(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
At eight in the morning on this date in 1909, Richard Justin was hanged at Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland) for the murder of his four-year-old daughter. Little Annie Thompson — she was born illegitimate, but her parents married a few months before her death — had died at their home at 84 Lepper Street in Belfast on March 12, supposedly from falling out of bed.
A myriad of witnesses, however, reported that Justin abused the child horribly. Her longtime nanny had noticed bruises, a swollen chin, a black eye and one tooth knocked out, but in February, before she could take any action, Annie was removed from her care. Others reported seeing marks and bruises on the child.
When concerned adults asked Annie how she had been hurt, she complained her father had hit and kicked her. People had also heard heartrending cries coming from 84 Lepper Street. One neighbor, for instance, testified she’d heard Annie’s mother wail, “Hit me, and let the child alone.”
The locals were reluctant to intervene in the family’s domestic problems, but after a Mrs. McWilliams saw that Annie’s “wee elbow” was swollen, her wrist was burned and “the skin was off her back,” she told Annie’s mother she was going to complain to the child abuse authorities. She decided not to, though, after Annie’s mother gave her word of honor that the abuse would stop.
It didn’t stop.
The very day of Annie Thompson’s demise, someone had written a letter to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, saying they’d been concerned about her for months and would someone please go to her house and check on her welfare? The anonymous writer added that he or she had meant “to drop you a note last week.”
Too little, too late.
From a forensic standpoint there was the autopsy, which revealed
a litany of injuries. These included some thirty bruises to the chest, arms, thighs and head, though most were several days old. Professor Symmers, who conducted the medical investigation, even went as far as to say they were the worst injuries to a child he had ever seen.
He actually compared her tortured remains to a case he’d seen where a man had been whipped 100 strokes with a cat o’ nine tails. The primary cause of death, however, was a brain hemorrhage
At Richard’s trial in July, ample evidence of child abuse was presented and the prosecution argued that Annie had died of injuries accumulated from the effects of months of beatings. The defense denied that the accused man had ever mistreated his daughter and argued that her death was an accident. Their star witness was Richard Justin’s oldest son, Richard Jr.
According to Richard Jr., he, his younger brother, and Annie were sharing a bed, the girl being closest to the wall. She woke up at 7:00 a.m. and started climbing over the boys to get out of bed, but tripped on the hem of her nightdress, fell off the bed and struck her head on the metal strut of her parents’ bed, an arms’ length away. Annie moaned and wouldn’t move after that. Richard Jr. picked her up and put her back in bed without waking their brother. Richard Sr. then found her lying dead two hours later.
When asked about this in court, Professor Symmers reluctantly allowed the boy’s story about Annie’s fall, if accurate, could explain the brain hemorrhage that had caused her death.
Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict.
“The defence,” writes Steven Moore in his book Hanged at Crumlin Road Gaol: The Story of Capital Punishment in Belfast,
with some justification, considered that Richard Justin hadn’t been given the benefit of what appeared to be reasonable doubt. There was a possibility, it was felt, the jury had believed him guilty of scheming to kill the child, and that the plot had not succeeded only because of an unfortunate accident. In other words, even if he hadn’t actually murdered Annie, there was no reason to consider him innocent when he had evil intent to the girl. A petition sent to the Lord Lieutenant asking for a reprieve was turned down.
A large crowd gathered outside the prison as Richard Justin was hanged, but there was nothing to see: his execution took place within the prison walls, and even the custom of raising the black flag at the moment of death had been abandoned. He reportedly “walked firmly to the scaffold and had shown great remorse for his crime.”