Granny Hogan and family lore
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Moonshine Still, public domain, courtesy of Flikr Creative Commons, posted by UNC Library Commons.
I'm sharing this story so that it is preserved for relatives to see, but it may also be an interesting example to others, showing how old family stories can often hold a kernel of truth.
In about 1988 when I was a new student at St. Rose junior high school in Edmonton, a boy with the surname Donnelly approached me with a surprising family story.
He said, “You’re a Conroy? Your relatives and mine were bootlegging in the basement of the LeMarchand Mansion in the dirty thirties.”
I said, “Um…. What?”
I went home and asked my dad about the story, and that’s the first time I heard about “Granny Hogan”. He told me that Granny Hogan was a notorious bootlegger on the Conroy side of the family who supposedly had a still that had burned down. My father called my grandfather, to see if Granny Hogan might have been bootlegging at the LeMarchand, but my grandfather said that it wouldn’t have been her (my grandfather had never met her- presumably she died a long time ago.) My grandfather claimed to not know anything about the LeMarchand bootlegging, so that is still an unsolved mystery (or possibly just a story he didn’t want to share with me!) If anyone out there knows more about that story- send me a message!
In 2010, my father gave me a tape recording from when he had interviewed my grandfather in 1993 (a few years before my grandfather's passing). In it, my father asked my grandfather to tell the Granny Hogan story.
My grandfather claimed that he didn’t know how Granny Hogan was related, but said she had been a relative of his grandfathers, and that she was one of the “bad ones” no one talked about. The story goes, she was a terrible alcoholic who bootlegged whisky from a still set up in the bush. Her husband wasn’t happy with the situation, but couldn’t get her to stop drinking or bootlegging. One night, a fire began in the shack containing the still, destroying both it and Granny Hogan. My grandfather thought her husband might have even had a hand in setting the fire. My grandfather said no one in the family or area ever mentioned her again.
Obviously, there was some mention of the story again, since it was passed down to my generation, where it had gained a sort of grisly notoriety that was looked at as almost entertaining as opposed to horrific. We didn’t know who Granny Hogan was, or even if she had actually existed, so we really didn’t feel anything about her fate beyond mild intrigue in a scandalous story.
In 2013, I purchased a book called Call Back Yesterday: The Allen Family History. My Allen ancestors intermarried with the Conroy family in Peterborough, Ontario, so there are several pages of Conroy history in the book, in addition to Allen history.
The book makes a convincing argument that my immigrant ancestor, Catherine Sullivan Conroy (about 1795–1853), was remarried after her husband David Conroy died, to a William Hogan. Much evidence is discussed, including land transactions and census records. The following newspaper article was transcribed in the book.
"Burned to Death- On Friday night last, Mrs. Hogan, an old woman, about 70 years of age residing in Douro, was burned to death. Her husband had gone out with the cutter some short distance, and in his absence the shanty took fire, and before she could be rescued the poor woman was burned to a cinder."
Peterborough Review- 24 December 1863
A copy of the inquest was included in the book, and it indicated that “Cathary Soolivan Hogan” had “come to her death by the accidental Burning of her dwelling house”.
Although no mention of a still was made, suddenly the source of my family story became very clear, and what had once been an interesting tale was now a real and disturbing account of the fate of my immigrant ancestor. My grandfather had said Granny Hogan was a relative of his grandfather (David J. Conroy). Catherine was David J.’s grandmother (hence "Granny" Hogan). He would have been about 20 years old when she died in the fire, and they lived in the same area, so he would have been old enough to have known her and remembered her death well.
The Allen book goes on to say:
"The author finds it interesting that in all the Conroy family information handed down orally, or in writing, over the century following this tragedy, no one preserved this great sadness for Conroy family history. David Conroy, son of Edmund Conroy and Mary O'Brien, and grandson of David and Catherine (Sullivan) Conroy lived to be nearly 100 years old. Considering that he was interviewed on a visit to Peterborough in May 1934…. when he was in his nineties….. he makes no reference to his Peter Robinson settler ancestor, David Conroy Sr., his early demise, and to his grandmother’s fate or her remarriage. To say that he would not have known about the life of his grandparents would be to create a large void in his ancestry. That these events remain a mystery attest to the preference of some to leave the past in silence."
Upon reading this paragraph, I emailed the author from whom I had purchased the book, and provided the transcript of my grandfather’s interview about Granny Hogan. I did not receive a reply.
Although I don’t wish to defame my oldest immigrant ancestor (or William Hogan, who could have been an innocent bystander), I publish this story here because I am one of the few people in our family who holds this piece of the puzzle. I feel a responsibility to share it with the other genealogists in our family. First and foremost, I believe in pursuing the truth. A whitewashed genealogy is a mythology. Our ancestors were humans just like us, and to ignore information that paints them in a less flattering light, does them and us a disservice. Undoubtedly, Catherine led a difficult life (no longer being able to support themselves on their farm in Ireland, having to emigrate and build a new home from nothing, burying multiple children and her husband). Remembering this story helps me understand her immigrant experiences better.
Second, I present this story to demonstrate that even the most far-fetched family tales can sometimes have a basis in truth. Although we don’t know how much of my grandfather’s story was true, it appears likely that some of it was. Although I don’t endorse accepting all family lore at face value, sometimes it is the only source of certain types of information and therefore should not be discounted out of hand. Even if it takes over one hundred years, sometimes the truth still comes to light.
 Rosemary McConkey and Suzanne Allen, Call Back Yesterday: The Allen Family History (publisher and location unstated, 2013).