Whole new meaning to Slow Research: & ghostly encounters with kinfolk

Peter James Lawless (1851 – 1931) whose father Peter Armstrong Lawless was 1st cousin to Capt. Armstrong

My slow lap around the globe in search for the death of a missing Australian pioneer makes a pit-stop in America to investigate one of his cousins,  though kinda opening up Pandora’s Box along the way.

Irish-born Captain Armstrong figured in four of the earliest European settlements in Australia yet doesn’t make our history books. This mariner-of-sorts was also one of Australia’s first smugglers before setting up as a teacher in the formative state of Victoria. At least two places are named for him around our coasts though he lays well under the national history radar. More importantly the mysterious Mahogany Ship supposedly lies buried in a bay bearing the Captain’s name, but his connection to the reputed wreck and the man himself remain unexplored.

I have spent 20 years tailing the Captain’s life out across nations and then four states of Australia: it is only his death that remains a mystery to me. But without his death I cannot close his biography so a very slow search (in terms of results, not endeavor) for his final resting place means taking a closer look at all his relatives to see if he had any interactions with them in his final years.

Gravestone of John Corballis of New-street, Dublin. Grandfather of Capt. Armstrong

Armstrong was a grandson of the well-regarded John Corballis (c1729-1805),  of New-street, Dublin . Like all his cousins, Armstrong and his siblings inherited enough money from their grandfather to give them a decent start in life. His two Corballis uncles were appointed to manage the inheritances meted out to the five branches of the Corballis descendents: Sherlock, Corballis x 2, Brady, Armstrong and O’Connor.

But both Corballis uncles died within five years of each and at a relatively young age, so the administration of the encumbered estates in the Corballis inheritances devolved – as it did for most Irish folk, into decade of expensive and  time-consuming Chancery court cases, which often saw  land  propping up inheritances being sold of, either to meet mounting costs to pay  lawyers and/or fight off the avarice of an English government,  who long regretted the former century leases granted to the landed Irish.

By tracking down all the living Corballis descendents I located a ledger book from the Corballis estate, but the only mention of Captain Armstrong and his mother and siblings was an account of monies paid to them from the estate up until 1829, which coincides with Armstrong’s departure from Ireland.

So it is to the other side of Armstrong’s family history – the Lawless’ of Dublin (another of these ancient Catholic families of Ireland)  that I have turned in search of any correspondence or evidence that Armstrong might have continued cordial relations with his kinfolk after leaving Ireland.


Marriage record of Peter Armstrong Lawless to Harriet Higgins, 1819, Rathfarnham RC, Ireland. Cousin to Capt. Armstrong

Peter Armstrong Lawless (1790-1854) was a first cousin of Captain Armstrong (1792-) : his mother Margaret Lawless (nee Armstrong) was sister to Thomas Armstrong, father of the Captain.

Peter A Lawless was one of the family who remained in Dublin: his uncle Dennis Lawless (C1750-1810), ‘Gentleman’ and nursery man of Harold’s Cross was godfather to Peter Armstrong Lawless and Captain Armstrong (the Lawless family had long been established in New Street alongside the Corballis family).

Peter A’s father, Edmund Lawless (1750-1839) ‘of Clanbrassil street’ administered the estate of brother Dennis, and was able to set son Peter Armstrong Lawless with a decent start in life; (Edmund is not to be confused with the surgeon of the same name who lived in the same street in a slightly later decade).

As the surviving eldest son of seven children born to Edmund & Margaret Lawless, Peter A. was first in line to his uncle’s inheritance, and about 1814 took up occupation as a gentleman farmer at Cherryfield, (Tallaght)  outside of Dublin (and later as a Coal Merchant operating in the city of Dublin: in 1819 he married Harriet Higgins in the roman catholic parish of Rathfarnham and all seven children were christened in the same parish, but Peter A.himself at some point ‘turned protestant’ and was buried in a Church of Ireland cemetery (his uncle Dennis had converted to the Church of Ireland in the 1790’s to hold on to family lands, but the family remained staunchly catholic in belief). 

Tombstone of Dennis P. Lawless (1824-1867), cousin of Capt. Armstrong. Buried Boston, Mass.

There were six children born to Peter Armstrong Lawless and Harriet Higgins, and thanks to the those near-magical free online databases I have finally found one of the sons of Peter and Harriet.

  FindaGrave is a free searchable database of gravestones and tombstones worldwide, grown through an army of volunteers:  “Thousands of contributors submit new listings, updates, corrections, photographs and virtual flowers every hour. The site simply wouldn’t exist without the million+ contributors”.

Dennis P Lawless (1824-1867) second son of Peter Armstrong Lawless and Harriet Higgins is listed in Find A Grave as being buried at the Mount Calvary cemetery at Roslindale in the city of Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts (USA),  though he is incorrectly named as Dennis F Lawless, where he is properly (by his own writings) Dennis P Lawless.

Buried with him is his wife Mary Lawless (nee Morse) c1813 – 1897.

The 1867 death certificate for Dennis P. Lawless confirms he was born in Dublin, and that his parents were Peter Armstrong Lawless and Harriett (nee Higgins). Primary documents for the state of Massachusetts are available through the free-search platform  FamilySearch which is hosted by the The Church of Jesus Christ  of Latter-Day Saints. 

Naturalization records for Dennis Lawless dated 1866 say  he had arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1857 (presumably with his wife Mary, and daughter Annie). As he died the following year of liver cancer it is probable he knew his death was near, and he wanted his wife to be able to legally inherit his grocery business.

Boston street directories  are available through free-search sites like Google Books and The Boston Anthenaeum in which is found in 1867 Dennis P. Lawless was working as a grocer in Boston, his home address being 87 High Street, Boston. In this directory it also documents  Peter James Lawless at the same address, who worked as a clerk at 221 Washington Street (this is the son of Dennis, known as ‘Colonel’ Peter James Lawless who became well known in railroad circles and settled after his father’s death in Austin, Texas).

The 1860 Census of Boston shows that Dennis P. Lawless lived with wife Mary, son Peter J. and daughter Annie, at 85 High Street,  and in this and subsequent documents it is recorded that Annie was born in New Brunswick, Canada c1847 and Peter James born in Massachusetts in 1851, so evidently Dennis arrived in Boston six year earlier than shown on his Naturalization records.1860 USA Census:

“Ward 7 in the City of Boston, Suffolk, County of Massachusetts:
Dennis Lawless, aged 30y (bc1830), born Ireland,
Mary Lawless, aged 29y (bc1831) born Ireland.
Ann Lawless, aged 14y (bc1846) New Brunswick, Can.
Peter Lawless, aged 11 years, (bc1849) born Massachusetts.

Dennis P. Lawless died on the 19th of July 1867 and his son Peter James Lawless was an informant on his father’s death certificate”

  • Source 1: “Deaths Registered in the City of Boston For the Year 1867”
    Date of Death: 19 July
    Full Name of Deceased: Dennis F Lawless
    Marital Status: Married
    Color: White
    Age: 42 years
    Residence: 85 High Street
    Place of Birth: Ireland
    Occupation: Grocer
    Informant: P J Lawless
    Name and Birthplace of Parents of Deceased:
    Full Name of Father: Peter A. Lawless, Birthplace: Ireland
    Full Name of Mother: Harriet Lawless, Birthplace – Ireland
    Disease or Cause of Death: Gastritis
    Place of Burial: Dorchester

Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-8975-9ZMV?cc=2061550&wc=Q4D6-K68%3A353350401%2C353366201%2C1006015001 : 20 May 2014), Suffolk Boston Deaths 1866-1867 image 538 of 723; citing Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, Boston.

An obituary in the Boston Pilot upon the advent of Dennis P. Lawless’ death confirms he was married and  a father and also that he had relatives in New Brunswick (probably Canada):


“Pilot, (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 August 1867:
Lawless – In Boston, July 18, Mr Denis Lawless, a native of Dublin, Ireland, of disease of the liver, in the 42nd year of his age. Mr Lawless was well known to those who frequented the church of St Vincent in this city, and respected by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance.
As a friend open and candid, as a husband and father,kind and affectionate, his early and unexpected demise has cast sorrow and gloom over the circle of his numerous friends and relatives.
St John, N.B and Dublin papers please copy”.

In the Boston Post, 24 October 1867, Mary Lawless placed an advertisement stating that she had been ‘duly appointed Administrix of the estate of Denis P. Lawless, late of Boston in the County of Suffolk, Grocer, deceased”… and called in any debts due to the estate.

After Dennis P Lawless’ death, his wife sold the grocery business and lived briefly at 21 Oneida street before purchasing a property at 106 Camden Street, Boston, where she lived with her daughter Annie up until her own death in 1897:




1870 USA Census:
“Ward 7 in the City of Boston, Suffolk, County of Massachusetts:
Mary Lawless, aged 50 years (bc1820), Free, White, born in Ireland: occupied “Keeping House”, (annual net value 4000 (US dollars assumed).
Annie Lawless, aged 23 years (bc 1847), born New Brunswick, Free, White, occupied as a Taileress?
Peter Lawless, aged 21 years (bc1849) born Massachusetts. occupied as a Jeweller’s clerk.

By about 1872 Peter James Lawless moved from the family home, following the railroad industry opening up across the USA, but was the informant on his mother’s death certificate in 1897 so obviously remained in close contact with his mother and sister:

“Deaths Register in the City of Boston For the Year 1897”:
# 5867
Date of Death: Jul 2
Full Name of Deceased: Mary Lawless, widow of Dennis, maiden name “Morse”.
Sex: Female
Marital Status: Widowed
Color: White
Age: 84 years
Residence or Place of Death: 106 Camden St.
Place of Birth: Ireland
Name and Birthplace of Parents of Deceased:
Full Name of Father: Patrick (Morse?) born Ireland
Full Name of Mother: Ann Connell. born Ireland
Disease or Cause of Death: Paralysis, 2 years”.

https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6QXW-7QR?i=278&wc=MJCJ-L29%3A1043016801&cc=1463156 : extracted 13 April 2020 by J. Fawcett

Daughter Annie Lawless can be traced living at the 106 Camden Street house via cencus records up until 1900 USA census:

1900 USA Census:
“106 Camden St. in the city of Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts:
House: 2B
Head: Annie Lawless, aged 45y (born c 1855), New Brunswick, Canada.
Birth date Aug 1854 (sic) (incorrect):
Parents both born in Ireland, of Irish parents.
Obtained citizenship – 1870
30 years in USA. (this is probably rather 30 years since she obtained her Citizenship, as she had been in Boston since a child).

It is not yet known when Dennis and Mary Lawless had migrated from Ireland to New Brunswick in Canada, but clearly there were family members there in 1867, and daughter Annie had been born there in c1847.

The famous Driskell Hotel in Austin, Texas, allegedly haunted by Col. Peter James Lawless (cousin of Capt. Armstrong).

Peter James Lawless, the son of Dennis and Mary, rose to prominence in Austin, Texas, probably making his fortune in speculating as a land agent for the railroad company for which he worked – the International and Great Northern Railroad Co.

He is noted as a ticket-agent for the railways in advertisements in Texas newspapers, and also as a co-owner of a hotel called ‘Raymond House’.

An Obituary for Peter J Lawless can be found in the Laredo Times (2 July 1931)  thanks to NewspaperARCHIVE.com which shows  that he was  a noted figure in Austin, having been a resident there some 35 years since his arrival in 1872:  he was a well-known  agent for the International and Great Northern railroad company, and a ‘valued and efficient figure in the railroad world for 50 years’:

“He had as wide an acquaintance as any citizen of Austin of the period in which he lived. He was widely known in railway circles, he was widely known to the traveling public, he had an intimate acquaintance with the senators and governors and congressmen and high court judges and legislators who have flourished and faded in the more than half century he called Austin home.”

Gravestone of Peter James Lawless, Austin, Texas

The editor also noted that ‘Colonel Lawless’ was an apostle of optimism and good cheer, and since his arrival in Austin had invested extensively in the city, which had grown from a small township since the Colonel’s arrival, to a prosperous and wealthy trading center:-

“On his retirement from the railroad service he did not lose his activity or interest in civic and political affairs. He saved his money throughout the years. His investments were in Austin real estate.He had unbounded faith in the future of the capital of an empire and almost to the hour he was stricken downed he busied himself as ever in the activities of the municipality and the state.”

It is noted that Peter was one of the first to make the Driskell Hotel his home “when its doors were thrown open to the travelling public’ and he was still living there at the time of his death.
“He had lived his life according to his own convictions and he passed out of this vale of tears mourned by many who had known him in the earlier and more exciting days of the history of the Lone Star commonwealth”.

There is a street named after Peter J Lawless in Mueller, Austin, Texas:
“Mueller’s dozens of new streets honor a diverse cross-section of Austin leaders and legends symbolizing the city’s
great history and distinct culture….
“Lawless Street
Col. Peter Lawless, a pioneer Texas railroad man, served as agent for the International & Great Northern (I&GN)
railroad for 50 years before resigning. Establishment of a free ward at Seton Infirmary was made possible by the
bequest of several thousand dollars by Col. Lawless. He resided at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin from its
opening in 1886 until his death and was a familiar figure in the lobby now being credited as the “friendly ghost”
that haunts the Driskill”
source: http://www.muelleraustin.com/uploads/general/Mueller_Street_Name_History.pdf

However it is the death certificate of Peter James Lawless that casts a slight shadow on his life: for when he died on 29th of June 1931 his death certificate and burial document state that he was a widower.

A search of census records from 1860 – 1930 have no record of a Peter James Lawless with a wife, living in either Boston (Mass) or in Austin (Texas).

But at the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin where Peter is buried, there is a gravestone near to his, showing the burial of a Annie E Lawless “wife of P.J”. There death date is not clear on the stone, but looks to be Aug.24 188?. There are two different dates given on the sites FindaGrave and BillionGraves showing either either 29 Aug 1887 or Aug 1885.

I have been unable to locate a death certificate for an Annie E Lawless in Austin Texas through any of this or later period of time.

So if Peter married why wouldn’t this wife of show up on census records with him? 

By searching through vital records in FamilySearch  there is a marriage recorded in Index style only between a Peter J Lawless and Annie Alexander on 29 Aug 1887 in Austin, Texas. But no access to an actual marriage certificate.


  • Texas, County Marriage Index, 1837-1977
  • Name: Peter J. Lawless
    Event Type:  Marriage
    Event Date: 29 Aug 1887
    Event Place: Travis, Texas, United States
    Spouse’s Name: Annie E. Alexander
    Spouse’s Gender: Female
    Record Number: 69

And if this marriage date is correct, how does that correlate with a seemingly similar death date on the gravestone of Annie E Lawless? Did she die on her wedding day? Did she marry Lawless in a fit of spite? Was she dazzled by the opulence of his residence in the newly build grand hotel ‘Driskells’.  Is the gravestone date correct?

A further search in vital records still could not locate a death for Annie E Lawless, so in broadening the search of Census records for Austin,  it turned up an Annie E Alexander (nee Sherwood) who was married with two children, and  wife to local chemist/druggist Newton J Alexander (c1844- ). Alexander is recorded as the son of a physician in census documents, who married in 1867 in Austin, Texas to Annie E Sherwood (born Austin c 1849).

A search on Ancestry.com turned up family records that Newton J Alexander remarried in 1887 to a woman named Lulu Rose Green, but this is also the year that Ann E Alexander is recorded as having married Peter James Lawless. None of the family searchers on Ancestry had noted what became of Annie E nee Sherwood, so it seems there is some further mystery solving to this family puzzle.

Peter J. Lawless
BIRTH 23 Jul 1851
Massachusetts, USA
DEATH 29 Jun 1931 (aged 79)
Austin, Travis County, Texas, USA
Oakwood Cemetery
Austin, Travis County, Texas, USA
MEMORIAL ID 16359077 · View Source

Annie E. Alexander Lawless (wife of Peter J)
BIRTH unknown
DEATH 29 Aug 1887
Oakwood Cemetery
Austin, Travis County, Texas, USA
MEMORIAL ID 16359067 · View Source

Whilst my Captain Armstrong doesn’t show up in records relating to his cousin Dennis P Lawless of 85 High Street, Boston, there is evidence of further family over in New Brunswick in Canada, so the slow lap continues up the continent in search of the Armstrong, Corballis and Lawless clan.

At least we know there are some ghostly remnants of the family in  Austin, Texas at the former Driskell Hotel:

According to Fiona Broome, author of The Ghosts of Austin, Peter J. Lawless is probably the Diskill’s most persistent and enthusiastic ghost.  He lived in the hotel from the time it was built in 1886 until he died, regardless of who owned the hotel or whether or not it was actually open for business.  He can often be found hanging out around the elevators… if you step out of the elevator and feel a sudden breeze, you probably just encountered Mr. Lawless passing through.  If you find yourself in the vicinity of the grand staircase, keep your eyes and ears open because you may encounter the spirit of a little ghost girl laughing and chasing a ball down the stairs, where legend has it that she stumbled and fell to her death.

source: http://welcometoaustintx.blogspot.com/2014/10/haunted-austin-driskill-hotel.html