Sean Farrell
Northern Illinois University

Creative Commons 4.0 by Sean Farrell. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick

Penguin, 2023. 336 pages.

ISBN: 9780241994320

In October 1908, Annie Young, an Irish-American woman living in Boston with her one-year-old daughter Marie, was arrested for keeping a disorderly house, a charge brought on by allegations that lodgers were engaged in sex work in the South End residence. The arrest initiated a series of visits from caseworkers from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), who ultimately deemed that Young was incapable of caring for her daughter. Marie was transferred to the Home for Destitute Catholic Children, and eventually adopted by another Irish emigrant couple. Unable to get her daughter back, Annie returned to her native Sligo in September 1910, where she lived with her parents as Annie Furey. Twenty years later, Marie took out an ad in a Boston newspaper trying to contact her birth mother, but it is unlikely that Annie Furey ever saw her daughter’s plea (63-83).

Stories like that of Annie and Marie Young lie at the heart of Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick’s Bad Bridget: Crime, Mayhem, and the Lives of Emigrant Women, a pioneering study of Irish-American women’s history, and one of the best books on the Irish diaspora in recent years. The broad outlines of the late-nineteenth-century emigration of Irish women to North America are familiar enough. Between 1856 and 1921 half of the Irish emigrants who ventured across the Atlantic were young women, a proportion that increased after 1880, an anomaly in the history of transatlantic emigration. While there have been a number of excellent histories of Irish American women in this era, most of these have focused on uplifting narratives of nuns and teachers working to improve themselves and/or their communities. Flipping the script, Farrell and McCormick reconstruct the lives and stories of Irish-born women who found themselves on the wrong side of the law in Boston, New York City, and Toronto. As the authors make clear in the introduction, this was a considerable number of people, since there were often more Irish women in prison than Irish men. By looking at the ways that Irish-born women interacted with the law, the authors provide a more comprehensive and humane portrait of turn-of-the-century Irish-American women, who, they make clear, typically resembled neither St. Brigid nor Bridget MacBruiser, a simian stereotype that appeared in an 1875 book on physiognomy. There was no one Bad Bridget. Deeply researched and beautifully written, Bad Bridget has found a wide readership in Ireland, and deservedly so.

Farrell and McCormick organize the book in ten thematic chapters, each built around an illustrative case study. Many of the stories highlight the challenges faced by working-class female emigrants in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society. One theme that runs through the chapters is the myriad difficulties faced by single women earning low wages and with little social support. A particularly heartbreaking example is that of Rosie Quinn, a nineteen-year-old hotel worker charged with drowning her three-week-old daughter in Manhattan’s Central Park in December 1902. Despite her insistence that it was an accident, Quinn was found guilty and sent upstate to the state prison for women. The chapter underlines the sheer power of the social forces arrayed against unmarried mothers. One juror later wrote that “had she but one friend to whom she could have turned for consolation or advice, we are convinced the crime could never have been committed” (43). Her contemporaries agreed, and the governor pardoned Quinn after she had served a little more than a year and a half in jail. Despite her high-profile case and some well-placed supporters, Quinn disappeared from the historical record shortly thereafter, a nice reminder of the fragmentary source base that the authors expertly use to piece these stories together.

Not all the crimes were social in nature. One of the most dramatic stories in the book centres on the 1899 kidnapping of Marion Clarke, the twenty-month-old daughter of a wealthy couple in New York City. When the girl disappeared, suspicion immediately fell upon Carrie Jones, the couple’s nurse, who had taken the blonde-haired toddler on a walk to Central Park and never returned. With a story seemingly written for a made-for-TV movie, the case quickly became a media sensation, but the ensuing police investigation was eventually successful, bringing Marion back home to her parents. This was only the beginning. It turns out that Carrie Jones was actually Isabella Anderson, a recent emigrant from County Mayo who had colluded with a couple to kidnap Marion in an effort to get rich. As the story inevitably rolls to its dramatic denouement with a courtroom trial, Farrell and McCormick deftly show how each of the participants leaned into various gender tropes in performances designed to engage their audience and reduce their sentences. The authors bring these same analytical and literary skills to their other stories, memorable tales of a rebellious girl in Boston, drunk and disorderly women in Toronto, and the murder of a woman in upstate New York, to name just a few. Taken together, these intimate portraits of Irish-American life underline the sheer range of female emigrant experiences, as well as giving voice to women too often ignored in traditional historical accounts. It is also simply a damn good read, an intoxicating blend of true crime tales with gender and social history.

Bad Bridget’s insistence on the diversity of Irish-born women’s experiences in turn-of-the-century North America is undoubtedly one of the project’s real strengths. It also underlines the regrettable absence of a conclusion, where the various strands explored in this rich study might have been brought together. This is a relatively minor quibble, for the book is a remarkable achievement, essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern Ireland and/or the Irish diaspora. Farrell and McCormack’s work should inspire scholars to see if they can find similar stories across the Irish World. Did Irish-born women living in Chicago, Melbourne, or San Francisco have some of the same experiences? Whatever the answer, the authors make clear that if we are to understand the global Irish diaspora, it is vital that we study the good, the bad, and the in-between.