As I scrolled through clippings from US newspapers in the late 19th century, one name kept cropping up: Consul Heenan.
The articles made it clear he was an American consul based at the embassy in Odessa, from where he kept a close eye on the situation in Russia. He reported on a cholera epidemic in 1892, the failure of the wheat crop in 1897 and the deaths of thousands of Jewish people during riots in 1902. Over the course of more than two decades he shared his knowledge of the best ways to trade with Russia and sought to challenge American views of life in the Soviet system.
But his insights on turbulent times told me nothing about the man. Most of the articles I came across didn’t give his first name nor any clue as to his origins or family.
But with the aid of some extensive trawls through thousands of newspaper articles I’ve managed to unravel this particular mystery. And it’s a far more interesting story than I was expecting.
Discovering Consul Heenan
Consul Heenan turns out to be Thomas Edward Heenan, born in Philadelphia in 1848 to Irish-born parents. He attended the University of Philadelphia in the late 1860s and qualified as a doctor. He practiced medicine in Philadelphia and then moved to Minnesota , where he was an auditor for Stevens County.
His life took a completely different course at the end of 1885 when he was appointed by the then President Grover Cleveland to take up the role of Consul. He was such a success in the role that he was re-appointed by later Presidents. They must have valued his abilities because though not the most senior consulate officer, he was chosen to lead the first official American delegation to Central Asia in 1891.
It was an extraordinary event, reported with glee by newspapers back home, as shown by these headlines from the Morris Tribune in Minnesota.
A Colourful Career
The Morris Tribune went on to explain that the mission was to be undertaken at the request of American and merchants and manufacturers who wanted to understand the growth of sugar and cotton industries in that part of the world.
Heenan would, they said “be accompanied by a large retinue of servants and during much of the time he and his companions will travel on elephants.”
The following year The Times of Philadelphia gave an account of part of Heenan’s trip taken from the latter’s letter to a friend.
He had travelled, he said, across the Black Sea to the Caucasus, then through “perhaps the most savage mountain scenery in the world”.
He crossed the Caspian to a town built on the edge of a desert and onwards to Bakhara “in my estimation, the most wonderful of Asiatic cities. “
He saw bazaars stretching for miles in all directions and streets, covered over with straw matting, crowded with merchants and natives but not a European in sight.
He was feted during his trip, presented by the Ameer (Emir) with two horses magnificently equpped with saddle cloths in silver and gold and bridles studded with gems. He had to tactfully decline, explaining it was not government policy to allow such gifts.
Heenan’s account also shows he witnessed the darker side of life in this part of the world. Prejudice against Jewish people was evident, he records.
The Jews are allowed to ride on asses but not on horses. They are prohibited from wearing silk roes, of which they are very fond, and must wear a rope girdle.The Times, Philadelphia, 24 July 1892 page 9
Consul Heenan clearly relished all the new experiences afforded him by his mission. But he ends with a reminder that it’s not all fun and games. “I have a ride ahead of twenty four hundred miles in a card through Siberia, in consequence of cholera having broken out at a place called Kashka.” I can’t see any modern day consulate officers willing to rough it that much!
Thomas Heenan served his country as a Consul for more than 25 years, principally from Odessa though he also spent time as Consul in Warsaw in the early 1900s. He was in Fiume later named Rijeka, in what was then Hungary (now Croatia) when he died on 26 June 1914.
He never married. In his will, made at Fiume, in 1906 he left his life insurance (valued at $2000) to his sister Mrs Mary J Mullholand and all his personal property to Thomas Miller “who has served me faithfully for more than twenty years.”
Thomas Heenan was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania .
Surprisingly, given his prominence in the media for so many years, there don’t seem to be any published obituaries marking his death. All I located was a simple announcement about funeral arrangements which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 1914.
A Second Mystery
In my research I managed to locate Thomas Edward Heenan in the 1860 census. He was living in Philadephia with his parents Dennis T Heenan and Margaret Heenan, a brother and two sisters. His father is described as of Irish birth and occupied as a coal merchant.
But two newspaper reports I’ve located describe Dennis Heenan as significantly more than a coal merchant. According to these he was a Colonel during the American Civil War, commanding the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers and lost a hand at Gettysburg.
Now that’s a story I really want to discover…..