Review: Bridget’s Hanging by Sheila Duane

★★★★½ Bridget’s Hanging by Sheila Duane

Bridget’s Hanging by Sheila Duane is the author’s presentation of the historical account of the life and times of Bridget Deignan (a.k.a. Durgan or Dergan) who was sentenced to hang in the town of New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1867. An Irish immigrant from a Catholic upbringing ousted from her home at the age of 22, she became a domestic worker for Coriell in 1866, and she would be charged with the murder of Mrs. Coriell the following year – a crime of which the local community would unerringly find her at guilt for, with or without substantial evidence.

The tale of Bridget Deignan isn’t simply one of a woman sentenced for a crime she didn’t commit – in fact, there is good reason to suspect that she very much was the perpetrator, with convincing evidence toward that conclusion. What makes the story worth telling are the circumstances that lead one young immigrant woman to her alleged crimes, and how her community reacted in response. The story of Bridget’s Hanging is of lies, poverty, desperation, greed, betrayal, and xenophobia.

Duane’s presentation of the story of Bridget Deignan is mostly told through the key facts and evidence available today, with written accounts and verifiable records of the life and times of the young Ms. Deignan given to us in order to read from every historically viable angle as to what may have occurred. Whole accounts are presented verbatim with separate information given in ordered sections throughout that presents a fluid account of events by topic, not chronology.

Further to the concrete evidence, Duane leads us on to what reasonable conjecture her deeper knowledge on the topic can afford, as well as her own conclusions. Nothing is left without evidence, and nothing is certified as fact beyond the strictest, most official records that can be found at the very beginning of the book: name, place of birth, and other basics.

This plain honesty, as well as Duane’s straightforward storytelling, makes this true story easily accessible to any reader with the interest to delve in. And to those with little interest at the outset, Duane actually makes the accounts very gripping without mincing words or elucidating on fact, drawing you in from the very beginning. To be frank, Duane simply shows why this seemingly uninteresting girl’s life is worth your time to examine – time that even perhaps those involved never deigned to give.

The book is a savage and unrelenting tale taken from all angles and given such keen, post-mortem examination that you can’t help but find it enthralling. The melodrama of the situation is infectious without manipulation; a story that simply needed to be given notice to rise from something completely discarded to something worth the page count. Bridget’s Hanging gets to the core tragedy of life as an Irish woman and her wider community in the New World. It’s a thrilling and heartbreaking story, all the more so for its truth and reality.

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