Maverick’s memorial: Corbin’s grave at West Point
She couldn’t work, and life was a struggle until after the war. In 1779, Pennsylvania granted her $30 and passed her case on to the Continental Congress’s Board of War. Later that year, the board granted her half the monthly pay of a soldier in the Continental Army and a new set of clothes, or its equivalent in cash, every year. The deal included becoming part of a newly created Invalid Corps, in which wounded vets served and supported the military to whatever degree their abilities allowed. The corps was consolidated at West Point, and Corbin moved and lived there — she was known in the area as “Captain Molly” — until her death, around 1800.
Mostly forgotten, her story resurfaced during the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “Many veterans started to write their memoirs, and that’s where she may have become confused with other Molly Pitchers,” Licameli says. “People in the area, though, remembered her. There is one record of a child eyewitness who recalled a stout, red-haired woman, and called her Captain Molly.”
In the 1920s, the Daughters of the American Revolution looked harder into her case and even found her grave, on what had become J.P. Morgan’s estate in Highland Falls, Licameli says. In 1926, the DAR moved her remains to West Point, where forensics confirmed, from the wounds, that it was indeed Corbin. She was buried in the West Point Military Cemetery, next to a monument erected by the DAR.
Like other women of history, Captain Molly may not have been the most polite person around. According to the National Woman’s History Museum, the Philadelphia Society of Women had planned to erect a monument honoring Corbin soon after the battle. “However, when they met with her they discovered that she was a rough woman who was poor and drank too much and decided to cancel the monument,” the museum notes.
“It appears that when she was younger, she was a favorite among a lot of people,” Licameli says. After the war, she became well-known in the army at the administrative level, thanks to her heroic actions and unique injuries. General Henry Knox may have assisted in getting her pension, including a ration of alcohol, which was usually denied to women. “She was given a soldier’s rations, was treated like a soldier, not a woman,” says Licameli. “Later on it appears she was pretty surly, maybe had an alcohol issue, though there is nothing definitive on that.” People who were paid by the government to care for her had difficulty, he says, both because of her personality and because payments slowed down. “Somebody who was severely disabled and had to rely on others for years — it’s not very surprising she was a little on the surly side.”
But that’s to be expected of history makers. “She is pretty unique,” Licameli says. “There is nobody like her.”
Born in 1841 to Irish parents living in England, Kate Mullany and her family sailed to New York in 1850 and settled in Troy in 1853. Like most immigrants, she endured a harsh life, and went to work at an early age. In Troy, in the 1860s, that meant working in a shirt collar factory.
Troy produced about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collars, a fashion fad that earned it the nickname it still bears today: the Collar City. At its height, the industry employed 3,700 women who worked exhausting, 14-hour days in stifling heat for pay as low as three dollars a week. When factory owners installed new scalding-hot machines that increased production but made working conditions more dangerous, Mullany, just 23, stepped in, forming the Collar Laundry Union along with about 300 other workers. At noon on Wednesday, February 23, 1864, the women went on strike against 14 commercial laundry establishments, demanding a 20 to 25 percent wage increase. The business owners denied the union’s requests, and the strike lasted six days. But on February 28, a few owners gave in; the following day, the others did, too.
At the time, most unions lasted just long enough for a particular issue to be addressed; once it was resolved — one way or the other — the unions disbanded. But Mullany’s Collar Laundry Union remained in force for six years. “She led the first bona fide woman’s union,” says Paul Cole, executive director of the American Labor Studies Center in Troy. “It had staying power. This union became institutionalized.” The fact that a young, female, Irish immigrant would lead such a union was remarkable at the local level — but Mullany wasn’t done. “The collar union saw themselves as part of the broader labor movement,” Cole says. “They worked closely with the iron molder’s union and other unions, and helped them out with contributions. I think that’s very significant — they looked at themselves as an important cog in the labor movement.”
At an 1864 Fourth of July picnic that year, Mullany presented an embroidered banner to William H. Sylvis, president of the Iron Molders’ International Union in Troy. The banner showed the interior of a furnace on one side, and a depiction of “Justice” with an eagle on the other. Mullany sought out Sylvis at the picnic, introduced herself, and gave him the banner.
That gesture paid off a few years later. After another strike in 1866 — from which the Collar Laundry Union negotiated a pay increase from $8 to $14 per week — and a successful 1868 ironers strike (which she led), Mullany attended the National Labor Congress meeting, headed up by Sylvis, in New York. During the conference, she was nominated for and elected to the post of second vice president. When she declined to serve because the first vice president was also from New York State, Sylvis appointed her assistant secretary. Mullany became the first woman elected to a national labor union post, and the first appointed to a national labor union office.
In 1869, Mullany moved into a three-story brick double row house (pictured above) on Eighth Street in Troy. She lived there until 1875. She also led another strike in 1869, but this time the laundry owners opposed the union and effectively killed it: The Collar Laundry Union dissolved in February 1870. By then Mullany was married to ironworker John Fogarty; after 1875, however, she just about disappears from the records. She may have moved with Fogarty as he found work in the burgeoning iron industries of Buffalo.
Kate Mullany died, back in Troy, on August 17, 1906 and was buried in the city’s St. Peter’s Cemetery. Her house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1998, and became a National Historic Site in 2005. In 2000, Mullany was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. And in May, Don’t Strike While the Iron is Hot — a musical about her life — opens at Russell Sage College (see katemullanynhs.org for more details). All of which would probably astonish her.
“One could speculate that she had some sense she was more than just a local labor leader, but most people then just saw themselves as doing a job,” Cole says. “If she were to come back, I think she’d be pretty surprised at the attention we are giving her.”
Kate Mullany National Historic Site
350 Eighth Ave., Troy