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Life, Crimes, and Confession of Bridget Durgan (1867)



Life, crimes, and confession of Bridget Durgan. The fiendish murderess of Mrs. Coriell; whom she butchered hoping to take her place in the affections of the husband of her innocent and lovely victim. The only authentic, and hitherto unpublished history of her whole life; and the hideous crime for which she was executed at New Brunswick, N. J. By Reverend Mr. Brendan; 1867; C. W. Alexander, Philadelphia.

“Throughout all the annals of crime, there has never been recorded a more revolting, wicked deed, than that for which the wretched perpetrator, Bridget Durgan, paid the forfeit of her life in the jail yard of New Brunswick, New Jersey, on August 30, 1867.”
So begins the narrative of Bridget Durgan (1843-1867), an Irish domestic servant in the household of a Dr and Mrs Coriell in New Jersey in the 1860s. The booklet purports to be an account of her life, including Bridget’s confession, and was published as a warning to others. How much of this narrative and confession is true is hard to say; the text also bears a resemblance to the broadsides which were sold at executions, containing information on the crimes and trials – and sometimes the added confessions of the accused.

The events began after Bridget Durgan was engaged in the Coriell household as a domestic servant, and her mistress, Mrs Coriell — described as “being possessed of the greatest beauty ” and “a tender and noble heart”, compared to Bridget who is a “demon girl” and “wicked creature” — decided to let Bridget go. It is not specified as to why she was dismissed other than that the mistress of the house had taken a dislike to her. Bridget, who according to her confession had harboured hate for one of her previous mistresses and had failed in her earlier attempts to kill the woman, now seized her chance. When Dr Coriell was called away to a patient one evening, Bridget stabbed Mrs Coriell and started a fire in an attempt to conceal the murder, later claiming that robbers had entered the house and murdered her mistress.

While in prison, many people came to see Bridget and tickets were also sold to attend her execution. One of the many visitors to her cell was the writer and women’s activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-1893). Smith had written a series of articles promoting women’s rights for the New York Tribune entitled “Woman and Her Needs” at the beginning of the 1850s, and her visit to Bridget also resulted in an article detailing their encounter. The account his far from flattering of Bridget. She compares parts of Bridget’s appearance to that of various animals, as well as stating that her hands are “large, coarse, and somehow have a dangerous look, for hands, as well as faces, have expression.” She also writes:

In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgan on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgan. […] She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small. […] The character of Bridget’s face is sullen, and yet wears a mixed expression of anxiety, even to distress. The line of the mouth, as of the eyelids, is oblique. There is not one character of beauty, even in the lowest degree, about the girl; no one ray of sentiment, nothing genuine, hardly human, except a weak, sometimes a bitter, smile. The wonder is that any housekeeper should be willing to engage such a servant. I have an idea that this same girl was offered to me in an intelligence office in Brooklyn, and that I refused to even talk to one so repulsive in appearance.

Housed at: Internet Archive | From: Bryn Mawr College Library
Underlying Work: PD Worldwide | Digital Copy: No Additional Rights
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