Category Archives: Mary Hester Swan

Born: abt 1818 Ireland or possibly Scotland
Died: 1853 or 1858 New Orleans, Louisiana

Daughter of Thomas Swan and Jane Elliot. Wife of William O’Kelly.

Called Esther, we know very little of the wife of William. She passed away when her surviving children were too small to remember her. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and she had three siblings who lived in America. A brother called Abram who was a watchmaker, and two sisters named Annie and Arabella whose husbands are rumored to have been wealthy coal miners of Pennsylvania. William and Esther lost three daughter’s in 1853, two of them in the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic. In some family recordings she died of the fever in 1853, but in other sources the death date is recorded as 1858 which I agree with seeing as the post office was holding letters for her to pick-up until that year. All accounts concur that Esther died giving birth to a boy named Hugh and was buried with him in the Lafayette cemetery on Washington street in New Orleans.

1853 Yellow fever strikes the O’Kelly family

Guardian Angel


New Orleans, 1853-04-10, Pg. 4 col. 4 On Friday evening the 8th Inst. MARGARET HAGGERTY, daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson, Miss. aged 2 years and 4 months.

New Orleans, 1853-08-19, Pg. 2 col. 6 On Saturday, of yellow fever, MARY O’KELLY. Eldest daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson. [Age 12]

New Orleans, 1853-09-04, Pg. 2 col. 6 ANNA BELLE, of yellow fever, daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson. [Age 10]

Mary, Anna Belle, and Margaret O’Kelly were excluded from our family history and I was surprised to have found their death notices in the Daily Picayune. It was an accident really. I had only gone to the downtown library to photocopy another O’Kelly ancestors obituary when a severe thunderstorm struck. Waiting for the weather to clear, I scrolled through all of the microfilmed O’Kelly obituaries and death notices. My Grandmother had trained me to memorize our family tree in great detail and so I did not expect to find previously unknown ancestors, my search was just a whim. I discovered Anna Belle first and was left bewildered by her death notice.

I questioned my grandmother and she recalled that our ancestors had lost young girls to scarlet fever, but that was all of the information that her aunt Jennie had given. The sad story was buried, shortened and abridged by Jennie O’Kelly who’s self assigned duty was to maintain the O’Kelly family’s social standing. Aunt Jennie took great pains to emphasize that our ancestors were wealthy upon arrival and were not the “shanty Irish” who had been forced out of Ireland by the great famine. Yellow fever was blamed on poor immigrants of German and Irish heritage who were considered the lowest of races. Mosquito’s had been discovered to be the true cause in 1900, but Jennie feared lingering prejudices and convinced herself that it was to the benefit of the family to emphasize what model citizens our immigrant ancestors were while omitting innocent unpleasantries such as yellow fever.

Aunt Jennie did mention the yellow fever in her writings, when she recorded that her grandmother Hester died in 1853, “but not of yellow fever.” Jennie claimed that Hester died in childbirth delivering a boy named Hugh. The baby died shortly after birth and was said to have been laid to rest with his mother,”at the old cemetery on Washington street”. There is no death announcement or record of when and where Hester and Hugh were buried. Margaret and Mary’s burial place is also unknown. The death toll was so overwhelming in the summer of 1853 that many dead were placed in cemeteries with no ceremony or written record. At the peak of the scourge, anonymous bodies were piled high at cemetery gates and on street corners.  Anna Belle is the only O’Kelly whose final resting place was properly documented. There is nothing etched in granite, no headstone or family vault, but on September 3rd Anna Belle was laid to rest at the old cemetery on Washington street, more commonly known as Lafayette Cemetery #1. Only four members of the family survived the year, William and his three remaining children Tom, Jane and William.



Filed under Claiborne County, Mississippi, Mary Hester Swan, New Orleans, William O'Kelly

Circa 1845 William & Esther O’Kelly

The story of the O’Kelly family in America begins with a romantic tale of a young couple whom bravely left their homes in Northern Ireland and sailed to America in search of the freedom to marry. As told through six generations, William O’Kelly and Mary Hester ‘Esther’ Swan left their homes in Ireland for love. He was said to have been the son of a wealthy Roman Catholic merchant in Belfast and she the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister. With anti-British sentiment, their grandchildren often repeated that, “their marriage would have been illegal in Ireland and the pair would have been shipped to the penal colony in Australia for the offense of their union.”
They married and settled in Port Gibson, Mississippi where the family multiplied and Williams’ business ventures prospered during the era of King Cotton. These hand painted photographs were taken during the height of their wealth and were a fashionable status symbol amongst the affluent. Their happy lives did not last long. Tragedies began to strike the family when three of their daughter’s died during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853. Esther would later die in childbirth along with the infant and Williams’ fortunes would be completely wiped out by the defeat of the Confederacy and natural disasters.

William O'Kelly

William O’Kelly

Mary Hester O'Kelly

Mary Hester O’Kelly

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Filed under Mary Hester Swan, Photographs, William O'Kelly

1864 Thomas Swan O’Kelly Runs Away to Join the Confederacy

Ten days after the start of the Civil War, William sent his son Thomas to the Jesuit College, Spring Hill, at Mobile Alabama where he studied compounding medicines. A father’s attempt to keep his son out of the war failed and on August 7th, 2864, Tom ran away from the school to join Tobin’s battery, latter serving in the Confederate Cavalry.

The following photocopies are courtesy of Richard Weaver, Spring Hill College, Access Services Librarian.

Thomas O'Kelly Register of Students 1859-1873 page 65

Thomas O’Kelly Register of Students Spring Hill College 1859-1873 page 65 

Vice President's Diary 1859-1883 Aug 1864 page 70

College at Spring Hill Vice President’s Diary 1859-1883 Aug 1864 page 70
August 6. The excitement of the students is greater to day. Many after the study of 2 o’clock ask in a body to go, the sameday, to Mobile to form their quarters but I President being about they consent to go to the first class. After the first class, they renew their petition and again we succeed to send them to class. A greater determination to leave the college was to be expected at bed time ans to prevent it the two principal leaders of the movement are sent away D. Harris and Barry
No bad spirit is remarked in that excitement so much so that all of them went to communion the same morning
August 7. J. Booth, T. O’Kelly go away to join the army. W. Miles and T. Miles go home

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Filed under Mary Hester Swan, Thomas Swan O'Kelly, William O'Kelly