and he listed his occupation as “none” on that year’s census .
“George is no better than my father!” Melcena may have thought. “We could have had a perfect life, but he just threw it all away! What am I going to do? No one cares about me or the children!”
Melcena may not have realized it, but someone did care. He cared very much, despite what others assumed about him.
It seemed that Thomas Irvine had a rather odd code of ethics. While he apparently saw nothing wrong with abusing his own wife, the treatment of his daughters was another matter entirely. George O’Neill treated Melcena poorly, and Thomas simply wouldn’t stand for that.
At first glance, Thomas Irvine’s will contained nothing unusual . He left land to his children and their respective spouses, named his executors, and made his final wishes known. Yes, it was just an ordinary will…with the exception of item number four.
The words left no room for misinterpretation. Melcena would receive a portion of lot 156 “to her own separate use with remainder to her heirs.” There was no mention of George O’Neill in the bequest. He had simply ceased to exist…at least in the mind of Thomas Irvine.
The Widow Makes a Choice
Finally, Melcena had a home of her own, and security was within reach. At last, she was on a path toward a better life! It was all going to work out, wasn’t it?
Maybe, but not in the way her family expected. After all, the first Melcena was never one to take the easy way out. Lot 156 may have been her home, but it was also her ticket to something better.
In the summer of 1866, Melcena cashed in that ticket.
Mount Vernon was their past, and Chicago was their future. It was the perfect place where a grieving widow could make a fresh start.
To be fair, George O’Neill was very much alive when his “widow” made that fresh start, but where he was living was another question. A man who abandons his family generally doesn’t leave a forwarding address, and George was no exception to that rule.
But those details didn’t worry the first Melcena too much. At long last, this was finally her story…and she was sticking to it.
Next up: A Fresh Start…and a Shocking Tragedy
- “Melcina Name Popularity.” Our Baby Namer, http://www.ourbabynamer.com/Melcina-name-popularity.html. (See also: “Melcina.” Babynology, http://www.babynology.com/name/melcina-f.html.)
- “Change Your Name, Change Your Life.” Kalabarian Philosophy, https://www.kabalarians.com/f/Melcena.htm.
- “Thomas Irvine.” IrvineClan.com, http://www.irvineclan.com/ti1775_5.htm?I1.x=66&I1.y=20. (See also: Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2M3-5Y6Q : 8 March 2018), Nelcena Irvine O Neill, 22 Jan 1891; citing , Cook, Illinois, United States, source reference 11866, record number , Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL film 1,030,964.)
- “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939K-BVSK-1B?cc=1614804&wc=ZRQP-DP8%3A121352001%2C123297801 : 15 July 2014), Knox>Marriage certificates 1838>image 80 of 202; county courthouses, Ohio. (See also: “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939L-FH92-7?cc=1614804&wc=ZYK1-3TL%3A121352001%2C124067001 : 15 July 2014), Knox>Marriage records 1838-1851>image 31 of 252; county courthouses, Ohio.)
- “United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-64PS-Z4M?cc=1401638&wc=95RH-MJ4%3A1031310001%2C1032235001%2C1034049601 : 9 April 2016), Ohio>Knox>Mount Vernon, ward 1> image 5 of 18; citing NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.). (See also: Deeds (Knox County, Ohio), 1808-1901. George S. Norton & wife to George P. O’Neill. retrieved from Deeds, v. X-Y, 1841-1843, digital image 148 of 682. Retrieved from FamilySearch, FHL Film 008330692.)
- Ohio. Court of Common Pleas (Knox County), Columbus, Ohio: Ohio Historical Society, 1980. Knox County, Clerk of Court, Common Pleas Chancery Record, Vol. F, 1846-1848. Daniel S. Norton vs. George P. O’Neil & Melsina O’Neil, digital images 525-528 of 660. Retrieved from FamilySearch, FHL Film # 008514559.
- “United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-64PS-Z4M?cc=1401638&wc=95RH-MJ4%3A1031310001%2C1032235001%2C1034049601 : 9 April 2016), Ohio>Knox>Mount Vernon, ward 1>image 5 of 18; citing NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.).
- Ohio County, District and Probate Courts. Probate Case Files, Ca. 1808-1920; Author: Knox County (Ohio). Probate Court; Probate Place: Knox, Ohio. Probate Case Files, Box 40-42, 1860-1868 for Thomas Irvine, digital images 1881-1888 of 2970. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.