1882: Myles Joyce, Maamtrasna murder miscarriage

Add comment December 15th, 2016 James Joyce

Thanks to James Joyce for the guest post on “the ancient tribe of the Joyces”, originally published as “Ireland at the Bar” on September 16, 1907 during Joyce’s Italian exile for nationalist newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera of Austrian-dominated Trieste. As the reader will see, James Joyce is interested here in this case as symbolic,* but readers curious about the particulars of the murders and this still-notorious miscarriage of justice might want to tune into the Irish History Podcast’s three-part series on the case or follow the various links for more. -ed.

The definitive 1992 book on this trial, Maamtrasna: The Murders and the Mystery, is out of print but not difficult to find on the used book market. An earlier volume, The Maamtrasna Massacre: Impeachment of the Trials, is in the public domain.

Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony. The magistrate said:

‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’

The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said:

‘He says no, your worship.’

‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’

The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly:

‘He says no, your worship.’

When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose. [The hanging was botched -ed.]

The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money.

Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.


Myles Joyce (leftmost) along with Patrick Joyce (center) and Patrick Casey (right). All three hanged together.

There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator. In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots.

In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague. But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty-eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis, which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.

I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was in prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.

* Even, Christine O’Neill-Bernhard argues in “Symbol of the Irish Nation, or of a Foulfamed Potheen District: James Joyce on Myles Joyce” (James Joyce Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1995) to the point of indulging “highly tendentious” polemical misrepresentations, such as inflating the middle-aged Myles Joyce into a 70-year-old patriarch. In James Joyce’s defense, his expatriate apartments on the Adriatic did not comprise a strong fact-checking position with regard to Irish criminal annals, and he might have been working entirely from memory.

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1868: Michael Barrett, the last public hanging in England

4 comments May 26th, 2015 Headsman

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 Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s view of the notoriously rowdy mob at Frederick and Marie Manning execution.

“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.

Despite his certain doom, Barrett eloquently vindicated himself at his sentencing

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.”

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1883: Joe Brady, the first of the Invincibles

Add comment May 14th, 2011 Headsman

“All patriots on earth must respect him (Joe Brady).”

John Boyle O’Reilly

On this date in 1883, Britain set about the grim work of avenging the assassination of its Irish plenipotentiaries by hanging Joe Brady at Kilmainham Gaol.

“He was brought up as a stonemason,” the May 15, 1883 London Times recalled of the by-then-hanged man, “of herculean strength, his occupation developing the muscular power of his arms, which told with such terrible effect when he drove the knives into the bodies of his victims.”

Those knife-driven bodies belonged to Irish civil servant Thomas Henry Burke (a quisling figure, in the eyes of Irish nationalists) and the English politician Lord Frederick Cavendish, who were jumped while taking a stroll in a Dublin park on May 6, 1882.

The authors of their destruction — beyond Joe Brady, personally — were the splinter of radical Fenians known as “the Invincibles”, who figured on the vincibility of the collaborators and informers who made British control of Ireland possible. Especially their vincibility to stonemason-wielded surgical knives.

Efficient, and surely less than genteel, police work busted up the cell after those spectacular homicides, inducing leadership figures to turn state’s evidence against their subordinates. Four more men consequently hanged in the month following Brady’s execution. The stool pigeons got to walk.

History did not delay her verdict on these characters.

While Invincible-turned-informer James Carey was promptly murdered in retaliation, Brady et al joined nationalist mythology as martyrs who “died a Fenian blade.”

Ballad of Joe Brady

I am a bold undaunted youth, Joe Brady is my name,
From the chapel of North Anne Street one Sunday as I came,
All to my surprise who should I espy but Moreno and Cockade;
Says one unto the other: “Here comes our Fenian blade”.

I did not know the reason why they ordered me to stand,
I did not know the reason why they gave me such a command.
But when I saw James Carey there, I knew I was betrayed.
I’ll face death before dishonour and die a Fenian blade.

They marched me up North Anne Street without the least delay,
The people passed me on the path, it filled them with dismay.
My sister cried, “I see you Joe, if old Mallon gives me lave,
Keep up your heart for Ireland like a true-born Fenian Blade.

It happened in the Phoenix Park all in the month of May,
Lord Cavendish and Burke came out for to see the polo play.
James Carey gave the signal and his handkerchief he waved,
Then he gave full information against our Fenian blades.

It was in Kilmainham Prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there all in mourning for her son.
She threw back her shawl and said to all:
“Though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer and he died a Fenian blade.”

And if the Times‘ report (the same May 15 article) is to be believed (reporters weren’t actually allowed to witness the execution itself), Brady wore that invincible conviction to the scaffold.

“Up to the last moment,” the paper reported, “he retained the animal courage which he displayed in the deed itself, which, though dastardly as regards the unarmed men whom he attacked, was daring in its other circumstances.”

Speaking of animal courage.

Our man Brady, very famous in Ireland around the turn of the century, makes a little appearance in the referential soup of James Joyce’s Ulysses* for animal spirits of a different sort: a conversation about his hanging provides the departure point for a Joycean meander into the phenomenon of scaffold priapism.

–There’s one thing it hasn’t a deterrent effect on, says Alf.

–What’s that? says Joe.

–The poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged, says Alf.

–That so? says Joe.

–God’s truth, says Alf. I heard that from the head warder that was in

Kilmainham when they hanged Joe Brady, the invincible. He told me when they cut him down after the drop it was standing up in their faces like a poker.

–Ruling passion strong in death, says Joe, as someone said.

–That can be explained by science, says Bloom. It’s only a natural phenomenon, don’t you see, because on account of the …

And then he starts with his jawbreakers about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon.

The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae and consequent scission of the spinal cord would, according to the best approved tradition of medical science, be calculated to inevitably produce in the human subject a violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centres of the genital apparatus, thereby causing the elastic pores of the CORPORA CAVERNOSA to rapidly dilate in such a way as to instantaneously facilitate the flow of blood to that part of the human anatomy known as the penis or male organ resulting in the phenomenon which has been denominated by the faculty a morbid upwards and outwards philoprogenitive erection IN ARTICULO MORTIS PER DIMINUTIONEM CAPITIS.

* As was Brady’s getaway driver James “Skin-the-Goat” Fitzharris, who became a national celebrity by serving a long prison sentence for refusing to inform on anyone.

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1882: George Henry Lamson, aconitine poisoner

1 comment April 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged at England’s Wandsworth Prison for poisoning his brother-in-law in pursuit of an inheritance.

Once decorated for his volunteer medical practicioning in the benighted lands of eastern Europe, Dr. Lamson fell prey upon his return to England to morphine addiction which cleaned out his assets.

Desperate to resolve his debts, he administered a lethal aconitine dose to the paraplegic 18-year-old Percy John.

Apparently, the good doctor had learned all about this efficacious chemical at the knee of Queen Victoria’s own physician, Robert Christison.

Unfortunately, Lamson hadn’t been keeping up with his technical journals in the meantime: Christison had taught him that aconitine poisoning was undetectable, but a forensic technique to identify it had subsequently been developed.

(Minor-league milestone: Lamson’s was the first recorded criminal defense that attempted to blame ptomaine poisoning, a now-discredited theory that death can be induced by alkaloid toxins from decomposing food. But the lawyer making that defense would later write that he not only believed his client guilty, he also thought Lamson had iced his wife’s older brother, Herbert.)

The particulars of Lamson’s trial are recounted at length in this free book, from which we excerpt the interesting description of executioner William Marwood’s craft in arranging the scene.

Lamson was a more powerfully built man than he appeared, weighing upwards of 11 stone 12 Ibs., and the executioner, evidently fearing that hie strength would operate somewhat against a sharp and quick fall, fastened back his shoulders in a manner which precluded all possibility of the culprit resisting the action of the drop …

When the convict was pinioned the procession moved on, the clergyman the meanwhile reading the service of the Church appointed for the burial of the dead, the doomed man respondnig almost inaudibly to the words as they were uttered by the chaplain. It was with great difficulty now that he could walk at all; indeed, it is certain that had he not been supported by the two warders who stood on either side of him, he would have fallen to the earth. Suddenly he came in sight of the gallows, a black structure, about 30 yards distant. The grave, newly dug, was close at hand. The new and terrible spectacle here acted once more with painful effect upon the condemned man, for again he almost halted and fell. But the warders, never leaving hold of him, moved on, while Marwood came behind. At last the gallows was reached, and here the clergyman bade farewell to the prisoner, while Marwood began his preparations with the rope and the beam overhead. With a view to meet any accretion of fear which might now befall the culprit, a wise provision had been made. The drop was so arranged as to part in the middle, after the fashion of two folding doors ; but, lest the doomed man might not be able to stand upon the scaffold without assistance, two planks of deal had been placed over the drop, one on either side of the rope, so that up to the latest moment the two warders supporting the convict might stand securely and hold him up, without danger to themselves or inconvenience to the machinery of the gallows. In this way Lamson was now kept erect while Marwood fastened his legs and put the cap over his eyes. He must have fallen had the arrangement been otherwise, for his effort to appear composed had by this time failed. Indeed, from what now occurred it is evident that the convict yet hoped for a few moments more of life, for, as Marwood proceeded to pull the cap down over his face he pitifully begged that one more prayer might be recited by the chaplain. Willing as the executioner possibly might have been to listen to this request, he had, of course, no power to alter the progress of the service, and was obliged to disregard this last demand of the dying man. Signalling to the warders to withdraw their arms, he drew the lever, which released the bolt under the drop, and so launched the prisoner into eternity, [the] clergyman finished the Lord’s Prayer, in the midst of which he found himself when the lever had been pulled, and then, pronouncing the benediction, moved slowly back to the prison.

Though aconitine poisoning dates back to antiquity (the Greeks figured that the original dog from hell, Cerberus, drooled aconitine) and has been used as a literary device by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and J.K. Rowling, Dr. Lamson’s was long the last known case of criminal homicide by aconitine — until the 2009 conviction of a west London woman for slipping this illustrious mickey to her paramour in his chicken curry.

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