Josephine Sullivan

Josephine SullivanThe clothing given to the Corpus Christi Museum belonged to Josephine Sullivan of San Patricio, Texas. It was found after her death, in her saddlebags, discovered in the attic of the Dougherty Home on Round Lake near San Patricio, where she had lived for years. Josephine Sullivan, who remained single all her life, made her home with her nieces, Lida and Mary Dougherty, after a lifetime of service to family members, providing loving care to their many children and infirm or ill relatives. She was affectionately known as “Aunt Phene” to several generations of her large family.

Josephine Sullivan came to Texas as a child of two in 1854. Her parents, John and Eliza Schamp Sullivan had had to leave their well established and comfortable home in Pleasant Run, New Jersey, to seek a more moderate climate for John who was suffering from Tuberculosis. It was thought the hot dry climate of Texas would prove beneficial and the situation there would be favorable to support a mercantile business, which combined with ranching, would support the family.

John Sullivan’s brother, Chrys, a bachelor, joined the family. Chrys was to be a great help to Eliza, when after four years, in 1858; John finally succumbed to the disease. The family was by then, well established in their home, owned a store and a good bit of acreage for ranching. The children, including Josephine, received their education from a local schoolteacher who provided space in her home for use as a classroom. This education combined with training in domestic skills at the hands of her mother, equipped her for a successful 19th century life.

Josephine lost two of her older brothers, as well as her father in a relatively short space of time. It surely had a profound impact on her childhood. Her brother, James, died in 1861 from a severe head injury sustained after being kicked by a horse. He was just13 years old, Josephine was about 9. In 1863 Chrys, the oldest brother, died from a gunshot wound at Bayou Teche during the Civil War. He was 22 and Josephine was 11.

She was an attractive young lady and had numerous suitors and invitations to social events of the day. For reasons unknown to her family, she refused to take any of the proposals she received seriously. It was whispered at family gatherings that she had “broken the heart” of several young San Patricio men. A few notes containing invitations to buggy rides and other amusements still survive. One apparently rejected suitor, Tobias Wood, ends his letter with, “From your old discarded, Tobe”.

Josephine SullivanAs an adult, her devotion to caring for family members in time of need knew no bounds. Being single, with no family responsibilities of her own she was able to travel in a buggy, on horseback, or later by train and car, to help relatives all over south Texas. She presided at births, nursed the sick back to health and in many cases, ministered to the dying.

With the death of her sister, Amelia Sullivan Wood in 1891, “Aunt Phene” became deeply committed to the care of the four little girls left behind. She took care of them, as their bereaved father, J. C. Wood, tried to attend to his many business affairs and re establish family life without Amelia. Later she would assist her many nieces and nephews with their families. Eventually her care giving would extend to four generations of the family.

Aunt Phene was a great believer in instructing children through stories of those who had demonstrated courage, compassion or any other desired virtue, which would enhance proper character formation. Similarly, those whose misdeeds characterized a fault were given equal time to show the children that evil has its own consequences. It is to this facet of her personality that many family stories and contemporary accounts of local events were passed down, forming a rich oral tradition, which is still functioning today. One of her stories was a first person account of events surrounding the hanging of Chepita Rodriguez in San Patricio in 1863. A horrible miscarriage of justice, she believed. Her great niece, Rachel Bluntzer Hebert’s Shadows on the Nueces, a narrative poem about the incident, published in 1941 is dedicated to Josephine Sullivan.

Josephine SullivanAunt Phene also saved any old documents and small items that she felt were worthy of finding a place in her trunk. (After her death, Rachel Hebert wrote a poem entitled, “Attic Trunk”, published in the same book.) It is thanks to Aunt Phene that we have letters, photographs, journals, other ephemera and historical documents that she went to the trouble of saving and passing down to those who would protect them for future generations.

Though Aunt Phene left no direct descendants many members of her large family are aware of the influence she had on their parents and grand parents: A few familiar names are: Judge Josephine Welder Miller, Alan Borden, Dr. Robert Bluntzer, Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, Geraldine D’Unger McGloin, Mary Elizabeth Welder McKnight*, J. Chrys Dougherty, Topsy Dougherty King, Robert Dougherty, Mike Nogueira and brother and sister, Ben and Gen Vaughn.

*Some of Aunt Phene’s tales are to be published in the form of recollections of her great niece, Mary Louise Welder McKnight, in the forthcoming book by Louise O’Connor, Tales from the San Antonio River.

Contributed by
Great great-niece of Josephine Sullivan
Oct. 17, 2002