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Cadden, Mary Anne (‘Mamie’) (‘Nurse Cadden’)

Cadden, Mary Anne (‘Mamie’) (‘Nurse Cadden’)

Contributed byWhite, Lawrence William

Cadden, Mary Anne (‘Mamie’) (‘Nurse Cadden’) (1891–1959), midwife and abortionist, was born 27 October 1891 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA, eldest of seven children of Patrick Caden, of a small-farming background from Doonbredia, Lahardane, Co. Mayo, and Mary Caden (née McLoughlin), a native of Teirnard, Co. Mayo. Her parents met and married in America, where her father worked as a miner. On the death of her paternal grandfather (1895) she was brought by her parents to Mayo, where they settled on the family farm and opened a grocery in their house. Educated at Lahardane national school until age 15, she lived with her family until age 33, her chief responsibility being management of the shop. When in 1911 the family bought the farm from the landlord through the land commission, one-and-a-half acres were purchased in Mamie’s name. In 1925 she sold this portion to her father, thereby financing her enrolment in a six-month midwifery course at the national maternity hospital, Holles St., Dublin; on qualification, she was placed on the register of the central midwifery board (December 1926). On moving to Dublin, she altered the spelling of her surname to ‘Cadden’, a form formerly used by her parents when living in America. After working in the Alverno nursing home, Portland Row (1927–9), she opened her own maternity nursing home at 61 Lower Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh (1929–31), and in July 1931 moved to larger premises at St Maelruin’s, 183 Lower Rathmines Rd. Concentrating on conventional lying-in care, she also operated a legal service of fostering out unwanted infants born in the home, and performed illegal abortions for women unable to afford the fostering fee, or unwilling to carry a pregnancy to term. Enjoying a thriving business, with clients from throughout the island of Ireland, she enjoyed a flashy social life, frequenting dances, dining and drinking in Dublin’s top hotels, and driving a highly conspicuous imported red open-top 1932 MG sports car.

In May 1939 Cadden was convicted, on circumstantial evidence, of child abandonment, relating to an incident of the previous year when a ten-week-old infant girl was found on the roadside near Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath. Her sports car had been seen in the area, and investigating gardaí ascertained that the St Maelruin’s register recorded a recent birth of a baby girl that was not registered with the chief medical officer. Cadden served one year’s imprisonment at hard labour in Mountjoy women’s prison (1939–40). In searching the St Maelruin’s premises, gardaí discovered the remains of a premature infant buried in the garden, and traced the mother, who admitted to having consulted Cadden when an unsuccessful attempt to abort herself resulted in severe haemorrhaging, the child ultimately being stillborn. Though charges were not pressed, the discovery gave rise to an enduring Dublin myth that the remains of numerous infants were found buried in Cadden’s garden.

Forced to sell St Maelruin’s to meet legal costs, Cadden was removed from the rolls of registered midwives, and barred from attending women in childbirth. On release from prison, she reestablished practice in a basement suite at 21 Upper Pembroke St. Advertising in medical columns of newspapers as ‘Nurse Cadden’, she offered treatments for conditions ranging from dandruff, skin diseases, and constipation, to sexually transmitted diseases (coded as ‘male, female cases treated’); it is believed that her primary service was abortion. In November 1944 she was charged with attempting to procure a miscarriage, being identified by a 20-year-old domestic servant who was hospitalised with acute peritonitis caused by insertion of a ‘sea-tangle tent’, a device designed to expand the cervix and thereby induce abortion. Convicted after a jury trial in camera in the circuit criminal court, Cadden was sentenced to five-years’ penal servitude in Mountjoy (1945–50).

Aged 59 on release, she took a cramped one-room flat at 17 Hume St., off St Stephen’s Green, and resumed offering an array of medical services, enjoying a virtual monopoly on abortion services in Dublin. On two occasions the bodies of women were found on the pavement in Hume St., the autopsies determining death from cardiac arrest caused by an air embolism in the circulatory system, consequent upon an unsuccessful abortion attempt by a method in which a solution of water and disinfectant was pumped from a syringe into the womb, resulting in separation of the amniotic sac from the uterine wall. On the first occasion (June 1951), though Cadden was prime suspect, charges were not pressed. On the morning of 18 April 1956, a second woman, Helen O’Reilly, aged 33, a five-months-pregnant deserted wife, and mother of six children, was found dead by a passing milk deliveryman on the Hume St. footpath. Notwithstanding the accidental circumstances of the death, occurring during performance of an act to which the deceased had not only consented, but invited, Cadden was tried (October–November 1956) and convicted of the murder of O’Reilly, under provisions of the 1861 offences against the person act, which implied malice when death occurred by an act of violence performed in pursuit of a felony. Sentenced to death by hanging, she was reprieved by the coalition government of John A. Costello (qv), and her sentence commuted to penal servitude for life (4 January 1957). After serving one year in Mountjoy prison (1957–8) she was declared insane and transferred to the central criminal lunatic asylum, Dundrum, where she died 20 April 1959 of a heart attack, and was buried in a mass grave for inmates of the asylum in Deansgrange cemetery, Co. Dublin, leaving an estate and assets valued at some £250.

The notoriety of ‘Nurse Cadden’ enflamed the imagination of contemporaries and endured in Dublin folklore, which, seizing on random details of her court cases, invented lurid erroneous scenarios. The findings of two bodies outside her flat gave rise to the myth of women, bleeding profusely in their own dwellings after botched abortion attempts, vainly attempting to return to Cadden for assistance, only to bleed to death in the street. Despite flaws in both the technical and witness evidence at her last trial, and the improbability of an elderly and infirm woman carrying a body unassisted from the flat to the street, responsible retrospective commentary has tended to accept her involvement in the deaths of both women. Sources

Tom Reddy, ‘The body in Hume Street’, Thou shalt not kill: true-life stories of Irish murders (1994); Sandra McAvoy, ‘Before Cadden: abortion in mid-twentieth-century Ireland’, Dermot Keogh, Finbarr O’Shea, and Carmel Quinlan (ed.), The lost decade: Ireland in the 1950s (2004); Ray Kavanagh, Mamie Cadden: backstreet abortionist (2005); Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘The memory lane of back street abortions’, Village (12 Feb. 2005), 20–21; Ir. Times, 19 Feb. 2005

Publishing information

DOI: Originally published October 2009 as part of the Dictionary of Irish BiographyLast revised October 2009 This content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 4.0 International license. TwitterFacebookEmailPrintShareForename: Mary, Anne
Surname: Cadden
Nickname: Mamie, Nurse Cadden
Gender: Female
Career: Medicine, CrimeBorn 27 October 1891 in USADied 20 April 1959 in Co. Dublin


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