Fergus Falls, Minnesota
Friday, August 27, 1883
On most evenings, a steady stream of patrons crossed the Red River footbridge to have a drink at James K. O'Brien's saloon. But not that night.
The Sullivan Troupe's Irish Revue was in town for one night only, and everybody who was anybody already had a ticket. That meant business was slow at O'Brien's Saloon in the Grand Hotel. All evening its lone bartender, Nicholas Reilly, stood at his post between the shelves of spirits and the glistening new bar, watching as residents of Fergus Falls paraded up Lincoln Avenue, dressed for the show in their Sunday best.
Two blocks away, Nicholas's wife, Cecilia, tended to their two young children, William and Helen. Somewhere on a floor above him, Nicholas's younger brother, Eugene, was settling into one of the small rooms O'Brien set aside for borders. It was a good night to be inside.
A steady and unexpectedly cold rain dotted the saloon windows and puddled in the street, but the townspeople seemed impervious. The Sullivan Troupe's vaudeville act was the biggest event to visit the Red River Valley; no one worth his salt was willing to miss it, even if doing so meant ruining a taffeta dress. All of Fergus Falls, it seemed, had suddenly contracted a whopping case of Irish fever.
Twenty-five years had passed since the Great Hunger had claimed the lives of a million Irish people and forced a million more onto North America's shores, forever marking the famine as one of the greatest human rights atrocities in recorded history. Since that time the United States had formed a complicated relationship with its new Irish brethren, based alternately on pity, curiosity, contempt, and, most often, a thorny combination of all three. The Sullivan Revue capitalized on that complexity, promising an evening of historic lectures, romantic ballads, and side-splitting satire.
Everyone was on their way to the show that night, and yet, oddly, Jim O'Brien—the saloon's owner and Fergus Falls' most prominent Irish resident—was nowhere to be found. His absence was inexplicable to most people in town, but not to the saloon's young bartender. Nicholas was growing accustomed to O'Brien's mysterious disappearances, although that didn't make him overly comfortable with them. Truth be told, Nicholas wasn't comfortable with much about his brother-in-law.
Since opening that summer, O'Brien's Saloon had become the unofficial epicenter of town activity; on most nights, a never-ending chorus of shouted drink orders added to the din already created by well-used billiard tables and one of the only full-size pianos in town. Nicholas liked the frenetic pace required to keep up with all the activity, and the bar was doing well—that much was obvious every night when he emptied the cash register before crossing the street to join Cecilia in the cramped apartment they shared with Jim and his family. But even with the overflowing till, Nicholas was hard-pressed to account for the purchase of this massive brick hotel. And then there was the inexplicably large stack of money and whiskey bonds in the saloon's brand-new safe, which was almost as enormous as Jim O'Brien himself.
Nicholas knew he would have to get to the bottom of these puzzles—and that the future of his family would no doubt be better without Jim O'Brien in it. But tonight his thoughts, like those of his fellow towns-people, were all about Ireland. As he watched people hurrying toward the theater, he cast his mind back to a place he never really knew.
Hardly any of the passersby bothered to look inside the saloon's rain-smeared windows. Even fewer paused for a pint before heading to the show. That was really too bad. Had anyone stopped long enough to chat with the young man standing behind the bar, they would have been treated to a story worth far more than the admission being paid at Gray's Hall.
Nicholas, after all, was more Irish than the Sullivans and O'Briens put together. However, as he was always quick to explain, he wasn't really from there. Nicholas Reilly was born at sea, and he made a point of stating that fact on every document, governmental or otherwise, that asked for his place of birth. He also listed his legal name as Nicholas Johnston Reilly on such papers, but that was really just for convenience's sake. His full name, he liked to say, was Nicholas Richard James Thomas William John Gabriel Carls Michael John Alexander Trabaret Archibald Cornelius Hugh Arthur Edward Johnston Reilly, so named for the owner, doctor, and crew of the Jeanie Johnston, the legendary famine ship on which Nicholas was born thirty years earlier.
That he was born on Easter Sunday, the very day the vessel was scheduled to embark from County Kerry on her first refugee voyage, was noteworthy enough. That he and his family survived the arduous journey that followed was nothing short of astounding. Mortality rates on the aptly named coffin ships could be as high as 70 percent.
Not so on the Jeanie Johnston. Beginning with the much publicized announcement of Nicholas's birth, this little square-rigged barque was known far and wide as a charmed ship—the only coffin ship, in fact, to keep all of her passengers alive. And with each of her eleven successful trips to North America, the reputation of this vessel continued to grow. Soon it was said around the world that to sail aboard the Jeanie Johnston was to survive despite crushing odds.
Aboard the Jeanie Johnston, these odds would spur people like the Reillys and their crew to travel thousands of miles from home in search of a new beginning. These odds would demand that they risk their lives at every turn. More than once it would force them to flout naval law and invite arrest—or worse. And yet the sterling record of the barque and her occupants would stand, their mythology building with each subsequent year, eventually making them luminary figures in one of the most calamitous moments in history.
The epic story of survival on the Jeanie, and how Nicholas Richard James Thomas William John Gabriel Carls Michael John Alexander Trabaret Archibald Cornelius Hugh Arthur Edward Johnston Reilly came to be born on it, was a story so fantastic that not even the world-renowned Sullivan Troupe Irish Review dared tackle it. It would take over a century of study and discussion prompted by marine architects, naval historians, and the leaders of nations to tease out the story of Nicholas and his namesake vessel. In the intervening years, many refugees who sailed aboard would call the Jeanie miraculous and her builder, owner, and crew saviors. Historians would puzzle over why this ship—and this ship alone—managed to keep all of her passengers alive. Medical and nautical officials would study and eventually revolutionize sailing procedures as a result of her accomplishment. Critics would accuse the men most closely associated with the ship of capitalizing on misery, of exploiting those desperate to travel by charging astronomical passage fees, of being no better than human traffickers. They would speculate about the demons and guilt driving the vessel's historic course. And yet, for all that, they would all agree on one crucial truth: the story of the Jeanie Johnston is indisputably the stuff of legend.
From All Standing: The Remarkable Story Of The Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship by Kathryn Miles. Copyright 2013 by Kathryn Mills. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.