A portrait of: Mary Helen Dougherty (b.1879 Peoria, IL – d.1918 Peoria, IL)
Mary Helen Dougherty was the granddaughter of Michael & Biddy Fagan. Helen’s parents were John Dougherty (b.1850 – d.1918) of Peoria, a former canal boat pilot, and Elizabeth Fagan (b.1853 – d.1900) of Lemont. John Dougherty became acquainted with the Fagan family during his days as a canal boat pilot through Michael Fagan, lockkeeper on the I & M Canal.
At a Christmas social in 1896 at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church on Peoria’s West Bluff, Helen, age 17, was introduced by her cousin Patrick Fagan to his friend, Andreas Geiger (b.1859 – d.1898). Andreas was an imposing figure and experienced horseman. He came from a long line of Lipizzaner Stallion dressage trainers back in his homeland of Linz, Austria and arrived in the US ten years earlier. Upon arriving in Peoria Andreas had taken a job at the William S. Cartwright Livery and Boarding Stables at 114 South Jefferson Street, three blocks from Peoria’s riverfront. Helen and Andreas’ courtship was brief and they were married on June 5th, 1897 at St. Mark’s Church by the Rev. Francis J. O’Reilly.
In the fall of that year, Andreas became a naturalized citizen and in February 1898 – outraged like so many other Americans upon hearing of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor – he enlisted in the US Army at the onset of the Spanish-American War. He was proud to support his newly adopted country and his expectant wife. He was mustered in at Springfield and his mastery of horsemanship landed him a coveted position – as a member of the 1st Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry. After completing basic training in San Antonio, Texas, he was sent to Tampa, Florida, to await his orders. In June he shipped out to Cuba and served first under Colonel Leonard Wood and then under former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Geiger was one of only a few of the famous “Rough Riders” who was not a Native American Indian, athlete, rancher, or cowboy.
However, Andreas Geiger’s tenure as a soldier ended tragically soon after arriving in Cuba. He died on July 17th, 1898, of complications from fever (probably malaria) after suffering wounds in the Battle of El Caney. Few attended the memorial Mass held for him at St. Mary’s Cathedral back home in Peoria that August.
Helen, now a 19-year old war-widow with limited options, went to work at a local stamping mill soon after her son, Thomas, was born. She struggled to support herself and her young son. Mary Helen never remarried and never left Peoria. She lived the remainder of her days heartbroken and nearly destitute in the Uplands section of town along with her son, occupying only a small upstairs flat belonging to Miss Hattie A. Clark, a schoolteacher at Greeley School. Mother and son took care of one another as best they could – relying on each other and their strong Catholic faith. In a twist of irony, Helen, like her beloved husband Andreas, died of a fever at age 39 during the influenza epidemic that swept the nation during the winter of 1918.