William Hennessy, the ‘Candy King’ of Cambridge & Boston

This is the story of yet another famous emigrant from Ballymacoda who ended up becoming a multi-millionaire in his destination of the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Like Thomas Ahern whom we discussed previously, who made his fortune on the other side of the world in Western Australia, William Hennessy left Ballymacoda and Ireland with nothing, and ended up amassing a sizeable fortune from his empire of candy manufacturing and real estate.

William Hennessy

William Hennessy was born in Ballymakeigh, Ballymacoda in 1876. Parish records show that he was baptized on the 13th February of that year. He was the son of Thomas (1838-1898) and Julia Hennessy née O’Keeffe (1848-1910). William was educated with the Christian Brothers in Youghal, and had two younger brothers – John (1881-1917) and Richard (1889-1958).

Baptismal record for William Hennessy from parish records, February 13th 1876

According to his inputs to the 1900 United States Federal Census, William arrived in the US in 1893 at the age of 17. His Commonwealth of Massachusetts naturalization application confirms this, listing his arrival location as New York, on August 15th, 1893. The same 1900 census record shows the then 24 year old William living as a lodger in the Kelso household at 137 Washington Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his occupation being recorded as ‘Candy Maker‘. Naturalization records show that he became a naturalized US citizen two years later on the 8th October, 1902 at the third district court in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

William worked as a candy maker in Chicoine’s candy shop on Norfolk Street in Cambridge for a number of years before deciding to open his own store, believing he could make superior candies for a similar price.

On Saturday 23rd July 1910, the Hennessy candy store opened to the public for the first time, located at 493 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The store became successful very quickly, notable due to the high quality of the candies on sale. Perhaps an indicator of the early and sustained success of his store, is that William Hennessy was able to purchase the entire building at 493 Massachusetts Avenue just over 3 years later, as reported in the Cambridge Tribune.

Excerpt from the Cambridge Tribune, 7th Feb 1914.

In 1915, he made the bold decision to expand. The wooden buildings at 493 Massachusetts Avenue were demolished, and a new four story brick building was constructed. Part of the building was leased to a furniture company, Henry W. Berry Furniture Co., while the rest of the building housed the production of the Hennessy candies. Around this time of expansion, he also opened a second candy store at 17 Winter Street in Boston, which, as with the existing store in Cambridge, was successful from the very beginning.

The building at 493 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge in 1921, the Hennessy candy manufacturing headquarters

With a good cash flow from his existing business, William Hennessy was able to start engaging in real estate speculation, with his first purchase being a building on the western end of Central Square in Cambridge. He continued to buy up property, alone and in cooperation with other investors, including land in excellent locations with high strategic values, for example, the Holmes Building on Central Square. By this time, he was the owner of two of the four corners of Central Square, and part of a third.

In January 1923, the candy business was dealt a temporary blow when a fire broke out in his building on Massachusetts Avenue early in the morning. Starting in the basement and then engulfing the ground floor, the fire ended up causing $10,000 worth of damage to the building and stock, a sizeable sum at the time.

Advertisement for Hennessy Candies, 8th November 1924

There are multiple mentions in the Cambridge newspapers of the time about William Hennessy’s trips back to Ireland, including references to Ballymacoda itself. There are references to him having spent ‘many arduous hours on the farm getting back to earth in the vigorous two-fisted way of his youth‘, and mentions of him having lost a lot of weight due to the hard work on such a trip home. His love of farm work is evident from his questioning by a reporter from the Cambridge Sentinel on his return from such a trip in 1924.

William Hennessy on farm work after a trip to Ireland

Due to his position in the community in Cambridge, William Hennessy was frequently interviewed in local newspapers, and was always keen to offer opinion on the political situation at home in Ireland. From his regular trips back, he was in a position to contribute his thoughts on the issues of the day, and did so freely. When he returned from a trip in 1920, he was quick to opine on the situation of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who at that time was on hunger strike in Brixton prison in England, having been arrested by the British on charges of sedition.

William Hennessy on Terence MacSwiney, Cambridge Chronicle, 18th September 1920. MacSwiney died just over a month later on 25th October

In an interview with the Cambridge Sentinel in 1924, he also spoke to the importance of the business relationships between England and Ireland, which was insightful for that time in my opinion, given that the Irish Free State was only a few years old.

William Hennessy on Ireland’s business relationship with England, 1924

The 1930 United States Federal Census records show William living at Brookline, Norfolk, Massachusetts with his wife Annie (née Condon), also an Irish emigrant. They had married in her hometown of Youghal, on 24th January 1925 when William was 49 and Annie was 19. Annie, born on April 15th 1905, was the daughter of Justin and Annie Condon (née Jones) from Youghal, and also emigrated to the US that same year of 1925, arriving in New York on 24th February 1925, via Cherbourg in France, presumably where she and William had honeymooned.

William Hennessy, Bill to those who knew him well, as a person seemed to be well respected and liked by all in the community, business persons and others. The Cambridge Sentinel summed him up as “Silent for an Irishman, yet as observant, plain, and friendly as if he didn’t have a dime“. He faced serious illness in 1936, but made a full recovery, with the Sentinel publishing a short note congratulating him on his recovery, showing how well liked he really was.

Excerpt from Cambridge Sentinel, 5th December 1936

William Hennessy died in 1942 at the age of 66, still living in Cambridge, but having crossed the Atlantic to his home at least 80 times (as reported in the Cambridge Sentinel in June 1935) during this time living there. The Sentinel published a gushing obituary to him on 6th June, 1942.

Excerpt from the obituary published in the Cambridge Sentinel, 6th June 1942

Annie Hennessy later remarried an Englishman, Charles Peter Peters, and settled in Oxford, England where she lived until her passing away at the age of 92 on October 27th 1997. I have found no record of Annie ever having any children with either William Hennessy or her second husband Charles.

Regarding the Hennessy business empire, and assets such as the real estate in Cambridge and Boston, despite extensive research, I have been unable to find out what became of them. Presumably Annie would have sold everything before her move to England, but I have been unable to find any evidence to confirm that. The former Hennessy candy headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge survives to this day.

Former Hennessy Building at 493 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge today

Regardless of what became of the fruits of William Hennessy’s life in business, I once again stand in amazement of what a son of Ballymacoda achieved, and the high regard in which he was held during his lifetime.

References & Further Information

Ireland, Civil Registration Marriages Index, 1845-1958

Cambridge Tribune, Volume XXXVI, Number 50, 7th February 1914

Cambridge Chronicle, 18th September 1920

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XVIII, Number 44, 31st December 1921

Cambridge Tribune, Volume XLV, Number 47, 13th January 1923

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XX, Number 32, 6th September 1924

Cambridge Chronicle, 8th November 1924

1900 United States Federal Census, Paid Records from Ancestry.com

1930 United States Federal Census, Paid Records from Ancestry.com

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XXX, Number 29, 20th July 1935

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XXXI, Number 49, 5th December 1936

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XXXVII, Number 23, 6th June 1942

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XL, Number 24, 16th June, 1945

Massachusetts, U.S., State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1798-1950, Paid Records from Ancestry.com

Hennessy Family Plot, Hill Cemetery, Ballymacoda