By Pauline Murphy
Mary Anne Duignan was born on St. Stephen’s Day 1870 in Edenmore, Ballinamuck, Co. Longford. She grew up in comfortable surroundings on a 140 acre farm, but she would go on to become the notorious criminal known as “Chicago May”.
Her life of crime began at the age of 19 when she robbed her parents life savings and ran away to Liverpool. When May reached the English city she went on a shopping spree. After buying the best fashion she then booked a first class ticket for America.
May arrived in New York where she used her good looks to blackmail the city’s rich gentlemen. Her family in Longford managed to get in touch with her and convince her to head west to Nebraska and she turned to her criminal ways again. She married Dal Churchill, a train robber, but he was caught by an angry mob and lynched.
May did not mourn for too long, through this marriage she gained American citizenship and went to Chicago. It was 1893 and the World’s Fair was taking place in the windy city. May sought to capitalise on the influx of visitors there by pick-pocketing. May used photos to blackmail gentlemen who visited her brothel she set up in Chicago.
She would hide a photographer in a room and they would snap while the unsuspecting client was in an uncompromising position. She would then extract money from these men who were known as pillars of society such as judges and politicians.
May then went to New York but her exploits in Chicago had already been spread across the gossip lines of the Big Apple and the Longford lass then became known as “Chicago May”. In New York she took a second husband. James Montgomery Shape was a young rich army officer who fell under the spell of Chicago May but, just three months after they married, May divorced him and took $10,000 of Shape’s fortune.
May then became engaged to Eddie Guerin, an Irish American jewel thief. The couple went to Paris where they robbed the office of American Express in 1901. After stealing a quarter of a million dollars Guerin was arrested but May managed to get away. May’s freedom did not last. She went to visit Guerin in prison and the authorities instantly recognised her. She was arrested and sent to Montpellier Prison to serve five years.
May managed to get an early release when she used her old reliable method of blackmail against the prison doctor and some wardens.
She then went to England where she struck up a new relationship with criminal Charlie Smith. Then, Guerin escaped from prison and went to London to find May in 1907. When Guerin had found May in a new relationship he got into an argument with Smith. Guns were drawn and Guerin got a bullet in his leg. Both Guerin and Smith were arrested as well as May. She was sent to Aylesbury Prison.
While she was serving her time, May met Countess Markievicz who was a fellow inmate. May would recall Markievicz as “the grandest woman” she ever met, and how “No kind of hardship ever fazed the Countess!”
When May was released she returned to New York but she was not the same beguiling beauty that had extorted thousands of dollars from rich men. May left New York when she found her criminal ways could no longer work there and she went to Detroit where she lived in destitution.
She tried cashing in on her criminal past by writing articles for the New York American Weekly. In 1928 she published her autobiography “Chicago May: Her Story by the Queen of Crooks”. It did not sell well and May’s health declined. She fell into alcoholism and moved to Philadelphia where in 1929 following an abdominal disorder she died at the age of 59. The criminal career of the Longford lass became notorious as Chicago May ended, with an unmarked grave in Fernwood Cemetery, Philadelphia.