Opinion Analysis

Saturday 15 June 2019

Backstreet abortionist was an 'angel of hope' for desperate women

NICOLA TALLANT SHE is remembered as a cold-hearted abortionist who preyed on unfortunate women, including one said to have been dragged from her operating table to die on the pavement of a Dublin street.

After a trial that scandalised and horrified the country in 1957, Nurse Mamie Cadden was sensationally sentenced to death but died justtwo years later in a mental hospital after being declared insane.

But now, a new book claims to shed extraordinary light on the life of Nurse Cadden with claims that she was actually an excellent surgeon responsible for saving hundreds of women - many of whom are still alive today.

Ray Kavanagh says Cadden provided a life-or-death service denied to women who were refused contraception by the State and who often had as many as 10 children.

"She performed abortions on women who were warned they would die if they hadanother baby. She was anexcellent professional and has been very badly treated byhistory," he says.

"Ireland had a very busy abortion industry between the Twenties and the Fifties, and I have no doubt that there are many women alive today who owe their lives to Nurse Cadden." The glamorous blonde nurse, who drove a red MG and lived the high life while working as a backstreet abortionist in Dublin, hasalways been rememberedfor the one operation that went wrong.

When impoverished alcoholic mother-of-six Helen O'Reilly turned to Cadden for help with an unplanned pregnancy, the nurse accepted Helen's £15 to perform the abortion, despite being well into her 60s and in poor health. While syringing Jeyes Fluid into the 33-year-old's womb, Cadden stalled and accidentally injected a bubble of air which entered O'Reilly's blood and killed her.

Cadden stood trial for the murder, was convicted and sentenced to death, but a year later was found insane and died two years later in 1959 in the Dundrum Mental Hospital. According to his book Mamie Cadden, Backstreet Abortionist, Kavanagh says that the nurse was an angel of hope to thousands of women who went to her for help.

"More than 100 years after her birth, she is still a topic of conversation and controversy in Ireland. In Dublin it seems that everyone over 60 has a story to tell about her.

"Perhaps she was the most hated woman of 20th-century Ireland by those who deplored her profession and her ethics. But what of the thousand plus women who came to her in desperation when all else had failed them. How many mother's lives did she save? And how many are living today because of her intervention."

The book chronicles how Mamie trained at theNational Maternity Hospital in Dublin as a midwife before opening her own nursing home in 1925 in Rathminesin Dublin.

In those days, nursing homes were not the final refuge of the elderly but a safe haven for young girls, pregnant out of wedlock, to have their children then adopt them.

While running her own business, Cadden realised the need for an abortion service in Dublin and began performing operations. In the Thirties, she used Ergot of Rye which caused contractions and thus a miscarriage. She later used an implement which expanded the cervix causing miscarriage and later a HigginsSyringe to inject disinfectant between the membrane of the foetus and the womb wall - the method that was to go wrong for Helen O'Reilly.

Cadden lived the high life during the late Twenties and early Thirties, buying herself a red sports car and keeping herself immaculate. With her trademark long blonde hair, she drank at the Shelbourne Bar and was able to name a list of Dublin's socialites as friends. By day, she performed her abortions on women who were often referred to her by their doctors.

"She was trained, qualified - a professional. There was a need for her service as the Irish State did not allow abortion. A lot of women she would have operated on had had seven or ten children and had been warned to have no more or they would die giving birth.

"For them, it's safe to say that she saved their lives.Others couldn't possiblyhave babies from a social point of view and anything was better than being pregnant," says Kavanagh.

In 1937, Cadden was arrested after promising the parents of a young pregnant girl that she would find a good adoptive family for theirunborn grandchild.

Cadden took their money and after the child was born, abandoned it on the side of the road. She served a year in prison and when she got out set up her business again on Pembroke Street. There, the qualified midwife offered her abortion service as wellas offering other medical treatments.

Again, she joined Dublin's society set making good money from her business and performing operations on hundreds of women every year. In 1945, she wassentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of procuring a miscarriage for a woman.

Cadden used all her savings on her legal defence but still lost the case and when she was released in 1950 she was forced to start again.

At 59, she rented a small flat on Hume Street and with her reputation as an excellent surgeon began her business again. According to Kavanagh, she was being closely watched by gardai but managed to disguise her business by offering treatments for dandruff, constipation, venereal disease and skin disorders.

In 1956, when Helen O'Reilly came knocking on her door, Cadden was not doing too well with her worsening arthritis and the fact she was being monitored so closely by gardai. In his book, Kavanagh says that O'Reilly lay on the bed and closed her eyes hoping the operation would finish quickly.

"She lay on the table, closed her eyes and clenched her fists as the nozzle from the big syringe now full of the disinfectant solution was inserted," it reads. But as she forced the syringe solution into Helen's womb, Mamie began to panic, not having enough strength to do it all in one go. She stopped in the middle of it, retracted the plunger and accidentally injected a bubble of air into Helen's womb.

The book, published by Mercier Press, claims that Cadden panicked when she realised that Helen had died, called a friend and got him to help her carry the body onto the street outside. Kavanagh says that Cadden's trial was unfair as it was all based on circumstantial evidence.

"There is no evidence that she didn't do it, but her trial was definitely unfair. The Garda and the Judge wanted her to be guilty of the crime.

"The evidence was very flimsy but she was not innocent." Cadden was sentenced to death but it was commuted in 1957 when she was sent to Dundrum Mental Hospital and declared insane.

"That too was very unfair. People who knew her, still alive today, say she was a difficult woman but far from mad," Kavanagh says.

Mamie Cadden: Backstreet Abortionist by Ray Kavanagh is published by Mercier Press

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