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O'Reilly, Mary Boyle, 1873-1939 | Boston Public Library Archival and Manuscript Finding Aid Database

Name: O'Reilly, Mary Boyle, 1873-1939

Historical Note:

Mary Boyle O’Reilly was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts on May 18, 1873. She was the eldest of four daughters. Her father was the Irish nationalist and poet John Boyle O’Reilly, and her mother Mary Smiley (Murphy) O’Reilly was a journalist who wrote under the pseudonym “Agnes Smiley” for the Young Crusader. O’Reilly was educated in Charlestown public schools and the Sacred Heart Convent in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1890 her father, John Boyle O’Reilly died, and in 1897 her mother Mary died at their home in Charlestown.

O’Reilly enrolled at the Gilman School for Girls in 1899 with the intention of entering Radcliffe, but illness prevented her attendance and she took on private tutors. Upon her return in 1901 from travels in Europe she, along with Mrs. Warren M. Hill, Miss Maud M. Rockwell, and Miss Margaret Carey, established the Guild of St Elizabeth. The Guild was a settlement house for children on East Springfield Street in the South End.

O’Reilly belonged to many philanthropic organizations, among them the Tuberculosis Society and the State Conference of Charities. In 1903 she became a member of the examining committee of the Boston Public Library. O’Reilly also served on the board of directors for the Women’s Educational Union.

In 1907 she became Prison Commissioner of Massachusetts and was appointed by Mayor Daniel Whelton as a trustee of the Children’s Institutions. During this time O’Reilly was also frequently lecturing on sociology and writing for a number of journals and newspapers, including Harper’s Magazine and The Boston Globe. In 1910 she achieved notoriety when, disguised as a mill worker, she exposed and brought to an end the so-called “baby farms” of New Hampshire.

She resigned from her position as Prison Commissioner in 1911 at the failure of the State Prison Commission to bring about what she considered necessary reforms. It was around this time that O’Reilly reported on a food cannery workers’ strike in New York, and in 1913 she became a foreign correspondent for The Newspaper Enterprise Association. Following assignments in Mexico and Russia, O’Reilly was placed in charge of the Newspaper Enterprise Association’s London office.

At the beginning of World War I, she entered Belgium disguised as a peasant, and in 1914 was the only English-speaking journalist to witness the burning of Louvain. She was also present in London during the 1915 Zeppelin raids. Eventually, she was imprisoned by the Germans with fellow correspondents Richard Harding Davis, Will Irwin, and Gerald Morgan. The four were released in Holland and the three men returned to London; however O’Reilly chose to return, in disguise, to Belgium.

After the war she maintained contact with royalty, ministers and governments of the allies. Her previous service as Massachusetts Prison Commissioner had placed her in high demand; she made daily trips to prison camps and hospitals in France and England and continued to engage in foreign relief work.

In 1917 O’Reilly returned to New York, and in 1920 she engaged in a number of public speaking engagements regarding her war experience. In 1921 she actively campaigned on behalf of her uncle John R. Murphy, who ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Boston, and bought an estate in Marshfield with the intention of regaining her health. A few years later she built a stone cottage in Auburndale, intended as a tribute to her father, where she lived until her death on October 21, 1939 at the age of 66.

O’Reilly’s large collection of books, pamphlets and newspaper clippings on war propaganda were donated to the Boston Public Library, and are a part of the 20th Regiment Collection.


O’Reilly, Mary Boyle. "Daughters of Herod." The New England Magazine, November-December 1910. Volume 43, Number 3. p277-290.

"Mary B. O’Reilly, Writer, 66, Is Dead." New York Times, October 22, 1939, p40.

"Candidates for School Board." Boston Daily, November 26, 1905, p6.

"Miss O’Reilly Back from her Daring Tour." The Herald, February 15, 1917, p9.

Note Author: Heather Mumford

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