Mary Ellen McPhail and William Edward O’Brien

The O’Brien Family

When Mary Ellen McPhail was born in 1900 in Les Cèdres, Quebec, Canada, her father, Archibald James Jacob McPhail (1870-1941), was 30 and her mother, Cecelia (née Garrow) (1876-1941), was 24.

A birth or baptismal record hasn’t been located, but census records indicate this is correct. Mary Ellen had six brothers and three sisters. Mary Ann married William Edward O’Brien on June 24, 1925, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Their marriage certificate indicates that William O’Brien was the son of James O’Brien and Ellen (née Mahony) from Saltfleet, Ontario (which is part of Hamilton in the modern-day).

Marriage Registration (image via

A birth record indicates that William was born on January 14, 1898, also in Saltfleet. William’s occupation on the marriage certificate is listed as a “farmer”. A census record indicates that William had at least five brothers and one sister.

Mary Ellen and William had three children:

  • Catherine “Kay” O’Brien (1926-2006) who married Earl Britton Woods (1928-2006)
  • William (Billy) O’Brien (1931-1948)
  • A son (still living)

The Hamilton Spectator reveals a tragedy befell the family on September 8, 1948. A September 9 article reads:

Mother Fails in Courageous Effort to Save Son’s Life

William O’Brien Dies from Fumes in Cistern—Father Overcome in Rescue Effort but is Revived

Overcome by paint fumes while working in a cistern at the rear of his father’s homes, William O’Brien, 19 a son of Mr. and Mrs. William O’Brien, Barton Street, Saltfleet, died yesterday afternoon about four hours after being removed from the cistern in an unconscious condition.

The father of the young man was also overcome by the fumes when he went to his son’s assistance but responded to first-aid treatment administered by members of the Stoney Creek Fire Department. 

Was Painting Walls 

According to Mr. O’Brien, he had started to paint the inside walls of a concrete cistern measuring 12 feet long and seven feet high which is under the closed-in back veranda of the home when his son came home from work unexpectedly. 

Somewhat affected by the water-resistant paint fumes Mr. O’Brien said he climbed out of the cistern which has a top opening about two feet across and the son volunteered to help with the job. With him was a friend, Bernard (Lefty) Kay, of Stoney Creek. 

Mr. Kay apparently was bothered by the fumes, climbed out and went home a few minutes later. The father looked down inside the cistern some 10 minutes later and saw his son leaning against the wall. Realizing what had happened, he again went into the cistern and managed to move the boy over to the foot of the ladder. Unable to lift him up, he called to Mrs. O’Brien to get help. 

“Then I must have passed out again,” he said. “The next thing I remember is coming to with firemen working over me.”  Mrs. O’Brien called two neighbours, named Parsons and Farraway and also got two passing truckers to stop. 

With the aid of a rope, one of the truckers pulled Mr. O’Brien out of the cistern and then Mrs. O’Brien got the rope around her son and assisted in getting him out. Firemen and doctors were called and arrived within a few minutes after the men had been taken out. Mr. O’Brien responded to inhalator treatment in a short time.  

Members of the Stoney Creek Fire Department and Dr. M.N. Heddle, however, worked on the youth for almost four hours without success.

Dr. Isaac Crack, coroner of Hamilton was summoned and after making a preliminary investigation ordered the body removed to the morgue. It has not been decided whether an inquest will be held or not.  

Well-Known Athlete 

Deceased, who was well known in Hamilton, had been prominent in athletics for some years and had played football for Cathedral High School for two seasons, for Saltfleet High School for three years and played on the Stop 69 championship softball team. He was a member of the Leander Boat Club and St. Francis Xavier Church. Surviving him besides his parents is a brother, Patrick, at home, and a sister, Catharine, who is a nurse in Vancouver.

Mr. O’Brien expressed deep gratitude for the efforts of G.R. Depew, Stoney Creek Fire Chief, and his men. “It is to them that I owe my life and they did all possible to save my son,” he said.  The funeral of William O’Brien will take place Saturday morning at 9:30 o’clock from Dwyer’s funeral home to St. Francis Xavier Church for Funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Interment will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

The obituary dated the same day reads:

O’Brien—Suddenly on Wednesday, September 8, 1948 at Fruitland, William Edward O’Brien, son of William and Mary O’Brien, aged 19 years. Funeral Saturday morning at 9:30 from Dwyer’s Funeral chapel to St. Francis Xavier Church for funeral mass at 10 o’clock. Interment at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Mary Ellen died on July 21, 1962. She was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Burlington.

Image via Hamilton Spectator

William moved with his daughter Kaye to British Columbia. He died on October 31, 1987, and is buried in Nanaimo.

Nanaimo Daily News, November 2, 1987

Main Image: Around the Bay Road Race in 1912. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (image via Wikimedia)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

AG Knapper

I’ve been researching my tree for over twenty years…and I’ve found some easy branches, and some gnarly ones…

Get fresh updates
about my life in your inbox