Monday, March 26, 2012

WDYTYA. WTCU, and Old Mac's Sons of Temperance

James Peter McPherson
Madison, Wis., c. 1860
Last Friday night I watched the Who Do You Think You Are's (WDYTYA) segment on Helen Hunt. The bit about Helen Hunt's grandmother's role in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) brought back memories of my own feelings when I learned that my great-great grandfather was a card carrying member of the Sons of Temperance, Caledonia Division, New York City. My response was quite similar to that of Helen Hunt, with images of prudish, holier-than-thou types haunting the bars and pubs with their pamphlets and preaching. However this view did not resonate with what I knew of my great-great-grandfather James Peter McPherson, so then the historian/researcher in me took over.

Mary Burns McPherson
Madison, Wis., c. 1860
James Peter McPherson and his wife Mary Burns McPherson were married, according to his diary, July 16, 1842, the day they set sail for a new life in America. He was twenty-six years of age, and she, twenty-two, and both had worked in the flax mills of Dundee, Angus, Scotland. Unfortunately he did not keep a diary of those New York City days (August 1842 through April, 1850) or perhaps, he did and it was lost lost. So not much is known about those early days in New York City. The bits and pieces of their lives during those eight years included: the birth of four children, three boys and a girl; James P. worked as a tailor; and he was a member of the Sons of Temperance, Caledonia Division #31.

Just a month after James and Mary arrived on the American shore, a meeting of a group of sixteen men was held at Teetotalers Hall, 71 Division Street, New York (down in the Old Five Points area – think Gangs of New York) and the Order of the Sons of Temperance came into being on September 29, 1842. Not only was this a "brotherhood" of the temperance movement, but also a group for the mutual support of their members. The highly restricted “Sons” called not only for abstaining from all liquors of an intoxicating quality, but also each member had to be nominated by an existing member ("brother"), then investigated by three other brothers to determine the worthiness of the candidate. A member was required to pay a $2 initiation fee, which was approximately a week's wages for most workers in those days, plus a weekly membership fee of 6cents.

Postcard of the Order of the Sons of Temperance
The Sons of Temperance indeed had their secret rituals, signs, hand grasps, passwords, and regalia; however, more importantly, the organization acted as an insurance company which was required to pay thirty dollars to cover the burial cost of any brother who died and to pay fifteen dollars for the funeral cost of a member's dead wife. A bylaw required fellow brothers to visit any sick brother at least once a day, and at each meeting one of the items of business was to identify any brothers who were ill.

For an immigrant couple newly off the boat from Scotland, with no family and little money, the Sons of Temperance offered a family of sorts. Evidently there were a number of Scots who found this harbor in a sometimes hostile new world because in 1841 the Sons of Temperance's Caledonia Division, #31, of which James P. McPherson was a member, took part in the national anniversary celebration, with a reportedly 40 to 50 thousand in attendance, in front of City Hall of New York and the surrounding park. According to journal acknowledgment:
The Caledonia Division of New York City, accompanied by its members, with their bagpipes, appeared in original highland costumes. Their banner was beautifully decorated; on the forefront a brandy bottle full, a scotch thistle, and two crocodiles; the motto "Touch Us and We Sting" "The Cause of Temperance is Onward."

Even with this information, I wasn't satisfied that a brotherhood, insurance of sorts, and support system would lead that Scots great-great grandfather to fully give himself to the temperance movement. So I decided to jump back across the pond and see what I could find in his life in Dundee that might give me more information.

James P. McPherson was born in 1815, the year that saw the end of the Napoleonic wars that had embroiled England and France for decades. He grew up in an era during which England saw massive changes, and perhaps Scotland even more so. People were driven from their rural farms and homes by the economic times, enclosures, and clearances. In the awaiting industrial cities they were met by unemployment and low wages. Furthermore, the historic safety net of the lairds of the land and the church gave way to Poor Laws which were seen to break up families hit by hard times. This was the emerging middle class; although they tended to bear the brunt of these hard times, this mass of workers found that there was also a voice in their numbers.

The working folks of the Dundee flax mills, James' friends and neighbors, were representative of this collective unrest. They met in private homes or in the ale houses to share the cost of a newspaper; those who could read, such as young McPherson, read the news aloud so that all could know and talk about the issues of the day whether it be against the Poor Laws, long work days with low pay, child work laws, education, or temperance. 
These were the times that molded my great-great-grandfather; by the time he was in his twenties, this collective pent up anger and frustration bore fruit as the Chartist movement, which proposed universal suffrage for the working man. Historian Dorothy Thompson defined the Chartist movement as the time when "thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organization of the country." Much like today's Occupy Wall Street movement draws thousands with issues far from the initial protest against the banking community, the Chartist movement drew a wide array of  the disaffected of the day. Reports of marches that extended for miles, throngs of men and women, and sometimes children, sang songs and carried banners brandishing their own particular angst as they marched to an appointed hill, or town, or meeting hall to hear speeches.

Temperance was one of the many issues of that time and place. At once, brought forth by women who railed at men spending what little money they were paid at ale houses, when there was not enough food for the children – to say nothing of the family fights and abuse caused by alcohol. Workers, themselves, complained of drunkenness on the job, and that the mill owners gave out a grog of ale just so the workers could get through the long, hard 12 to 14 hour days. There were also those of the temperance movement that felt that in order for their demands of fair wage and better working conditions to be taken seriously, workers must to shake off the perception of being lazy, drunken and ill-disciplined.

As James was thrust into this milieu, so was his wife-to-be Mary Burns. She grew up in a "dissident"family (anti-Anglican and temperance), and molded by the beliefs of her father, William Gibson Burns, a devoted Chartist, and her uncle Jabez Burns, a well known Wesleyan/Methodist/Baptist preacher and a staunch advocate of the temperance movement. According to family history, the Burns family moved from Oldham, England to Dundee in the early 1830s, when Mary was about eleven years old. About the same time, her uncle Jabez accepted a call to the Baptist Church in Perth, Scotland, where he preached the gospel and temperance. 
In 1841, James, a well educated young man for that time, was working in the Dundee flax mills and supporting his old widowed mother Elizabeth Spink. (She was only 54 when she died in 1842, but very old for Dundee. The life expectancy in Dundee was just 32 years of age, two-thirds of Scotland's meager 45 year life expectancy of the time). James' wages as a flax dresser barely covered food and shelter, and a few candles, but he was surrounded by the Dundee radicalism of the times. Workers met in homes and ale houses (far from the eyes of the mill owners and management) to share and read radical newspapers of the day; the hecklers of the heckling room took turns reading the newspaper to their fellow hecklers. (Hecklers wielded the heckling tool to remove the debris from the flax so that the flax could be sent on to the weaving process.) Dundee hecklers and flax workers were known throughout England and Scotland for their radicalism and they acted almost as a prototype union in demanding benefits from the flax mill owners, often just an extra portion of ale to make it through the long hard day. James, part of this flax mill radicalism, was also in written contact with some of the political candidates of the time.

I don't know how James and Mary met – whether it was in the flax mill, or at some radical meeting related to the Chartist or temperance – or whether he was listening to a speech, perhaps by her father, or uncle, and noticed the bonny lass. What I know, that when James and Mary stepped ashore on that August day in 1842, she, and he too, had been molded by the religious and political convictions of her Burns family. He had cut his political teeth in the flax mills of Dundee. It is not surprising that he was open and looking for an avenue of like-minded men. The Sons of Temperance, bursting with energy and a purpose, struck a chord. And James was ready to become a part of that brotherhood of the Sons of Temperance, to march in the streets of New York City, joined by his Scots brethren with their bagpipes and in full highlander dress, to stand shoulder to shoulder, helping one another meet the hardships of being an immigrant in a city teeming with immigrants – and those who would take advantage of their immigrant status of being poor, newly come, and without yet a voice of their own.

As almost a postscript, I have noticed that Old Mac, as James was later known in Springdale, attended a few temperance meetings in Springdale during the early 1850s, but it appeared that was a connection that was no longer necessary in his life --- or possibly not relevant in the lives of those fellows in Springdale of the 1850s.

~ ~ ~

© Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. I'm glad a little bit of research served to set your mind at ease over your mental image of "holier-than-thou" Temperance Union members. Putting things in context and in balance sure helps.

    Joan, I suppose you have been following the part of my blog that delves into my husband's family's story and how devastating a part alcohol played in their lives. Now far beyond that, as an adult, my husband often speaks at schools and conferences, sharing the difficulties of those experiences and urging his audiences to consider what they are doing--not just to themselves but to others--when they irresponsibly choose to use alcohol (or drugs).

    I wonder what people will think, reading this sort of thing, near 200 years hence...perhaps they, too will call prudish what we only meant as our attempt to reach out and help others avoid what has caused us so much pain.

  2. Jacqi,
    Thank you for the thoughtful response to this post. It was a very hard one to write. So many preconceived notions, from pictures in textbooks, the slant of teachers, and the mores of the present. I found that my grandfather was much more complex than I had ever imagined. The problems that you wrote about were definitely in evidence in my 2x great grandfather's time. Pictures of the "interventions" (I am sure they didn't use that word, but it sure looked like it)made the Sons appear almost as a pre-12 step program.

    Thanks again for the comment, you have made me delve even deeper.

    1. Joan, isn't that true for all of us--that our lives are much more complex than anyone else ever imagined? That's why I've chosen to switch from the monicker of "genealogist" to that of "family historian." It's those stories I'm seeking.

    2. Jacqi, I have always felt a bit out of place in this genealogy world. I am a gatherer of the stories of my ancestors --- or sometimes, someone else's ancestors, and genealogy is just one of my tools. Not that this is the only way to go, it's just my way.

  3. Very interesting! I loved hearing about your ancestors and the possible why's, how's, and where's of their life! So much more interesting than the bare facts. And like Jacqi, while I sometimes focus on names and dates, I am elated when I find a letter, a newspaper story, just anything that tells me more about who my ancestors really were!

    1. Sherry, thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting -- always a thrill for a blogger. Delving into the bare facts of the Sons of Temperance and the Chartist movement took on a life of its own, but it helped fill in the some of the why-for's about myancestor's life. I am glad that you found it interesting as well --- one never knows if this kind of stuff hits the mark on the interest-o-meter. Thanks again.

  4. A very interesting post, Joan. As you say, the brotherhood must have been "family" for James and Mary. I didn't know about the insurance aspect, so it seems they looked after their "brothers" well. You blew away some of my pre-conceived ideas too :-)

  5. Jo, thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting. As a blogger, you know how much this means to a fellow blogger. The Sons of Temperance movement of the 1850s had a much different feel to it (at least for me) than the later temperance movement around the turn of the century --- at least in the US at least. Appreciate your interest. BTW, I really like the pictures and stories in your blog.