Tale Of A Bigamist

The stories I have written so far are about closer family members that are known to my living family so the stories were also already known to them but my journey into my past has led me to characters previously not known to myself nor to my living family and so there are many fascinating stories that I have discovered that have gone unreported to my entire family. Some of those stories are deeply embedded within me because of the effort it took to unravel the detail but they would remain nothing more than a memory of mine unless I told the story and passed it on to those who are living. My family history is largely left to me to do and document as everyone alive knows my interest in it and they are happy to leave me to it, only on occasion contacting me to ask about some detail or another that they are interested in, but otherwise, the things I discover will remain undiscovered unless someone delves into the things I have documented. Some stories more than others though deserve to be told and deserve to be heard. 

Mary Ann Maher born in 1880 became my Great Great Aunt upon her marriage in 1899 to Edward Edwards, the brother of my Great Grandfather John Edwards and it is her father that will be the focus of this particular story. Her father was named Cornelius Maher and was born about 1860 in Ireland. The son of a shoemaker he had come to England with his family as a young boy. I am not sure what year he came to England but the earliest census I can find him on is the 1871 England census in Ashton Under Lyne, aged 11. He married at St Mary’s Roman Catholic church in Ashton on the 21st February 1880 to Martha Shaw who must have been pregnant at the time of their marriage as Mary Ann was born between July and September of the same year. In 1881, the newly married couple and their daughter were living with Cornelius’s mother Bridget and two of his brothers at 68 Crickets Lane (an area of Ashton known very well to our family in a property that no longer exists), but 10 years later in 1891, Martha Maher was living at 55 Church Street in Ashton with a further 3 children but no Cornelius. She was still declaring herself as being married at this point but by 1901, Martha has moved to 6 Nelson Street in Ashton and has another daughter living with her aged 7 (making 5 children in total) and is now declaring herself as being a widow. On the 15th March 1906 she re-marries and becomes Martha Herod. My search then turned to Cornelius to try and discover what he was doing at those times he was living away from home and when he died. That search became difficult – you would not believe the number of Cornelius Maher’s I found from Ireland!

A chance discovery in another person’s published family tree sees a Cornelius Maher married to a different woman also from England but living in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA. Her research also mentions a marriage to a Martha Shaw but at first appearance seems like an error has been made as records place Cornelius living in the US and having children at a time when he was still married to and having children with Martha in England!

Several conversations with the owner of this tree and much unravelling later revealed the fuller picture that Cornelius sometime around 1886 left Martha and his family in England and went to the states where on the 13th February 1891 he bigamously married Catherine (aka Kate) Hansbury and fathered 2 children with her – Richard Joseph Maher in 1892 and Thomas Francis Maher in 1894 (half-siblings for my Mary Ann Maher). He never returned home to Martha. What reason he gave Martha for leaving is not known but she continued to declare herself married until 1901, around 15 years after he left at which point she assumes he is dead and goes on to remarry but he was not dead.

Interestingly, Cornelius also leaves Catherine “Kate”, for what reason again is unknown, only that their youngest Thomas is told that his father had died when he was an infant but this was again not true. Suspicions had arisen regarding Cornelius upon the discovery that he and Catherine were married by a Justice of the Peace which came as a surprise given the whole family were staunch Roman Catholics. What finally became of him is unknown as the paper trail runs dry. It is assumed he died in the US but it is not known for sure and given his history, he really could have ended up anywhere.

The impact upon these two families because of Cornelius’s life choices must have been staggering. Both women were left to raise young families on their own. For Martha in England, the true parentage of her three youngest children Elizabeth (born in 1886),  Samuel (born in 1888) and Lily (born in 1893) are brought into question. They are declared as being Cornelius’s but if he went to the US around 1886 then he could not have possibly fathered at least 2 of those children. I make no judgement on Martha but assume at this stage that whatever circumstances she found herself in she possibly ended up with up to three illegitimate children that she just declared as being her absconded husband’s for the sake of propriety. I have yet to purchase those 3 birth certificates to see if they throw any further light on the matter but I suspect that they won’t help much and that either no father will be named or Cornelius will be named regardless.

Catherine in America brings her youngest boy Thomas back to England at around the age of 2 years old. Why her two boys are split up again is unclear but Thomas is raised in England between the ages of 2-14 and educated by the Jesuits. He eventually returns to the US where he marries, has 5 children and 28 Grandchildren making the name of Maher well respected and well known in Massachusetts for wonderful things. The two families grow up knowing nothing of each other until the facts are uncovered generations later.

We do not choose the circumstances of our birth or the life choices our family make and I report only the facts as they have been uncovered making no judgements about any of the parties concerned. Until we have experienced things as our ancestors experienced them then who are we to pass judgement on who was right or wrong in a situation. It is for God to judge each individual. I am just the storyteller but I have to thank Jennifer Clemons, Great Grandaughter of Cornelius Maher and Catherine Hansbury for all of her help and assistance in unravelling the mystery of Cornelius. Perhaps one day we will understand Cornelius better.


I am constantly amazed at how answers to family history puzzles come and by what means. Sometimes answers come quickly, often they require time and patience but things usually have a way of making themselves revealed eventually. On the back of my posting this story about Cornelius, a wonderful lady named Tammy saw and read the story and contacted me offering an idea as to what may have happened to Cornelius once he had left his second wife Kate. She is connected to the family in that the wife of Cornelius and Kate’s eldest son Richard was the sister of her Grandfather so she had been researching too. I have spent quite some time this week researching out her ideas for myself and do believe we have finally discovered what happened to Cornelius between us all.

She suggested a look at records with a change of spelling in the surname believing that Cornelius was now calling himself Meagher rather than Maher. I had tried alternative spellings before in searches but never this one and it did prove fruitful. Cornelius had now become Meagher and had married again for a third time just 1 year after his youngest son with Kate had been born. He was married to Joanna Manton on 21 Nov 1895 in Fall River, Massachusetts. His marriage record confirmed that this was the same Cornelius we had been searching for because it named his parents as Thomas Maher or Meagher and Bridget O’Holleran which I have found also listed as parents for Cornelius’s known siblings. He was married by a Catholic Priest on this occasion and declared it to be his first marriage as he did every single time he married. He went on to have a further 5 children in this marriage making 12 children in total from his 3 marriages in 2 countries. It appears that he remained settled this time as he remained with this family until his death in 1951 and he is then buried with his wife Joanna in Saint Patrick’s Cemetery in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Headstone at Cornelius’s final resting place.

(With thanks to CLS at www.findagrave.com for this image)

In addition to this discovery, I also found that Cornelius was named as the father of Lillie Maher, his youngest daughter to Martha Shaw in England as I suspected he might be which leads me to believe that he will be named for all of the 3 children born to Martha whom there was a question mark of parentage over given that Cornelius was married to another woman in another country at the same time she was born. Travel documents whilst not conclusive do show that Cornelius could have legitimately been travelling backwards and forwards from the States to England and fathering children in two families at the same time. 

I get a sense he found some peace in the end with himself given that he remained with one family for so long  but I do wonder if he had regrets and if it was hard to stay away and not be involved in the lives of the children that were ultimately abandoned. There are prices to pay and losses to bear on all sides I am certain. I wonder what he would have made of this and I wonder if he would be smiling and thinking to himself “Well they found me out in the end!” I can’t make judgements – it was a different world back then but I do wonder constantly about the finer detail. It brought me much satisfaction to follow his trail but as always on these journeys also leaves me with a little frustration in that I can’t sit down with the man and ask him the why and how and the motive of it all. Maybe one day!

In the meantime, much love and respect to all of the family members these events impacted upon.


Please follow and like us:

2 thoughts on “Tale Of A Bigamist

  1. This is Robert Maher, son of Thomas. Your story really hit home.For many years we wondered what happened to my grandfather. This explains why my dad, Thomas Francis, son of Cornelius and Kate, was bitter towards his memory for many years. Never got over it. Today’s homily, at the Mass I attended, at 95 years old, I asked for forgiveness for all of my family who departed before I did…..I sometimes wonder how I could ask for forgiveness for this scoundrel. May he rest in peace. Thank you for writing this story. Is there anyway my story could be past on to the family I never knew. Bob Maher

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.