The amazing generosity, poverty, and selflessness displayed in a miraculous letter that survived up a chimney in Hell's Kitchen ignites the spirit of Christmas every year.
On Christmas Eve, 1907, Mary McGann, 10 years old and living in an apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York with her mother and younger brother, wrote a letter to Santa. The young Irish girl asked for a wagon for her little brother, “which I know you cannot afford,” and also asked of Santa “please do not forget the poor.” For herself, she simply requested “something nice what you think best.”
Mary’s letter to Santa, along with one by her younger brother, Alfred, wound up tucked into a crevice in the apartment’s fireplace. Miraculously, they remained there, intact, for almost 100 years, weathering flames and evading the attention of new residents.
As Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times reported over the holidays in 2015, that they were discovered in 2000 by the apartment’s current occupant, acting coach, Peter Mattaliano when he was doing renovations.
Mattaliano recalled that when his brother opened up the sealed fireplace, they were joking about what they might find. Suddenly, it wasn’t a joke, as Mattaliano’s brother yelled, “You’re not going to believe this,” and pulled out the two folded-up letters.
The letter from Alfred, penned in 1905, asked for “a drum and a hook and ladder” fire truck with an “extentionisting” ladder.
The letter from Mary, written two years later, was addressed to “Raindeerland.” On it, she had drawn a stamp with a reindeer. It read in full:
“Dear Santa Claus:
I am very glad that you are coming around tonight. My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.”
It was signed:
P.S. Please do not forget the poor.”
The astonishing letters became all the more poignant once Mattaliano did some research into the identities of the children who once lived in his apartment.
Through online genealogy databases, he learned that Mary and Alfred were the children of Patrick and Esther McGann, Irish immigrants who wed in 1896. Mary was born one year later, in 1897, and Alfred was born in 1900, at the dawn of the 20th century.
Sadly, Patrick died in 1905, leaving Esther, a dressmaker, to raise Mary and Alfred by herself.
“This is a family that couldn’t afford a wagon, and she’s writing, ‘Don’t forget the poor,’” Mattaliano remarked about Mary’s letter. “That just shot an arrow through me. What did she think poor was?”
The letters now hang, framed, above the fireplace where they were found, and every year for Christmas Mattaliano pays tribute to Mary and Alfred with two Christmas ornaments: a red wagon and a girl holding a doll.
With the aid of Kilgannon and a New York Times researcher, he was able to discover what became of Mary and Alfred, paying a visit to and planting a small tree at Mary’s unmarked grave in Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery in Queens.
The visit is captured in the following video:
To get the full story, read Kilgannon’s article here.
* Originally published in December 2015, updated in 2021.
Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.