'Chicago May' Duignan

 The American Express offices
Described in the
Dictionary of Irish Biography as “a ruthless and unscrupulous criminal, capricious, vengeful and capable of brutal violence”, May Duignan (Edenmore, Co. Longford, 1871  - Philadelphia, 1929), or ‘Chicago May’, made only a brief, but spectacular appearance in Paris in 1901.

She travelled to Paris from London at the time of the Exposition Universelle in April of that year in the company of two fellow gangsters, the Irish-American Eddie Guerin and ‘Dutch Gus’ Miller. Guerin had just spent 10 years in a French prison for bank robbery and was Chicago May’s lover at the time, while Dutch Gus also had an illustrious career on the wrong side of the law. They were joined in Paris by another Irish-American, Kid McManus, who had particular expertise in safe-breaking.

 Eddie Guerin
Their plan was to rob the American Express office in the rue Scribe (9
th arrondissement), which they staked out for some three weeks before making a move. According to Guerin, much of the surveillance work fell to him and the other two men. While they prepared the robbery, he and Chicago May shacked up at Hotel Vignon in the street of the same name (9th arrondissement).  Meanwhile, “May blissfully enjoyed herself. I took her around to all the stock sights of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne, the Louvre, even the morgue,” Guerin later wrote. 

According to Guerin’s autobiography, Chicago May was “blind drunk” when he left her in the hotel on the night of the robbery, April 27, 1901. By contrast, Chicago May, in her autobiography, says she played a more glorious role in the operation. She claimed that she hid inside the American Express office after closing time and then opened the doors from the inside for her accomplices, who tied up the sole security guard and spent a couple of hours preparing a charge to blow up two safes. As they did so, Chicago May remained as a lookout on the street outside.

 The Hôtel Vignon
Whichever version is true, the noise from the dynamiting of the safes meant that the robbers had to make a quick getaway with their haul, which the
Chicago Tribune estimated at a relatively modest $6,000. But while Kid McManus made it to Italy, neither Dutch Gus nor Eddie Guerin got very far. Dutch Gus was arrested at the Gare du Nord just as he was about to board a train back to England, while Eddie Guerin was arrested on another train making its way to the English Channel. (Guerin was kept in solitary confinement in La Sante prison (13th arrondissement) and later sent as a prisoner to Devil’s Island, from whence he escaped. He died in poverty in northern England in 1940.) 

                                         La Roquette women's prison
May was luckier, managing to get back to London. Foolishly, she travelled back to Paris some weeks later where she saw Eddie Guerin and then the American consul. The latter contacted the police, who arrested her. As Chicago May later wrote herself,
“I was not as smart as I thought I was.” Charged with receiving money she knew to be stolen, she was locked up in La Roquette women’s prison (11th arrondissement, no longer exists) and was then sentenced to five years penal servitude in Montpellier prison. She did not serve the full term of her sentence. According to her own account, this was because she was amnestied by French president Emile Loubet in 1905. But according to Eddie Guerin, she “seduced and blackmailed the prison doctor into signing a medical certificate for her release”. Whatever the case, Chicago May had many more adventures in England and the U.S. before her death in 1929. Alas, they are not within the remit of this web site.

Select Bibliography
Crime: The Autobiography of a Crook (1928)
Eddie Guerin

Chicago ‘May’ Duignan The Story of Chicago May (2005)
Nuala O’Faolain