Category Archives: Geneology

Discovering My Ancestry: Part 2 – Making a Living on Death

Patrick Blake

My great, great grandfather, Patrick Blake, was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1833 and was brought to Ontario, Canada when he was about a year old. This is when details get murky. As I mentioned in my last post, historical records tend to be conflicting which is the case here. According to my research, he left Ireland with both his mother and father, John and Catherine Blake. My research also says John Blake died in 1842 in Ontario but I recently read an obituary for Patrick that says his father died when he was an infant and his mother brought him to Canada shortly thereafter. I did find a John Blake in the 1842 Canadian census for Quebec but the census is practically worthless since it did not list ages or the names of family members. John Blake is not exactly an uncommon name.

Patrick Blake moved to Detroit when he was young. Again, the records are conflicting but he arrived somewhere between the ages 12 and 20, possibly earlier. If my records are correct, he came there with his mother some time after his father died in 1842 which would make the obituary partially true. In another publication about the Blake family, Patrick was said to have come to Detroit with his mother and Father, which doesn’t match my records for opposite reasons. This information is not very important but it illustrates the difficulties in historical research.

At a young age, Patrick learned the art of shoemaking and opened a shoe store in Detroit. His shoemaking skills were exceptional and he even earned first prize for a pair of shoes he made for the first Michigan State Fair.

Eliza O’Rafferty Blake

In 1855, Patrick married Eliza O’Rafferty. Eliza left Ireland with her family during the Irish Potato Famine. I wrote about her in another post that you can read here. Together they had nine or ten children. I will explain the uncertainty later.

In 1862, Patrick opened a furniture store after giving up the shoe business. By 1865 he was selling caskets as well as furniture in his store. In those days, funeral homes did not exist like they do today. People just bought caskets and buried their dead.

Patrick, like many others, lost money after the Panic of 1873 and gave up the furniture business. He then conceived the idea of devoting his time to directing funerals. He thought the casket business lacked the compassion needed at times of death and originated many ideas that are now common in the funeral home business.

1901 advertisement

Patrick’s funeral business became very successful in Detroit and the man himself was well regarded in the city. In a 1914 publication titled Successful Men of Michigan, Patrick’s business, which was later called P. Blake and Sons after the addition of his sons William and Charles, was touted as “the first to furnish their establishment with a morgue of modern construction and equipment. They were first to introduce the process of embalming in this part of the country; first to use black covered caskets; first to establish a chapel in connection with their undertaking rooms; and first to introduce the modern square funeral car or hearse.”

Patrick was also a charitable man. He took a special interest in St. Vincent’s orphan asylum, of Detroit, He was also a member of the city’s poor commission, and a member of the board of superintendents of the poor of Wayne county. This will be ironic years later when one of his own sons will end up poor and destitute.

Patrick died in 1893 and had a very thorough obituary in The Detroit Free Press. They mentioned nine children, eight of whom were living at the time and listed seven of them. They did not list my great grandfather, Nelson Blake. He was also not listed in other publications about the Blake family at the time. Nelson was the youngest of Patrick’s children, born in 1875.

A second cousin of mine found evidence that Nelson might have been the illegitimate child of Patrick’s oldest son, Harry, and Nellie Palmer, who were unmarried at the time. Patrick and Eliza may have adopted the child but no other evidence has been found to support that. I did find an 1880 census that shows Nelson listed as a 5 year old son to Patrick and Eliza along with eight other children in the household. I believe there was another child that had died by this time which may explain why he was said to have nine children in publications that I have read.

There is far less information about Nelson than Patrick but I know he ends up in Chicago and marries Matilda Williams (or Bouer). In the 1930 census he is listed as a gardener. Also in that census, he lists his father as being from Ireland. So if he is really Harry’s son then he either doesn’t know it or doesn’t acknowledge it.

From what I picked up over the years, Nelson and Matilda didn’t get along very well. I believe Matilda would complain often about Nelson’s behavior, in particular about his drinking. I don’t know if it was the drinking that was the problem or if going out to drink was the issue. My grandfather didn’t say much about it but it seemed he felt his mother drove his father away.

Whatever the reason, Nelson left Matilda and had a very hard life afterwards. The 1930 census has him living in a place called “Old Ironsides Hotel.” I looked it up but could find no information about it except one reference to it in a book called Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties by Michael Lesy. In the book he says “The Ironsides was a skid row flophouse.”

Things hadn’t improved for Nelson ten years later when he was listed as a patient at Oak Forest Infirmary in 1940. It was a place for the sick and disadvantaged. It was also known as the Cook County Poor House. Nelson died that same year.

I can’t help wonder where his family was during those years he was poor and destitute. His parents were dead but he did have eight brothers and sisters, some of whom were probably well off considering the success of the undertaking business. Granted, I don’t know what happened to the business. It doesn’t exist today, at least not by that name, but I would think at least one of his siblings could have helped him at the time. Also, if Harry truly was his father, why didn’t he help? I guess I’ll never know.

Matilda lived in the same house in Chicago for the rest of her life. She died 13 years after Nelson in 1953. My mother visited her sometimes as a child and thought that she may have been waiting for her husband to come home. I wonder if she ever knew of his death.