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Mulberry Street, New York, circa 1900. JT Vintage

Bad Bridget Uncovering the secret lives of Ireland's emigrant women

Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick, authors of the book Bad Bridget, share the story of an Irish emigrant who was sent to prison for seven years for stealing a watch and money.

MARION CANNING EMIGRATED from rural County Leitrim to New York in the late 1880s.

Like thousands of Irish teenagers who made the same journey in the 19th century, she probably left home excited about her new life and fully intending to earn her own money abroad.

The historical record can be silent on these girls’ experiences. They might feature on passenger lists of those who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, in censuses, or in marriage records, if they married abroad.

Marion Canning would have been no different. Except that Marion was accused of stealing a watch in New York City and sent to prison for seven years. This accusation and conviction resulted in the production of records that offer a glimpse of her life in New York City.

Handwritten letters

We first encountered Marion Canning when we came across letters from her father in the Clemency Records held in the New York State Archives in Albany. Four handwritten letters from Thomas Canning in Mohill, County Leitrim, to New York City authorities, pleaded for mercy to be extended to his imprisoned daughter.

The first was dated 11 April 1892, by which stage Marion had been in custody for eight months.

Thomas’s desperation is evident: he wrote on that occasion of his hope that the judge might release her ‘and thereby give peace to her disconsolate and broken-hearted parents.’ In his second letter a few weeks later, he pleaded with the New York State Governor to grant Marion’s freedom.

He promised to collect her from America and guaranteed that ‘she will never visit that country again’.

Marion Canning’s life in New York could not have been more different to that in Ireland. Prior to her arrest, she lived in Mulberry Street, which formed part of Five Points in New York City. This area was notorious for gangs and violence, overcrowding and dreadful living conditions.

By this stage, Mulberry Street had changed from an Irish neighbourhood to on dominated by Italian immigrants. According to the 1880 census, Marion’s tenement housed more than 70 people. The lower floor was a beer saloon, where drinking often descended into violence, and it is likely that a brothel or prostitution network also operated out of the building. This mix of people and cultures was a far cry from rural Leitrim.

Marion’s father might not have realised that Marion had been working in the sex industry in New York and was accused of stealing a watch and money from a man who had approached her on the street. Stealing from clients allowed women in the sex industry to make extra money.


The risk might also pay off if the client involved was too ashamed to report to the police that they had paid a prostitute.

Marion denied the accusation and insisted on her innocence. The police were summoned, and the pair were taken to the police station. Marion was searched but neither the watch nor the money was found.

Yet she still ended up in court defending herself, was found guilty and was sent to prison for seven years. It is likely that her status as a young immigrant involved in the sex industry went against her.

Thomas Canning’s correspondence with the Governor of New York prompted the District Attorney to look again at Marion’s case. When he did so, he realised that there was no real evidence against her.

He also noticed that the policeman who had arrested her that night, and would usually have been asked in court for his view of the case, had been on holiday at the time of the trial and was thus unable to testify.

Given this, and Thomas Canning’s promises to take his daughter home, Marion was pardoned and released from prison. She had served 18 months of her seven-year sentence.

Marion Canning’s case is one of many that appears in our new book Bad Bridget: Crime, Mayhem and the Lives of Irish Emigrant Women. Some, like Marion, were accused of theft. Others were sentenced to prison for offences like being drunk and disorderly, vagrancy, or even kidnapping or murder.

Marion had much in common with other Irish female emigrants; she left home alone and at a young age and found herself in a huge city without any support networks. Some Irish girls and women were able to find jobs and build lives for themselves in North America, but others instead turned to crime.

These were women who came to the attention of the authorities for all the wrong reasons. A study of these criminal records offers a new interpretation of Irish female migration to North America, one that is both complicated and captivating.

These are women that history has largely forgotten but whose lives often show resilience and an ability to survive against the odds.

Bad Bridget: crime, mayhem and the lives of Irish emigrant women by Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick is published by Penguin Sandycove and is out now.

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Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick
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