Midwife, abortionist and convicted murderer Mamie Cadden avoided the death penalty in 1950s Dublin.
Mamie Cadden is a controversial figure who provided abortions for women in Dublin between the 1920s and ’50s.
Mary Anne “Mamie” Cadden was born to Irish parents in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1891. After her father inherited the family farm, her family moved to Co Mayo when she was four and she lived in Ireland the rest of her life.
She moved to Dublin in 1925 to pursue educational training as a midwife at the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street. Cadden became a qualified midwife in 1931 and she bought a property in Rathmines, Dublin, which became her maternity nursing home. During the period it was common for midwives to act independently of doctors and nurses.
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At Rathmines Cadden delivered babies and sent unwanted children to foster homes. She also performed illegal abortions, which women regularly sought. In 1939 she abandoned a newborn baby on the side of the road in Meath and was sentenced to one year of hard labor at Mountjoy Prison. Cadden was forced to sell her property at Rathmines to pay legal fees.
The Irish Independent quoted author Ray Kavanagh in an article about his book “Mamie Cadden, Backstreet Abortionist,” “Ireland had a very busy abortion industry between the Twenties and the Fifties, and I have no doubt that there are many women alive today who owe their lives to Nurse Cadden.”
After serving her sentence, she was removed from the roll of registered midwives, but she continued performing abortions in rented premises. In 1945, Cadden was accused of procuring an abortion and although she denied the allegation, she was sentenced to five years in Mountjoy Prison.
After her second sentence, she continued offering her services from her one-room flat near St. Stephen’s Green. In 1951 a woman died under Cadden’s care and Cadden left her body outside in the street. There was not enough evidence to link Cadden to her death.
Five years later, Helen O’Reilly died during Cadden’s procedure and Cadden left her body in the street behind her flat. When O’Reilly’s body was found, Cadden was arrested, tried and convicted for murder. Cadden was sentenced to death by hanging, but her sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
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Although there were flaws in the technical and witness evidence given at the trial and it is improbable that a 65-year-old woman could carry a body from the flat to the street by herself, commentators generally accept Cadden’s guilt. Kavanagh says in his book that Cadden had called a friend to help her and argues that the trial was unfairly done. The Independent quoted him, “There is no evidence that she didn’t do it, but her trial was definitely unfair. The Garda and the Judge wanted her to be guilty of the crime.”
After serving one year in Mountjoy Prison, her mental state was examined and she was declared insane. She was transferred to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Dundrum. In 1959, three years after her transfer, she died of a heart attack. Her biography has been retold several times including an RTÉ documentary series, "Scandal" and "Thou Shalt Not Kill."
* Originally published in October 2016.