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For the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be able to access abortions without having to travel to Great Britain as of April 1. This is the culmination of years of fighting for access to reproductive healthcare and follows similar changes in Ireland, where abortion became legally accessible in January 2019.
As heated debate raged across both Northern Ireland and Ireland in the lead up to these changes, the stories of women, who for various reasons, took the “abortion trail” across the Irish Sea became more widely shared. These are personal and often harrowing stories of being forced to travel to Great Britain to terminate a pregnancy.
Indeed, while it may not be widely known, women who did not want to be mothers in Ireland are also a consistent feature of Irish migration throughout the 19th century. Some took the short journey across the Irish Sea to Great Britain. Others, however, took their chances further afield responding to the promises of a fresh start in America.
We have been researching these stories for our “Bad Bridget” project, a three-year study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council named after the fact that Bridget was commonly used in 19th-century North America to refer to Irish women. From looking at criminal and deviant Irish women in Boston, New York and Toronto, we have uncovered many who made the extreme decision to emigrate while pregnant and often alone.
It is clear from our research that the stigma and shame attached to illegitimacy in Ireland, in both protestant and catholic communities, led girls and women to make this journey to the “new world” rather than be condemned and possibly ostracised at home. In 1877, for instance, Maggie Tate, an Irish Protestant, migrated to New York to “cover her shame”. She hoped that the father of her child would join her in the US to fulfil his promise to marry her.
Kate Sullivan, who was 18 when she travelled to New York, was “betrayed” by the son of a farmer for whom she worked in Ireland. He had allegedly “shipped her over [to New York], promising to follow on the next steamer”. He didn’t and she gave birth to their twins there.
Other women in similar situations gave up their children for adoption. While some relatives and friends would likely have been complicit in decisions to hide pregnancies by migrating across the Atlantic, others likely remained entirely ignorant. Unfortunately, many Irish women found that when they arrived in America, attitudes towards single mothers were no more positive than at home. For some women the experience of migrating while pregnant ended in tragedy.
Catherine O’Donnell ended up in court in Boston in 1889 for the suspected manslaughter of her baby, having allegedly “sought the shore of America to give birth to an illegitimate child, her lover [in Ireland] deserting her”. Her case reveals the issues experienced by many single mothers, both in the past and today, of having to support a child alone. Catherine initially paid for her baby’s board, but her financial difficulties were exacerbated when money from home ceased. She was refused assistance at charitable and religious institutions and, after wandering around for two days in a storm, seems to have left her infant on the shoreline at low water where the baby drowned.
Abroad and alone
Our research on Bad Bridget has also shown that many Irish female migrants became pregnant after their arrival to North America. This is undoubtedly related to the fact that many Irish women emigrated alone and at a young age, some as young as eight or nine. This was unlike their counterparts from continental Europe, who tended to travel in family groups.
But if many Irish migrants in large cities experienced a new found sexual freedom outside of parental and family control, this lack of supervision also meant a lack of support and assistance. The experience of Rosie Quinn who became pregnant while in New York in 1903 reveals the tragic consequences that could follow. Rosie was found guilty of throwing her nine-day-old daughter into a reservoir in Central Park and sentenced to life in prison. Her case generated considerable public support, with one woman writing to the governor of New York:
my heart is so burdened for that poor Irish girl (alone in a strange country deserted by family and friends) that I cannot rest.
Like Catherine O’Donnell, Rosie explained during her trial that she had sought and been refused charitable assistance. She had gone to Central Park intending to drown herself and the baby, she claimed, but while contemplating suicide the baby had slipped from her arms. She recalled that she “got scared and ran away”. Servants at the hotel where Rosie had worked on Fifth Avenue appealed to patrons to help appeal her case and she was pardoned in December 1904.
These examples are only some of the wide variety of stories and experiences of unmarried Irish mothers in North America. In many situations, pregnancies outside marriage will have turned out well; women will have managed on their own, married or used support networks. But for others, experiences of emigration ended badly. Historical discussion of emigration often ignores the female experience.
Understanding the myriad migration stories in the past will give greater insight and understanding into the pressures and demands of migration today, especially relating to women migrants. Such stories also complicate rose-tinted views about economically, socially and politically successful Irish migrants who contributed to their new home countries. An awareness of the variety of pressures and stresses that led to a decision to emigrate, and an understanding that not all migrant experiences in the past were positive, can encourage a more empathetic consideration of migrants and migration today.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has allegedly amassed US$100 billion in purportedly charitable assets since 1997 without ever giving any money away – a possible breach of federal tax laws.
This estimate of the size of its investment vehicle known as Ensign Peak Advisors became public knowledge when David A. Nielsen, a former employee and a member of the church, blew the whistle.
According to the Nielsens, Ensign Peak Advisors has invested the church’s annual surplus member contributions to build up a $100 billion portfolio. But the Nielsens say they could find no evidence that Ensign Peak Advisors spent a dime of this money for religious, charitable, educational or other “public” purposes as IRS rules require under most circumstances. They also allege that it diverted tax-exempt funds to finance some for-profit projects, which could also violate IRS rules banning such transactions in some situations.
If the IRS determines that the investment fund failed to act as a charity even though it benefited from tax breaks, it might find that Ensign Peak Advisors broke tax laws. If that happens, and the IRS collects back taxes, David Nielsen could receive a cut as a reward.
If the numbers are accurate, Ensign is the nation’s largest charitable endowment, with as much money as Harvard University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have at their disposal, combined, if not more.
Church leaders deny that they have violated any laws that regulate tax-exempt institutions. The church “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves,” said the three-member council headed by church president Russell M. Nelson.
From my vantage point as a historian of Mormonism, this news marks a new twist on an old story. For nearly two centuries, the church has conducted its finances in ways that defy the expectations Americans have for religious organizations.
A church-owned ‘anti-bank’
Consider what happened in the summer of 1837, when the fledgling church teetered on the brink of collapse.
At the time, Joseph Smith and many church members lived in Kirtland, a small town in northeastern Ohio. The Smith family had moved there in the early 1830s, seeking a safer gathering place for church members in the face of persecution in New York state.
Smith and his followers began building a temple in Kirtland. The Saints dedicated their temple in 1836, but the project left Smith and others deep in debt. Like many communities in antebellum America, Mormon Kirtland was land-rich and cash-poor. A lack of hard currency hampered commerce.
Smith and his associates decided to start their own bank to solve their financial woes. The circulation of bank notes, they thought, would boost Kirtland’s economic prospects and make it easier for church leaders to satisfy their creditors.
Lots of currency
The idea of Mormon leaders printing their own money wasn’t as crazy as it sounds in 2019. The United States still lacked a uniform currency. A host of institutions of varying integrity – chartered banks, unchartered banks, other businesses and even counterfeiting rings – issued notes whose acceptance depended on the confidence of citizens who might accept or refuse them.
Mormon leaders bought engraving plates for printing bank notes and asked the Ohio state legislature to charter their bank. The Mormon proposal went nowhere in the legislature.
At this point, church leaders took a more fateful and dubious step.
They had collected money from investors and had already begun printing notes of the “Kirtland Safety Society Bank.” Instead of shutting down the operation when the charter failed to come through, they doubled down. Worried about the legal risk of running an unchartered bank, church leaders altered the notes to read “anti-Banking-Co.”
A brief boom
For a while, all went well. “Kirtland bills are as safe as gold,” one church member wrote in January 1837. The town enjoyed a short-lived boom.
Soon, however, the anti-bank proved anything but safe. Non-Mormons questioned the society’s ability to redeem its notes, and church leaders could not keep it afloat. The Kirtland Safety Society’s struggles were not unusual. Scores of banks, including some of the nation’s largest, failed in what became the Panic of 1837. Real estate speculators lost their fortunes, and workers lost their jobs.
What made Kirtland different was the bank’s ownership. Many church members lost not only confidence in the society’s banknotes, but faith in the prophet who had signed them.
The crisis divided the church. At one point that summer, church members wielding pistols and bowie knives fought with each other in the temple. Smith and one of his top associates were convicted of issuing banknotes without a charter and fined $1,000 each. They soon fled the courts and their creditors, taking refuge with fellow church members in Missouri.
After anti-Mormon mobs forced the Latter-day Saints out of Missouri and then Illinois, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, led thousands of church members to what became the Utah Territory.
From a railroad to a shopping mall
The church has never stopped blending commerce and religion.
In the late 1860s, Mormons built the Utah Central Railroad, which connected Salt Lake City with Ogden – a stop along the transcontinental railroad. Church leaders controlled the railway until 1878, when Union Pacific bought it.
Beginning in 1868, the church also operated the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, a department store designed to put the squeeze on non-Mormon businesses.
The church sold the store in 1999, but in many ways its commercial interests have become more grandiose since its frontier days of railroading and retailing.
In 2003, the church’s for-profit real estate division purchased the land on which the store had stood. Nine years later, the estimated $1.5 billion City Creek Center development opened to the public, including a glitzy mall.
At the time, church officials asserted that they had not used any tithing money on the City Creek project. The church explains that tithing – the contribution of 10% of its 16 million members’ annual income – is for the construction and maintenance of church buildings, local congregational activities and the church’s educational programs. The church’s for-profit divisions handle commercial projects, including real estate and publishing.
It is impossible to confirm the accusation without greater transparency on the part of the church, which has told Religion Unplugged, a nonprofit media outlet, that it “does not provide information about specific transactions or financial decisions.”
Then, in the mid- to late 1950s, it lost approximately $10 million in municipal bond investments. The resulting embarrassment was one factor in the church’s decision to become less forthcoming about its finances.
In this respect, the church is not unique. U.S. laws do not require churches to disclose their financial information in much detail. While some churches do so voluntarily, others – including the Catholic Church – keep their financial and commercial interests shrouded from public view.
Saving for a ‘rainy decade’
It remains to be seen whether Ensign Peak Advisors is going to become the subject of IRS investigations.
There are, of course, ethical and moral questions in addition to legal ones. For example, should the church amass so much money? And might the church use more of its excess funds and investment gains for humanitarian purposes or to make the tuition at church-owned Brigham Young University even more affordable?
What’s also at stake is confidence in the church’s leaders. Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee and the nation’s most politically influential Mormon, professed to be “happy that they’ve not only saved for a rainy day, but for a rainy decade.”
Romney’s perspective makes some historical sense, given that the most obvious problem in Kirtland, Ohio, was that Joseph Smith’s financial stewardship was decidedly unwise. At least today’s church leaders earn good returns on their investments.
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