The Story of Mary J. Newhall Breed, Part II

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to Mary Breed of Lynn, Mass. and her fascinating family history. Now I’d like to continue her story, as told in her own words in a 12-page manuscript at the MHS.

When she wrote this manuscript in 1933, Mary was 64 years old. She had lived in Lynn her whole life, but now she and her husband Mayo were out of work and wanted to relocate to Boston. Not only would employment opportunities be more plentiful there, but Mary had ties to the city going back generations, and the move had been the express wish of her late grandfather John Bemis Ireland, a Boston blacksmith and wheelwright.

Mary hadn’t actually known her grandfather for the first two decades of her life. After his wife Nancy’s death in 1866, John moved to Boston and, for reasons that aren’t clear, “lost all track” of his daughter and her children. Then one day in 1888 (or 1889, Mary is inconsistent on this detail), John was strolling down a street in West Lynn on his way to a job, and “it just happened that they met each other.”

The family relationship reestablished, John began to visit the Breeds every week. Mary was obviously a fan of her newly discovered grandfather, writing, “we were glad and happy to meet him. I have his Photo now. Also a pair of fire tongs that he made when he was 21 years of age.” She bragged that he had “helped make the iron and steel works in Bunker Hill Monument, and the iron works in the old North Station and other places.” And according to her account, “he said he would have taken us all to Boston to live with him. He said he was sorry he hadn’t met us years before that he could have helped us out a lot.”

Unfortunately, this happy interlude didn’t last long. John died in November 1889, the day before the Great Lynn Fire. In one version of Mary’s timeline, this was only a month after their reunion.

In November 1933, Mary’s circumstances were dire. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression, her husband Mayo was unemployed, and she had been laid off from the shoe factory where she worked because of her age. She was also, incidentally, disabled since birth, “with a deformed left leg.” The only accommodation she asked for was a job she could perform sitting down. She had worked for 47 years and declared that she still could. Seeing her bold, clear, insistent handwriting, it’s easy to believe her.

She addressed her appeal to “To the Societys of Boston Mass. And The Historical Society,” hoping that some organization would help her to find work, possibly as companion to an elderly couple. Mayo could take care of the couple’s house. And surely the fact that her mother’s family hailed from Boston—not to mention that her grandfather had literally contributed to the city’s infrastructure—must count for something.

I love Mary’s spirit. She wrote, “I have lived a good respectable life and I have worked hard.”

Its pretty hard luck when I am able to do a good days work as ever before and I cannot work and help out a little. I am willing even now anytime to work if I could get something I could sit down at. I am pretty handy at anything I undertake to do. I make most of my own clothes by hand, I have never run a sewing machine. I have made Patchwork Quilts and sold quite a number. I love to sew and make pretty things that are usefull.

Mary’s only living relative was a brother in Maine. Mayo had a daughter from his first marriage, but she didn’t earn enough from her work as a housekeeper to support them. Mary complained that no one in Lynn cared about them except for one kind friend who sometimes gave her money for clothes. Some people, Mary said, would rather send them to the Poor House. Her frustration at the injustice is palpable.

They are not interested in anyone unless they are young. Those, they will try and help. The poor old has beens can beg or starve or be evicted from their tenements as I have been only a month ago.

One page is written directly to the reader.

Please don’t destroy this story. […] But I hope somebody will have a kind heart, and help a poor unfortunate Sister in need of work, and a permanent home where I can settle down and not have to worry anymore.

Image of a handwritten page
One page of Mary J. Breed’s manuscript, 1933

Mary’s plea was ultimately unsuccessful. She and Mayo didn’t relocate to Boston, at least not permanently; both died in Lynn, in 1950 and 1954 respectively. And while the MHS and other “Societys” could not or would not help Mary 88 years ago, we can at least share her story now.