Saving The Boston Pilot and a marathon mystery runner

For the Boston Pilot, April resonates with history. For the Boston Marathon, held each Patriots Day, this April brings a mystery that remains unresolved. Irish Americans loom at the center of both milestones.

Rescuing the Pilot from Ruin

In 1876, John Boyle O’Reilly was a man on the rise in Boston’s and the nation’s literary and newspaper circles. A Fenian rebel who had first been sentenced to death by the Crown but transported instead to hard labor in Western Australia, O’Reilly had escaped from the hellish confines of Fremantle Gaol aboard a New Bedford whaler. Now happily married and living in a stylish Charlestown brownstone, he had become both the star writer and editorial voice of the Boston Pilot. The newspaper had become the focal point of his professional and civic life.

When the Pilot’s publisher, Patrick Donahoe, O’Reilly’s boss and earlier benefactor, lost most of his fortune in the Great Fire of 1872, the newspaper faced extinction. Donahoe was forced to declare bankruptcy. He was more than $300,000 in debt and owed $73,000 of that sum to struggling Irish immigrants who had deposited funds in his failed Boston bank.

Well aware of Donahoe’s predicament, O’Reilly was determined to find a way to save the paper. In January 1876, he wrote to a friend that “there had been trouble around the office.” He related: “Donahoe is bankrupt – in the worst way. Poor old man, my heart grieves for him, and I have given all my wits to help him out. I think I have done so – in a way – the only way to save his honour.”

O’Reilly waited until the Pilot’s fate was assigned to Charles Kendall, Charles Shepard, and Patrick Collins. O’Reilly then presented a plan to purchase the newspaper that bought him time from the trio. Shortly after meeting with them, O’Reilly visited Boston’s Archbishop John J. Williams with a proposal that he and the prelate buy the Pilot for $25,000 in cash and assume the newspaper plant’s $65,000 mortgage. Williams would own three shares – or 75 percent – of the paper and O’Reilly would hold one, for 25 percent.

On April 15, 1876, the archbishop and O’Reilly officially became the newspaper’s owners, but O’Reilly’s elation over rescuing the Pilot was tempered by his worry about a secret that only a handful of men knew: The New Bedford whaler Catalpa had anchored off Western Australia, and a plan to free six of O’Reilly’s fellow prisoners from the horrors of Fremantel Gaol and forced labor in Australia quarries and the bush country was nearing its climax. O’Reilly, along with future “father of the IRA” John Devoy, had played a key role in procuring the Catalpa and in introducing his fellow plotters to the New Bedford men who helped to launch the mission – literally.

The whaler would rescue the six Irish prisoners two days later, on April 17, and the Pilot would be one of the first newspapers in the world to break the stunning news of the plot’s success, an event that was always to fill O’Reilly with pride for the blow it struck against his former captors.

Although the Pilot would one day become the archdiocese’s official paper, with O’Reilly at the helm, and Williams taking a silent role, the publication was considered an “Irish newspaper.” Still, as historian A.G. Evans notes, “it was also the diocesan paper serving all Catholics of whatever nationality, and Williams trusted O’Reilly’s editorial judgment completely because there is no hint of disagreement in any of the routine correspondence between them, nor a record of obstruction to the editor from on high. O’Reilly seemed to have had a free hand, not only in editorial matters, but also in day-to-day management and the hiring of staff.

O’Reilly wrote on a wide array of topics that included his advocacy of equal rights for blacks, his diatribes against anti-Semitism, and his espousal of better treatment of all immigrants. He also made the Pilot an outlet where some of the era’s finest female writers and poets could have their work regularly published. His liberal views on many social and cultural issues notwithstanding, O’Reilly proved a conservative Catholic with traditional views of men’s and women’s roles in the church and in the household.

A Lingering Marathon Mystery

In 1897, the first Boston Marathon had a decidedly “green” hue – the winner of the race was a man named John J. McDermott, of the Pastime Athletic Club of New York City. He has been hailed in most quarters as an Irish American and did possess Celtic bloodlines. Still, he remains something of an enigma. Nova Scotia claims him as a native who might have been either Irish or Scottish, and a Cape Breton newspaper recently stated that “John McDermott (or perhaps also known as John J. MacDermid) was born either in Ireland or Scotland or Cape Breton, Canada, between 1868 and 1871.”

Despite this little “Marathon Mystery,” it is indisputable that the first winner of the grand Boston race was a runner named McDermott. He also provided one of the all-time great post-Marathon quotes. After dropping nine pounds during his victory, he told a Boston Globe reporter, “This will probably be my last long race...look at my feet.”

McDermott came back to run in 1898, finished fourth, never competed in the contest again, and dropped off of history’s stage. Fleet of foot, his turn on the Marathon stage proved equally fleeting.