Despite the late date — the entire cosmology of witchery was coming apart by the 18th century — she fit the classical demographic profile of a witch hunt victim. Wagemann was an aged — 66 or 67 at the time of her trial, she thought — and penniless woman who knew her way around medicinal herbs and had a pre-existing reputation for witchcraft.
When the burning times were truly aflame, marginal people like this could easily be ignited by the accusations a torturer wrung from the last luckless soul to be named to the Black Sabbath. By 1716, when Wagemann went on trial, the case strangely conjoined an ancient superstition to a ponderous Enlightenment legal process, with an 879-page codex of the interrogations with vague witness accusations endorsed by jurists at the University of Tübingen.*
There weren’t any raging famines or plagues afoot that demanded supernatural attribution. It seems in this case that before the neighbors could accuse her of drying up their cows and such, Anna Maria Wagemann was targeted thanks to the oldest enmity in the book: family politics. A daughter-in-law of our principal was either quite convinced she had married into sorcery or else quite weary of the dynamic at family meals, and it was her denunciations (supported by her 9- and 12-year-old daughters) that brought Wagemann to book. It’s difficult to piece together the chain of causation; this woman, Anna Margarethe Wagemann, was herself suspected of witchcraft and jailed for many weeks,** so her charge too might have been issued under duress. In the end, it was only Anna Maria who was tried, and Anna Margarethe gave evidence against her — although Anna Margarethe was also punished by being made to witness the execution with her young daughters, and then being expelled from Fürfeld.
On December 27, 1864, Richard Hale was hanged at the Stafford Gaol for the murder of his eight-year-old daughter, Eliza Silletto.
Little Eliza’s body had been found in a cornfield in Coseley in the West Midlands region of England on August 2 that year. Her body was so badly decomposed that at first it was impossible to determine the gender, but it was assumed to be a girl because it was wearing girls’ clothing. Although authorities couldn’t determine the precise cause of death due to the decomposition, they believed the child’s throat had been cut. The body was eventually identified as Eliza. Her father had reported her missing on July 20.
Richard Hale was known in the area as a bit of a hard case: he had recently done time for manslaughter. The victim in that case was his wife, Eliza’s mother, who had starved to death.
After his release, he shacked up with Cecilia Baker and, although not legally married, they lived as man and wife. He had been heard to say he wished his daughter was “out of the way.”
Both Hale and his girlfriend were both arrested and charged with murder, but Baker had to be released for lack of evidence.
However, a witness came forward and said he thought he might have seen the murder. According to John Jones, he was walking near the cornfield when he saw a man and a woman pushing a little girl back and forth between them, harder and harder until the woman actually threw the girl at the man and then turned and started walking away. The little girl started crying loudly, then the sobs stopped abruptly.
Jones hadn’t reported the incident at the time because he didn’t find it suspicious. After all, who commits a murder in broad daylight right in front of a witness?
Jones identified Eliza’s father and his paramour as the man and the woman he had seen that day. His statement gave the authorities the evidence they needed to re-arrest Cecilia Baker for her role in the crime.
Given Jones’s identification and Hale’s criminal history, it wasn’t hard to convince a jury of the couple’s guilt. Hale was sentenced to death, but Cecilia’s death sentence was respited because she was pregnant. Her sentence was eventually commuted and she served a life term at the Knaphill Female Convict Prison in Surrey — the same place where the notorious poisoner Florrie Maybrick did time decades later.
For his part, Hale suffered a public double execution alongside an unrelated murderer, Charles Brough. The visibly nervous Hale pled his innocence all the way to the gallows.
On this date in 1886, 45-year-old William S. Wilson was hanged for murder in Jonesboro, Illinois. He had killed his wife, Margaret.
Wilson was good at producing offspring — he was the father of at least seven children and possibly as many as nine — but not so good at providing for them. At Christmas in 1885, he left his family and went to Kentucky, leaving his destitute wife and kids only $5 in cash (the equivalent of about $130 in modern terms) and very little fuel. When supplies ran out in early January, several neighbors took pity on Margaret Wilson and her brood and banded together to cut enough firewood to get them through the winter.
When William returned home on January 7, however, he was furious when he learned Margaret had shamed him by accepting charity.
Wilson berated his wife for allowing the neighbors to act. He chased the heavily pregnant woman out of their cabin and shot her down in the mud and slush. The sight of her near-term unborn baby vainly kicking against the interior wall of her abdomen appalled witnesses, who could do nothing to save it. Details such as these illustrate the brutality that often characterizes these all-too-common wife-killing cases.
William had shot Margaret twice: once in the chest inside the house, and once again outdoors as she was running away. As she lay dying on the frozen ground he walked away. He didn’t get far before he was arrested.
A contemporary newspaper article speculated that William might be crazy, noting that he had been “affected for a long time with some incurable disease” and “is not regarded by some as sane.” But it wasn’t enough. William paid the ultimate price for his crime eleven months after the murder.
Lamb’s son was the resident bully at the local Braden River School until one day that January he picked a fight with the son of Dave Kennedy and surprisingly got his — the bully’s — ass kicked.
Like many a child since, young master Lamb sent his problem up the generational chain of command. Ed Lamb, a mill hand, raised the beef with Dave Kennedy, a farmer, when the latter stopped by the mill a few days later to sell his wares, even menacing Kennedy with a knife.
But for the second time, a Kennedy went all lion on a Lamb and overpowered his antagonist. Enraged and embarrassed, Lamb stalked away to his nearby home, got a shotgun, and wasted Dave Kennedy. Masculinity: vindicated. Stunned bystanders allowed Lamb to escape.
Our Manatee County correspondent gives the surreal vignette from his own family history of the Kennedy children — being dismissed from school at news of the murder — walking home on a dirt road that very day and passing the disgraced Lamb family on a wagon with their possessions, heading out of town. “One of the children standing beside the roadway became frightened thinking that Ed Lamb would pop out fo the trunk at any moment.” He didn’t: Ed was on a lam all his own, and was recaptured the next morning and spirited away to Tampa to protect him from lynching. Lamb spent the months between his conviction and his execution harrying the local newspaper with letters entreating folks straighten up and get right with God, letters that notably failed to breathe word one of apology to the Kennedies.
The drop fell at 12 minutes past 12:00 non. But the rope slipped and the prisoner was raised a second time and shot into eternity. He was rendered unconscious by the first shock and never knew that he was let to fall a second time. His neck was broken by the second fall and he was pronounced dead by Dr. John Holten of Sarasota. He mounted the gallows cool and fearless and died without a murmur or a struggle. Inside the jail, 40 witnesses were in the jail when the execution took place, the gallows being inside the building. A few white people and a great many Negroes were congregated around the jail, but perfect order was maintained.
Lamb’s son, brother and sister-in-law were present when he mounted the scaffold, but were overcome and left before the drop fell. The doomed man kissed them goodbye and asked them to meet him in heaven. His wife was unable to come to the jail to see him for the last time. Was photographed. Lamb dressed himself for the scaffold with great deliberation. And at his request, was photographed after being attired for death. He talked freely. But in his last speech he said nothing about the crime for which he suffered. He said that he was willing to die. That he had made his peace with God and wanted all of his heirs to meet him in a better world. Sheriff Wyatt was cool and carried out his part well. The noose was adjusted and the black cap pulled down over the prisoner’s face. And the trap sprung that sent the murderer to meet his maker. The death warrant directed that the execution take place in private between the hours of 11:30 and 12:00, but the sheriff allowed the condemned man 12 minutes longer lease on life.
Manatee County paid Coursey and Barnett $16.70 for Lamb’s hangin’ suit, and paid J.W. Wilhelm & Co. $21.35 for his coffin.
According to a note in the memoirs (French, natch) kept by Le Puy master tanner Antoine Jacmon, “the portrait and effigie of the noble Jean de Mourgues” was publicly beheaded in place of the flesh of the noble Jean de Mourgues, as penalty for the latter’s attempt to murder his own uncle.
According to the author’s note, this punishment had so little effect that Jean de Mourgues successfully carried out the assassination in a hail of gunfire two years later.
On this date in 1568, Leonor de Cisneros was burned as a heretic in Valladolid — nine years late, by her reckoning.
Leonor de Cisneros (English Wikipedia entry | a token Spanish Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed German) and her much older husband Antonio Herrezuelo* were among the first converts to the Lutheran circle in Valladolid funded by Don Carlos de Seso. The Inquisition got its hands on these wrongthinkers in the late 1550s and the result was an auto de fe on October 8, 1559 at which King Philip personally witnessed the Christlike suffering of Don Carlos and 12 of his adherents.
However, while 13 died, dozens of others succumbed to the Inquisition’s pressure to recant, and live. Leonor de Cisneros was one of them.
The monstrous spectacle of the auto de fe featured an elaborate symbolic language encoded for the spectators in the ritual sanbenitos in which the accused were made to parade, such as the example pictured at right.** Different patterns denoted which heretics were bound for the stake, and which had reconciled to a wary Church … and it is said that when Antonio, en route to his pyre draped in illustrations of hellfire to represent his fatal obduracy, beheld his wife in the colors of a penitent, he savagely reproached her cowardice.
Obviously shaken, Leonor returned to her prison with a prayer in her soul and a flea in her ear. Soon enough she had relapsed into her heresy, and this time no punishment or exhortation could move her — knowing as she well did that in her stubbornness she solicited her martyrdom.
* Leonor was born in the mid-1530s, so would have married and converted to Protestantism around the age of 18. Antonio was born about 1513.
At noon on this date in 1862, William Robert Taylor was hanged at Lancaster Castle before a large crowd (some reports place the number at 100,000) for a shocking spree of violence that took four people’s lives, three of them children. In the 38yearold man’s pocket was a handkerchief which, he was promised, would be delivered to his wife after his death.
The story that ended with Taylor’s execution began in October 1861, when he rented a shop in Manchester, England, from the real estate agency Evan Mellor and Son. The following month, Taylor complained to Mellor about the boiler, saying it was broken and the pipes were leaking and might burst at any time.
Whether Mellor had the repairs done or not was never established for sure. But the fact of the matter is that a few months later, on one Sunday in January, the pipes froze and then burst, killing one of Taylor’s four children: Maria Jane, aged seven. She was badly scalded and suffered horribly before dying.
Taylor asked Mellor to give him £50 in compensation for the tragedy.* Mellor refused.
The two men had already come into conflict with each other because Taylor was months behind in his rent. Now, they were enemies.
The griefstricken family soon ran into further financial trouble. They were short on food, short on coal, and had to bury little Maria in an unmarked pauper’s grave because they couldn’t afford a funeral. Within weeks, creditors showed up to repossess everything they owned, taking even the laundry that was hung out to dry, and snatching a comb right out of of the oldest child’s hand as she was fixing her hair.
The Taylor family’s belongings were not worth enough to pay the back rent, however, and Mellor instituted eviction proceedings. Taylor had no legal or even practical basis for continued resistance, but he had the embittered vitor of pride and injury to pit against his Dickensian landlord. Stubbornly, Taylor insisted on remaining with his family at their home in Britannia Buildings rather than submitting to a workhouse, even though by this time they were hungry and cold and had no furniture and nothing to wear but the clothes they stood in.
And Taylor pere had a seething grudge against Evan Mellor.
On May 16, 1862, Evan Mellor arrived at his offices at St. James’s Chambers, South King Street, and was met in the stairwell by William and his wife, Martha Ann Taylor. Both of them were armed, Martha with a gun and William with a carving knife ten inches long. Without warning, William Taylor stabbed Mellor in the chest eleven times, once penetrating the heart. The dying man stumbled downstairs and a porter saw him and rushed to his aid. In response, Martha Taylor shot the porter. The couple fled from the scene.
The porter recovered from his injury, but Mellor died a short time later. The Taylors were eventually caught and taken to the police station. William’s response to his arrest was, “Thank God, I have now finished my work.” He gave the police the keys to his home at Britannia Buildings and told them to use the smallest one to unlock the back bedroom.
When two police officers arrived at residence and went in the back, they discovered a tragic scene: lying on the floor were the bodies of the Taylors’ three children. They had been washed and their hair had been combed carefully. They were dressed in long, clean white nightgowns with black sashes, and had black ribbons tied around their wrists and necks. Labels pinned on their chests gave their names and ages: Mary Hannah, age 11, Hannah Maria, age 6, and William Robert Jr., age 4. On the back of each of the labels was an identical note reading:
We are six, but one at Harpurhey Cemetery lies, thither our bodies take. Mellor and Son are our cruel murderers but God and our loving parents will avenge us. Love rules here; we are all going to our sister, to part no more.
(The Taylors kept their silence as to the manner of the children’s deaths. Authorities had the little ones autopsied but could never fix on a cause: their organs were healthy, their bodies unbruised, and there were no evident indications of either poisoning or suffocation.)
William was charged with the murder of Evan Mellor, and Martha with being an accessory to murder. (She told police that she and not her husband had killed Mellor, but the evidence proved otherwise.) They appeared at their joint trial dressed in mourning. In court, no mention was made of Mary, Hannah and William Jr.’s deaths.
There was no question of William having committed the crime; multiple witnesses had seen what happened, he’d been arrested with the bloody knife still in his possession, and he had confessed. His lawyer had no alternative but to plead insanity: that William’s mind had snapped under the weight of his grief and financial ruin. The defense attorney stressed that, although his client was a killer, this didn’t mean he would be dangerous in the future:
He asked them carefully to consider the character and circumstances of the murder itself. Horrible as it was, fierce and violent as it was, it was of such a nature as could hardly be accounted for by any of the ordinary mental conditions in which men are placed. They were not dealing with a man who up to this time had given any indication of a ruffianly or brutal disposition; but with a father of the deepest affection who succeeded in inspiring the woman standing beside him with a devotion almost unparalleled. They were not dealing with a bloodthirsty man.
It didn’t work, and the judge’s summation seemed calculated to crush any empathy the jurymen might have felt for the murderer. William, he remarked, was “acting under a strong feeling of resentment” and so he was “a perfectly sane man, acting under a sane impulse.”
Guilty (left), not guilty (right).
In the end, Martha was acquitted of being an accessory to Mellor’s murder after her defense counsel called the eyewitness testimony into question, but William was convicted of murder.
Mary, Hannah and William Jr. would have been consigned to a pauper’s grave like their sister, but the community took up a subscription and raised £60 to pay for their funerals and a fine headstone, next to where Maria is buried in Harpurhey Cemetery.
Their father lies buried elsewhere, in a mass grave with other executed convicts.
Phrenology fans will surely enjoy the Liverpool Mercury‘s September 15, 1862 gallows reportage.
Hanged along with Taylor on the same occasion was a Lancashire trade unionist named John Ward. Ward and some fellow bricklayers had by cover of darkness destroyed some 18,000 bricks belonging to a combative boss. Britain’s grand tradition of machine wrecking was by this point no longer a capital crime by its own right, but returning from a satisfactory operation the masked workers were challenged by two policemen in Ashton-under-Lyne and one of those cops was shot dead in the resulting affray. Ward paid that forfeit.
* Historical inflation measurements get a little dodgy when the increments are centuries, but this 50 quid would equate to a demand for several thousand pounds today.
On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.
The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.
In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.
A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-on-Rats, an arsenic-based poison, in the well.
Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)
New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.
On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-in-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.
Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.
On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.
Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.
“Truth is stranger than fiction.” In how many ways is this aphorism verified! Nowhere is it more strangely true than in the dark and mysterious records of crime. That a perilous sea, only occasionally visited by the ships of commerce and civilization, should witness the development of bands of pirates whose bold and cruel deeds have terrified the voyagers, and furnished themes with which the romancer could charm the morbid tastes of the lovers of the gruesome, is a thing to be expected. That a wild and sparsely settled region, abounding in fastnesses and hiding places, yet crossed by trains bearing rich treasures, should be the field in which a drove of dehumanized desperadoes carried on their nefarious trade, is in no way surprising. Storm-tossed, wreck-strewn seas and hurricane-swept prairies, nurture, or at least harbor, such characters as their appropriate children. There is nothing strange in the fact that wild regions should be the home of wilder men. The romancer can make his story as wild and improbable as he chooses; there is no one who will rise to contradict him.
It is strange, however, that such men should spring up amid peaceful surroundings. It is stranger still that a penchant for crime, carried out into deeds of more reckless daring than those of the wild and unrestrained West, should be nurtured in the quiet rural districts of Northwestern Ohio. Yet, strange to say, in this almost Arcadian corner of a great civilized state, a corner whose agrarian peacefulness was never broken by harsher sounds than the melody of church bells, or the cheerful call of the locomotive, there have been conceived and carried into execution crimes that would stand out boldly even on the pages of the wildest fiction. This corner of the state was the home of the now famous “Jack Page” band of arsonists, who terrorized the country a quarter of a century ago. Here, also, lived the man who furnished the occasion of this sketch, Frank Van Loon. Of his dare-devil deed let the reader judge.
The Supremacy of Nerve
On the seventh day of August, 1891, the village of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, Ohio, was startled out of its quiet, humdrum routine by a daring daylight robbery and murder. A young man, unknown to the few chance stragglers about the streets of the quiet village, entered a hardware store. By sheer force he compelled the person in charge to give him two loaded .38-caliber revolvers. With the dash of a true desperado, he rushed across the street to the bank. He entered the bank, broke the glass in front of the cashier’s desk, reached through and secured $1,365. The bank officials, terrified by the suddenness of the attack, dropped through a trap-door into the cellar. One of them, by venturing to look out of his hiding place, was shot by the nervy robber. The ball took effect in the shoulder, producing a painful, though not fatal wound. While the desperado was holding the bank employees at bay, an old man by the name of William Vandemark entered the bank to transact some business. Vandemark was ignorant of the fact that a desperate robbery was at that moment being committed. The robber, hearing some one enter, turned quickly and fired at the innocent intruder. The shot was fatal and Vandemark was instantly killed. As the desperate man rushed out of the bank, he shot at a man who was peacefully driving along the street. The daring young man made his escape across the fields without being recognized.
A Mother-in-Law’s Vengeance
Who this daring robber and murderer was might have remained an undiscovered fact, had it not been that a certain young farmer by the name of Frank Van Loon had, by his innate meanness, incurred the implacable hatred of his wife’s mother. Ever suspicious of her son-in-law, the woman entered his room on the morning of the day following his crime, noted that his boots were muddy, and found in his pockets the guns and the stolen money. This woman, having heard in the intervening time of the crime committed in Columbus Grove, reported her findings to the officers. The officers, knowing of the unhappy condition of things in the Van Loon home, for a time paid no heed to the advices which they received, thinking it was only a mother-in-law’s spite [at] work. But when the information had been several times repeated they concluded to investigate, and found things as the mother-in-law had reported. Van Loon was arrested. He was given a speedy trial, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged.
In the Palace of Death
Frank Van Loon, serial number 23,313, on the twelfth day of May, 1892, entered the Annex of the Ohio Penitentiary. It was his final leave-taking of God’s beautiful world of sunshine and fragrance. Never again was he to see the earth and sky meet. When he left that Place of Doom it would be as a lifeless body.
Through the law’s delay Van Loon was permitted to drag on a miserable existence between hope and despair for fifteen months. In these months of waiting he employed a part of the time in writing a history of his life. In this composition the natural selfishness and brutality of his nature were plainly manifest. It was evident from the underlying tone of his autobiography that he did not recognize that his fellow-man had any rights which he was bound to respect, especially if those rights stood in the way of his wishes being attained. His towering egotism was undoubtedly the soil which nurtured and brought to maturity the disposition which made possible his cruel crime. [editor’s note: my researches have failed to locate this interesting artifact for the modern reader’s edification.]
This egotism was constantly being made evident by his actions during his stay in the Annex. Much of the time during his waking hours was passed in quarreling with his keeper. These contentions one day led to a desperate struggle between Van Loon and Guard Bowman for the possession of an ice pick. When Van Loon had been let out of the cage for some purpose, he endeavored to get possession of an ice pick, as the only available weapon with which to kill the Guard. Both men being well developed and powerful, a desperate struggle ensued, in which the superior skill and greater endurance attained by careful training gave the victory to Guard Bowman.
The Deepening Shadows
Frank Van Loon’s long stay in the Annex was drawing to a close. The brief day of his earthly career was rapidly nearing the end. The shadows were growing deeper. Soon his sun would set in utter darkness. Van Loon had lived but twenty-three years of mortal life. They had, however, been years fruitful of enormous results in crime and meanness.
August 4, 1895, was his last day on earth. It was a dark and stormy night which preceded that day, but not more dark or more stormy than had been the young life that was that night to be taken as a forfeit to the State. Frank Van Loon’s life had been a rebellion against the laws of God and man. While the officers of human law were preparing to take satisfaction for the outrage that had been committed against it, the artillery of heaven was flashing defiance and thundering menaces and pouring down torrents of rain, as if to make it known to the universe that the sin-scorched soul which the laws of man had decreed should no longer dwell among the habitations of earth, should not rise into that world where “no wicked thing cometh,” but must turn away from heaven and wander forever in the “outer darkness.”
When the midnight hour had come, the march from the Guard Room began. Noiselessly the guards moved over the sawdust covered corridors to the Annex. The Warden, Hon. C.C. James, read the warrant to the condemned man. The same nerve that characterized the attack on the bank was manifest in this last and closing ordeal of his life. Unassisted and unfalteringly he mounted the steps to the gallows and and took his place on the trap.
While standing on the trap Van Loon sang in a strong, clear voice, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
There was no tremor in his voice, nor quaking in his limbs. Apparently without fear he gave voice to the familiar hymn. Strangely the music floated out on the midnight air, while the terrific electrical storm, raging without, seemed playing the accompaniment. The deep diapason of Nature’s orchestra, blending with the stentorian voice of the singer, echoed and reverberated through the adjoining corridors of the prison until many of the prisoners were startled from their slumbers. On hearing the hymn and its wild accompaniment, and remembering that it was the night of Van Loon’s execution, they listened with bated breath, scarcely knowing whether to attribute the unwonted disturbance to earth, heaven or hell; wondering whether the voice was that of man, angel or demon.
At the close of this strange oratorio, the trap was sprung; the body shot downward. The execution was a success. Frank Van Loon was no more.
On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.
In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.
Forty-six-year-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.
Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.
The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.
On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.
The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.
By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”
“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”
At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.
Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.
Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”
When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.
The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.
Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.
On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.
While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.
Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.
Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.
There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summingup about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s goresoaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”
In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.
Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.