Ellen O’Donovan – dressmaker, smuggler, ghost…

It’s amazing what you can find online if you look, and there is no better example than the following story that was pieced together by members of the Vintage Fashion Guild.

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Orange silk opera cloak by E. Donovan, courtesy Past Perfect vintage

It all started with a discussion over the date of an Edwardian orange opera cloak. The maker’s label “E O’Donovan” was familiar to Hollis of Past Perfect vintage because of another dress with the same label she sold a few years earlier. After some googling, it was discovered that Eleanor (aka Ellen) O’Donovan was born in Canada in 1852 and had moved to the States by 1870 to work as a domestic in upstate New York. By 1880 she was married to a Jeremiah (aka Jerry) O’Donovan. He ran a dry goods shop and she worked as a dressmaker. Her unmarried sister Margaret O’Brien lived with them, most likely working alongside her sister as a dressmaker.

Madame O'Donovan, 37 West 36th street, New York

1894 dress labelled: “Madame O’Donovan, 37 West 36th street, New York”  Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1898 memoir of convicted Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the late Jerry O’Donovan is thanked for his help and support. Rossa also mentions Leo and Alfred, Jerry and Ellen O’Donovan’s two sons, who were studying at Fordham College, as well as Madame O’Donovan of No. 37 West 36th street, New York. An 1894 dress in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears a label with this address. Ellen opened her own shop in about 1889, and it seems her sister Margaret opened a shop soon thereafter. A purple silk and lace bodice from the turn of the century is in the collection of the Charleston Museum with the label “M O’Brien – Robes – 266 West 38th St. N.Y.”

Purple silk and lace bodice my Margaret O'Brien, c. 1899 labelled M O'Brien Robes West 28th street, NY

Purple silk bodice, c. 1900, labelled M O’Brien Robes 266 West 38th street, NY, Charleston Museum

By 1909 Ellen O’Donovan had met her second husband Robert McNamara. Retaining the O’Donovan name for her business, Ellen employed her son Alfred to manage a more upscale 5th avenue location for her shop. That same year, a U.S. customs investigation caught Ellen, Alfred, and Margaret in a ring of French fashion smuggling: “A wholesale roundup of importers of gowns, laces, silks, and millinery, together with other persons involved in the smuggling frauds uncovered on the piers of the American Line and the Red Star Line last Spring, was begun yesterday by the United States Attorney Henry A. Wise… Following are those arrested here yesterday:… Alfred J. O’Donovan, of 381 Fifth Avenue, released on $1,500 bail; Ellen McNamara, alias Ellen O’Donovan, and Margaret J. Smith of 37 West Thirty-sixth Street, released on $1,500 bail each.”

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Black dress with label, courtesy Past Perfect vintage

Dubbed “The Sleeper Trunk Game”, a consignment of French gowns and other dutiable goods by New York dressmakers was filled by a Paris agent. He would scan the steamship passenger lists, selecting names of Americans who were about to sail for New York on an American or Red Star Line ship, and then pack the consignments into trunks labeled with these culled names. The trunks were sent to the Paris piers too late to be stowed on the passenger’s ship and were instead put onto the next available ship. Once the trunks reached the American and Red Star line pier in New York, a customs agent working with the smuggling ring would whisk the trunks away under the auspices of storing them for the recently returned American passengers to claim, but instead send them onto the New York dressmakers who paid the smugglers 50% of what the duty would have been if everything had been shipped legally. The scam netted an annual loss in fees for customs of about a half million dollars. In one of the last shipments before the crackdown, Eleanor, Alfred and Margaret (as well as other dressmakers) placed an order that was sent under the traveller’s name of Nellie grant, the granddaughter of president Ulysses S. Grant. A week after Nellie Grant sailed from Paris, three trunks were sent on the S.S. Gothland. Upon arrival, the trunks were discovered to contain 231 gowns with a dutiable value of $29,574.30. Despite the scandal, Ellen O’Donovan’s business didn’t seem to outwardly suffer and she remained in business until 1920.

Lobby of the Davenport hotel in Spokane Washington with its skylight ceiling.

Lobby of the Davenport hotel in Spokane Washington with its skylight ceiling.

On August 17 1920, Ellen, now twice widowed, was touring the West with her sister and two cousins. They were staying at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington and planned to leave for Glacier National Park the next morning. Wanting some air before dinner, Ellen took a stroll on a third floor walkway over the glass roof of the lobby court. For no known reason, Ellen fell through the skylight into the lobby. She was carried to a couch where she uttered her last words “Where did I go?” She lost consciousness and died an hour later in her room.

For decades now, guests have reported seeing the spectre of a woman in 1920 period dress peering over the railing of the mezzanine in the lobby of the Davenport hotel – it must be Ellen O’Donovan, New York dressmaker.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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12 Responses to Ellen O’Donovan – dressmaker, smuggler, ghost…

  1. Becky Lorberfeld says:

    Thanks for this fantastic story! Fashion copying and couture piracy is a great interest of mine.

    • Jonathan says:

      It was obviously a real problem in the Edwardian period. There is a thesis in there for someone…

  2. Mary Jane says:

    Fascinating story….it’s amazing what we can discover from taking the time to research a label!

  3. Hollis says:

    What a great story! Thank you for pulling it all together.

  4. Joan says:

    Well done, weaving all the story threads together! This is such a fascinating story. I can’t help but wonder if M. O’Donovan & Co. were caught on their first attempt, or if they had successfully gotten other shipments smuggled in.

    Hollis’s orange silk coat is stunning.

  5. Vincent Scully says:

    My Great grandma was a Fenian?? Cool! Thanks! Margaret was my mom’s Grandma. Lots of great stories but nothing about arrests or smuggling. Great adventures! Love it! Thank you!

    • Jonathan says:

      That’s very interesting! Any interesting stories to share?

    • Marleen H. says:

      That is very interesting! For some reason,after learning of Ellen’s fate, I have been very curious about her life, and wondered if her descendants kow what a legend she has become in Spokane.

      • Jonathan says:

        I wondered the same thing. It’s partly why I wrote the blog – I was hoping more information would come forward.

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