Luke Carton was eighteen years old in 1848; a young man in a world of revolutions: “The Springtime of the Peoples.” Likely born in Wexford, Ireland around 1830, the spirit of the age took hold in Luke’s life as more than nationalism uprooting an old order and replacing it with a new–his entire life was rootless.
When an unforeseen potato blight eviscerated Ireland in the late 1840’s, those that didn’t die of starvation or sadness took to the sea to find a new life in a new world. In 1851, at 20 years old, Luke did the same, boarding the Samuel in Dublin, bound for New York.
He and the hundreds of other Irish aboard endured an Atlantic autumn on the Samuel, and arrived at Ellis Island on November 25th.
He found work as a laborer in Duchess County, NY, and in 1857, at twenty-six, met Eliza Eagan, a young single mother from county Cork, Ireland. In her late twenties, she suddenly found herself a widow, caring for two young children. She couldn’t read or write, but she could undoubtedly see Luke’s interest in her.
She was a faithful Catholic her entire life, and when she feared she was pregnant, she married Luke at the local parish. Rev. Denis Sheehan, himself an Irishman from county Cork, and a strong advocate of temperance, officiated at St. Mary’s in Channingville, later known as Wappingers Falls.
In September of 1857, well into Eliza’s pregnancy, Luke was arrested and charged with assault and battery–a portent of things to come. On December 14th, however, only three months into his sentence, he was pardoned. His first son, James, was born that month.
The restlessness of the world had touched the young United States by then. America was on the edge of a fissure that would rend its union from head to heart, pitting brother against brother and north against south.
In 1861 America was divided, and soon after the first shots on Fort Sumter, Luke and Eliza were battling their own disunion. Luke’s grandchildren much later recalled their parents speaking of him as a “belligerent drunk,” and the records don’t seem to dispute that.
On July 4th of that year Eliza gave birth to a boy. As the story goes, Luke, believing her to be unfaithful, lashed out two weeks after the birth. In his perhaps drunken rage he threw enough black pepper in the infant’s face to cause suffocation.
After his arrest and trial, Luke was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary at Sing Sing in March of 1862.
Eliza endured, taking in boarders for income and raising her children in times that would have been hard for anyone. When she died many years later, in 1904, she was mourned by a wide circle of friends and all her living children.
Luke, however, served his two years in the state penitentiary, where he evidently became caught up in the spirit of Irish nationalism voiced by the Fenian Brotherhood–a not-so-secret society set on compelling the British Empire to grant Irish independence by attacking Canada.
If it sounds like a tenuous plan, it’s because it was. The movement would ultimately fizzle out by 1880, but in 1864 when Luke came out of Sing Sing, it was the movement of the Irish underclass–a populist rallying cry that gave hope for a free Ireland and a better future.
Luke no doubt felt little reason to return home right away after prison. He found a branch that he could carve into a suitable traveling cane and, departing from Sing Sing in NY, rode the ever-extending rails of newly-industrialized America.
In the towns he visited he doubtlessly found other disaffected Irishmen casting their lot in with the ambitions of the Fenians. He made an effort to preserve these travels–whether for himself or posterity–by carving the names of each town and many railroads along the shaft of his cane according to the years he visited them.
In 1864 he recorded more than 26 names, including many critical cities to the Fenian project.
By the winter of 1864 he had returned home to Eliza. Why they reunited is a mystery. Did Luke convince her? Did he need money and a place to stay? Did she want him back? Whatever the reason, young Henry Carton was born in August of 1865.
Henry died before his first birthday, in November of 1865. This was a tragedy all too common in the 19th century world, and one which then, as always, disproportionately afflicted the lower class.
Two months later Eliza was pregnant with another baby boy who would be born John F. Carton, October 1866.
1865 was a year of roving for Luke. He logged the names of 9 railroads and 14 cities, mountains, towns or boarding houses along his cane, including the picturesque Crawford House in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
It’s quite possible that, when the Fenian Brotherhood held their convention in Chicago in 1865, Luke was there. At the very least he was almost certainly traveling among like-minded Irish nationalists who shared the hope of inflicting a wound on Great Britain great enough to loose their homeland from imperial subjugation.
Was this his new identity, his new defining ambition: a fighter for the Irish cause? He’d left a crippled home at 20, worked as an underclass laborer through his prime years, and killed an infant (his?) in a drunken rage at 27. Had he now found a purpose? Was this cane a record of his resolve?
There were few more important cities for Fenian ambitions in North America than Buffalo, NY, Niagara, NY, and ultimately the city of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. In the spring of 1866 they would attempt a series of raids into Canada which engaged as many as 7,000 Fenian Irish who had ridden the rails north to mount their attack along the border.
The 1866 invasion was a failure for the Fenians. The US federal government, which had, up till that point, enabled the Fenians to gather steam, and gone so far as to sell them arms and munitions, now foiled their plans under the leadership of Generals Meade and Grant. The Irish were repelled by both the Canadians and the Americans, their arms were confiscated, the border was effectually closed, the leadership was arrested, and the bulk of the remaining hopefuls were sent back on the same rail-lines they’d ridden north.
The 1870 Census finds a 40 year-old Luke Carton, a “laborer” from Ireland, “insane” in the Utica Asylum. There he would likely have been confined to the euphemistically-dubbed “Utica Crib.”
After the failure of this new-found purpose, did he find no more reason to live? No more reason to stay sober?
In 1875, Eliza is 45 and as strong as ever. She owns her home, has three children in the house, and, for the first time, she is listed as widowed.
I would not have learned any of this were it not for the cane, which my father inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Carton, the daughter of Luke and Eliza’s son, John F. Carton.
Now, I should say that the Fenian association is all my theory of Luke’s three-year travel project. I’ve gathered a lot of data that makes a strong case, but as yet it is all circumstantial. There’s a possibility that the cane could have belonged to someone else, but no candidates have emerged, and the personal nature of the cane makes it more likely to be an heirloom that stayed within the family.
Nevertheless, I see this cane as potentially central to the last meaningful project of Luke Carton. There’s no doubt that he is an anti-hero in this story, but the cane remains a vestige of an obscure corner of a time ripe with historical significance.
When I wrote the song, “The Cane,” I had almost no knowledge of the family history surrounding this cane aside from the notion that it belonged to some distant relative on my dad’s side.
In preparation for writing this post, I borrowed the cane from my parents’ and began to document it and research my ancestry. In the process my father put me in touch with a distant cousin of mine without whose help I’d have been unable to piece these connections together. She has done extensive genealogical research documenting her family lineage. Where our lines overlap, her research proved invaluable.
Even without this family connection the cane still represents a glimpse into some years of American history that have much to offer the history books. I made reference to a few of these in the song:
- The spirit of revolution, both political and industrial, that characterized the mid-19th century
- “when the world was waking up…”
- steamships and riding the railroads, etc.
- “the lords of the revolution built a nation from the ground”
- Lincoln’s assassination, and the end of the civil war in 1865.
- “Little Taddy Lincoln wished his papa home again.”
- Tad Lincoln was the president’s youngest son
- “Little Taddy Lincoln wished his papa home again.”
- The nascent Christian Science movement with Mary Baker Eddy, which, ironically coincided with the assassination of Lincoln
- “Mary from New Hampshire learned to heal a wounded man…”
- Jesse James’ first robbery, which presaged his larger-than-life status as a legend of the reconstruction-era turmoil
- “Jesse James robbed a bank and he bought himself a name”
The point of the song, however, is the line:
“Legends are made of wax and flame, of an obscure hobo’s cane.”
That is, the stories that loom so large in our imaginations grow by transforming fragments of truth into fictions which dwarf and consume them.
Lincoln, Mary Baker Eddy, Jesse James, the origin stories of nations and individuals–they’re often more than the truth.
Studying and researching this cane confirms that notion for me.
It almost matters little whether it did belong to Luke Carton.
The Cane Mama had a baby When the world was waking up. He left her on a steam ship Bound for North America. Where the railways Riding dynamite Made the mountains Bow on down. And the lords of The revolution Built a nation From the ground. He carved a cane of maple With the names of every town From New York to Chicago From Detroit to Portland, Maine on down. While little Taddy Lincoln Wished his Papa home again. And Mary from New Hampshire Learned to heal A wounded man. Jesse James robbed a bank And he bought himself a name. Legends are made of wax and flame, of an obscure hobo’s cane. Riding the New York Railway Riding the Hudson River Line Riding the Erie Ontario Riding the Vermont Central Line Riding the Sullivan Railroad Riding the Indiana Line Riding the Northern Railroad Riding the Great Western Line Daddy was a young man When the world was waking up. It found him on a steam ship Bound for North America.