My Family Immigration Story: The Tragic Life of Jennie Tarleton (1868-1944)

I’ve heard tales of Jennie Tarleton my whole life long – the brave 17 year old Scots girl who set sail for the New World all alone from Glasgow. Jennie was my 2nd great-grandmother and her arrival in 1885 makes her my most “recent” immigrant ancestor. Everyone else was here long before she set foot  here, many for decades. I should note that there are many other members of my family who have more recently immigrated to the US, but not my direct ancestors.

Jennie was a mythical being to me – part heroine from a child’s history book, part wizened harsh mistress stuck in the past and in no way connected to my own future. She was from “olden times” and the occasional snippet of her story lingered in my mind with stories from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables, for good and for bad. I never questioned this version of her life until I began to learn the facts. And, apparently, no one else in my family questioned either.

Jennie was born April 16, 1868 in Bridgeton,Glasgow,Lanark, in Scotland. It was a manufacturing and farming suburb of Glasgow and home to one of original Carnegie Libraries. She was the second eldest of 11 children, the oldest surviving child. Her father, Gilbert, worked as a heckler in the linen industry. They were Church of Scotland Protestant.

Why Jennie boarded a ship on her own is lost to the ages. Some of her younger siblings eventually emigrated to Canada. How she ended in Washington County, Ohio is anyone’s guess, but it is likely she was somehow attached to the growing Scots communities in that region – perhaps a distant relative or family friend. She married my 2nd great-grandfather Adam that same year. And one year later, they relocated to the Northside of Pittsburgh.

Adam was a working class laborer in several Northside businesses. They had five children over the course of 13 years. All survived to adulthood, but the eldest girl died in childbirth herself at age 18. They lived in several different addresses on the Northside, mostly all in East Allegheny near what is now the base of the 16th street Bridge and the Veteran’s Bridge. It was a very working class community of Irish, Scots and German families. Adam was German American – his mother emigrated in 1868 with her family.

In 1902, Adam died leaving Jennie with five children ages 2 – 14 and no family nearby. She was 34 years old with nothing but her sheer willpower to push her onward.

Jennie sent her children out to help keep everyone fed. Gilbert became a copy boy thanks to a neighbor working with the Pittsburgh Sun. Harry and Elizabeth worked as servants, at a hospital and for a private family. The youngest went to live with her grandmother in Ohio.

Then another tragedy – 18-year-old Christina died in childbirth in 1907.

A few year later, Jennie married John Murray, a coal miner from Tennessee. By 1915, all of the Remley children were married, even Jane was just turned 15 for her wedding day.

Jennie and John moved around to a few different coal mines – him working as a manager and her running boarding houses for the other miners. Her kids were married with children of their own and perhaps she had some peace if not much rest. But coal mining was dangerous and dirty.

So then, another tragedy in 1926 when John died in a terrible industrial accident at age 56. He was struck by a coal car, fell over a coal embankment and suffered a broken neck. He lived about 12 hours from what I can see in the records. This was in Bethel Park – a community we don’t often associate with industrial accidents. Perhaps being underground they were literally out of sight?

Jennie then went to live with her daughters who were also coal miners wives. She sort of jumped around from Ross to Plum and back to Castle Shannon. I know that my great-grandmother (wife of her eldest son) had no fondness for her.

Perhaps the biggest mystery was the final twist in her tale. In 1938, Jennie was confined to the Allegheny Hospital for the Insane also known as the Allegheny County Home for the Poor in Collier Township also known as Woodville State Hospital. She remained there for 7 years until her death in 1944.

This was NEVER discussed by my family. I had just assumed Jennie died sometime in the 1930s before my parents generation came along. The only brief mention made of her was by my grandmother who described her as mean and told me that she didn’t get along with any of her daughters in law. And she made a vague reference to attending her funeral.

But this is quite a different thing.

Jennie Tarleton death certificate

Start at the top – Jennie has lived for 7 years, 7 months and 11 days in a state institution in Collier Township. It had various names but was generally referred to as Woodville State Hospital. It was originally a house for the poor, but eventually because a mental hospital as well. It was open from 1854-1992. So she could have been confined there for many reasons. She herself was poor (no pension, two dead husbands, and social security was very new) in 1944. But she had been living with her daughters and we know her older son  (my great-grandfather) was definitely not poor. So perhaps Jennie was confined for medical reasons? I struggle to think my great-grandfather couldn’t finance private duty care for a typical ailment, so perhaps she just wasn’t safe in the community?

Below that we find the biographical details that confirm that this our ancestor (my 2nd great grandmother) – her name, age, date of birth, marital status, name of father and mother, etc. The occupation listed “housewife” makes me smile mirthlessly b/c after researching her – I’ve never known a woman in our family to work harder to keep body and soul together for her children. But this line is very useful when researching ancestors. Sometimes you can find more out about them.

To the right, you’ll see the medical information about her death. She was treated for five months for a generalized heart/kidney condition due to arteriosclerosis. No mention of the reason sh was at the hospital to begin with, but it is important to note the heart and kidney disease factors – are they symptom? And to consider that this is as close as we can get to documenting the potential for a history of mental illness in our family in the middle of the 20th century. That would probably be very useful to her children and grandchildren.

Usually, a family member signs a death certificate. But here it was the staff. There was no autopsy. She was transferred and eventually buried in Mt. Zion in Castle Shannon. Her funeral notice is below. Again, it is very simple especially considering her son was an editor with a prominent newspaper.


Jennie’s life story is not particularly romantic. Perhaps she knew two great loves and found what she sought after leaving Scotland. Perhaps it was better than it reads on paper and in a few snips of family lore. But it does read as harsh, hard and grinding. And there’s no legacy left to soften it – no family recipe or tradition or reminder of ‘Grandma Jennie’ that’s handed down.

Did her children have better lives? It appears fair to say with the very sad exception of Christina dying. All of their marriages lasted and they had 34 grandchildren together. I think you could say most of them and us great-grandchildren escaped the life of working in coal mines and sending our children out to be servants to earn a wage for the family support. Not all of us escaped that fate, but those who did labor for a living had the benefit of unions and health insurance and penicillin.

But the in-between issues are still with us – mental health, alcoholism, fractured family relationships, secret keeping, the loss of children, blended families and more.

We’d be better off if we had know about Jennie and talked about her real lived life, not the fanciful snippet version. If we knew why she was institutionalized and if that reason created a medical history for all of us. Perhaps knowing more about the actual deaths of Adam, Christina and John would dispel notions of some great American past. Or realizing that while some of her great-grandchildren are now firmly upper middle class, mileage varies in that regard as well.

Jennie is my only firmly known Scots ancestor. I’ve been reading about her homeland as I write this post and I’m dismayed by how little I knew. I knew she was Protestant, but I learned that she and her husband John were Nativists, protesting immigration- especially Catholics. Jennie was an immigrant and so was her first husband’s mother. So that’s a bit … difficult to understand. John Murray’s family had been in the US for at least a hundred years longer than her, working hardscrabble farming and mining jobs.

Resentment about their lots in life, I understand. But it wasn’t the Pope who made those working environments unsafe. It wasn’t the working class folks from Catholic countries or even their rulers. It was the corporations who owned those mines and factories. It was the property owners who maintained the housing or didn’t. The people who lifted up Jennie, Adam and John as the backbone of America, but didn’t do much beyond that.

Regardless, Jennie had a lot to grieve and her story – her true factual story – has a lot to offer those of us now who want to understand her reality and how its shaped ours.

Rest in power, Grandma Jennie.

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