Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry: The Story of Irish Immigrant Bridget Donaghy

Today’s post comes from former National Archives intern Griffin Godoy. Griffin interned with the National Archives at Philadelphia virtually this past year as part of the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative (CFI), a partnership with the Temple University College of Education Social Studies faculty and more than 30 regional cultural institutions. Learn more about CFI and NARA’s pivotal role in developing the program here. Grace Schultz, Archivist at the National Archives at Philadelphia, assisted in editing this post.

Griffin created a companion teaching activity on DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives: Analyzing the Immigration Testimony of an Irish Teenager.


Understanding the stories of immigration is vital to understanding the history of the United States of America. Immigrants from across the world travelled to the United States for many reasons, including to escape political or religious persecution, to chase the American Dream of a better life, or to reunite with family.

One immigrant’s American story began on November 8, 1909, when Bridget Donaghy arrived with her sister, Lilly (also known as Elizabeth), on a ship called the Haverford to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Arrival list
Passenger Arrival Record for the S.S. Haverford. Bridget Donaghy is listed on line 27, and her sister LIlly on line 28. From the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The first instance of documentation can be seen on a ship passenger manifest. This document states that the ship departed from Liverpool, England, on October 27, 1909, and arrived in the Port of Philadelphia on November 8, 1909.

Because of a collection of records called the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry at the Port of Philadelphia, we know that Bridget and her sister were sent to Philadelphia to live with her cousin Lilly who had already settled and owned property in the city.

The Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry is a genealogical and historical gold mine for those searching for information about the history of immigration in Philadelphia, and luckily they are digitized and available online through the National Archives Catalog.

These records detail testimony of aliens who were detained at the Port of Philadelphia to be questioned by the Board of Special Inquiry. The collection is full of names, dates, and reviews of immigrants arriving in Philadelphia who were stopped at the port. After taking testimony from the person arriving and other necessary immigration authorities, the inspectors that made up the Board would determine whether they would admit or deport them. Because Bridget and her sister came as children and did not plan to stay with their father, they were likely questioned out of concern that they would be unable to take care of themselves without becoming public charges. 

These records tell us a lot about Bridget Donaghy. She was born in Loughmacrory, Ireland, in 1893 and immigrated to America with her sister to live with her cousin, Lilly McCrystal. In reviewing the Donaghy sisters’ case, we can see that they were sent by their father to be raised in the United States. About the girls’ living conditions in Ireland, Lilly McCrystal stated: “I traveled abroad this summer and seen [sic] them and thought it was charity to take these two children. I have no dependents on me.”

Lilly was a retired school teacher and had the means to raise and educate the children. The Inspectors on the Board determined that Bridget Donaghy and her sister had sufficient accommodations with their cousin, and approved their admittance into Philadelphia and released them to her care.

Testimony
Testimony of Bridget Donaghy as recorded in the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry. From the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, available at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/118727466

Because the information included in the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry was so detailed, Bridget’s life in the United States can be traced through a variety of federal records. The next year, Bridget can be found in the 1910 census.

Census record
1910 Census Record for 30th Ward, 694th and 5A Enumeration District, Philadelphia, PA. See lines 27-28. From the Records of the Bureau of the Census.

In this document she is listed as Anne Donaghy and her sister as Elizabeth. Her caretaker, noted as Lilly McCrystal in the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry collection, has the name of Mary McCrystal. The first names listed on the census are different from those given to the Board of Special Inquiry, but their identities are able to be confirmed through the information listed in the records of the Board.

Close up of census document
Anne and Elizabeth Donaghy are listed on lines 27-28.

Bridget can later be found in a petition for naturalization filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1939.

Petition for Naturalization
Naturalization Petition of Bridget Anna Becker, Federal Naturalization Records, 1795-1931

At that time we can see that she’s married to an American-born man named Frank Becker, and they lived in Manayunk. The petition states that she wished to officially change her name to “Anna Baker” upon her naturalization, which sheds light on why she was listed as “Anna Donaghy” in previous census records. Using the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry, Bridget’s story can be traced across decades throughout several different collections of federal records.

The story of Bridget Donaghy mirrors the thousands of other Irish Immigrants who arrived in the United States over the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York became home to thousands of immigrants as they began to “Americanize” themselves and create a new cultural identity.

Philadelphia became home to immigrants from all over Europe. Thousands of Germans, Italians, and Irish decided to make the “City of Brotherly Love” their community. They all dispersed and created their own city blocs. Most Italians flooded to South Philadelphia, whilst the Germans and Irish occupied neighborhoods in Kensington and Fishtown. Churches, markets, and housing were quickly built as immigrants acclimated to their new American life. As time progressed, urban “white flight” caused another dispersion in Philadelphia and many formerly Irish neighborhoods were transformed as the Irish population flooded to the south of Philadelphia in Delaware County.

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