The Backstairs Lives Initiative

Victoria Mansion’s ongoing research into the lives of the known individuals who worked for the Morse and Libby families from the 1860s-1920s.
Please check back frequently as we continue to add content to this page in 2023.

Domestic servant Sabina Grady with a Libby grandchild on the front steps of the Mansion, ca. 1920.

About the Initiative

Beginning in the winter of 2021-2022, a handful of staff and volunteers began a deep dive into the people who made Victoria Mansion run for the Morses and the Libbys: the domestic servants. While we previously knew a handful of names, there were always more questions than answers about the individuals who worked here. Today, through extensive volunteer efforts, we know of at least 23 people – mostly immigrants or children of immigrants – who worked at the Mansion, and have discovered more about them as individuals from their descendants.

In 2022 we received a gift of items from the grandchildren of maid Hannah Shine, who worked for the Libby family at the Mansion in 1910. These are the first servant-related objects to become part of our collection, and we are thrilled to continue to move forward on this project.

We extend our gratitude to our colleagues at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland for their ongoing assistance with this initiative.

Known Domestic Servants at Victoria Mansion

Morse Era (1860-1893)

The McDonnell Family

  • Alice (lived at Mansion in 1885)
  • Sarah (servant in 1880)
  • John (carpenter in 1879, 1885-1886)
  • James (stonecutter in 1886)

Felix McDonnell (in some records, McDonald) and his wife, Alice, were Irish immigrants. They first went to New Brunswick, Canada, then moved just over the border into Downeast Maine for a time before moving to the Portland area. Their daughter Sarah is the only one specifically listed as a servant when she lived at the Mansion. Alice was recorded as a widow living at the Mansion in 1885. Alice and Felix’s son John was listed as a carpenter, and his brother James as a stonecutter. It is possible that these two men worked on the library bay addition (the only known Morse-era change to the Mansion’s original 1860 footprint).

Members of the McDonnell family lived at the Mansion various years in the 1880s and lived in nearby apartments when they weren’t here. It is possible that they acted as caretakers of the property while the Morses were away and stepped in as servants when the Morses were in the city.

Michael D. Monahan (1850-1923)
Coachman 1882-1883

Michael was born near Tuam, County Galway, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States in 1873. He was a coachman for several families in Portland as well as a hostler (a person who took care of horses at a stable). Michael was married at the time he worked for the Morse family, so it is possible that his wife lived with him on the second floor of the Carriage House.

Julia Foley (birth & death dates not yet known)
(Position not yet known) 1886

In 1886, a local jewelry store ran a newspaper ad for winners in their monthly raffle drawing. Julia Foley, who lived at 109 Danforth Street, won a butter knife. With such a strong Irish name, she likely would have been a servant, not a guest, of the Morses.

James Webber (birth & death dates not yet known)
Coachman 1891

Libby Era (1894-1928)

John Avidson
Coachman 1896

This may have actually been John Johnson (below), whose name at birth was Johann Adolfsson. The city directory compiler may have incorrectly recorded his name as Avidson.

Johann Adolfsson/John Johnson (1870-1954)
Coachman 1898

John was born in Sweden and immigrated to Portland in 1891. He was a coachman for several other families in the city as well as for the Libbys. He married and later worked as a chauffeur in the Portland area.

Charles A. Carter (1849-1913)
Coachman 1900-1901

Charles was born on his family’s farm in Yarmouth, Maine. He worked as a coachman for various families in Portland and at times was a hackman (someone who drove a horse-drawn taxi). In some censuses, he is recorded as Black, in others, mixed-race. Charles’s brother John Carter, a pulp mill operator, married Anne McKinnon at the Abyssinian Meetinghouse, the oldest Black church in Portland, in 1897.

William Mosley (1874-1944)
Coachman 1902

William was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and immigrated to Maine in 1884. He was a coachman for the Libbys and then joined a Naval Reserve unit. He married and later was employed as a railroad brakeman and a factory worker.

David Webster (1835-1924)
Cook 1905-1906

David was born in New Hampshire and served in the Union army in the U.S. Civil War. He later moved to Biddeford, Maine, and worked as an upholsterer at the J.R. Libby store there. A Libby grandchild recalled that David “didn’t have any home or something, so he worked for grandfather [J.R.] in the Mansion, and he did some of the cleaning and kept furniture repaired.” The city directory recorded him as a cook in the household, likely relying on skills he had learned as a cook in the army.

Johannah “Hannah” Shine (1880-1947)
Servant 1910

Hannah was born in County Kerry, Ireland, and emigrated to Portland in 1900. She was the Libby family’s cook in 1910, and worked for other Portland families before she got married. She was friends with fellow servant Katie Steed before and after they worked here.

In 2022, Hannah’s granddaughters donated some of her belongings to the Mansion. These are the first objects owned by a member of the domestic staff to be accessioned into the Mansion’s collections.

Katherine “Katie” Steed (1868-1959)
Servant 1910

Katie was born near Tuam in County Galway, Ireland and emigrated in 1891. She worked as a servant for several families around Portland as well as in Connecticut and New York City. She was friends with Hannah Shine for the rest of her life. One of Katie’s nieces was Sabina Grady, who worked for the Libby family from 1916-1923.

Hannah Shine

Hannah Shine, c. 1900 (courtesy of Hannah Shine's granddaughters)

Hannah Shine and Katie Steed

Hannah Shine (left) and Katie Steed, c. 1913 (courtesy of Hannah Shine's granddaughters)

(Earl) Clifford Mains (1887-1953)
Chauffeur 1914-1915

Clifford was born in Raymond, Maine. He was a chauffeur for the Libbys and other families in the area. He married a few years after he worked at the Mansion. He became a popular fishing guide on nearby Sebago Lake and was part of the nearby North Windham Fire Company.

Bridget “Delia” Clesham [Chisholm] (1889-1951)
Servant 1916-1918

Delia was born near Spiddal in County Galway, Ireland. When she was born, her name was Bridget Clesham. She went by the nickname Delia and her last name changed to Chisholm at some point after she emigrated to the U.S. She was a domestic servant for several families in Portland. Delia worked for the Libbys until her marriage, when her sister Nora took over her position. She and her husband eventually moved to Massachusetts.

Sabina “Bina” K. Grady (1897-1970)
Maid/second girl 1916-1923

Sabina (pronounced Sa-BYE-nah) was born near Tuam in County Galway, Ireland. She immigrated to Portland in 1914 to join several aunts who were already here, including 1910 Libby servant Katie Steed. Sabina worked for the Libbys until she married. She was later very active in women’s groups at nearby St. Dominic’s Catholic Church (today home of the Maine Irish Heritage Center on State and Gray Streets). Sabina is the only servant for whom we have a photograph taken at Victoria Mansion (top of page).

Betsey C. Edgecomb (1878-1955)
Nurse 1917

Betsey was born in Topsham, Maine, and went to nursing school at Maine General Hospital in Portland. She worked as a private duty nurse and was living at the Mansion in 1917, likely to take care of J.R. Libby before he died. She became active in leadership of several nursing organizations in Maine.

Honor “Nora” Clesham [Chisholm] (1888-1974)
Cook/maid 1920-1922

Nora was born near Spiddal in County Galway, Ireland. When she was born, her name was Honor Clesham. She was Delia Chisholm’s sister and likely took over Delia’s job at the Mansion when Delia married. Nora herself married a few years later. According to her granddaughter, Nora spoke primarily Irish her entire life, which is not surprising given that she was from a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking town).

Nora Chisholm

Nora Chisholm Foley, c. 1970 (courtesy of her granddaughter)

Katherine A. Cullinane (1883-1965)
Maid 1924-1928

Katherine was born near Tuam in County Galway, Ireland, and immigrated to Portland in 1903. She worked for various families in the neighborhood as well as for the Libbys.

Katherine Cullinane

Katherine Cullinane, from her 1939 naturalization application

Bridget/Bridie Moran (1906-2002)
Maid 1927

Bridie was born Bridget Moran near Tuam in County Galway, Ireland and immigrated in 1925. She worked for several local families in the Portland area before she married. She legally changed her first name to Bridie as part of her naturalization process. Bridie and her husband moved to Massachusetts, where they continued to work as a cook and chauffeur, respectively, for a family there.

Bridie Moran

Bridie Moran Ready, c. 1935 (courtesy of her granddaughter)

Florence Coulombe (1904-1996)
Maid 1928

Florence was born in Fort Kent, Maine. She and her sister Rose both came to Portland to work as domestics. Rose worked across the street for J.R. and Louisa Libby’s daughter Edith Libby Cutter. Florence worked for many families in the West End of Portland, including the Libbys, before she got married.

Commitment to Ongoing Research & Interpretation

The Backstairs Lives Initiative reflects ongoing research, and Victoria Mansion is committed to interpreting the lives of the domestic staff as fully and accurately as possible both for our regular tours and in other educational programming. Onsite at Victoria Mansion, guests are able to visit the Girls’ Room, a room that has rarely been on view since the Mansion became a museum in 1941, but which provides us the space and opportunity to share what we have learned about the servants who worked at Victoria Mansion, as well as domestic service from the mid-19th century to early 20th century in general.