Tips from the Trail of Tobin Hatters, by Juliana Smith

Penitentiary, Blackwell Island, New YorkYesterday was one of those days where things just fell into place. Those of you who have been reading my columns for a while may remember me talking about my Tobin ancestors in past articles. Well, using passenger arrival records, obituaries, and some more unusual records, I stumbled upon some startling surprises and got a little more insight into this line.

The Tobin Hatters
My third great-grandfather, Thomas H. Tobin, was a hatter in New York City until around 1847 when he moved to Rochester, New York, and opened a hat shop there. One of my mom’s aunts had mentioned that he also had made a hat for Abraham Lincoln. (A tough story to prove, but interesting nonetheless.) She also said he had a brother Peter who was in the hat business, too.

There were several Tobin hatters (Peter, James, and George) that appeared in New York City directories at that time, and I’ve always wondered whether they were related in some way. There were plenty of similarities, particularly when it came to the areas where they set up shop, but I hadn’t yet organized my notes enough to prove any connections.

I started by pulling out notebooks with handwritten directory listings, censuses, and other assorted records I had collected on the Tobin hatters. I put the handwritten items into electronic format and organized them chronologically. Doing so brought out some links via shared addresses between Peter, James, and a William Tobin, who ran a porterhouse (tavern).

I also had a passenger arrival for four Tobins arriving on the Robert Isaac in 1841 in the New York Passenger Arrivals, 1820-50: W., age sixty-nine; Mary, age sixty-three; Geo?, age twenty-three; and Peter, age sixteen. Considering the difference in ages, it was a stretch to think that W. and Mary were parents, coming over with sons George and Peter. (She would have been about fifty-three years old when she had Peter.) But the ages matched up with two hatters (also George and Peter) I had found in the census, and since I had found a Mary, age eighty-six, living with Peter in 1860, I was confident that there was some relationship.

Sometimes it’s Right Under Your Nose
Some of you may have heard a scream around 3:00 last Tuesday afternoon. Yes, that was me. I thought I’d poke around the New York, Death Newspaper Extracts, 1801-1890 from the Barber Collection at I thought I had pretty much scoured this database for all of my family lines, but apparently this wasn’t the case. I ran across a Mary Tobin with a death date in 1873. I was doubtful that this was our Mary and almost skipped over it. I’m so glad I didn’t. It was a reference to an obituary in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” that read,

Apr 2 Mary Tobin wid Wm hater[sic] 100y sons Peter George James res s Peter 366 Hudson Ave.

I couldn’t believe that it was right there under my nose all this time. I had assumed that she had died before 1870 because I had located Peter in 1870, and Mary wasn’t living with him at the time. After all, she had been eighty-six in 1860. This is a good reminder to keep those assumptions in check!

I pulled up the full obituary of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from the Brooklyn Public Library’s online collection. 

TOBIN. On Wednesday, April 2, 1873, Mary Tobin, widow of William Tobin, hatter, in the 100th year of her age.

Friends and acquaintances of the family, also those of her sons, Peter, George, and James are requested to attend the funeral from the residence of her son, Peter C. Tobin, 366 Hudson av., on Sunday, April 16, at 2 P.M.

Where’s Mary?
Since my mom happened to be in SLC, I called her and gave her the information I had found. (O.K., I probably wasn’t as calm as that sounds. I believe I actually shrieked for most of the conversation.) She set out for the Family History Library to look for her death record. She located Mary in the index, but then we were in for a letdown. The index gave her certificate number as 144348, but when she looked for the film number of the certificates, she found that certificates no. 143581-160000 are missing and were not microfilmed. Dang!

We didn’t give up there though. A search of the 1870 census turned up a Mary Toben, age ninety-eight, in the 19th Ward, 20th District, image 116 of 219. She appeared to be in some sort of institution as she was among a long list of apparently unrelated people, and there were no headers on the census pages except for a page number in the upper left corner. On image 100, there was an enumeration tally page of sorts.

I paged forward and did a double-take. The top of the next page read, “Penitentiary.” This was not where I expected to find my ninety-eight-year-old 4th great-grandmother! What could she have done to wind up in the hoosegow?

Browsing through the enumeration, it became evident that this was the enumeration of Blackwell Island and all of its facilities. Another tally page further on gave numbers for the almshouse. I scanned my bookshelves for more information about Blackwell Island. The description in New York, An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns and James Sanders with Lisa Ades (Companion to the PBS Series) reads:

For the tens of thousands of unfortunate people who fell by the wayside each year, the only recourse was Blackwell’s Island–a forbidding cluster of stone fortresses out in the East River, where the city’s most desperate and dangerous people were confined.

The island’s stark facilities–the penitentiary, the workhouse, the lunatic asylum, the Hospital for Incurables–were routinely filled to capacity, its two dismal almshouses, one man wrote, crowded with “broken down and decrepit men and women, and old chronic cases, sent there to die.”

Wow. That’s a sobering description, and I couldn’t help but be moved by the thought that this could be my ancestor. Tobin is a relatively common name, but with the age matching so closely, and the fact that living to that age was the exception, I’m inclined to believe it is. Not the kind of thing you want to find out in your research, but we have to take the bad with the good.

The Good News Is . . .
I also did some searching online for more information about Blackwell Island and in doing so, have hope that, although finding what may be my 4th great-grandmother in an almshouse at age ninety-eight was disheartening, this new discovery may help me to locate more information to prove or disprove the relationship. The Municipal Archives of New York has a collection of Almshouse records dating from 1758-1953. Many of these records are also available on microfilm at the Family History Library. (Guess what Mom’s doing right now?)

Still Much to Do
While I have definitely have made progress on this line, I also still have a lot to prove. There are several things still nagging at me:

  • Mary’s age in relation to her “sons.” Fifty-three is pretty old for a woman to be bearing children, but then again, you have to think she was probably in good health to have lived that long.
  • Why she would be on Blackwell Island in 1870 when clearly Peter was relatively well off? Was she there because of disease? We may never know the answer to this one, but perhaps the almshouse records will help in this aspect.
  • Where do the brothers disappear to in various years? I still have a lot of gaps to fill in my research, and I’ll want to branch out into vital records, probates, and anything else I can get my hands on.
  • Most importantly, the only link I have between this family and my ancestor, Thomas Tobin, is from that interview with Mom’s aunt. Because what she said has been dead-on so far, I’m inclined to believe her, but I still need something tangible to prove the relationship between this family and mine.

Clearly, I need to take this case step-by-step and make sure I’m covering all the bases, but if the past day has been any indication, it should be a very interesting ride!

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

11 thoughts on “Tips from the Trail of Tobin Hatters, by Juliana Smith

  1. Wouldn’t Mary have been 47 when she had Peter (63-16)? A little more reasonable age.

    It will be interesting to find out how many other children there are between George and Peter and prior to George. Presumably James and possibly your Thomas and I wonder who else.

  2. Congratulations on your serendipitous find! Finding the answer to one question often generates more questions. That’s the nature of the beast.

    When and where did Mary’s husband William die? Did his death affect her place of residence?

    Or, could Mary have been with another son at the time of the 1870 census? You say that Peter was well-off. Could he and Mary have parted ways–and addresses–because of some dispute before 1860? Could Peter have mellowed after Mary’s death and allowed a “funeral from the residence of her son, Peter…”

    Good luck to you and your mother.

  3. According to the passenger list info you provided WILLIAM would have been 53 and MARY would have been 47 when Peter was born.

    Well within the realm of possibility . . .

  4. Although 53 is a fair age to have children,I peconally knew a woman that had her last of 10 at age 50. Eddy was born in the morning and she did the washing in the afternoon. So nothing is impossible. Bill

  5. You said:
    Mary, age sixty-three; Geo?, age twenty-three; and Peter, age sixteen.

    If these are the correct ages then refigure your math. I believe Mary would have only been 47.

  6. My g, grandfather, Thomas F. Smith married Catherine Tobin in Phila. Catherine’s parents were both born in Ireland – Partick in 1802; Elen Grew in 1811
    Ant connection with the “Hatters”?

  7. Thanks to everyone who corrected my math! (It’s tough to work the calculator when you’re dancing.) 😉


  8. Is there a way to find out which of those “institutions” she was residing? Would she be so destitute if her son’s were successful hatters? Don’t rule out that she was in the “lunatic asylum.” Due to exposure to toxic substances, many people in and around the “hatter” business had symptoms of mental illness – that’s where the term “mad as a hatter” came from.
    Vicki in Austin

  9. Perhaps the screams and happy dances ARE the causes of unidentifiable tremors on the Richter scales ? Glad to hear and give them!

  10. If you’ll bear with this story, you’ll see another reason one could end up on Blackwell’s Island.
    There is a legend in my family that my grandmother was a nurse helping the criminally insane in NYC. My research led me to a woman with my grandmother’s name, but the dates were way off. I continued reading a fascinating (but sad) story. Mary Ann had a sister who came from Ireland to work for the same employer, a banker in NY. The sister became ill and decided to return to Ireland. She asked her employer for the 100 pounds sterling he was “holding” for her. He told her to come to his office the following day. When she did, he gave her only 10 pounds. She caused a disturbance and was arrested. She was given a date to appear in court, but as she was sick, she was sent to Blackwell’s Island. Mary Ann went to court to speak for her sister. When the judge realized that Mary Ann was not the defendent, he decided she was mentally incompetent, and sent her to Blackwell’s Island! Reading over my shoulder, my husband said, “That has to be your family!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *