THE CARELESS SPIRIT OF ANNIE CORLISS: TRUMPING DESPAIR IN THE NEW WORLD by Carol P. Christ


Annie Corliss was my great-great-grandmother. The Corliss name, also spelled Corlis, Corless, Corlies, Corlers, and Carlis, is derived from “careless” meaning someone who is “carefree” or “happy-go-lucky.”

Annie Corliss was the daughter of James and Mary Corliss, both born in Ireland. Her parents may have been tenant farmers, but given that their surname could refer to someone who doesn’t settle or own property, they may have been Irish Travellers– itinerant craft persons and traders, sometimes called tinkers because they mended cooking pots and farm implements.  “Irish Travellers are a traditionally nomadic people of ethnic Irish origin, who maintain a separate language and set of traditions. … Irish Travellers have their roots in a Celtic (and possibly pre Celtic) nomadic population in Ireland.”

Annie emigrated in the 1850s because of the potato famine and widespread starvation that led over 1,000,000 Irish to seek a better life in the new world. The potato famine also affected Scotland, and this combined with the Highland clearances and mechanization of farming and traditional crafts, caused more than 1,000,000 Scots to emigrate to the US. Annie’s husband James Inglis was one of them. As seaman, James could have jumped ship.

According to her death certificate Ann Corliss was born in 1841 and had been in the US since 1851 when she was 10.  As her parents do not appear on the US censuses, they may have died on the ship, or they may have sent Annie to work as a servant. Census data suggests that Annie was born in 1839 or 1840, which would have her emigrating at 11 or 12, if indeed she came in 1851.

James and Annie must have married in New York, though no marriage certificate has been found. According to the ages on their death certificates, if they married in 1855, he would have been 17 and she 14, or according to ages given to the census takers, he might have been 19 and she 16. We do not know where they met. It could have been a shipboard romance during Annie’s passage, as James was a sailor. This could explain their young ages at the time of their marriage. The smile on her face and the twinkle in her eyes in an early photograph reveal Annie’s high spirits and high hopes for her life.

On the 1860 census Annie, 21, is living with her husband James, 24, a seaman, daughter 5, and two sons, 2 , and 5 months. Their first son, my great-grandfather James, was born at 140 Cherry Street in 1858. The family lived at different addresses on Cherry Street as it grew. In 1870, there were 3 girls and 3 boys, and by 1880, 3 more girls had been added.

Addresses on Cherry Street were in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the poorest area of New York.  Many tenement apartments consisted of a kitchen, sitting room, and one bedroom, with the kids sleeping wherever beds or mattresses could be squeezed in. Often the only windows opened to a central courtyard where the laundry hung on lines reeled out from inside. In the 1860s toilets were outside. Because of cramped conditions inside, the children played in the busy streets. Needless to say there was no central heating or air-conditioning.

During the 30 years of her marriage, Annie’s husband was a seaman. For most of her married life, she was not only raising her children in the tenements, she was raising them alone.  Did Annie slip down to the waterfront every day to breathe fresh air and blow a kiss to her husband across the great blue sea?  Or did housework and small children keep her inside most of the time? What was it like when James came home? Was he happy to see his family or hankering to get off again? Did he help Annie with the children or only add to her burdens with his demands? Did he spend time with his wife and buy her presents, or head out to the nearest bar with his cronies?

In the only photograph I have of James and Annie together, he does not look tall, his long white beard is carefully trimmed to expose his cheeks and flow from his chin, the hair behind his receding hairline may be ginger, his suit and boots are worn, and he sits on a chair looking up at the camera without smiling. Annie has a round face, her hair dark hair is carefully arranged in puffs, and her light-colored best cotton lawn dress is not new. She is standing, coquettishingly leaning towards her husband with her arms around his neck and her cheek against his forehead. James looks tired and uncomfortable. Annie is full of life, playing to the camera. When Irish eyes are smiling …all the world seems bright and gay.  Annie was a Corliss till the end—she would not let her cares get her down.

Annie’s youngest daughter died in 1880. When Annie died of a stroke in 1885, she was in her mid-forties. Only her older two children were married; her two younger daughters were 15 and 13. James was living with one of his married daughters in the tenements on E. 55th St. at the time of his death in 1895, and this daughter appears to have taken her younger sisters in as well.

All but twp of the children Annie left behind survived, married, and had children of their own.  Annie’s children must have helped each other out in the difficult years following her death and kept in touch afterwards, as we know of family connections in the next generation. The Corliss spirit, the ability to smile though you feel like crying and to laugh in the face of fate, survived with them.  My third cousin Hattie Murphy, who began the research that led to this story, and I have called on it over the years. Now we know its name. The Corliss spirit lives in us.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute

Updated December 30, 2016

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7 replies

  1. This was such a delight to read. I’m too am in the midst of tracing my Irish roots. Recently I reestablished a relationship with two cousins in Santa Cruz. Their mothers and mine formed the Irish Garrity women. In our exchange of shared stories and those unknown to me, I have discovered just how complicated, willful, independent and funny these women were. I’d love to write our collective stories if for nothing else than my own children.

    My great grandmother on my father’s side traveled by herself from Sweden to New York, then on to Alaska. She and two other women opened the first restaurant in Nome, Alaska. Nome is difficult to access in this day, let alone the late 1880’s. The fortitude of my great-grandmother, coupled with the women from my maternal side give me pause and great pride. I also wonder what my great-grand children will say about me.

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  2. Your story reminded me of the excitement I felt while tracing my own ancestry. Many of my male ancestors were loggers along the St. Lawrence River, and so the women pioneers in my story spent much of their time raising families on their own in the deeply wooded areas of Southern Ontario, while the men worked transporting logs on the river in summer and lived in shanties over the winter. The documents left behind tell of a hard life of raising and losing children to diseases like cholera and sometimes to the effects of poverty. It was a hard struggle and the women had to be the strength that kept a family strong. As I formed a picture of the lives of my ancestors, it became apparent that there really was no other option than to find your strength and carry on, and women in particular must have had to reach extraordinarily deep for that strength at times.

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  3. I love the way that knowing our mothers’ stories has an empowering impact – once we know about their strengths and spirit, it helps bring in out in us too :)

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  4. Thank you for sharing this story of your ancestors. I love the way you fill in the unknown passages with questions. The questions took me deeper, almost making your story mine. I more than relish being a woman in your time :) You keep full-filling my heart.

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  5. Carol, I love that you shared this here. I think it is wonderful that you have been tracing your family roots and learning the stories of your foremothers – it is inspiring. :)

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Trackbacks

  1. Ancestor Connection Revisited: Anna M. Christ of Little Germany, Brooklyn by Carol P. Christ | Feminism and Religion
  2. Connection to Ancestors in Earth-based Theology {Carol P. Christ} | The Motherhouse of the Goddess

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