The stories of Ireland’s ‘bad Bridgets’ told in a podcast

The untold stories of Irish girls and women who emigrated to North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries and fell into lives of crime and destitution are told in a new podcast.

In five-part series Bad Bridget, historians Elaine Farrell, of Queen’s University Belfast, and Leanne McCormick, a lecturer in Modern Irish Social History Ulster University, tell the stories of the young Irish women for whom ‘the American dream became a nightmare’.

Between 1838 and 1918 an estimated five million Irish people, many driven by poverty caused by a series of failed potato harvests, left behind everything they knew for the promise of greater prosperity in the US and Canada.

Many young Irish women made this journey alone, with the cost of their ticket paid by families who expected them to find a job and send money home. History remembers these women as dutiful nuns, teachers and servants who worked hard, attended church, married and raised good, God-fearing Irish American children.

Indeed there were so many Irish women and girls working in American homes in the 19th century that the term ‘Bridget’ – a common Irish name at the time – became shorthand for someone in domestic service.

But this image of the virtuous, stable and productive Irish woman is far from the whole story.

Bad Bridgets: The untold stories of Irish girls and women who emigrated to North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries and fell into lives of crime and destitution are told in a new podcast. While many became servants, teachers and nuns, others found a life of destitution and crime. Pictured, stock image of household staff at a family home in Wisconsin in 1890

Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick spent five years digging through police, court and prison records from Toronto, Boston and New York to uncover the stories of the Irish women who became pickpockets, prostitutes and even murderers once they arrived in North America.

Even though they knew there would be a significant number, the historians said they were overwhelmed by how many they found.

In the 1860s, Irish women accounted for 86 per cent of the female prison population in New York, despite making up just a quarter of the city’s population as a whole.

Boston saw similarly stark figures. Thirty-five per cent of the 12,514 women admitted to Boston’s House of Correction from 1882 to 1915 were Irish, but the Irish accounted for just 17 per cent of the city’s population.

Between 1860 and 1881, there were 5,260 Irish women imprisoned in Toronto. The figure is almost double the combined number of Canadian, English and Scottish women jailed during that time

They were also over-represented in asylums, workhouses and other institutions.

The research forms the basis for the podcast and Dr McCormick and Dr Farrell are also working on a book.

In episodes like ‘The Demon Drink!’ and ‘Unmarried Mothers’, the academics chronicle the lives of individual women – like 16-year-old Rosie Quinn, who was jailed in 1903 for drowning her baby in Central Park, and Mary Farmer, who was executed by electric chair in 1909 for killing her neighbour with an axe – while placing them within the social and historical context in which they occurred.

The Great Famine, Irish immigration and the pressure felt by women chasing the American dream

Victims: An image of Bridget O'Donnel and her children. Bridget's 1849 account of her family's suffering during the Great Famine made headlines in England

Victims: An image of Bridget O’Donnel and her children. Bridget’s 1849 account of her family’s suffering during the Great Famine made headlines in England

The Great Famine was a period of deprivation and disease in Ireland caused by a series of failed potato crops between 1845-49 that resulted in extreme poverty, mass starvation and the death of around one million people between 1845 and 1852.

The crop failures were caused by late blight, a disease that destroys both the leaves and the edible roots, or tubers, of the potato plant.

This was disastrous as by the early 1840s almost half the Irish population—but primarily the rural poor— had come to depend almost exclusively on the potato for their diet. The rest of the population also consumed it in large quantities.

At the same time Britain still demanded Irish farmers export meat, fish, vegetables and pulses to the mainland despite people starving. Critics claim this contributed to the deaths of thousands more people from malnutrition.

Although the Irish had been emigrating to North America since colonial times, the failed harvests in the 19th century drove a wave of people to cross the Atlantic.

Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they accounted for almost half.

Many of the immigrants in the pre-famine years were men looking to establish themselves in the US and Canada.

However the makeup changed during the middle of the century, when an increasing number of families and single women made the journey.

Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick note this experience of single Irish women emigrating alone was quite unique. Women immigrating from other parts of Europe, for example, would have most likely travelled with their families.

While the majority of these women would have had a contact at their destination in North America, whether that was an employment agency, sibling, or other family member, they sometimes found themselves abandoned at the port or without an updated address for the person they had intended to meet. This left them alone and vulnerable.

There was also the pressure of family expectation that these women would find a job and earn enough money to send home.

In the podcast Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick tell how this led some women who had lost their jobs, or could not find one, to turn to sex work.

The crossing: An engraving showing the conditions on a ship bound for North America from Ireland in the 1840s. A steward takes the pulse of a sick man

The crossing: An engraving showing the conditions on a ship bound for North America from Ireland in the 1840s. A steward takes the pulse of a sick man


Born in Cork, Maude Merrill emigrated to New York in 1870 at the age of 18. Her younger sister, Lottie, had emigrated the year earlier, with both sisters’ journeys being funded by their uncle Robert, who was already living in the US.

Lottie, who had already set herself up in the city, helped Maude secure a job as a servant – a common posting for young Irish women in the city. Among them was a job with a local church minister named Reverend Williams. However the posting came to an end after Robert turned up at the door one night while drunk and accused Rev. Williams of taking ‘improper liberties’ with his niece.

It was the first in a chain of interference by Robert that eventually led to Maude’s death.

Maude was immediately sacked by Rev. Williams. Despite the mark against her, Maude was able to secure another job with another woman. Dr Farrell notes this shows just how in demand Irish girls and women were as housemaids at the time. Once again, Maude lost her job thanks to her uncle Robert, who turned up to the house one night, slapped Maude and accused her of being a ‘damned whore’.

The desperate servant tried to explain herself to her employer, but she would not listen. Maude lost her job. It was at this point she moved into the sex industry.

The teenager moved to a few brothels and stayed, despite the protestations of her sister. While some women were forced or tricked into becoming prostitutes, there were also benefits. In Maude’s case, she was living in quarters that were well carpeted, lavishly furnished and even had ‘lace curtains’ – a level of comfort and luxury far beyond what she would have enjoyed as a servant. The historians note that Maude, at least partly, chose to remain where she was out of choice.

However Robert could not accept his niece’s way of living. One night he made his way to Maude’s rooms and shot her dead. Passing a maid on the stairs on his way out, he said: ‘I have just killed my niece and I’m going to give myself up.’

His belief was that it was better for his niece to be dead than to continue to bring herself and the family into disrepute.


Executed: Mary, who was born in Ireland and had emigrated to the US in 1901, was sentenced to death after murdering her neighbour Sarah Brennan with an axe

Executed: Mary, who was born in Ireland and had emigrated to the US in 1901, was sentenced to death after murdering her neighbour Sarah Brennan with an axe

While Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick shy away from talking about murders because they are not representative of the crimes committed by Irish immigrants, they do dedicate the final episode of the podcast series to two notorious cases.

On Thursday 23 April 1908, Patrick Brennan returned home from work in upstate New York to discover his locks had been changed. His wife Sarah, who should have been at home, was not answering the door.

The following day, with still no sign of his wife, Patrick enlisted a detective for help. The same day he was served with eviction papers instructing him to move out of the marital home of 20 years that had been in Sarah’s name.

Suspicion soon turned to their next-door neighbours, James and Mary Farmer, whose names were now on the deeds to the Brennans’ property. Mary, who was born in Ireland and had emigrated to the US in 1901, was a friend of Sarah’s despite being less well off.

On Saturday 25 April, two days after Sarah was last seen, the Farmers, helped by neighbours moved their modest belongings into the Brennans’ home. Among the items was a black trunk, which was carried 80ft from one house to the other by two men.

On Monday 27 April, four days after Sarah’s disappearance, a sheriff carried out a search of the Brennans’ former property, where the Farmers now lived. When police broke the lock to the trunk, they found the body of missing Sarah Brennan.

The Farmers were arrested and charged with murder. They went on trial separately. In a bid to defend her actions, Mary claimed Sarah had ‘asked’ to be killed because she was feeling ‘sick’. Her lawyers also claimed Mary was mentally unfit.

It later emerged that six months previously Mary had stolen the deeds to the Brennans’ property and took them to a lawyer where she pretended to be Sarah and asked for the estate to be put in James Farmer’s name.

Both Mary and James Farmer were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. However Mary later gave a sworn statement in which she claimed her husband had never had any part in Sarah’s pre-meditated murder.

Mary was executed by electric chair in 1909. James later escaped the death penalty.


On a warm summer’s evening in 1891, 19-year-old Marion Canning was walking down a Manhattan street when she encountered a man named Richard Bronkbank.

Marion had emigrated from her home in rural Co. Leitrim a couple of years before but for the last six months had been ‘living a life of shame’, as she told Mr Bronkbank, meaning she had become a sex worker.

Mr Bronkbank told her he had just landed in New York, he had been paid off a steamer that had now finished its journey. He said that although he didn’t have any money on him, he was going to be paid $27 the next day and would give her $5, as well as his watch as a keepsake.

When they reached Marion’s apartment, he asked for his $5 and watch back and accused Marion of stealing. He went outside, found a policeman and Marion was taken to the station where she was searched but no money was found. Despite Mr Bronkbank being unable to positively identify her, Marion was arrested and put on trial. Without a lawyer, Marion was left to defend herself and was found guilty. She was sentenced to seven years in jail.

However unlike many other similar stories, Marion’s has a happy ending. Letters found by Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick in an archive reveal how Marion’s father Thomas was so distraught he had written to the judge to ask for leniency and offered to travel to New York to collect her and bring her home.

Too late to influence the sentencing, Mr Canning then wrote to the Governor of New York, asking for clemency. His pleas worked and the District Attorney reviewed the case.

The arresting policeman, who had been on holiday at the time of Marion’s trial and so had been unable to testify, said he had known of Marion before the crime and attested to the fact that she ‘wasn’t of the low character’ of others in the neighborhood. He added he knew her to be of ‘respectable parentage’ and believed her ‘course in life’ – sex work – ‘was more the fault of others’ than of her choice.

The character witness and the letters from home were enough to sway the Governor and Marion was pardoned on 9 February 1893 after serving 18 months in prison.

Although Thomas didn’t travel to New York to collect his daughter, he did send for her and she returned home to Ireland. She went on to marry.


One of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Rosie Quinn, a ‘wretchedly poor’ 16-year-old girl who was jailed for life in 1903 for drowning her nine-day-old baby in a reservoir in Central Park.

The case prompted an outpouring of support from members of the public who believed the ‘naive’ teenager had fallen victim to a man who took advantage.

Rosie’s boss at the hotel where she worked wrote a letter pleading for leniency in which she said Rosie was ‘unfortunate in meeting a man utterly without principal and being young in years and experience and without education fell an easy victim. In the minds of all who knew her, she was more sinned against than sinning.’

Another letter writer described Rosie as being ‘wretchedly poor, weakened by illness, disgraced in the eyes of the world, friendless and deserted.’

One woman who had been following the case wrote to the Governor: ‘My heart is burdened for that poor, ignorant Irish girl, all alone in a strange country, deserted by her lover and friends, that I can’t rest.’

The protestations worked and Rosie was pardoned and released from prison in December 1904 after serving 18 months of her life sentence.

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