Joseph John Friel was born on March 15, 1853. He emigrated from County Donegal, Ireland in 1875 to the United States with five dollars in his pocket. Soon, Friel got a job as a ditch-digger in a construction company in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. When digging a ditch one day in the hot sun, he looked up at a beautiful house at 699 Willoughby Avenue and proclaimed that he would one day own it. His supervisor thought Friel must have been suffering from heat prostration and made him sit down and rest. After being a ditch-digger, Friel worked faithfully for several years for a pawnbroker on Grand Street. Friel had made arrangements with his boss to buy the business from him “on time.” By the time his boss died, Friel had begun to grow this brokerage company into million-dollar business.
According to the Brooklyn Genealogy Website, J.J. Friel ran a pawnbroker business within the years 1880 – 1890 at 86 Myrtle Avenue off of Duffield Place[i] where the new Metrotech Building high-rise casts its shadow on the Flatbush Avenue extension. An additional office was listed at 989 Myrtle Avenue between Sumner & Throop where there is now a NYC Housing Project. Both addresses no longer exist. In a New York Times obituary, it states that Joseph John Friel started in the pawn brokerage business on Grand Street in 1870.[ii] Numerous signs for this business can be found from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Jamaica Queens. This sign on Coney Island Avenue in the Kensington section of Brooklyn however no longer sees the light of day.
Recently, a family member of Friel, Michael Hughes (great-grandson), of Detroit Michigan contacted me about the whereabouts of the Park Slope J.J. Friel sign I had posted on my blog. Hughes spoke about the possible restoration of the sign and he got me in touch with his aunts, Friel’s surviving grandchildren – DeDe Burke of Mt Kisco, NY and Aileen Schaefer of Islip, NY. Almost of all the historical and genealogical information on Friel was gleaned through these telephone interviews with Friel’s descendants.
In 1898, Friel married Frances Noonan, and by 1903 at age 50, he and his wife had a daughter Mary Margaret Friel. J.J. Friel died in May 1914 at age 60 from pneumonia in his home at 699 Willoughby Avenue. Mary Margaret, who inherited the family fortune upon her father’s death, went on to graduate from Manhattanville College in 1924 and to marry Henry Mannix in 1926. Henry Mannix became a partner in the law office of White & Case, which was already a legendary Wall Street firm. Mary Margaret Henry Mannix had ten children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. According to Friel’s granddaughter Aileen of Islip, NY, the Friel business continued to be run by the family well into the 1970s. Friel was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.
After getting off of the phone with a family member and realizing how closely Friel was buried to where I lived, I immediately cut some flowers from my garden and headed over to the cemetery on my Vespa. After a three-minute ride, I picked up a map from the cemetery office where they had kindly written the names of the family members buried at the plot with the years of their birth and death, and placed the flowers on the Friel – Mannix family burial ground. It seems almost unfathomable that this man, whose name I’ve known for over 15 years, and about whom I knew next to nothing, was buried 1.2 miles from my home, and I now have contact with his family ninety-seven year after his death.
Solemnly, I stood in front of the Friel tombstone while “Taps” was played at a funeral procession nearby. I cannot begin to describe how deeply profound and moving this experience was for me. The tombstone bore the many names of the Friel – Mannix family, beginning with the Friel’s first child, a son named James who died at birth in 1899. Mary Margaret Friel, was thereby their second child and their only child, having lost her father at the age of ten, lived a rich and full life with 48 grandchildren to recount their great-grandfather’s legacy. I returned home and spoke on the phone with the eldest living daughter of Mary Margaret, Aileen Schaefer. We spoke about faith, trust and surrender. We spoke about the remarkable circle of life that brought us to this telephone conversation and life’s mysteries. I feel honored to take part in the telling of their story. Perhaps one day in the next century this sign will be exposed again and the story of J. J. Friel will come to light yet again. – Fading Ads of New York City (History Press, Nov 2011)