Sophie Cooper, ‘Oh woman! woman! Who can resist thy influence’: Male personal writings on romance in mid-nineteenth century Chicago

Sophie Cooper is a third year PhD student and William McFarlane Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying Irish communities in Melbourne and Chicago between 1850 and 1890, specifically in relation to situational influences on identity formation and nationalist thought. Sophie tweets using the handle @SophcoCooper and more information can be found on her academia page

If E___ be really a living thing of a warm heart – all elevated sentiments & deep womanly passions – not a airy nothing to which your pen has given a ‘Local habitation & name’ and yet you dont truly love her as you could have me believe then I tell you as a friend you have done wrong.

Had you played the sickly part of Romeo, wrote mellow nonsense or wild extravagant hyperbole I would be mute. For the head must be as soft as the heart were such letters leave an impress. But there is a sad & solemn seriousness – manly sincerity – a high-toned respect in the note before me, that would make such a one as I have described read-re-read & read again – & sweeton’aly a little romance that romance sweetened by a little mistery would cause her heart to throb much faster than your honor could desire. If the sentiments you have expressed Cora No2 be the same – I tell you honestly – stay. And you mean to tell me that the cause of all this Devil to play among Coras is your being in love with a marriedlady.[i]

These were the words of Henry S. Fitch to his friend James A. Mulligan in Chicago 1852, found in one of many private letters and diary entries written by, and exchanged between, men that I found on my recent research trip. While researching the Irish communities of nineteenth century Chicago I did not expect to find such outpourings of male confusion and conflict with regard to issues of love and flirtation. However, within the political debates and philosophical musings, the discussion of romance emerged frequently. James Mulligan, the recipient of this letter and later an American Civil War hero, was 23 years old when he was struggling with his two Coras[ii]and judging from the responses of his good friend, love was a matter that preoccupied both them on a regular basis.

Finding sources that gave such insight into the everyday lives and concerns of young Irish-Americans was a complete surprise, and a few skips may have made it into my daily commute to the archives. The diary that particularly gripped me was that of William Onahan, an Irish immigrant who moved from Co. Carlow to Chicago, via Liverpool and New York, in the mid-century. He kept a diary detailing his twenty-first year, and along with his views on Catholic sermons and political lectures, he also wrote of his battles with, and for, love interests. With both Fitch’s letters and Onahan’s diary, there were moments of romance and melodrama; the sentimentality that has been deemed so central to Victorian culture clearly finding its way into the private accounts of courtship rituals in early Victorian male society, even across the Atlantic.[iii]

It seems that there were two central elements of middle class visions of masculinity during the mid-nineteenth century; these were ‘manliness’ and ‘masculine domesticity’. Both of these emerge within these examples, the changing ideals of British society reflected in the white middle class circles of Chicago.

During the Victorian era there was a shift in British governing elite culture towards a society which valued men with “nobler, deeper, and sterner stuff; less of refinement and more of truth”.[iv] Fitch’s focus on Mulligan’s ‘manly sincerity’ reflected a changing priority of elites, whereby politeness was replaced ‘as a marker of social and political virtue’ by ‘manliness’.[v] This need for ‘sterner stuff’ was especially desired in the new cities of the American Mid-West and West. The conflict between gentlemanliness and manliness can be found in Fitch’s letter: the ability to make Cora’s ‘heart… throb’ but possibly ‘much faster than your honor could desire’. William Onahan had a different problem, he struggled with the politeness which must be endured when it comes to meeting your new love’s family.

This night – think of it ye heroes of romance – I supped at Mrs Duffy’s yes, I William did actually on this night take tea with Mrs D and Maggie. Poor weak, miserable tea it was, too.[vi]

Possibly not the most excited account of his first home visit to his (spoiler alert) future in-laws that you could hope for, but it gives a glimpse into the mind of a young man first entering into the official realms of courtship. Despite this reluctance to portray himself as a romantic hero, William did have moments in which he slipped into sentimentality, or at least over-exuberance. On bumping into a previous love he declared in his diary:

Verily she throws a charm of witchery on & about me. the memory of olden times – her bright eyes – love – Oh woman! woman! Who can resist thy influence.[vii]

Figure 1, Victoria and Albert had married for love, as well as for political reasons

Though William was briefly distracted by his previous love, Mary, who stirred such emotions in him, he eventually returned to the charming, vivacious, and forgiving Maggie.[viii] Thomas Winter has written that Victorian men compensated for the increased professionalism of public life, with a new emphasis on emotional expressiveness within their personal relationships, using highly romantic and sentimental language when discussing love and friendship.[ix] This is clear to see in these entries, however, the exuberance of the heart still had to be balanced with the rationality of the head, with men retaining their control. Fitch’s disdain for hyperbole and men who play the ‘sickly part of Romeo’ indicates that this expressiveness still had to levelled out by traditional male attributes of strength, rationality, and control to avoid becoming too ‘feminised’.

The Victorian era was a time of changing understandings and hopes for love and marriage, this can be seen in the literature and popular figures of the time. In Britain the height of ‘masculine domesticity’ was between 1830 and 1860s, a time when men liked to believe that their domestic relations were about love, comfort, and morality.[x] John Tosh argues that this masculine domesticity came about due to the peacetime environment, middle class men didn’t imagine that they were likely to be called to a life of adventure as a soldier, emigrant, or frontiersman so found public and personal success in the professional sphere. The men that I am studying were immigrants, living on a new frontier, and in many instances became soldiers. They balanced hopes for domesticity with the traditional ideals of masculinity. However their letters, youthful and gossipy though they are, give an insight into their ambitions for love and domestic happiness, at the same time as being men of action and adventure.


Further reading:


Allison Scardino Belzer, ‘Three Generations of Unconventional Family Values: A Case Study of the Ashursts’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 20:1 (2015), 1-19.



[i] Henry S. Fitch to James A. Mulligan, November 17 1852 [Chicago History Museum Research Center, MSS Lot M., Mulligan Papers, box 1, f. 2].

[ii] Fitch and Mulligan often used pseudonyms for their love interests, chosen from Greek mythology and in the case of ‘Cora’, possibly from popular fiction of the time, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

[iii] Paul White, ‘Darwin Wept: Science and the Sentimental Subject’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 16:2 (2011), 195-213.

[iv] Lord Ashley (1844) quoted in John Tosh, ‘Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 12 (2002), 455-472.

[v] Tosh, ‘Gentlemanly Politeness’.

[vi]William J. Onahan diary, Nov. 23 1856 [Archdiocese of Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives & Records Center, HIST/D3300/7 William J. Onahan Personal Papers].

[vii] Onahan diary, April 26 1857.

[viii] These are some of the many adjectives used by Onahan to describe Maggie.

[ix] Thomas Winter, ‘Victorian Era’ in Bret Carroll (ed), American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia (New York: Sage Publications, 2003), p. 474.

[x] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 54.



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