Sunday, July 14, 2019

Pittsburgh’s John O’Connor: Benefactor to Young and Old

At his funeral, the Catholic archbishop of Pittsburgh eulogized:  “…Anything that I could say would be a poor tribute to a man, who according to his means and opportunities, was so large-hearted, so generous, so humble, so unostentatious in his exercise of his goodness and the bestowal of his benefactions.  Peace be to him.”  The archbishop was speaking of the man whose photo is at right — John O’Connor, a whiskey man through and through.

Unlike many Irish-American liquor dealers, O’Connor did not come from impoverished circumstances.  His father, the first Catholic settler of Auburn, New York, had arrived in 1810 and rapidly established himself as a community leader, including becoming warden of the State Penitentiary.  Born in 1825 John was accorded an exemplary education at Auburn Academy, left, and later as a student at the college of St. Suplice, Montreal, Canada, below.

Venturing west to Pittsburgh in 1847 at twenty-two years old, O’Connor carried a letter of introduction from William Seward, shown here, an Auburn attorney who would gain fame as Lincoln’s war secretary in the Civil War.  The youth’s early employment was as a successful hotel proprietor along the city’s bustling waterfront, shown below in a lithograph from that era.

In Pittsburgh, O’Connor met and in 1854 married Irish-born Mary Connelly, the immigrant daughter of a prominent merchant in County Donegal.  John was 29 and she was 24.  Educated beyond most Irish women, Mary has been described as “…A woman of the highest culture and refinement, and a heart overflowing with charity….”  The couple would have six children, four sons and two daughters.

At some point during the 1850s, O’Connor left the hotel business in favor of the liquor trade.  Pittsburgh was a thriving and important city during the Civil War, a significant source of arms, ammunition, and supplies to the Union Army.  The population burgeoned as workers arrived to find work, many of them new immigrants.  O’Connor, obviously having noted the profitability of alcohol sales in his hotels, shifted occupations.  An 1868 business directory recorded him operating a wine and liquor store at 104 Water Street on the waterfront and a saloon at 46 Ross Street.  The family was living above the saloon.

By the next decade, O’Connor’s liquor business and living quarters had moved to a new and larger location at 1814 Carson Street.  Shown here, the building still stands.  He advertised as “distillers and wholesale dealers in Pure Rye Whiskies, imported wines of every variety.”  In truth, he was not a distiller, instead obtaining his whiskey from elsewhere and often “rectifying” (blending) it before sales to saloons, restaurants and hotels.   

O’Connor packaged these goods in gallon or two gallon jugs for clients who in turn would decant them into smaller containers for retail use.  Shown here is an example of a cobalt stenciled jug used by the liquor house.

As his sons matured, John took them into his liquor business.  An 1899 directory entry lists Edward G. O’Connor working with his father.  In 1894 the name of the company was changed to “John O’Connor & Son.”  That name appears on a give-away item, a small barrel that contained several swallows of whiskey that would have been given to a select group of customers.  Later a second son, Paul, would be brought into the business and in 1912, “sons” was substituted in the company name.

Throughout this period the O’Connors continued to live above their store.  Money that the liquor dealer might have used to build a mansion went to the  philanthropic causes that the couple pursued.   John O’Connors' particular interest was in the orphans of Pittsburgh.  According to a biography:  “The building of the first St. Paul’s Orphan Asylum was the result of his study of conditions and untiring championship of its founding.”  Pittsburgh’s City Controller called O’Connor’s effort “a heroic achievement.”  Shown above are the orphanage structures; below, the sleeping quarters.

At his funeral, the Archbishop related of John:  “In earlier days when the orphans…were in greater need than at the present time, he not only gave what he could afford, he went from door to door and from one business house to another gathering food and clothing for the orphans….Almost every Sunday he visited the orphanage and inquired into their wants.”

In addition to orphans as the object of O’Connor’s philanthropy, he contributed generously to charitable institutions assisting the needy elderly, including the Little Sisters of the Poor home, and women in distress helped by the Sisters of Good Shepherd.  

O’Connor also was a major financial backer of the “Great Sanitary Fair” held in Pittsburgh during the Civil War, part of a national campaign.  That event opened in June 1864 to raise funds for wounded Union soldiers throughout the United States.  Through exhibitions and lectures on the grounds of the old Town Hall, more than $300,000 was raised — equivalent to $6.6 million today.  O’Connor was hailed as instrumental in making the event one of the Nation’s most successful fairs.  Accordingly, he was given a vote of gratitude by the local implementing committee and presented with the model of a mortar gun cast in a Pittsburgh foundry.

After 47 years of marriage, during which she had worked for many charitable causes side by side with her husband,  Mary O’Connor died in 1901. She was buried in Section N of Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery,  Allegheny County.  About the same time John retired from active management of his liquor house and son Edward took over.  As he aged, O’Connor suffered from a gradual loss of energy and muscle strength, eventually dying in 1912 at 86.  He was buried beside his wife in St. Mary Cemetery. 

John died as he lived, still residing above the liquor business he had founded more than sixty years earlier -- the source of the funds that fueled his philanthropy.  In death he continued as a benefactor to the needy, willing the greater part of his estate to charitable organizations.  The liquor house was continued by Edward O’Connor until shut down by National Prohibition in 1919.

As a final word, a biographer of John O’Connor provided this memorial:  “The warmth and generosity of his nature found its outlet in the performance of countless small deeds of kindness and in larger benefactions almost beyond number.”

Note:  Much of the information for this post and all direct quotes are taken from a 1922 biography of John O’Connor in a volume entitled “History of Pittsburgh and Environs” by Contributors and Staff Members of the American Historical Society, Inc., New York and Chicago.


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