Mary O’Melia, who left Ireland for America as a young widow with three children, has always been a mystery. But earlier this year, a woman with an "Irish lilt to her voice" called the American Civil War Museum and said O’Melia was related to her late husband, and that she had a necklace Confederate First Lady Varina Davis had given the housekeeper, reports the Washington Post.
“What really took my breath away is she said she had a photograph of Mary,” said Cathy Wright, curator at the Civil War Museum, formerly the Museum of the Confederacy, located next door to the White House.
“Considering that it’s been almost 150 years since she left the White House that anyone has been able to look at her face is just remarkable,” Wright said.
“One of the more elusive figures was Mary O’Melia.”
Mary Larkin was born on April 7, 1822 in Galway and educated in a convent. She wed Matthias O’Melia, a ship captain, but was widowed at age 25 when he was lost at sea.
Although details are unknown, she settled in Baltimore with her children around 1850. In 1861, she left her children with relatives while she went to visit friends in Richmond. She was stranded in Virginia when the state left the Union.
Friends told her that the First Lady could help her return home and she appealed to the Roman Catholic bishop to help her.
Varina Davis persuaded O’Melia to take the position of housekeeper at the White House, where she was among a staff of 20 and served as a confidante to the first lady.
O’Melia remained behind to oversee the mansion when the South's first family left Richmond in April 1865 and may have been in the White House when President Abraham visited that same month.
“Mrs. Omelia behaved just as you described her, but seemed anxious to serve and promised to take care of everything which may mean some things,” President Jefferson Davis wrote to his wife from Danville days after his departure.
O’Melia, whose name has been spelled a variety of ways throughout the years—O’Melia, O’Malley and O’Malla, left little by way of a written account of her years in Richmond.
O’Melia eventually returned to Baltimore, where she operated boarding houses. In 1889, O’Melia attended a memorial ceremony in the city for Jefferson Davis after his passing. A reporter said she “attracted considerable attention” and described her as “a well-preserved old lady.”
She died in 1907.
*Originally published in July 2014.