PEI

P.E.I.'s presidential connection: Why an American politician hid his Island roots

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, U.S. House Speaker John William McCormack was a heartbeat away from becoming president. But what no one in the United States knew was that McCormack's father was from the Souris area of Prince Edward Island, of Scottish descendants — and a Canadian.

'It would have been political suicide for him to admit his Canadian heritage'

John William McCormack: A Political Biography was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury. (Bloomsbury)

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, U.S. House Speaker John William McCormack was a heartbeat away from becoming president from November 1963 until January 1965. 

But what no one in the United States knew was that McCormack's father Joseph McCormack was from the Souris area of Prince Edward Island, of Scottish descendants — and a Canadian.

President John F. Kennedy delivers his state of the union report on Jan. 14, 1963. Behind him are Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, left, and House Speaker John McCormack. (Associated Press)

Garrison Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, published a biography of McCormack in 2017, after decades of research, including a dramatic find in the archives.

"I went to the archives and I discovered that the death certificates of John McCormack and his siblings all indicated that his father was born in Prince Edward Island," Nelson said. 

"That was a stunner to me because of course I had bought into the general myth of John McCormack, that his parents were Irish immigrants.

The 'reinvention'

Nelson said there were even more surprises in the archives.

"That's when I found the census records and the death certificates, birth certificates and all the information that led me to Prince Edward Island," Nelson said. 

McCormack served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1962 until 1970. Carl Albert shaking hands with John McCormack, undated. Allan Cromley Collection, Photographs, Folder 9, Item 6. (Carl Albert Center Congressional and Political Collections, University of Oklahoma)

The 900-page biography includes an entire chapter on the P.E.I. connection, entitled "The Reinvention of John McCormack."

Nelson describes in detail how McCormack painstakingly recreated his life story, hiding his P.E.I. connections and creating a new family history that would allow him to fit into Irish Boston, including fake gravestones and false family trees.

Garrison Nelson taught political science at the University of Vermont for almost 50 years. (Oliver Parini)

"The fact that John's father was a Scot would have really prevented him from having a political career in the city," Nelson said. 

"His father was a Scot, of Scottish ancestry, and there were great tensions between the Scots and the Irish in Boston particularly during the latter half of the 19th century."

Nelson's great-grandfather was from Nova Scotia, so he was familiar with the flow of Maritimers heading to Boston.  

"Maritimers came down to Boston in rather large numbers," Nelson said. 

"They were fighting for jobs with the Irish immigrants in Boston who had come as a consequence of the famine, so they were in competition."

A detective story

Nelson travelled to P.E.I. to verify church records and interview people who remembered the family, with help from local historian Waldron Leard.

"It was basically a detective story, once I learned about P.E.I.," said Nelson, who received anonymous letters and phone calls from P.E.I. after his visit.

"I came up to Souris and spent a week or so going through the archives."

Nelson travelled to P.E.I. to verify church records and interview people who remembered the family. He took this photo behind St. Mary's Church in Souris, P.E.I. (Garrison Nelson)

In the book, Nelson describes McCormack's only visit to Prince Edward Island, at the age of 10. 

"John actually came to Souris with his mother and five siblings to escape John's father who was, sad to say, a raging alcoholic," Nelson said. 

"Mary Ellen McCormack scooped up the six kids and came to stay with John's aunt Kate Haley."

However, Nelson said, Mary Ellen McCormack was pregnant and would lose the baby during their time in Souris. 

The names on Joseph McCormack's baptismal document are Donald McCormack and Mary McPhee, both Roman Catholic natives of Souris. Nelson took this photo during his research trip to P.E.I. (Garrison Nelson)

"The local priest at St. Mary's would not bury the child in consecrated ground and so the child was buried behind the cemetery," Nelson said. 

"The priest felt that Mary Ellen had disrupted the family home by leaving Boston to come to Prince Edward Island." 

Harry McCormack was the only child of Joseph McCormack's first marriage and a half-brother to John McCormack. He died while the family lived briefly in Souris, P.E.I. (Garrison Nelson)

Despite many of his sources on P.E.I. choosing to remain anonymous, Nelson believes their stories.

"There's a consistency to them, that was the key," Nelson said.

"I was looking for consistency and if they seemed credible, I would put them in." 

Death certificate discovered

In the biography, Nelson suggests that McCormack's best hope for advancement in Boston was to portray himself as the son of an Irish immigrant, with a widowed mother and younger siblings to support, even if it wasn't the case.

"She wasn't a widow, she'd been abandoned by her husband. John was 13 when the old man took off," Nelson said. 

"He took off in 1905 when two of the older children, Catherine and James, were diagnosed with tuberculosis and they both would die the year after the old man took off."

Nelson's political biography includes more than 100 pages of sources. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Nelson finally tracked down the death certificate of McCormack's father in Maine, included in the more than 100 pages of sources in the biography. 

"The old man did not come back to P.E.I., he had burned his bridges there, he went to Maine," Nelson said.

"He basically hid out for 25 years and died, not when John was 13 years old, he died when John was 37 and a member of the House of Representatives."

Family reaction

John McCormack's Scottish-Canadian ancestry came as a surprise to most of his relatives, who learned much of the history from Nelson's research and biography. 

"I thought it was fair and comprehensive, it showed him in a good light," said Edward J. (Skip) McCormack III, great-nephew of John McCormack.

"He obviously had some secrets, especially the Canadian heritage portion of it."

Nelson writes about McCormack: 'He hid in plain sight, with a conscious effort to be the least interesting major political figure of his time.' Carl Albert with John McCormack. Allan Cromley Collection, Photographs, Folder 9, Item 8. (Carl Albert Center Congressional and Political Collections, University of Oklahoma)

McCormack said it would have been a "political death knell" for his great-uncle to admit his Scottish-Canadian roots.

"It would have been political suicide for him to admit his Canadian heritage, you couldn't have gotten elected dogcatcher," McCormack said. 

"It's a little bit disconcerting because there was a little bit of a dishonesty there, but I think it was an understandable dishonesty if you were a struggling Irish Catholic in the 1910s and 1920s."

Jacqueline Kennedy, right, looks on as Lyndon Johnson, centre, takes the oath of office on board Air Force One after John F. Kennedy was declared dead. (Keystone/Getty)

McCormack says he was also surprised to learn that there had been other McCormack siblings who died, not just the three that he knew growing up. 

There was, however, one family story he recalls that hinted there was something to hide. 

"One time I heard a story that some Canadians came to his office and said, 'We're your relatives and we wanted to meet you,'" McCormack said. 

"He threw them out, and said I have no Canadian relatives."

The funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy goes into Arlington Cemetery in Washington. As Speaker of the U.S. House, John William McCormack became next in line after President Lyndon Johnson. (National Archives/Handout)

Political legacy

Nelson says McCormack went to enormous lengths to ensure that his past could never come back to haunt his political career, and that's why it took Nelson so long to pull together all of the pieces.

As part of his political legacy, McCormack helped to create the Social Security Act as well as supporting the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

As part of his political legacy, McCormack helped to create the Social Security Act as well as supporting the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Democratic Study Group including William G. Phillips, Carl Albert, John W. McCormack, and another man, 1967. Carl Albert Collection, Photographs, Item 8813. (Carl Albert Center Congressional and Political Collection)

Nelson considers this McCormack's response to the painful poverty that he experienced as a child, watching his siblings and his mother die of tuberculosis, in part because of their poor living conditions. 

"The family was desperately poor, a lot of politicians talk about the deprivations they suffered en route to success, McCormack's were genuine, he didn't have to exaggerate his poverty," Nelson said.

"The second Social Security Act of 1939 was focused on families and that's where John's personal hardship manifests itself most dramatically, the hardships that he underwent really were a guidepost for his legislative career."

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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