England held its last-ever public execution on this date in 1868, and made it big game indeed: Fenian Michael Barrett, whose Clerkenwell Prison bombing long remained one of the most infamous atrocities of the Irish nationalist cause.
The bill certifying the end of that distinctive institution, the public hanging, would be finalized three days hence, so the occasion’s milestone was anticipated in advance. Elites increasingly disdained the boorish carnivals that unfolded under the gallows, like Dickens who complained that “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes” redeemed the 1840 hanging of Courvoisier.
“The crowd was most unusually orderly,” ran the Times‘ report of Barrett’s death — a sort of dual eulogy — “but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”
It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield — a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.
Michael Barrett’s ticket to this last assembly was punched by a different execution six months previous — the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs. This trio of Irish patriots were part of a mob who liberated some comrades from a police van, shooting a policeman in the process — though it was far from certain that any of these three actually fired shots.
Of importance for our purposes today was the crackdown on other Fenians occasioned by the Manchester affair. In November of 1867, a Fenian agent named Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested with his companion Joseph Casey in London purchasing weapons for the movement. They were clapped in Clerkenwell Prison pending trial.
The bombing that brought Michael Barrett to the gallows was a bid to liberate these men … and it did not pause for subtlety. The conspirators simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was there, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell.
But numerous working-class families lived in little tenements opposite the prison and were there, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy. This monstrous new “infernal machine” tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead and numerous buildings near to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block.
Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell Prison reduced to rubble by the December 13, 1867 Fenian bombing.
Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”
English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,” he wrote.
Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the “Fenian Guy Fawkes“.
Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it. That Barrett was that someone did not sit well for many.
Five men and a woman stood trial at the Old Bailey in April for the Clerkenwell outrage, but Barrett was the only one of them convicted, a terribly inadequate investigation/prosecution outcome given the infamy of the crime.
That conviction stood on the basis of disputed eyewitness identifications: Barrett produced witnesses who said he was in Glasgow when the bomb went off, while the crown found others who would swear he was actually in London. (The length of Barrett’s whiskers on specific dates in late November and early December forms a running subplot of the dueling testimonies.)
The reliability and even the good faith of all such winesses might well be impugned. A highly questionable stool pigeon named Patrick Mullany who ducked prosecution by turning crown’s evidence, charged that Barrett personally set off the ordnance.
To give me credit for such an undertaking is utterly absurd; being, as I am, a total stranger to acts of daring, and without any experience which would in any way fit me for engaging in such an enterprise. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that in the City of London, where … there are ten thousand armed Fenians, they would have sent to Glasgow for a party to do this work, and then select a person of no higher standing and no greater abilities than the humble individual who now stands convicted before you? To suppose such a thing is a stretch of imagination that the disordered minds of the frightened officials of this country could alone be capable of entertaining.
If it is murder to love Ireland more dearly than life, then indeed I am a murderer. If I could in any way remove the miseries or redress the grievances of that land by the sacrifice of my own life I would willingly, nay, gladly, do so. if it should please the God of Justice to turn to some account, for the benefit of my suffering country, the sacrifice of my poor, worthless life, I could, by the grace of God, ascend the scaffold with firmness, strengthened by the consoling reflection that the stain of murder did not rest upon me, and mingling my prayers for the salvation of my immortal soul with those for the regeneration of my native land.
Benjamin Disraeli’s government could not in the end realistically entertain the agitation from liberal and radical circles for sparing Barrett, because that would mean that nobody would hang for Clerkenwell. But as the next day’s edition of Reynold’s News noted, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”
Three months after Barrett made that expiation, England officially began its era of fully private hangings behind prison walls.
* James Joyce hung out with a (much-older) Joseph Casey in Paris in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s in Ulysses too: “He prowled with Colonel Richard Burk, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and crouching saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry. In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me.”
First published in 1577, this document — heavily mined by Shakespeare for his histories — is silent as to the further particulars of the beheading. But the accompanying image depicting the execution surprisingly presents a guillotine-like device being employed for the task.
As John Wilson Croker’s History of the Guillotine observes, this one illustration 270 years after the fact scarcely suffices to establish that a guillotine precursor really was in use in Ireland in the first years of the 14th century. Were that the case, this might be the earliest quote-unquote “documented” execution by a beheading-machine.
(Executions in Halifax, Scotland, can be sourced as early as the 1280s, but it is not known if the famed Halifax Gibbet was in use at that early date.)
But it does at least establish the authors’ awareness of such technology — perhaps by familiarity with the Scottish Maiden, or perhaps by having caught wind of similar gadgets in France and Italy.
“This mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Croker concludes with a bit of overstatement. “And yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when proposed by Dr. Guillotin.”
“This is certainly a striking illustration of the proverb that there is nothing new under the sun.”
In 1607, reacting to a squeeze on their incomes and prerogatives, two native noblemen fled to the continent hoping to make arrangements with the Spanish for a reconquest that would never come. This Flight of the Earls spelled the end of Ireland’s homegrown Gaelic aristocracy and set the stage for the Plantation of Ulster, the settler statelet that formed the germ of present-day Northern Ireland.
O’Loughran’s crime was very simple: already on the continent himself, he had administered the sacraments to those attainted fugitives, later having the boldness to return to Ireland.
There, the charge of collaborating with Bishop O’Devany was also laid to his shoulders.
While O’Loughran was in the summer of his natural life, O’Devany was around eighty years old. Consecrated a bishop in Rome in 1582, he had returned to the north of Ireland and been briefly detained in the post-Spanish Armada security scare.
In the 1600s, O’Devany’s protector had been Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyronne, and unfortunately this man was one of the earls in the aforementioned Flight.
He wasn’t a difficult man to target, but the somewhat gratuitous decision by England’s viceroy to do so was not widely supported even by the English and Protestant factions. O’Loughran’s conduct could perhaps be stretched to resemble treason; O’Devany was just an old man being persecuted for his faith. Going to his glory, the bishop did not fail to play that angle up under the eyes of a sympathetic Gaelic crowd.
Far from being cowed by the bishop’s butchery, those onlookers swarmed the gallows, touching the spilled blood and the quartered flesh as holy relics. “Some cut away all the hair from the head, which they preserved for a relic; some others gave practice to steal the head away … the body being dissevered into four quarters, they neither left finger or toe, but they cut them off and carried them away … with their knives they shaed off chips from the hallowed gallows; neither could they omit the halter with which he was hanged, but it was rescued for holy uses.” (Barnabe Rich)
Days after the executions, that aforementioned aggressive viceroy, Lord Chichester, reported to London how “a titular Bishop and a priest being lately executed for treason merely are notwithstanding thought martyrs and adored for saints.”
Thanks to the counterproductive outcome, the British laid off the policy of martyring Catholic priests thereafter (at least until Cromwell, but that’s another story).
* The date was February 1 according to the Julian calendar still in use by England at the time; it was February 12 according to the Gregorian calendar. England occupied Ireland through the period of the new Gregorian calendar’s initial 16th century adoption by Europe’s Catholic countries, so the official date in Ireland was February 1 … even though the padres’ boss in Rome would have considered it February 12.
That left the Irish campaign in the hands of Cromwell’s capable fellow-general (and by this time, son-in-law) Henry Ireton, and it was Ireton who laid Limerick under a siege at an estimated cost of 5,000 civilians succumbed to starvation and plague.
The Catholic Bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O’Brien, had been trapped in the mixed English-Irish city and encouraged continued resistance to the siege. Ireton advanced him to the very front of the queue for punishment, and had him put to death directly after the city’s capture.
A “Last Speech and Prayer” of the martyr was published in London within a few days, together with a “humble petition” of then-imprisoned (and later executed) pro-Stuart highwayman James Hind.
This is a very uncomfortable place, for me to deliver my self unto you; but I beseech you pardon my failings, and the rather, by reason of the sad occasion that hath brought me hither: Indeed, I have been long in my race, and how I have looked unto Jesus the Authour and finisher of my faith, is best known to him; I am now come to the end of my race, which I find to be a death of shame, but the shame must be despised, or there is no coming to the right hand of God; Jesus despised the shame for me upon the Crosse, and God forbid but I should despise the shame for him upon the Gallowes; I am going apace, as you see, towards the Red Sea, and my feet are upon the very brinks of it, an Argument I hope that God is brining me to the Land of promise, for that was the way by which of old he led his people.
But before they came to the Sea, he instituted a passe over for them, a Lamb it was, but it was to be eaten with very sowr herbs, as in the 12. of Exodus. I shall obey and labour to digest the sowr herbs, as well as the Lamb, and I shall remember, that it is the Lord’s passe-over, I shall not think of the herbs, nor be angry with the hands that gathered them, but look up only to him who instituted the one, and governeth the other: For men can have no more power over me, than that which is given them from above; and although I am denyed mercy here on earth, yet I doubt not but to receive it in heaven. I am not in love with this passage through the Red Sea, for I have the weakness and infirmity of flesh and blood in me, and I have prayed as my Saviour taught me, and exampled me; ut transiret calix ista, That this cup might passe away from me; but since it is not, that my will may, his will be done; and I shall most willingly drink of it as deep as he pleases, and enter into this Sea, I and I passe through it, in the way that he shall be pleased to leade me. And yet (good people) it would be remembrad [sic], That when the Servants of God, old Israel, were in this boystrous Sea, and Aaron with them, the Egyptians which persecuted them, and did in a manner drive them into that Sea, were drowned in the same waters while they were in pursuit of them: I know my God whom I serve, is as able to deliver me from this Sea of blood, as he was to deliver the 3 Children from the furnace. Dan. 3. And I most humbly thank my Saviour for it. My resolution is now, as theirs was then; their Resolution was, they would not change their principles, nor worship the Image which the King had set up; nor shall I the imaginations which the people are setting up; neither will I forsake the Temple and Truth of God, to follow the bleating of Jeroboams Calves in Dan and in Bethel.
And I pray God blesse all this people, and open their eyes, that they may see the right way, for if it fall out that the blind lead the blind, doubtless they will fall both into the ditch: For my self I am (and I acknowledge it in all humility), a most grievous sinner, and therefore I cannot doubt but that God hath mercy in store for me a poor penitent, as well as for other sinners; I have upon this sad occasion ransack’d every corner of my heart, & yet I thank God, I have not found any of my sins that are there, any sins now deserving death by any known Law. And I thank God, though the wait [weight] of the sentence lie very hard upon me, yet I am as quiet within, (I thank Christ for it) as I ever was in my life; I shall hasten to go out of this miserable life, for I am not willing to be tedious; and I beseech you, as many as are within hearing, observe me, I was born and baptized in the bosome of the Church of Rome (the ancient and true Church) and in that Profession I have ever since lived, and in the same I now die. As touching my engagement in arms, I did it in two respects. First, for the preservation of my principles and Tenents. And secondly, for the establishing of the King, and the rest of the Royal issue in their just Rights and Priviledges. I will not inlarge my self any further, I have done, I forgive all the world, all and every of these bitter Enemies, or others whatsoever they have been, which have any wayes prosecuted me in this kind; I humbly desire to be forgiven first of God, and then of every man, whether I have offended him or no; if he do but conceive that I have: Lord do thou forgive me, and I beg forgiveness of him, and so I heartily desire you to joyn with me in prayer.
From Hugh Fennin’s “The Last Speech and Prayer of Blessed Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishopp of Emly, 1651,” in Collectanea Hibernica, No. 38 (1996).
Any Limerick Catholics who didn’t share the prelate’s forgiving attitude might have taken some spiteful comfort that the strain of commanding the siege caused Ireton to fall ill with fever. He died on November 26 — barely outliving the bishop whom he had hanged.* After the Stuarts regained the English throne, Ireton was exhumed and posthumously executed alongside the body of Oliver Cromwell.
* Ireton’s death indirectly spared the royalist commander of Limerick’s defeated garrison from an execution his conqueror had intended for him: Ireton’s successor instead sent him to the Tower of London, and he was eventually released to Spanish custody.
American poet Jill McDonough wrote this moving sonnet to the Irish servant Margaret Gaulacher (sometimes also called Margaret Callahan), who was hanged on this date in 1715 for the infanticide of her (ill-)concealed newborn.
The news that week includes a lyonefs
displayed, attacking Fowls and Catts. They watched
her feeding time, remarked on her mercilefs
cruelty. Meanwhile, Cotton Mather preached
against Hard-hearted Sinners, and Hardnefs of Heart.
He helped with her confession, which reflects
on attempts to destroy her unborn child, a part
of her Wicked crime, completed through Neglect.
Now hers is a Stony Heart, of Flint. Ah! Poor
Margaret, behold: the congregation calls
on your wondrous Industry, Agony, your death four
days off. Pray for a Clean, and a Soft Heart; don’t fall
from this fresh gallows to the Mouths of Dragons,
unconcerned, adamant, so little broken.
I believe the poet here may be getting “June 4″ here from the Espy file of historical U.S. executions. Unfortunately that date is not correct; it’s unequivocal in primary colonial news accounts that this hanging occurred on Thursday, June 9.*
But McDonough is spot on about the Cotton Mather vs. Hard-hearted Sinners theme of the execution. That vigorous gallows evangelist favored — he surely thought it was “favored” — the poor condemned wretch with every exertion private and public of his considerable rhetorical powers to save her soul ere she swung.
Gaulacher never quite submitted in the way Mather thought a proper condemned woman ought.
The illiterate woman signed off on an obviously Mather-written statement admitting the justice of her sentence and warning (as was standard scaffold fare) any hearers against her iniquities: “Swearing and Cursing … Profanations of His Holy Sabbaths … Rebellion against my Parents … the Sins of Unchastity.” But this pro forma gesture was the end of it; she obdurately refused to make a public show of Mather-friendly contrition and continued to show in private an unbecoming bitterness at her execution — in Mather’s eyes, clear evidence that she had not made a proper peace with her maker.
We have no access to the hanged woman’s inner life save via an interlocutor who obviously wasn’t on her same wavelength. Maybe she loved her unchaste carnal life too much to part with it in resignation. Likely, though she kept her Catholicism hidden from Mather, she didn’t feel right at home with the stridently Protestant settlement’s rituals and its congregationalist conversion milieu. Like them or not, however, she had to endure them: within a month of Margaret Gaulacher’s hanging, a book of two lengthy Cotton Mather sermons delivered to her in the presence of the entire congregation of Boston’s Second Church was being advertised for sale.
The text below consists of extracts from those two sermons — the parts where Rev. Mather gets personal and directly addresses his charge — surmounted by the explanatory introduction. Mather’s deep conviction that Gaulacher’s soul is in dreadful peril leaps from the page; so too does the silent prisoner’s rejection. The full publication can be perused in pdf form.
What gave Occasion to the Sermons here Exhibited, was an Amazing Instance of what the poor Chidlren of Men abandoned unto Ignorance and Wickedness may be left unto! A prodigious Instance of that Hardness of Heart, which especially the Sins of Unchastity, accompanied with Delays of Repentance, do lead unto.
Margaret Gaulacher, an Irish Woman, arrived the last Winter from Cork in Ireland, a Servant, that soon found a Place in a Family where she would not have wanted Opportunities and Encouragements for the Service of GOD.
She had been by her part in a Theft brought into Trouble in Ireland; and after her Transportation hither, it was not long before she was found in Thievish Practices.
Ere she had been long here, it was begun to be suspected, that she was with Child, by a Fornication; But she so Obstinately all along denied it, that at last she must feel the Effects of her Obstinacy.
She was delivered of her Illegitimate, when she was all alone; and she hid the Killed Infant out of the way; which was within a little while discovered.
Of her Behaviour in the Time of her Imprisonment, and of the Means used for her Good, there is an Account given in our Sermons.
The Woman was of a very Violent Spirit; and the Transports and Furies thereof, sometimes were with such Violence, as carried in them, one would have thought, an uncommon Degree of Satanic Energie.
By’nd by, she would bewail her Passions, and promise to indulge herself no more in such Passionate Outrages. One who owns himself to be a Roman-Catholick, affirms to me, that she privately Declared herself unto him, to be in her Heart, of his Religion; But she never would own any thing of that unto the Ministers who visited her with the Means of her Salvation.
A Gracious and Worthy Servant of God, Mr. Thomas Craighead, (a Faithful and Painful Minister of the Gospel, who came from Ireland, much about the same time that she did) having Instructed her, and used many Charitable Endeavours for her Good, was desired by her to be near her at her Execution; who accordingly Pray’d with her there, and continued his Instructions unto the Last.
She said little, but reff’d herself to the Paper which had been read Publickly in the Congregation just before.
And yet she Frowardly let fall one Word, which did not seem very consistent with it; For which fretful Strain of Impatience, being rebuked, she added, Then the Lord be Merciful unto me! and spoke no more.
All that remains for us to do, is to leave her in the Hands of a Sovereign GOD, whose Judgment, and not ours, has the Disposal of her; and make the best Improvement we can of such a Tragical Spectacle; for which the ensuing Sermons are some Essays.
But, I ought now if I can, to Refresh my Readers, with something that shall be more Agreeable, more Comfortable; have less to Trouble them; something that may be the Reverse of so shocking a Spectacle, as has here given Troublesome Idea’s unto them.
Of this we have a very Tragical Instance now before our Eyes. One who by hardening her Heart has brought herself into wonderful Mischief; and continues to harden her Heart, after the wondrous Mischief has come upon her like a Whirlwind from the Lord.
Ah, poor Creature; Thou hast been Guilty of many Sins, and Heinous ones. But, Oh! Don’t add this to all the rest, this Comprehensive one, this Atrocious one; To harden thy Heart after all, and so to bind all fast upon thy Soul forever.
God has done a dreadful Thing upon thee, in leaving thee to a Crime for which thou art now as one Wicked overmuch, to Dye before thy Time, and e’re twenty five Years have rolled over thee, the Sword of Justice with an untimely Stroak must cut thee off. But it will be a much more dreadful Thing, if thou art left after all unto an hard Heart, that will not Repent of thy Abominations, and of thy Bloodguiltiness.
f thou hadst not hardened thy own Heart exceedingly, Oh! what Things would be seen upon thee; other Things than are yet seen upon thee! Verily, A soft Heart would Mourn and Weep and Bleed, for a Life sweell’d away in Sin against the Glorious GOD. A soft Heart would soon Drown thee in Tears, from the View of the doleful Things thy Sin has brought upon thee. A soft Heart would make thee own the Justice of God and Man in what is now done unto thee; and would Silence thy Froward and Fretful and Furious Gnashing upon such as thou has no Cause to treat with so much transported Fury.
It breaks the Hearts of the Good People in the Place, to see thy Deplorable State: They are concerned, when they see thy Lamentable State: But above all, to see, that thou art thyself no more concerned for it; no more affected with it; so little Broken in Heart. And shall not thy own Heart at length be Broken, when thy own State comes into thy Consideration?
One once could say, God makes my Heart Soft, and the Almighty Troubles me. And will it not make thy Heart Soft, when thou thinkest on the amazing Trouble, which thou shalt feel from the Wrath of the Almighty GOD, if thou Dye in thy Sins? Verily, All the Sorrows thou seest here, are but the Beginning of Sorrows, if thou art not by a broken Heart prepared for the Salvation of God.
But then, What an Heart-breaking Thought is this? Margaret, There is yet Mercy for thee, if thou wilt not by an hard Heart refuse the Mercy; The Mercy, thro’ which Rahab the Harlot perished not; The Mercy, thro’ which Mary Magdalene had her many Sins forgiven her; This Mercy is ready to do Wonders for thee. A Merciful Saviour Invites thee; O come unto me, and I will do Wonders for thee.
Come and fall down before Him, and beg the Blessings of a soft Heart at His Gracious Hands. I know not of any Advice that can be so Proper, or so Needful for thee, as this; No Prayer of so much Importance to be made by thee as this.
The Ignorance which lays Chains of Darkness upon thee, is a sore Encumbrance on thy Essays for turning to God. Yet thou art not so Ignorant, but thou canst make this Petition to thy SAVIOUR. Lord, soften this hard Heart of mine! And, Lord, Bestow a New, and a Clean, and a Soft Heart upon me! And, God be Merciful to me a sinner; yea, an Hard-hearted Sinner!
Now, May the Gracious Lord accordingly look down upon thee.
of those who are sure of having the Arrest of Death presently served upon them, there is none that has a more affecting Assurance of it, than a poor Daughter of Death, who is this Afternoon to have her Soul Required of her. Ah! poor Creature! Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art under a Condemnation, to a Tragical Death which is to be this Afternoon executed on thee; and within three or four Hours, thy Soul will be Required of thee; within three or four Hours thy Soul must make its Appearance before a Terrible GOD! Oh! What, what will be the Condition of that Perishing Soul, if no Fear of God be found in it, when it Appears before him? —
There is indeed a vast Abundance even to a Profusion, of Instructions, bestow’d more Privately on such Malefactors as Dye among us: No Place upon Earth does equal this Place for that Exercise of Charity. And this poor Creature has had a very particular Share thereof: Not only have the Ministers of the Gospel done their Part, in Visiting of her, but also many Private Christians have done theirs, in a most Exemplary manner. As of old in Jersualem it was the Usage of the Ladies, to Prepare for the Dying Malefactors, that Potion which was called, The Wine of the Condemned, so the Young Gentlewomen here in their Turns, have Charitably gone to the Prison every Day for diverse Weeks together, and because of her not being able to Read, have spent the Afternoons in Reading Portions of the Scriptures, and other Books of Piety, to this Condemned Woman, and giving their Excellent Councils unto her. Nevertheless, we chuse in a more Publick way also to direct a few Words of our Sermons, unto such Persons, when we have them among our Hearers; Because, the Preaching of the Gospel, is the Grand Ordinance of our Saviour, for the Conversion of a Sinner from the Error of his way; an we would wait upon our Glorious LORD, in that way which he has Ordained, hoping, still hoping, to see a Soul saved from Death!
Wherefore once more, O miserable Woman, entering into an Eternity to be trembled at; Once more, thou shalt hear the Joyful Sound of the Gospel, inviting thee to the Fear of God, and the Faith of thy only Saviour. And if there be not in this Last Essay, a more saving Impression from the Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God made upon thee, than thou hast yet felt from any former ones, — Oh! the dreadful, dreadful Consequences! What will become of thee! — Can thy Hands be Strong, or can thy Heart endure, in the View of what a Terrible GOD will order for thee? — Behold, Ah! poor Margaret, Behold a mighty Congregation of People, with Hearts Bleeding for thee, and Wishing and Praying and Longing to see the fear of God making some Discoveries in thee. And shall thy Heart still remain unaffected with thy own Condition; discovering still a total Estrangement from the fear of God! No Tears are enough, Tears of Blood were not enough, to be employ’d on so prodigious a Spectacle!
I am sorry, I am sorry, that I find myself obliged so much to speak it. Even since thou hast been under Condemnation, thou hast not feared God. Not many Hours are passed, since I saw in thee, so much Rage, and so Unrighteously harboured, and so Indecently Vomited, against some Vertuous Children of God, that it was too Evident, this fear of God had not yet begun to soften thee.
But if the fear of God enter not into thy Soul, before thy Soul be driven out of thy Body, which will be now, — alas, before many Minutes more be expired, thy Desolate, Forsaken, Miserable Soul, can have no part in the Kingdom of God. My Soul cannot be safe, if I forbear to tell thee so!
Ah, poor Creature, Art thou wiling to Dye unreconciled unto the God, whom thou hast Affronted with infinite Provocations? To Dye, and all into the Mouths of Dragons, who have so long poisoned thee, and enslaved thee? To Dye and be cast into the Eternal Burnings, from whence the Smoak of the Torment will ascend forever and ever? What? Shall all the Means of Good, which in a Religious Place have been used for thee, with hopes that they might find out one of the Elect of God, serve only to aggravate thy Eternal Condemnation at the last? Oh! Dreadful Consideration!
But, Oh! Be Astonished at it! There is yet a Door of Hope set open for thee; It will for one Hour it may be, stand open yet! Oh! Be full of Astonishment at such an Heart-melting Declaration, as is now to be made unto thee. A Compassionate SAVIOUR, is yet willing, to Cleanse thy Soul with His Blood, from the Sins, which by casting off the fear of God thou hast fallen into; yet willing to create in thee a Clean Heart that shall be filled with the fear of God, if he be sought unto; yet calling to thee, O look unto me and be Saved! And yet affording unto thee that Encouragement, in Joh. VI. 37. He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.
And, Oh! What wilt thou now do under these Astonishing Invitations? Wilt thou not improve these few Minutes with a most wondrous Industry and Agony? Do so, and be no longer such an Hard-hearted Prodigy! Fall down before thy SAVIOUR, and cry out; O my Saviour, Take pitty on my Soul, and now at the Last, let Sovereign Grace break forth, with a good Work of thy fear in my Soul! Cry out, O my Saviour, Let my Sin be all pardoned, and let all Sin be as Abominable unto me, as it is unto all that fear thy Name! Let thy Outcries pierce the very Heavens.
But, be it known unto thee, If the fear of God be in thee, it will be a thing more Bitter than Death unto thee, that thou hast Sinned against His Glorious Majesty; Thy Malice against every Neighbour will be extinguished; Thou wilt submit with Patience, to the Punishment of thy Iniquity; And thou wilt be an Holy, Humble, Thankful Soul, and quite another Creature! — God of His Infinite Mercy make thee so!
* n.b. — a Julian calendar date, as were all British colonies until England herself transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
Who executed his own Parents, and from a Pickpocket became a Cat Burglar, and then a Highwayman. Executed at Dublin, 15th of May, 1702
THIS insolent offender was born in the kingdom of Ireland. At twelve years of age he had the wide world to shift for himself in, his parents being then forced to swing for their lives on a piece of cross timber, where they had the misfortune to have their breath stopped. Their crime was only breaking open and rifling a house, and murdering most of the family. Dick was present at the action, and contributed towards it as much as he was able, but found mercy at the assizes on account of his youth.
Some say he was pardoned only on the hard condition of being executioner to his own parents, and that he was at first very unwilling to take away the lives of those who gave him his, but consented at last, when he found that there was no excuse that such a worthy family might not be entirely cut off by one single act of justice. It is added that on the same consideration his father and mother persuaded him to the action, and gave him their blessing at the hour of their departure, assuring him that they had much rather die by his hands than by the hands of a stranger, since they were sure of his prayers in their last moments.
These words afforded great consolation to young Richard, and enabled him to get through the work with a Christian fortitude.
Being now left an orphan, young, helpless and alone, he determined to look out for some gentleman whom he might serve in the quality of a skip- kennel, or some handicraftsman of whom he might learn a trade, for his support in an honest way. But all his inquiry was in vain; for the lamentable exit of his parents, and the occasion of it, being fresh in everyone’s memory, their infamy rested on him, and there was no man to be found who would receive him into his house.
Being as yet unfit to engage in any great and hazardous enterprise, he took up the decent occupation of a pick-pocket, at which he soon became very dexterous, haunting all the fairs, markets, and even churches, round the country, and in this manner picking up a very good living; till, being often detected, and obliged to go through the discipline of the horse-pond, he was obliged to think of some other order of sharpers in which to get himself entered.
There is in Ireland a sort of men whom we may properly enough call satyrs, from their living in woods and desert places; among these Dick Bauf was next enrolled. These people never came to any towns, but continued in their private holds, stealing horses, kine, sheep and all sorts of cattle that came in their way, on which they subsisted. But all these inferior orders soon became tiresome to our adventurer, the more on account of the bad success he met with whilst he was in them.
The next, then, therefore, was to get acquainted with a gang of Grumeis, who take their name from the similitude of their practice to that of the young boys who climb up to the tops of the masts at sea with great activity, and are called cats, or Grumeis, by the sailors. The thieves that bear this name are housebreakers who make use of a ladder of ropes, with hooks in one end of it, by which they easily ascend to the chamber windows, having fastened their ladders with a long pole.
These robbers were very common in Dick Bauf’s time, and did a world of mischief both in town and country, doing all with so much expedition that they more frequently escaped than other housebreakers, yet commonly with as large booties of gold, silver, linen and everything that came to hand as anybody at all. When they had done their work their method was to pull a string which was fastened to the end of the hooks, and so raise them, upon which the ladder fell without leaving any marks behind it.
Next he got into a crew of wool-drawers, whose trade is to snatch away cloaks, hats or perukes from towners — a very sly sort of theft, practised only in the night, the greatest part of their cunning lying in the choice of a proper opportunity. They go always in companies, three or four together, about nine or ten at night, most commonly on dark rainy evenings, which are generally the most favourable to their practice. The places they choose are dark alleys and passages where a great many people come along, and there is a facility of escaping by a great many ways; which they do to prevent their being surprised by the neighbours if those that are robbed should cry out, as they frequently do.
But Dick Bauf was at last taken in one of these pranks also, and burned in the hand for it at Galway; upon which he grew weary of the lay. He was, moreover, now a man full grown, very lusty and able-bodied; which determined him to take to the highway. He was not long in making provision for this new course; and, being in every particular well accoutred for it, he proceeded in as intrepid and insolent a manner as ever fellow did.
All the four provinces of Ireland were scarce large enough for him to range in, and hardly afforded occasions enough for him to make proof of his courage as much as he desired. Night and day he pursued his villainies, and practised them on all ranks and degrees — rich and poor, old and young, man, woman and child were all the same to him. For he was as impartial as Death, and altogether as inexorable, being never softened to pity.
He was so notoriously remarkable for the daily robberies he committed on the Mount of Barnsmoor that no person of quality would venture to travel that way without a very large retinue. In a word, he kept his residence in this place till, by an order of the Government, there was a guard-house built on the middle of it; and the regiments lying at Coleraine, Londonderry, Belfast and other garrisons in the north of Ireland were obliged to detach thirty or forty men thither, under a sergeant and a corporal, and to relieve them monthly, on purpose to secure the passengers who travelled that way from being interrupted by this audacious robber.
These measures obliged him to shift his quarters and reside about Lorras. In the end, such grievous complaints of his frequent outrages were made to the Government by so many people that a proclamation was issued for the apprehending of him, with the promise of five hundred pounds’ reward to him who could do the State this signal piece of service; for, in short, he began to be looked upon as a dangerous person to the whole kingdom. This great sum caused abundance of people to look out for him, and among others were several who had often had a fellow-feeling with him, by being employed to dispose of what he stole.
Bauf was so enraged when he heard of this that he vowed revenge; which he thus executed.
Some of these persons daily travelled a by-road about business. As he knew their time of passing, he one day waylaid them and stopped them singly as they came, tying them neck and heels and putting them into an old barn by the roadside. When he had by this means got nine or ten together, he set the barn on fire and left them to be consumed with it; which they all were, without remedy.
This inhuman action was soon discovered by the persons being missed and the bones that were found in the rubbish; whereupon, finding the country too hot to hold him, he fled in disguise to Donaghadee, took shipping, and escaped to Portpatrick, in Scotland, from whence he designed to have gone to France. But lighting on a public-house where there was a handsome landlady he got familiar with her, which occasioned him to stay longer than he intended, and, indeed, too long for him; for the husband, at last observing the freedom that our rover took with his wife, caused him to be apprehended, in a fit of jealousy, having before a suspicion who he was.
When he was carried before a magistrate all circumstances appeared against him; so that he was sent back under a strong guard to Ireland, where he was soon known. Being committed to Newgate, in Dublin, and shortly afterwards condemned, it is said he offered five thousand pounds for a pardon, being worth twice the sum. But all proving ineffectual, he was executed at Dublin, on Friday, the 15th of May, 1702, aged twenty-nine years. His body was afterwards hanged in chains on Barnsmoor Mount, in the province of Ulster.
The actual nature and extent of his involvement in that rebellion is totally undocumented, but that doesn’t mean it’s not celebrated in an oft-covered patriotic song.
Post-rebellion, the (probably) Presbyterian McCorley was part of the so-called “Archer Gang”, men whom that newspaper account of McCorley’s execution calls “nefarious wretches who have kept this neighbourhood in the greatest misery for some time past.” That’s a hostile witness, obviously; the band in question looks to be Irish rebels turned outlaws, for whom plunder on the roads and vengeance on the rebellion’s enemies neatly coincided.
That coterie was gradually rounded up; its leader Tam Archer would also hang. But the national cause ran in the McCorley blood: the hanged man’s great-grandson Roger McCorley was a Republican insurgent during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s.
Thanks to @elongreen for bringing Roddy McCorley to our attention.
* Although even the execution date has been blurred by a later, martyr-making tradition claiming that McCorley died on Good Friday. He did not.
Although Hurley had a drop of 7.5 feet, the fall failed to kill him: he strangled to death at the end of the rope with nauseating convulsions.
Oddly, this outcome — hardly unusual at the time — found its way into subsequent medical literature covering several distinct phenomena.
We turn in the first instance to the report of Charles Croker King, professor of anatomy at Galway’s Queen’s College. He witnessed the hanging and contrived to examine the young man’s body — both immediately after execution, and on the following day. His detailed account of observations from the 1854 Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science is presented, he says, further to helping coroners determine whether a possible suicide has, in fact, hanged him- or herself. King also takes his examination further afield to rebut the then-current pseudoscience of phrenology.
(Keep an eye out for his notice of gallows priapism.)
An individual having been found dead, and suspended by the neck, a medico-legal question has frequently arisen, as to whether the suspension of the body took place previous to or subsequent to death; and the determination of this point may constitute the important difference between an act of suicide or the perpetration of a murder. Suspicion might fall upon an individual known to be interested in the death of the deceased. The body may have been found under circumstances rendering self-destruction improbable; collateral circumstances may have strengthened suspicion, already strong against the accused; and at last the evidence may be so nicely balanced that the slightest additional testimony would be capable of turning the beam of justice in either direction.
A fearful responsibility might thus devolve upon the medical witness; his opinion would, of necessity, carry considerable weight, and he might be asked this important question, Could this individual have died by his own hands? Life or death may hang upon the answer; if it be erroneous, the guilty may escape from merited punishment; or, what is of still greater moment, and fearful to contemplate, an innocent life may be sacrificed and the earthly prospects of an entire family unjustly blasted.
Considerations of this kind have induced me to lay before the profession the result of a careful examination of the body of a malefactor whose execution I lately witnessed.
The circumstances attending the murder may not be without interest to some of my readers. Last summer a young girl, who had been sent on a message to a distance of five or six miles, was found barbarously murdered at the margin of Dunsandle Wood. A deep wound in the throat appeared to have been the immediate cause of death. Suspicion fell upon a person of the name of Hurley; he had been a fellow-servant of the girl; he had been seen on the day of the murder in the vicinity of the place where the body was found, walking (apparently upon friendly terms) with the deceased.
Hurley’s previous character was of an unsatisfactory nature: he never engaged in any regular occupation, but, on the contrary, led rather a wandering life, obtaining a livelihood as a messenger, and but seldom having or wishing for continuous employment; he was twenty-two years of age, about five feet seven inches in height, and weighed ten and a half stone, muscular, and athletic. Having been arrested, he contrived to effect his escape, which he accomplished by daring acts of agility. A large reward was offered for his apprehension, but for some weeks he contrived to elude justice; at last, worn out by fatigue and constant watching, he was apprehended while asleep in the open air. The evidence adduced at the trial, on the part of the Crown, established the culprit’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt; he was consequently found guilty, and the 27th of August was fixed for his execution. The prisoner, upon being sentenced, declared his innocence, and cried for vengeance upon both judge and jury, either in this world, or in that to come.
On Saturday, the 27th of August, 1853, at twenty-five minutes past 6 o clock in the evening, the extreme penalty of the law was carried into effect; the execution had been delayed by the under-sheriff until this late hour from humane motives; the arrival of a reprieve by the late mail (though not to be expected) was within the reach of possibility.
A special messenger having returned from the train, hope was at an end, and the melancholy procession from the chapel to the place of execution formed. The culprit maintained considerable fortitude, but the frequent drawn, deep inspirations, and faltering steps, bespoke the sufferings of the inward man. It was a beautiful autumnal evening; the sun, as if in mockery of the solemn scene, danced upon the adjoining river, and illuminated a dense crowd of human beings, principally women and children, congregated to witness tne dying struggles of a fellow creature. Their conduct, upon the whole, was not indecorous, but they evidently regarded the scene as a serious amusement.
It is not my intention at present to discuss the propriety of public executions; I shall content myself by mentioning a fact which has a tendency to support the views of those who doubt the value of such exhibitions as terrible examples, calculated to deter others from the commission of crime; it is as follows. The excellent and humane governor of the county gaol mentioned to me that, some years ago, a convicted criminal admitted to him, that he had witnessed every execution that had taken place for years in front of the very gaol in which he was at that time confined. We learn from this circumstance, at all events, that in this particular case the examples fell valueless, for this man lay under sentence of death for murder.
The criminal, having been placed on the drop, in a firm voice acknowledged his guilt, the justice of the sentence, and expressed regret for the language he had used towards the judge and jury. The fatal bolt was withdrawn, and he fell through a space of seven feet and a half. The rope used was ten lines in diameter; the knot was large, formed of three turns of the rope; and on the noose being tightened by the executioner corresponded to the occipital protuberance. The body fell with a tremendous jerk, and oscillated for a few minutes; the arms and legs became rigid; the forearms flexed on the arms, the fingers flexed into the palms of the hands, and the thighs abducted and slightly drawn up towards the abdomen; the sternomastoid muscles were affected with spasms, and the hands became livid. After a short time the limbs relaxed; the legs approached each other, the toes pointing downwards; the hands became pale, fell down by the side, and the fingers became relaxed. The body, having been suspended for forty-five minutes, was cut down, and the cord removed from the neck.
There was not any protrusion, or unnatural suffusion of the eyes; the upper and lower teeth were half an inch apart, and the tongue was indented by them, the lips were rather livid, and the face pale; a slight depression marked the position of the rope; there was not any discoloration of the integuments of the neck, breast, or shoulders; the thumbs and fingers were flaccid; the ring and little fingers were flexed into the palms of the hands, but could be easily extended; the cap in which the head had been enveloped was slightly stained by bloody mucus, which had flowed from the mouth and nose; the bladder was empty, the criminal having made water a few minutes before his execution; the penis appeared as if it had been recently erect; it lay upwards against the abdomen, and a thin transparent fluid had stained the shirt; this fluid being thin and transparent, its source was suggested as the prostate gland; however, I removed a drop between two portions of glass, and on placing it in the field of a microscope, numerous spermatozoa were detected. No further examination of the body could be made this evening, but in the morning, eighteen hours after death, the body in the interim having lain on its back, the following additional observations were made: — Cadaveric stiffening of the body; lividity of the face; lips and ears purple, integuments of the shoulders and of the upper and front part of the chest, now livid; the site of the rope was scarcely perceptible; and, if attention were not particularly directed to it, it would in all probability escape observation; in one place, for about the extent of a quarter of an inch, there was a slight parchment discoloration of the skin. An incision was made one inch above, and a second one inch below, the former position of the rope, and the integuments were raised with great care; there was not the slightest extravasation of blood, nor did the areolar tissue present any peculiar silvery or white appearance; the thyroid cartilage was, perhaps, slightly flattened, but not broken; none of the bloodvessels [sic] or muscles were injured in the slightest degree (the lining membrane of the carotids was carefully examined); the mucous membrane of the larynx was of a bright red colour; both the tongue and brain were in a high state of congestion, — the ventricles of the latter contained about two ounces of serum; the posterior inferior lobes of the lungs were also congested; the right cavities of the heart were full of dark-coloured fluid blood; the left side of the heart was empty; there was no dislocation or fracture of the vertebral column, or injury of the ligaments or of the spinal cord.
From an attentive perusal of the post-mortem examination, above detailed, it will be evident that, in this particular case, there was a singular absence of those appearances generally regarded as necessary accompaniments of hanging during life; and the case reaches its maximum interest in legal medicine when we consider that, in this instance, death from hanging had occurred in its most violent form, and still was unattended even with those slight evidences which are enumerated by many authors as constant attendants upon death the result of simple suspension.
It need not, I think, be regarded as a fanciful conception, to imagine the possibility of a case occurring in which, if death were suicidal, the body must have fallen from a height; and if those appearances, which might be expected to be of necessity present, were, as in the above case, completely absent, an erroneous conclusion might be arrived at I, therefore, place this case of violent death, that was witnessed, and about which there can be no possible mistake, on record, in order that a disproportionate value may not be placed on negative results in cases involved in much obscurity.
In conclusion, I would say a word or two on the configuration of this man’s head in connexion with the system of phrenology.* The organs denominated “benevolence,” “love of approbation,” “concentrativeness,” and “adhesiveness,” were all well developed. If phrenology be true, benevolence should have deterred this man from imbruing his hands in blood. Death upon the scaffold ill accords with love of approbation. Concentrativeness should have attached him to some locality, whereas he was a notorious wanderer. The organ of “alimentiveneas” was small, notwithstanding which, from the day of his committal until the hour of his execution, he constantly applied for an increased quantity and an improved quality of food. The organs of “destructiveness,” “adhesiveness,” and “acquisitiveness,” were exceedingly small in their development, and, nevertheless, for the sake of a few pounds (of which he robbed his victim) he deliberately planned and perpetrated the murder of an innocent, unoffending girl, his friend and former fellow-servant.
I am well aware how difficult it is to produce any facts, no matter how apparently opposed to the system of phrenology, that its supporters will not endeavour to reconcile to their peculiar views. So carefully do they shelter themselves by such ingenious evasions as peculiarities of temperament, increased and diminished energy, and compensating action of organs, &c., &c.,but by such subterfuges they abandon the fundamental principle of phrenology, which makes size the measure of power.
In these observations I do not wish to be understood as undervaluing general cranial development; I recognise the brain as the seat of intellect, and consider that an imperfect development of it is incompatible with high mental acquirements; but such a view is perfectly distinct from the theory of the localization of organs from the mapping out of the head into distinct compartments, and assigning to each place a particular mental quality.
* The cranium was measured with a pair of phrenological callipers, and the development of the organs compared with a collection of crania in the Anatomical Museum, by which means the absolute as well as the relative size of the organs was obtained.
Victorian scientific journals had not yet had done with Mr. Hurley at this point.
Twelve years later, the Irish polymath Samuel Haughton undertook to bring scientific principles to the impressionistic and error-prone methods prevailing on the gallows of is time — methods that produced cases like the “most violent death” his predecessor had observed at Hurley’s execution.
Haughton’s seminal paper on this matter, “On Hanging, considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view,” is available online. Within, the author veers curiously from the Pentateuch to a speculative consideration of how Telemachus might have executed Penelope’s handmaids, to the down-and-dirty physics of killing a fellow on the gallows.
But its practical considerations come at last to the cold hard metrics of a noose’s striking-force upon a convict’s neck: the executioner’s moneyball. In this paper, he works out an early version of the formula that would within a few short years become the prevailing practice for British hangings. Hurley provides a case study for the satisfactory contrast to be observed when a better-selected fall boosts the hemp’s striking power by 42%.
I have searched in vain for well-authenticated instances of fracture of the cervical vertebrae produced by the usual method of hanging. Among the longest drops that I can find recorded, are two observed by Dr. Charles Croker King, when Professor of Anatomy in the Queen’s College, Galway.
Case I. A young man, named Hurley, was executed in Galway, at 6.25 p.m. on the 27th of August, 1853, for the murder of a young woman in Dunsandle Wood. The rope used was 10 lines in diameter; the knot was large, formed of three turns of the rope, and, on the noose being tightened by the executioner, corresponded to the occipital protuberance. His weight was 10½ stone, and he was allowed a drop of 7½ feet. These data give us as follows: —
work done = 147 x 15⁄2 = 1102 foot-pounds.
In this case, as Dr. King remarks, “there was no dislocation or fracture of the vertebral column, or injury of the ligaments or of the spinal cord.”
Case II. On the 11th of May, 1858, Patrick Lydon was hanged in Galway for the murder of his wife. Lydon was a small man, only 5 feet 5 inches in height; the diameter of the rope was 10 lines; his weight was 9½ stone, and the drop 11 feet. Hence we find
work done = 133 x 11 = 1463 foot-pounds.
In this case, “that portion of the anterior common ligament of the spine which passes from the body of the second to that of the third cervical vertebra was ruptured, so that the left halves of the bodies of the above-mentioned vertebrae were separated from each other by an interval of one-eighth of an inch, but there was no displacement.”
These criminals were executed with the same rope, and death in the second case was not preceded by violent muscular convulsions, as in the first case — a fact which is readily accounted for by the excess of shock in the proportion of 1463 to 1102.
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.*
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’.
Ironically, 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.
“Land agents” — the rent-squeezing fist of distant landlords — were not popular people in Ireland. These bill collectors literally ran people out of house and home: one late 19th century land agent in Ireland recalled in his memoirs having received over a hundred threatening letters and, in November 1884, having his house in Kerry dynamited.
So the 1857 murder of Tipperary land agent John Ellis drew little surprise (his life had been attempted at least twice before, when he evicted people to prospective starvation during the Great Famine), and drew scarcely any mourning.
“He had been earning this for many a year, if any man however bad could be said to earn such an end, by turning people out in the road,” an observer noted. That observer was the Archbishop … talk about a tough crowd.
Since £90 had been left undisturbed in the murdered man’s pockets, authorities were pretty sure it was no passing robber that got the best of John Ellis but someone who targeted the hated land agent. However, the only witness — and the word applies only in the loosest sense — was the teenage cart-driver who had been ferrying Ellis home near midnight when his passenger had been shot by ambush from the bushes. Young Thomas Burke hadn’t seen anything useful.
Still, within only days, police had zeroed in on their suspects — with classic tunnel vision.
In fine, the working official hypothesis was that Ellis had been shot over a personal grudge, and not because of his distasteful profession. William and Daniel Cormack had a sister who had just given birth out of wedlock in the poorhouse; they had another sister who was known to be carrying on with John Ellis, who was a notorious cad during his downtime between evictions. The idea was that the brothers shot Ellis to preserve their one sister from the other sister’s fate.
With no actual evidence to buttress this just-so story, John Law got to twisting arms. An 11-year-old girl was parked in solitary confinement for two months to try to get her to incriminate the Cormacks.
The child, to her glory, stubbornly refused to do so. But Thomas Burke, the cart-driver, could not equal her steel. After initially deposing that he had seen nothing — it was very dark, after all — he managed to “remember” that he actually had seen the Cormacks on the scene after all. Another man also “verified” this testimony.
On the strength of these eminently impeachable eyewitnesses the Cormacks were doomed to die. Burke would later admit that he lied, and 2,000-plus people signed a petition pleading for a pardon.
None was forthcoming.
Mounting a public scaffold at Nenagh for a crowd welling with pity, Daniel Cormack made a dying declaration that everyone believed: “Lord have mercy on me, for you know, Jesus, that I neither had hand, act, nor part in that for which I am about to die. Good people, pray for me.”
This rank injustice only rankled more* as years passed.
Fifty-two years later the hanged boys were exhumed from their graves in Nenagh Gaol and given a long honorary procession to their native town of Loughmore, where they were laid to rest in a prominent white mausoleum that can still be visited today.
The plaque at that structure records the closest thing to the verdict of history upon the case:
By the Irish Race in memory of the brothers DANIEL and WILLIAM CORMACK who for the murder of a land agent named ELLIS were hanged at NENAGH after solemn protestation by each on the scaffold of absolute and entire innocence of that crime, the 11th day of May 1858. The tragedy of the brothers occurred through false testimony procured through GOLD and terror, the action in their trial of JUDGE KEOGH, a man who considered personally, politically, religiously and officially was one of the monsters of mankind, and the verdict of a prejudiced, partisan packed perjured jury. Clear proof of the innocence of the brothers afforded by ARCHBISHOP LEAHY to the VICEROY of the day but he nevertheless gratified the appetite of a bigoted, exterminating and ascendancy caste by a judicial murder of the kind which lives bitterly and perpetually in a nation’s remembrance.
* A later ballad (just one of several) ramps up the nationalist-confrontation factor for the age of Fenianism … and fabricates the detail of an exculpatory thunderstorm.
In the year of fifty eight, my boys, that was the troublesome time
When cruel landlords and their agents were rulers of our isle.
It was then that Ellis was shot down by an unknown hand.
When the news spread round Killara that Trent’s agent he was shot,
The police were then informed and assembled on the spot.
They searched every field and garden, every lane and every shed,
Until they came to McCormack’s house where two boys were in bed.
They accused these boys of murder from information they had got
From the coachman who was driving at the time that Ellis was shot.
They said that they were innocent, but ’twas all of no avail.
They were handcuffed and made prisoners and conveyed to County Gaol.
At the Spring Assizes these two young men stood their trial in Nenagh town.
By a packed jury of Orangemen, they were guilty found.
The judge addressed the prisoners. He asked what they had to say
Before he signed their execution for eleventh day of May.
“In Mill Killara we were reared, between Thurles and Templemore,
Well known by all inhabitants around the parish of Loughmore.
We’re as innocent of shooting Ellis as the child in the cradle do lie,
And can’t see the reason, for another man’s crime, we are condemned to die.”
The execution it took place, by their holy priest reconciled, their maker for to face.
Such thunder, rain and lightning has ne’er been witnessed since
As the Lord sent down on that day, as a token of their innocence,
That their sould may rest in heaven above as their remains rest in Loughmore.