When a Mayo nurse was sentenced to death at the Circuit Criminal Court at the end of 1956, she became the only person in Ireland to be convicted for a maternal death as a result of an illegal abortion.
But five days before she was due to face the hangman in Mountjoy, Mamie Cadden (or Nurse Cadden, as she was always referred to) had her sentence commuted to penal servitude for life.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at the turn of the century, Mary Anne Caden (later changed to Cadden) was the eldest of the seven children of Patrick and Mary, who met in America where Patrick worked as a miner. Returning to the family farm in Lahardane, the girl known as Mamie sold her share in the holding to her father in 1925 and left for Dublin, to qualify as a midwife at Holles Street hospital, at the age of 34.
An ambitious and driven lady, Mamie Cadden soon opened her own maternity nursing home in Rathmines, where, together with the conventional lying-in care, she also operated a legal service of fostering out unwanted infants born in the home. But she also began to perform illegal abortions for women from all over Ireland who wished to keep their pregnancies hidden from family and neighbours.
The latter proved to be a hugely lucrative business, and Mamie soon became part of Dublin’s flashy social life, drinking and dining in top hotels and, according to her biographer, Lawrence White, driving around the city in an imported, red open-top MG sports car. But it was also the start of a chequered career for Nurse Cadden, where her illicit services were bound to lead her into trouble with the authorities, sooner or later.
In 1939, she was sentenced to a year’s hard labour in Mountjoy for abandoning a new born baby on a roadside in County Meath. Forced to sell her nursing home to meet her legal costs, she was subsequently removed from the roll of registered midwives.
On her release, Mamie was soon back in business. This time, she advertised widely in the country’s local newspapers that she was offering a range of cures for various medical conditions. But few people in the know were in any doubt but that her primary service was still abortion.
And so it turned out to be. In 1945, Nurse Cadden was again before the Criminal Court. A jury convicted her of a botched abortion on a young domestic servant. She was sentenced to a further five years of hard labour.
Released at the age of 59, she soon went back to her old activities – until, on an April morning in 1956, the body of Helen O’Reilly, five months pregnant, was found on the pavement outside Cadden’s premises on Hume Street. Charged with her murder, Cadden was sentenced to death by hanging, only to have her sentence commuted to penal servitude for life.
After serving one year, she was declared insane and transferred to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, where she died two years later.
Mamie Cadden’s criminal exploits commanded newspaper headlines for years, and she has since been the subject of TV documentaries, books and newspaper articles. Many held that she was ‘put away’ on flimsy evidence, and there were consistent whispers that among her clientele were many of the great and good who did much to ensure her silence.
Ominously, when asked by the Court why she should not be sentenced to death, her reply was, “I am reporting this to the President of my country … only for my counsel, I would say something you would not want to hear.”