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  • Jonathan Walford

The Ghost Dressmaker...

Updated: May 1

A few years ago I was helping research the date of an Edwardian opera cloak with the maker’s label 'E O’Donovan' and the final story we put together was surprising! It was discovered that Eleanor (aka Ellen) O’Donovan (nee O'Brien) was born in Canada in 1852 and moved to the States by 1870 to work as a domestic in upstate New York. By 1880 she was married to Jeremiah (aka Jerry) O’Donovan. He ran a dry goods shop where she worked as a dressmaker in the back, alongside her unmarried sister Margaret O’Brien who lived with them. Jerry and Ellen soon had two sons, Leo and Alfred before Ellen was widowed.


In the 1898 memoir of convicted Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah Rossa, the late Jerry O’Donovan is thanked for his help and support. Rossa also mentions Leo and Alfred, who were studying at Fordham College, as well as 'Madame O’Donovan of No. 37 West 36th street, New York'. After Jerry's death, Ellen opened her own shop in about 1889. Similarly, her sister also opened a shop, known as M O'Brien Robes on West 28th street, retaining her maiden name as her professional name after marrying Charles Stuart Smith (second basemen for the New York Mets, and grandson of U.S. Vice President Daniel Tompkins, under the administration of President James Monroe.)



Left to right: Pink silk evening dress by Madame O'Donovan, 37 West 36th St. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Purple silk and lace bodice, M O'Brien Robes 266 West 38th St. New York, Charleston Museum; Black Dress, c. 1902 and Orange coat, c. 1909 labelled E O'Donovan New York & Paris, courtesy of Past Perfect Vintage.


By 1909 Ellen O’Donovan had met her second husband Robert McNamara. Retaining the O’Donovan name for her business, Ellen also employed her son Alfred to manage a more upscale 5th avenue location for her shop which also sold gowns imported from Paris. 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.”

Dubbed “The Sleeper Trunk Game”, a consignment of French gowns and other dutiable goods from New York was filled by a Paris agent. The agent 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. It was estimated 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 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 suffer and she remained in business until 1920. On August 17 of that year, Ellen, now twice widowed, was touring the West with her sister Margaret 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 – could it be Ellen O’Donovan, New York dressmaker?


Lobby of the Davenport Hotel in Spokane Washington where the spectre of Ellen O'Donovan lurks...


Addendum: May 1, 2022:

I recently came across this paper about Mary Chamberlain (nee Endicott), wife of Joseph Chamberlain, and step-mother of Neville Chamberlain, the future prime minister of Britain. Mary was American born, and bought her clothes from Mrs. Donovan in New York as well as Worth in Paris.

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