Author: Sarah Black
On January 12, 1856, eight-year-old Margaret Hasson arrived at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls (ISFG). According to her admission record, she was born in Ireland in 1847. No father was listed but her mother—also named Margaret Hasson—was noted as “intemperate – in jail when the child was admitted.” Perhaps her mother’s intemperance (excessive alcohol consumption) led to criminal activity and her eventual imprisonment.
The passenger list from the Aramenta, which traveled from Ireland to New York City in 1849 reveals that “Margt. Hassan,” age 38 and “a spinster,” was traveling with her six children, the youngest of whom was “Margt.” age 2. The Hassons were thus part of a great wave of Irish immigrants entering the US, propelled by the potato famines in Ireland during the 1840s. Most of the Irish settled in large cities, where they struggled to support themselves and their families, and faced prejudice from the anti-immigrant and the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement. These conditions may have led the single mother of six to a life of indulgence and crime. Although records of her family are scarce, it is likely that Margaret’s earliest years were defined by poverty and instability.
The ISFG offered Margaret security, education, and companionship, but her experience took a turn when the school began to send her to different families as a domestic servant. Within the span of four years (1860-64), Margaret was placed in ten homes located in several communities including Somerville, Lowell, and Dorchester. Whether for bad behavior or poor work ethic, she was returned to the school time and time again. In one instance, she ran away after spending just one week at Mrs. Calvin Clark’s home in Brookline. Though she may have been mischievous and difficult in her placement homes, the managers of the school often spoke about her with praise:
- September 3, 1863: “Maggie Hasson was returned to the school on the 24th and had been quiet and orderly since her return.
- January 7, 1864: “Maggie Hasson was now at the school where she had taken hold of work, was learning to sew.”
Unbeknownst to the staff, her cooperation with the school was about to come to an end. On January 16th, under the pretense of going to the home of Mrs. Increase Smith (manager), Margaret ran away from the Industrial School. “A policeman having been put on her track, found her in the Dorchester horsecars at night, and had brought her to the school.” As punishment, she was sent to the Bridgewater Almshouse on February 4, 1864.
During the 1840s, Massachusetts saw a dramatic rise in their poor population so the state created three almshouses to address the issue. When inmates entered the institution, they were immediately classified by their condition (healthy, blind, drunk, feeble, etc.) but Margaret’s escort declared her condition as “Stubborn”. And so the “Stubborn” 17-year-old spent the next seven months surrounded by the impoverished, ill, and unruly.
On September 14, 1864 Margaret made her third successful escape when she fled the Bridgewater Almshouse and returned to the Dorchester school. The staff immediately sent her to the Temporary Home for the Destitute, located at 24 Kneeland Street in Boston, after which she was bound out as a domestic servant to the Perrin family of Natick, Massachusetts.
Margaret’s escape from the School in mid-January of 1864 may have marked the beginning of her separation from the ISFG, but it also presented her with the opportunity to start a new chapter of her life. On January 28th—10 days after she ran away—Margaret married Cato Wallace, an African American from the south and about ten to fifteen years her senior. She eloped under the alias “Mary Page,” claiming to be 27 and the daughter of John and Mary Howard; Cato claimed to be 26. There were several factors that probably influenced
the couple to obscure the truth about their identities. Aside from Margaret being seventeen and still a student of the Dorchester school, there was a certain degree of risk for interracial couples—and African Americans in general—even in an abolitionist hotbed such as Boston. Massachusetts had legalized marriage between blacks and whites just twenty years prior, but only after years of constant petitioning from abolitionists. Maintaining a degree of ambiguity about their relationship would characterize their union until Cato’s death in 1886.
The first few years of Margaret’s and Cato’s marriage were marked by separation. While she was working for the Perrin family in Natick, he joined the Union Army. Cato was assigned to the 2nd Regiment of the US Colored Light Artillery on February 16, 1865—three months before the fighting would commence at Almanac. He was discharged in Beaufort, South Carolina.
By 1868 Margaret and Cato had reunited. However, the racial demographic of their neighborhood and their apparent need to manipulate census information suggest the vulnerability of the interracial family. According to the 1870 census, they were living in a predominantly African American neighborhood of Boston with their two-year-old “mulatto” son, James (Jas). In March 1874, Margaret gave birth to their second child, Laura, who died just six months later. In the 1880 census their household included “Margaret Hasson” (30), her son Jas. Hasson (mulatto, 12, and going to school), and Cato Wallace (45), a “boarder.” Margaret had resumed her domestic profession and was “washing and cleaning”; she was later listed in the city directories as a laundress.
After Cato’s death in 1886, she began using her married name and status: “Margaret Wallace – widow of Cato.” She and her son also moved from their home in Boston to a white neighborhood in Cambridge, where she spent the remainder of her life. James Wallace became a chemist, married Mary Alice Johnson, and lived all the way into the 1940s.
Perhaps in her first four years at the Industrial School, Margaret achieved a sense of stability, family, and a place to call home—a direct contrast to her early life as part of the Irish poor. She likely never reverted to relations with her family. Margaret may have never seen her mother again, and perhaps she never even knew her father. Even at her death, her son was unable to provide any information aside from her mother’s first name and country of origin.
The family that she had assumed at the Dorchester school was then replaced by the love and companionship of her husband and years later her son. Although she never escaped the field of domestic work, and her family unit was characterized by interracial stigmas, Margaret found her agency as a young individual, created and supported a family, and helped her son break away from the poverty that she had so intimately known.