The Tragedy of John J Dunn – Baseball, Booze, and Bridgewater
August 20, 2011 § 14 Comments
In telling the story of my great grand-uncle I must express my gratitude to the following individuals, my third cousin Patricia for her general hospitality and for providing me with the initial clue about my ancestor working as a baseball umpire; to Mark, a descendant of the Flynn family, who also supplied stories regarding my ancestor’s possible career as an umpire, as well as providing general history on the family; and lastly to Sunny, for so graciously helping my investigate John Dunn’s criminal record.
One of the most successful tactics I have employed to find ancestors is to do a broad search for records using the names of parents already known to me. For example, knowing the names of my great grandfather’s parents I would conduct a search to discover if he had any siblings by omitting any first name and only using the family name, the names of the parents, and an estimated range of birth years. This method has been very successful in locating records for entire groups of siblings.
In just this manner was I able to learn about the larger Dunn family. For many years I was only familiar with my own great grandfather, Thomas Francis Dunn. I knew who his birth parents were, and that he was from County Waterford, Ireland. Beyond that I knew very little. After some researching I discovered that, while living in Worcester, Massachusetts, he resided with the wife of his own brother, William Dunn, who had died in 1905. After some time I began to learn more about the two brothers, but I began to wonder if any other siblings had come to America.
I was thrilled when I uncovered one sister and three other brothers, all of whom had immigrated to the States. I’ve been able to track many of them, but it is the life of John J Dunn that has captured my attention for the time being. His story is both compelling and complicated, and to be true, much of it is still shrouded in mystery. But, here, at least, is what I’ve learned.
John J Dunn may have been born in Kilmacthomas, County Waterford, Ireland, sometime between 1871 and 1874, and may have immigrated to America in 1885 or 1887. He appears to have moved quickly west to Athol, Massachusetts, where he appears to have worked as a stone mason. Another brother, James Dunn, was also living in Athol but moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1897. In that same year John marries Ellen Flynn, the daughter of Thomas Flynn and Hannah Leary, in Athol, and the following year (1898) the couple moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
In the 1900 census the couple are listed with one son, Thomas Michael Dunn, who was born in 1898, although their second son, Daniel J Dunn, is born in 1900, also in Fitchburg. At this point in the story of John Dunn things begin to take a somber turn. In 1903 their only daughter, Bridget H Dunn, is born but only lived five months. On her death certificate the cause is listed as marasmus, and indigestion is given as a contributing factor. When I first read this I didn’t know what marasmus was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. What I found stunned me,
Marasmus is a form of severe protein-energy malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency. A child with marasmus looks emaciated. Body weight may be reduced to less than 80% of the average weight that corresponds to the height. The word “marasmus” comes from a Greek word meaning starvation. Marasmus is generally known as the gradual wasting away of the body due to severe malnutrition or inadequate absorption of food. Marasmus is a form of severe protein deficiency and is one of the forms of protein-energy malfunction (PEM). It is a severe form of malnutrition caused by inadequate intake of proteins and calories. Ultimately, marasmus can progress to the point of no return when the body’s machinery for protein synthesis, itself made of protein, has been degraded to the point that it cannot handle any protein. At this point, attempts to correct the disorder by giving food or protein are futile. (from Wikipedia)
I can hardly imagine the incredible pain and stress John and Ellen must have endured as they watched, helplessly, as their baby girl wasted away in front of their eyes.
Within the year the couple was gifted with another child, William Francis Dunn, but surely the pain of the loss of their daughter must
have been still fresh in their minds. During this time John appears to be working for a paper company, but by 1910 he goes to work for the D.M. Dillon Steam Boiler Works company of Fitchburg.
Tragedy strikes the family again, this time it is Ellen herself who dies, in 1905, of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the early stages of my research the next historical document I came across was a 1910 census return for John Dunn. What was incredible about it was that he was listed as a prisoner at the Worcester County Jail on Water Street, Fitchburg. I could find no other John Dunn at that time that matched his description, and indeed, he is listed as widowed in the document. This discovery sparked my suspicions; could John have been somehow responsible for the death of his wife and was now in jail? A cerebral hemorrhage can be caused by a brain aneurism or a blow to the head; perhaps there had been an accident that resulted in Ellen’s death and John was found responsible. But what evidence existed to support this?
By researching newspaper articles it soon became clear that John was a drinker, or at least became one, and had a reputation in the town for getting into fights with his fellow townspeople and even the police. One such example of this is in 1908, when John assaulted a coworker at the Boiler Works. Numerous articles began to surface, all of which described John’s trouble with the law. He is often described as a very large man, over six feet tall, and quickly gains a reputation as a fellow who easily intimidates other people. Despite these stories, there wasn’t anything to strongly suggest that John may have been responsible, at least officially, for the death of his wife. But no sooner had I made that conclusion did I discover the following article from 1903. It describes how police are called to respond to an altercation with his wife. Two other civilians attempted to intervene with John, who seems to have been able to handle them easily. The police are able to subdue him finally. Finding this article reignited my suspicions about Ellen’s death. If in 1903 there was already some troubles with the marriage, then perhaps those troubles continued till her death.
One way or another, the death of his daughter and then his wife a few years later seem to put John over the edge. More and more articles appear detailing his increasing troubles. A truly bizarre story is printed in 1907, when on December 31 John seems to have attempted to marry a woman who may have still had a husband living in Maine. The marriage was not granted a wedding license, and the clergyman refused to perform the rite. Then, in 1909 he became drunk and entered a tailor shop with his un-tethered bull-dog, and terrorized the shop owner whose own dog was attacked by the larger animal. In March of 1910, “Big John J Dunn, an old-time friend of the police department” is arrested again for being drunk, and this time is “given an unusually heavy sentence.” The article describes that “[t]wo month sentences have apparently failed to have the desired effect on the husky defendant” and his jail time is extended to six months. This seems to support his appearance in the Water Street jail in the 1910 census which was taken in April.
It has been believed or rumored by more than one living relative that John may have also worked as baseball umpire during this period. It is true that articles can be found mentioning a Dunn playing with a team, but not as an umpire, and the articles don’t provide any other identifying details such as name, address, or other occupation. At this point I have been unable to prove that John worked as an umpire, but if he did so, then he must have passed a love for the game on to his firstborn son, Thomas, who became a Major League umpire in the 1930’s and 40’s – but more of his story later.
In 1911 things become quite grim indeed for John Dunn. He was again charged for being drunk but had his sentence suspended on condition on his good behavior. Alas, in July he violates his parole and is “committed” to the Bridgewater State Hospital, or “farm” as it is referred to in the article. The institution has had a controversial history. In the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was used an almshouse as well as a mental hospital, where “rogues, vagabonds” and alcoholics and drug addicts were sent under the pretense of receiving treatment and turning around to become useful members of society. Unfortunately, in its early years the institution seems guilty of severe neglect and even abuse of its inmates, and very few ever received the actual treatment they needed.
In 1967 a documentary called Titicut Follies was released by a filmmaker named Frederick Wiseman who had observed day-to-day life at the hospital for twenty-nine days. The film exposed the terrible conditions and abuse many of the patients (or inmates) were forced to endure at the hands of the guards. Even the doctors were cast in bad light, apparently being ignorant of what treatments the patients truly needed to get well.
One can hope that in 1911 the conditions at the hospital had not become as poor as they would in later decades, but certainly
life would not have been easy for John Dunn during his stay. How long John was held at Bridgewater I cannot say, or where he went to when he was released. However, another strange news article appears, this time in March 1914. Word has reached John’s sister, Bridget, also living in Fitchburg, that a man named John Dunn was found dead in Buffalo, New York. An inquiry is made, but it is determined that the man is not the notorious John J Dunn, who was well-known for his great physical size. I find it fascinating that John’s own sister would be tempted to think that this news may have been about him. Where was he and what was he doing? In May 1915, John’s son Daniel dies from an illness. John does not seem to be present in Fitchburg at the time, as Bridget, again John’s sister, is listed as the informant on the death certificate. It would seem that John was absent for his own son’s death.
John shows up again in Fitchburg in 1918, once again getting arrested for being drunk. The 1920 census also shows that he has returned to Fitchburg, and is now living in his sister’s household. The last record I have of him is a registered voters list from 1924. After that, his trail runs cold. I do not know what became of him or where he went. If he died before the 1930 census I do not know where, but he if he survived I do not know what became of him. I have recently contacted the cemetery in Fitchburg where many of the Dunn family members were buried, including Ellen Flynn. It is my hope that perhaps John was buried there as well. In addition, I have been able to trace the descendants of one of his surviving sons, William, and I hope to reach out to them. Whether they will be able to provide any more information is hard to guess, but hopefully I will be able to learn a little more about the complex history of this fascinating ancestor.