Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life, Crimes, and Confession of Bridget Durgan

On August 30, 1867 an Irish domestic named Bridget Durgan was hanged in the New Brunswick, New Jersey jail yard for the murder of Mrs. Mary Ellen Coriel. Soon after the execution, one of her spiritual advisors published a 30-plus page account of the crime with a confession section that was allegedly dictated by Bridget herself.

If Bridget Durgan actually wrote the confession, her reason for murdering Mrs. Coriel was revenge for a lifetime of abuse and injustice. She claimed to have been born to respectable parents in County Sligo, Ireland, in 1843, but 'went wrong' when an employer's son seduced her. After being paid to leave the area, she sailed to New York and found work as a housekeeper. Her mistress ordered her out of the house when a tryst with an unnamed gentleman left her pregnant. "From that moment, I began to hate everybody," Bridget wrote, "but most of all mistresses, and I resolved to kill someone if only the chance came my way."

After giving birth in a charity hospital, the bitter young woman worked for a few months in a slum brothel. One night the police raided the resort, but Bridget evaded arrest by vaulting over a fence. She fled to Brooklyn and went back into domestic service, but it proved to be almost as bad a decision as selling her body: she and her employer, a Mrs. Horning, soon hated each other. Finally Mrs. Horning called her "a devilish infernal slut" and fired her. Only the presence of the woman's husband prevented Bridget from stabbing her on the spot. The furious maid was determined to kill her former employer though, sending her poisoned cakes and skulking outside the house with a knife. She only gave up after Mrs. Horning died of natural causes.

Her plan thwarted, Bridget went to Newmarket, New Jersey, where she found a position in the house of Dr. and Mrs. Coriel. Eventually, she wrote, "it came into my head that if Mrs. Coriel were only out of the way, that I would have a very good place with the Doctor, as he would no doubt still keep house and have me take care of it and Mamey (the Coriels' baby) who was fond of me. This brought Mrs. Horning into my mind, and instantly, like a flash of lightning, I felt impelled to kill Mrs. Coreil."

So she did. On the night of February 26, 1867, while the doctor was out, Bridget stabbed and clubbed her mistress to death. (She wrote that she allowed the bloody, dying woman to kiss her baby one last time before finishing her off.) After setting the house on fire, she grabbed the child and fled to a neighbor's home, where she wailed that robbers had killed Mrs. Coreil. Her wild behaviour and speech aroused suspicion. So did the fact that the house bore no visible signs of a break-in.

Bridget Durgan was arrested and charged with the murder of her employer. A jury found her guilty and the judge sentenced her to hang, but she seemed unperturbed and defiant until her final night on earth. Perhaps she had been convinced that she would obtain a last-minute reprieve on account of her gender. When that didn't happen, she wrote a confession that she instructed the Reverend Brendan to publish after her death.

The Life and Crimes of Bridget Durgan was published after chapbooks of this type stopped being extended sermons, so it is an interesting and readable account of a forgotten case. Equally fascinating is how the prose and illustrations reflect the public's reaction to Bridget herself. She broke almost every social taboo in existance at the time: she was an Irish servant who killed a doctor's wife to satisfy a bloodlust and further entrench herself in the doctor's household. In consequence, the pen and ink drawings in the book depict her as a husky she-demon with wild hair and troll-like features. When she murdered an American lady of a superior class, she relinquished her rights to any leniency that the courts showed to female defendants during this period. She was no longer a woman, but a vicious monster whose destruction was necessary to protect American households.

The Life and Crimes of Bridget Durgan is included in the Open Source Books collection at Archive.org and can either be read online via a specialized viewer or downloaded in pdf format.

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