Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry: The Story of Irish Immigrant Bridget Donaghy

Today’s post comes to us from Griffin Godoy, history education undergraduate student at Temple University. Griffin interned with the National Archives at Philadelphia virtually last fall as a part of the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative (CFI), a partnership with the Temple University College of Education Social Studies faculty and more than 30 regional cultural institutions. The Research Services department at the National Archives at Philadelphia was delighted to participate in the nation’s only educational fieldwork program based in archives, museums, and libraries, and to learn from our intern’s vast education experience and knowledge. See more information about the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative and NARA’s pivotal role in developing the program here. Grace Schultz, Archivist at the National Archives at Philadelphia, assisted in editing this post.


Understanding the stories of immigration is vital to understanding the history of the United States of America. Immigrants from across the world travelled to the U.S. for many reasons including to escape political or religious persecution, to chase the American Dream of a better life, or to reunite with family. One of many stories of an immigrant’s American story began on November 8th, 1909, when Bridget Donaghy arrived with her sister, Lilly (also known as Elizabeth), on a ship called the Haverford to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Passenger Arrival Record, see Bridget Donaghy on line 27.

The first instance of documentation can be seen on a passenger manifest document. The document states that the ship departed from Liverpool, England on October 27, 1909 and arrived in the Port of Philadelphia on November 8, 1909. Because of a collection of records called the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry at the Port of Philadelphia (National Archives Identifier 567441), from the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, we know that Bridget and her sister were sent to Philadelphia to live with a cousin, Lilly McCrystal, who had already settled and owned property in the city.

The Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry is a genealogical and historical gold mine for those searching for information about the history of immigration in Philadelphia, and luckily they are digitized and available online in the National Archives Catalog. These records detail testimony of aliens who were detained at the Port of Philadelphia to be questioned by the Board of Special Inquiry. The collection is full of names, dates, and reviews of immigrants arriving in Philadelphia who were stopped at the port. After taking testimony from the alien and other necessary immigration authorities, the inspectors that made up the Board would determine whether they would admit or deport the alien. Because Bridget and her sister came as children and did not plan to stay with their father, they were likely questioned because of concern that they would be unable to take care of themselves without becoming a public charge.

These records tell us a lot about Bridget Donaghy. She was born in Loughmacrory, Ireland in 1893 and immigrated to America with her sister to live with their cousin, Lilly McCrystal. In reviewing the Donaghy sisters’ case, we can see that they have been sent by their father to be raised in the United States. Lilly McCrystal explicitly states that she saw their living conditions in Ireland and stated “I traveled abroad this summer and seen [sic] them and thought it was charity to take these two children. I have no dependents on me.” Lilly was a retired school teacher and had the means to raise and educate the children. The Inspectors on the Board determined that Bridget Donaghy and her sister had sufficient accommodations with their cousin, and approved their admittance into Philadelphia and released them to her care.

Because the information included in the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry was so detailed, Bridget’s life in the United States can be traced through a variety of federal records. The next year, Bridget can be found in the 1910 census.

1910 Census Record for 30th Ward, 694th and 5A Enumeration District, Philadelphia, PA.

In this document she is listed as Anne Donaghy and her sister as Elizabeth. Her caretaker, noted as Lilly McCrystal in the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry collection, has the name of Mary McCrystal. The first names listed on the census are different from those given to the Board of Special Inquiry, but their identities are able to be confirmed through the information listed in the records of the Board.

Bridget can be found later in a petition for naturalization filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1939.

Bridget Anna Becker Naturalization Petition. Federal Naturalization Records, 1795-1931.

At that time we can see that she’s married to an American-born man named Frank Becker, and they lived in Manayunk. The petition states that she wished to officially change her name to “Anna Baker” upon her naturalization, which sheds light on why she was listed as “Anna Donaghy” in previous census records. Using the Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry, Bridget’s story could be traced across decades throughout several different collections of federal records.

The story of Bridget Donaghy mirrors the thousands of other Irish Immigrants who arrived in the United States over the 19th and early 20th century. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York became home to thousands of immigrants as they began to ‘Americanize’ themselves and create a new cultural identity. Philadelphia became home to immigrants all over Europe. Thousands of Germans, Italians, and Irish decided to make the “City of Brotherly Love” their community. They all dispersed and created their own city blocs. Most Italians flooded to South Philadelphia whilst the Germans and Irish occupied neighborhoods in Kensington and Fishtown. Churches, markets, and housing were quickly built as immigrants acclimated to their new American life. As time progressed, demographic shifts caused another dispersion in Philadelphia and many formerly Irish neighborhoods went through a period of change as the Irish population flooded to the south of Philadelphia in Delaware County.

Genealogists can learn more about their family history by utilizing the information found in the federal records detailed in this post. Details in these records (marriage dates, birth dates of children, addresses, etc) provide a jumping off point for researchers to delve into vital records held by city and county archives, some of which are digitized and available and some need to be requested from the individual institutions. The National Archives Catalog, and NARA’s digitization partners Ancestry, FamilySearch, and Fold3, have extensive records to help and assist anyone looking to research their families. Keeping in mind the historical context of why and where people migrated can help make the process easier.


In March, the National Archives celebrates the contributions of Irish Americans in our nation’s history. To learn more visit NARA’s webpage for Irish American Heritage Month


The Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry are digitized and available online in the National Archives Catalog. See: Decisions of the Board of Special Inquiry, 1893 – 1909 (National Archives Identifier 567441). Department of Commerce and Labor. Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. District 4 (Philadelphia). Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. National Archives at Philadelphia. (from Microform Publication M1500).

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