After 149 years, an Irish immigrant is finally found not guilty of murder.
August 30 marked the 149th anniversary of an unfortunate day for justice in New Jersey.
Bridget Deignan (sometimes misspelled Durgan) was hanged in New Brunswick in 1867.
Bridget was a twenty-two-year-old illiterate, indigent immigrant from Sligo who was essentially exported from Ireland by wealthy, British landowners who saw the poor and uneducated as an economic burden.
She was shipped to Liverpool in 1866, then to New York harbor only a few months before she was hanged for a crime she did not commit and by citizens who despised the Irish, the impoverished, and feared and distrusted Catholics.
I fell upon the story of Bridget’s short, tragic life while reading about women who were executed in the United States.
My research indicated that she had been railroaded by a judicial system driven by a sense of superiority, a loathing of the indigent, a hatred of “Romanism” (Catholicism), and negligence of constitutional law.
Further, after researching Bridget’s case, I believe I’ve uncovered the identity of the real murderer of the viictom in the case, Mrs. Coriell.
In 1867, most people in New Jersey and the surrounding states believed that Bridget was a brute, little more than an animal, who had willfully and violently murdered her employer for financial and personal gain.
People believed this because that’s what the newspapers printed - newspapers that sold more copies when the printed stories were more salacious, more agitating, more extraordinary.
And Bridget’s particular saga had all the makings of good crime drama: a lovely, sympathetic victim, Mrs. Mary Ellen Coriell, a genteel doctor’s wife and the mother of a beautiful daughter named Mamey; a wicked, ignorant, immigrant housemaid and former prostitute, who from jealousy and evil intent committed premeditated murder for bloodlust and self-gratification; and an arson fire that scorched the baby-fine hair of the murdered woman’s daughter, set by the villainous, Irish immigrant to destroy murderous evidence.
A good story to be sure.
But there is another version of this tragedy in the subtext of the many newspaper articles and the multiple confessions that were marketed within hours of Bridget’s death on the gallows.
Was Bridget Deignan a murderer, or a victim of economic and cultural prejudice?
Any close reading of the documents and newspaper articles related to Bridget’s case demonstrates that conclusive evidence was lacking, testimony was confused at best, perjury is certain in more than one case, and the motives of so many individuals involved were dubious, or worse.
Further, the men who crafted the confessions published after Bridget’s death, those who sold these confessions as books or pamphlets for what was a considerable amount of money in 1867, presented manuscripts in which Bridget admitted killing Mrs. Coriell in hopes of marrying Dr. Coriell, a fact that all the legitimate sources involved in the case dispute.
The false confessions contain factual errors that prove their speciousness, the first of which is Bridget’s own name: Durgan.
Her name was in fact Bridget Deignan. She insisted on this to the New York Times reporter who spoke with her after her conviction.
It was, she stressed, her north Irish brogue that confused her last name to the residents of New Jersey and the reporters from New York and Philadelphia.
The “confessions” also describe Bridget as a young woman who grew up in a relatively well-to-do family in Ireland, and as a former prostitute and grifter whose purpose was to obtain money and status by any means possible, even murder.
Research has proven that this is not the case.
Although Bridget was born in Sligo in 1844, as was written in newspaper articles, and in the sham confessions marketed throughout the United States, she was not born to a well-to-do family.
In fact, she had spent the earliest years of her life in dire poverty, living near starvation on farmland infected by the potato fungus.
By the age of ten, she was helping her father unload barges along Killala Bay, living as a gypsy, eating cabbage, and sleeping in barns or warehouses.
Finally, after her father’s lungs began to fail, the family sought refuge at Union Poor Law workhouses in Sligo and Boyle, County Roscommon.
Ultimately, they were admitted to the workhouse at Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim where she watched her family waste away from lung, bone, and joint tuberculosis.
Bridget’s mother, sister, and two brothers died of tuberculosis in 1865 in Carrick-on-Shannon.
They were buried in unmarked graves in the long furrows of loose earth behind the workhouse infirmary.
Bridget had been well enough to watch as her brother, James, was buried with two other children.
After her brother Luke, sixteen and living in the men’s section of the workhouse with his father, died and was buried, Patrick Deignan told his only surviving child, Bridget, that it was time for them to leave.
He wanted to go back to Sligo before he died.
There was a Union Poor Law workhouse in Sligo that had been too crowded to admit Patrick and his family a few years earlier, but he was convinced that he should die in Sligo, perhaps in that workhouse.
Bridget and her father left Carrick-on-Shannon in late March of 1866 on foot.
Although assisted emigration - that is, an organized program wherein the poor and illiterate of Ireland had their transportation/emigration fees paid by the government, absentee landlords, philanthropists and/or Union Poor Law workhouses - had lost approval, the Poor Law Unions continued to provide funds for destitute individuals who wanted to emigrate through 1890, especially to females.
Because workhouses were refuges for widows and children, there was no place for Bridget in the Sligo workhouse, as their women’s accommodations were over maximum capacity.
Sligo had some “poor rate” emigration funds available, and her father convinced the guardians to pay Bridget’s fare to Liverpool, and from there to America.
Bridget didn’t want to leave her father, but he convinced her that America would be like the Isle of the Blest from childhood stories of Irish mythology, a perfect place where it was always summer and life was forever easy; where enchanted animals lived idyllic lives, handfed by the noble girls and boys who found their way to such a piece of heaven.
For someone like Bridget Deignan, who was leaving a country that not only failed her economically and medically, but also spiritually, the “Isle of the Blest” magical thinking that prompted her to board a ship to New York City also promised her that she would not be hanged in August of 1867.
Within hours of her employer’s murder, multiple newspapers published Bridget’s “confession” and described her as an immigrant “fiend” and a “wild beast,” portrayals that increased newspaper sales and interest in the case.
According to the New York Times, the recorder of the city of New Brunswick, Mr. David T. Jeffries, “proposed to sell some time ago the confession of Bridget Durgan, and his modest price was $1,000 in gold.
Another man named Randolph, who, we believe, is a gaoler under Sheriff Clarkson, had a confession, and we understand his price was $250 gold or currency, we don’t know which. One of the evening papers is reported to have paid $50 for another confession not worth the paper it’s written on” (31 August 1867).
The New York Times correspondent was quick to point out that all of the confessions offered for sale were wildly different.
And all of this occurred while the real murderer escaped justice and left the state.
I was moved to write Bridget’s story for several reasons: first, my own ancestors came from Ireland and faced the same kind of prejudice that Bridget and others like her faced.
Poverty and the illnesses associated with coffin ships are still ghosts in my own family’s story.
Issues of literacy, even today, separate the successful from the poorest of the poor.
Religious prejudice remains an issue that separates Americans; in fact, even as late as 1960, John F. Kennedy was feeling the pushback from the anti-Catholic factions in the United States.
Assimilation into American culture was difficult for my ancestors who came here with family. I can only imagine the fear and loneliness of a young woman who came to this country alone and with nothing: no funds, no skills, no family, and without the ability to read or write.
As I researched her story, I had to ask myself, what could she possibly have done to save herself?
Bridget was guilty of being a poor, illiterate, Catholic, and an Irish immigrant.
She was, however, not guilty of murder.
Her death on the gallows in New Jersey in 1867 was a gruesome miscarriage of justice.
I hope that telling her story will accord her a little justice, and enable her to rest in peace.
Sheila Duane has been teaching research writing at the college level for more than twenty years. She has also worked as a researcher, a journalist and an advertising copywriter.
She has been publishing her poetry for many years, most recently with the Journal of New Jersey Poets. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico, a master’s in teaching from Monmouth University, and a master’s in English literature from Rutgers University.
Duane resides in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, with her husband, Dean, and her son, Jude. “Bridget’s Hanging” is available from amazon and Barnes & noble.com.
This article first appeared in the Irish Echo. For more great stories, visit their website here.