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James William Tuohy, the “Boy merchant of Chicago”

Henri Le Caron

Chicago millionaire James William Tuohy, the so-called “Boy merchant of Chicago” was an interesting fellow. Tuohy was born July 8th, 1849, in Carey, Ireland, near the Lakes of Killarney. He left Ireland at age 15, eventually landing Chicago working in a dry good store for another Irish immigrant, Denny Lynch.

At age twenty-four years, in 1873, he bought out his partner in a small dry good store in a mining town in rural Illinois and took sole control of the business. A short time later, he opened a second store, selling them both and opening a very large store on the busy corner of Madison and Peoria Streets.

Three years later he bought out the largest dry good store in the city, and, essentially held the corner on the market for the whole of Chicago. A few years later, he opened an enormous department store in midtown Chicago, catering to the wealthy. He died suddenly, probably of a heart attack, on June 9th, 1890.

The Henri Le Caron mentioned in the article below was a British spy named Thomas Miller Beach who was born in Colchester, England. It’s a long story, but 1870, Irish-American Nationalist invaded Canada.

Although they won all of the skirmishes they were involved in, in the end the invasion failed. It failed largely because of the information that Beach, as Henri La Caron provided to the English. La Carn was actually a fairly high ranking member of the Irish American Brotherhood, the IRB. (It would later become the IRA)

Le Caron had come to the US at the start of the civil war and volunteered for the Union army. That was in 1861. By 1870, his British accent was gone and he had completely immersed himself in American culture.

Within the IRB, La Caron even held a meeting with Charles Stewart Parnell at the House of Commons, when the Irish leader spoke sympathetically of an armed revolution in Ireland.

La Caron wrote a book, Twenty-five Years in the Secret Service, and it had an immense circulation. But he had to be constantly guarded, his acquaintances were hampered from seeing him, and he was the victim of a painful disease which killed him in April of 1894.

It was probably no mistake that La Caron weaseled his way into the world of the wealthy and Pro-IRB Tuohy and undoubtedly La Caron suspect Tuohy as being a conduit between the American branch of the IRB, which was still active in the 1880s, and the exiled Irish rebel community in Paris.

The Battle of Ridgeway


New York Times Feb. 12 1889

CHICAGO, Feb. ll.-

J. W. Tuohy. a Chicago dry Goods merchant contributed some interesting reminiscences of La Caron, the spy, whom be has known 16 years. .In the summer of 1887," said Mr. Tuohy "I was preparing to go to Europe to establish relations with importers of goods. I met the doctor quite accidentally mentioning the fact to him and intimating that I wished he would go along as an interpreter, guide and offering to pay all his expenses. That proposition suited him exactly and being idle he accepted at once. We sailed from New York on July 9 on the steamer Umbria. When we reached

Queenstown, (Ireland) La Caron appeared anxious to go to London and await my coming, which he did, I going through Ireland and Scotland. In London La Caron appeared to be well posted, but he played his part to perfection.”

The story below concerns JW’s wife, Nellie Cavanaugh, of Ottawa, Illinois. They married on October 6th, 1874. Nellie proved to be a tough and very shrewd businesswoman who took over her husband’s financial empire and extended it into real estate speculation.

The New York Times

CHICAGO, Oct. 2 1892

Mrs. J. W. Tuohy, a wealthy widow, who owns three of the largest uptown dry good stores in Chicago was in court today defending a suit for $10,000 damages brought by one of her former clerks, a Cornelius S. Tuomy. The plaintiff alleges that after the death of the late Mr. Tuohy, Mrs. Tuohy and the dry goods clerk became lovers, she often taking him on carriage rides and he frequently visiting her home.

One day with out the plaintiff suddenly found himself discharged without warning from his position as clerk and on going to Mrs. Tuohy’s residence, was arrested by a policeman at her request. She however failed to appear to prosecute him and he was released.

Mrs. Tuohy said that the first time she met Tuomy was four months after her husband died, Tuomy stopped her as she passed him at her counter and requesting a moments conversation, proposed to her then and there, adding an intimation that if she refused it would mean bloodshed. She thought him crazy and temporized fearing to create a newspaper sensation. Tuomy persistently haunted the neighborhood of her home and was arrested for trying to break into her front door.