It was in the summer of 1998 that I stood in front of my mother’s family mausoleum in New Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia. The cemetery is located in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, once the textile epi-center of the United States, but now fallen on harder times. Clutched in my hands I had the print out from the Archdiocese Cemetery Office as to who was actually buried in the vaults.
There were twelve souls, ten adults and two children. I read through the names, as memories of my mother’s stories resurfaced from my childhood. There was my great-grandfather, James Nolan and my great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Brady, and a woman named Mrs. James Nolan – whoever that was. In the descending rows were James Nolan’s children: Daniel and Catherine, with spouses and various in-laws. The last two vaults were children.
I reread the paper and began to wonder, who was the mysterious ‘Mrs. James Nolan’ and why wasn’t she buried with her own name?
Contacting the Archdiocese Cemetery Office, I was dismayed that all they could tell me was the date the woman had died, her age, and the cause of death. She had been young, just twenty-nine when she succumbed to tuberculosis in January, 1873.
So, who was she? I found that for some strange reason this unnamed woman began to lay claim to my waking moments and visited my nighttime dreams. I finally hired an archivist, Christine Friend, from the Philadelphia Historical Archdiocesan Research Center to help me. Weeks later a letter arrived at my house stating, ‘Her name was Ellen Canavan. She was your great-grandfather’s first wife.’ First wife? Whoa!
With my mother deceased, I called my father. He knew nothing about a first wife. As far as anyone knew, James Nolan had only had one wife—Sarah Jane Brady.
The plot thickened when we remembered that it was supposedly his wife who had helped him with the idea of creating a unique blended cloth for soldiers’ uniforms; the very cloth that had brought him a great deal of wealth during the Civil War.
Hmm. Which wife? Ellen or Sarah?
I became a blood hound hot on the trail of Ellen Canavan’s life. Months literally turned into years as I researched each and every piece of evidence I could find about her. I even traveled to Ireland in search of her roots. Back in Philadelphia, I found the marriage record stating that James Nolan had married Sarah Jane Brady in 1874, with his profession being listed as a ‘Gentleman’. I knew then it had been Ellen Canavan who had helped him achieve his wealth and good fortune during the Civil War, and most likely Ellen’s idea for the blended cloth.
I delved deeper into Ellen’s life and eventually amassed a thick notebook detailing everything I had learned about her and her birth family, the Canavans. The picture that emerged was one of a strong young immigrant woman who wanted to become involved in the textile industry, but without money, connections, or education had to enlist the help of James Nolan in order to achieve her dream of success. Her quest would take her from the factory floors of Philadelphia to the cotton wharves of Savannah, and just when she realizes she has fallen in love with James Nolan, the Civil War will tear them apart.
It took over three years to compile all the research and write the novel inspired by Ellen’s real story. In the process I realized how many of my mother’s stories had been true all along. Although Ellen falls in love, Cut From Strong Cloth is not a romance novel, it is the story of a young woman who risked everything in order to change the status quo during an era when women were still considered second class citizens.
On December 1, 2014 Cut From Strong Cloth will be released by Freedom Forge Press and be available from their website store and also on Amazon.com, as well as in some stand alone bookstores. The novel tells the family saga of courage and determination, tragedy and love, all exploding on the cusp of the Civil War. If you would like an audio sneak preview of the story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the link to hear the opening scene read aloud. Pre-orders for the novel can be taken now at www.freedomforgepress.com/store, the paperback will sell on their website for $15.00. In December it will also be available on Kindle www.amazon.com.
Ellen Canavan was my first ‘strong woman in history’, the inspiration for my blog and the story behind my motto: Every woman deserves to have her story told.
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