1884: Charles Henry, iced in the Arctic 1866: Anton Probst, “I only wanted the money”

1921: William Mitchell, Black and Tan

June 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*

This long-obscure case has been brought back to light by author D.J. Kelly, whose just-published Running With Crows: The Life and Death of a Black and Tan is a fact-based novel about William Mitchell’s execution.

Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?

Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.

ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?

DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.

I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.

However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.

The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?

You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.

Book CoverIronically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.

I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.

William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?

Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.

During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.

This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …

Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?

Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.

Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.

This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?

Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.

As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.

Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.

The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.

The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.

Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.

Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.

So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.

What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?

I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.

Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.

This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.

* Still also known as the “Black and Tan War”.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Ireland,Murder,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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