My Family Immigration Story: The Short Life of Sadie Butler (1872-1922)

I first learned about Sadie Butler in the early 2000’s when I sent away for the Catholic Diocesan records of my paternal great-grandfather whom I (erroneously) believed was Irish Catholic. To my surprise, I learned the Irish Kerr’s were Protestant via the marriage information of my second great-grandparents, John K Kerr (1869-1908) and Sarah A ‘Sadie’ Butler (1872-1922.) John was not Catholic, but given the religious equivelant of a waiver to marry the very Catholic (and very Irish) Sadie.

Sadie Butler Kerr circa 1920

Sadie and John were my 2nd great-grandparents on my paternal side of the family.

No one ever talked about these ancestors – the Kerrs or the Butlers. I’ll save the Kerrs for another post, but Sadie deserves a shout-out now. Like one of my other 2nd great-grandmothers, Jennie Tarleton, Sadie’s life was exhausting and grueling as well as filled with surprises.

Sadie’s Irish born parents, Catherine Duffey (1835-1912) and John Butler (1842-1920) emigrated to the United States. Catherine’s first husband, John Quigley, died in 1866 leaving her with five children. She married John Butler in 1867, they soon emigrated and had six children together. Sadie had 10 siblings, half born in Ireland and half in Pittsburgh where her parents settled. She was the third youngest.

Sadie was baptized at St. John the Evangelist in Pittsburgh South Side neighborhood where she would spend most of her life.

On April 22, 1892, Sadie married John Kerr at Holy Cross Parish also on the South Side. John was a sign painter. They went on to have five children together. Four survived to adulthood. Only one (William) lived past age 33.

In 1900, Sadie and her family were living on Horcum’s Alley while John worked as a train switchman. She had a servant living in the household, a 23 year old young woman named Julia. It is quite possible Julia was a boarder who worked for her room & board.

By 1908, Sadie had given birth to all five of her children. One child died before 1900, but I have not yet been able to determine their name, gender, or why they died so young. That was a sad, but common state of affairs for women – losing their children at tender ages. For Sadie, more tragedy lay ahead.

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In 1908, her husband John suffered a stroke at their home and died a week later. He was 38.  Sadie, like her mother before her, was a young widow with young children.

By 1910, Sadie and her children were living on Carson Street. Her sons James (age 17) and John (age 15) were working in the steel mills. Her 16 year old nephew Joseph was completing an apprenticeship. Joseph was the stepson of her sister, Mary. This will become relevant later in the story.

In 1917, Sadie suffered another loss when her eldest son, James (Jimmy), died at age 24 from kidney disease. He had been married for 18 months. His daughter, Catherine, was six months old. James widow, Pierre, remarried soon after and her second husband adopted baby Catherine, relocating out of state.

In 1920, she had moved to Sarah Street where she operated a boarding house for millworkers with the help of her two younger children, William and Helen. Son John had married and moved a few blocks away with his bride, Edna. He and William both worked for J&L Steel.

In 1922, Sadie was dead at the age of 47. Even her death was awful. She was diagnosed with breast and liver cancer, then spent two months at Southside Hospital before she died.

Start at the top – Sadie was in the South Side Hospital from January 19 to March 9, 1922.  Her home address was Carrick. Her diagnosis was cancer of both breast and liver. No clue to how long she lived with those, but her level of activity suggests it was either not a deterrent or she was a tough broad. Very tough. No entry under occupation, not even housewife or domestic. She kept body and soul together for a long time on her own as a single mother, but that’s not acknowledged.

Sadie was buried in Calvary Cemetery, but I haven’t found her grave yet.

Her second son, John known as Kelso, died in 1924 from the flu/pneumonia. He was 30 years old and left behind four young children. Their stories are for another day, but I will add this – Sadie’s family stepped in to help. Her niece adopted the youngest girl. Her sister Julia temporarily took in the oldest daughter, Edna, while she finished high school.

Her daughter Helen died age age 33 of a stroke like her father, leaving behind her own 16 year old daughter who went to live in a boarding house. Lois grew up to have one son who had one daughter.

Of the five children she bore, only William lived a long life dying at age 65. He had one son who had three children of his own. They had seven grandchildren. We had no idea these cousins even existed until a year ago or so. And in the midst of everything it seems that William married into the famil of a distant relative of my mother (Sweeney) who lived here on the Northside of Pittsburgh where I live. And his son married in the McCue family of Tarentum which may be related to a former coworker of mine. That’s Pittsburgh.

In the midst of all of this tragedy tearing apart a family, it is easy to think of Sadie as stereotype as this poor, suffering Irish-American working class woman. I confess that’s how I viewed her until I typed her name into a newspaper database to find her obituary.

That’s when I found this entire new facet of Sadie. Her husband John had been part of the fraternal society, Knights of the Maccabees, so naturally Sadie was involved with the ladies auxilary. ‘Involved’ is an understatement. She was deeply invested in the organization. She traveled around the region giving talks to other women’s groups. She traveled to Baltimore just a few years before her death. She was honored by the organization for her work. They were deeply involved in creating educational, social and recreational opportunities for women and their families.

She organized outings to Kennywood, taking charge of the sporting activities. My 2nd great grandmother was organizing in Kennywood. I grew up in West Mifflin which is where Kennywood is located. That’s one of those head spinning moments where the world becomes so intimately small.

She lived within a few blocks of Carson Street for her entire life. Her sons moved to Carrick briefly, but then back to South Side.

She took a train to Baltimore to speak at a convention and she went to Port Huron, Michigan. Suddenly, Sadie emerges from this historical stereotype and begins to speak to me about her life – not just the births and deaths. She was born than a mother and wife, more than a hardworking drudge who put food on the table. She had more newspaper references than any other relative I’ve found and in a brief period of time.

She was part of this movement to create resources and tools for women by giving them direct access to life insurance instead of solely relying on the insurance of their husbands. It was a revolutionary concept at the time, but a successful one.

I feel a sense of awe to realize how much Sadie accomplished. But even after all this research, I don’t feel the same connection to her that I feel with Jennie Tarleton. Jennie’s granddaughter would grow up to marry Sadie’s grandson. Jennie was a part of my lifestory. I knew her name if not the details. I had a sense of her presence in our lives albeit a very limited one. She was real.

Sadie still feels distant and remote, even in her awesome truth. Her story was lost to us. I suspect it was because her son who was my direct ancestor died young and so did she. The family splintered after her death. Did her children have better lives than her immigrant parents? Objectively, no in terms of life span. Did we escape the legacy of life in the mills? Some of us, but most of the living descendants are here in Pittsburgh.

Much like I wrote about Jennie Tarleton holds true. We’d be better off if we had known about Sadie and talked about her real lived life. Knowing more about her medical history and the deaths of John, Jimmy, Kelso and Helen would have put some perspective on the mythology of MAGA.

Jennie was from Scotland. Sadie’s parents came from Ireland. Jennie was a Protestant and member of a Nativist fraternal group. Sadie was Catholic and a leader in the Ladies of the Maccabees. Jennie ground herself into the earth to provide and wore bitterness like perfume according to stories. Sadie was also ground down, but contributed to a society that built other women up versus shutting the doors to other immigrants. I have no idea about Sadie’s personality. Both women had a lot to grieve.

Lest I overstate the difference, the Maccabees were racists like every other group. They discriminated based on age and disability as well. So the distinction around nativism is important, but not absolute.

I am going to do some more reading about the Lady Maccabees because it is a really interesting group. And try to connect with my long-lost second and third cousins.

Rest in power, Grandma Sadie.




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