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The hanging of United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken in July 1798

A Record Of All Those Hanged In the Crumlin Road Prison

Authors Joe Baker and Michael Liggett at Belfast Prisons C-Wing where the condemned cell is situated Photograph - Thomas McMullan, North Belfast News


Joe Baker Michael Liggett

Glenravel Local History Project

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Belfast Executions

Belfast Executions

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n Ireland and Britain, death by hanging was the principal form of execution from Anglo-Saxon times until capital punishment was abolished in 1964. Up to 1868 all hangings were carried out in public and attracted large crowds who were at least supposed to be deterred by the spectacle, but who more probably went for the morbid excitement and the carnival atmosphere that usually surrounded such events. The modern expression Gala Day is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gallows day. After hangings retreated inside prisons, large crowds would often gather outside the gates to see the posting of the death notice or to protest the execution.


Execution statistics In the 230 year period from 1735 to 1964 there were as many as 10,935 executions in England and Wales alone, comprising 10,378 men and 557 women. In 273 of the early cases, it is not possible to be totally certain from surviving records whether a death sentence was actually carried out or not. 32 of the 375 women executed between 1735 and 1799 were burnt at the stake.

Last executions in the UK On the 26th of May 1868, Michael Barrett, a Fenian, became the last man to be publicly hanged in England, before a huge crowd outside Newgate prison, for causing an explosion at Clerkenwell in London which killed Sarah Ann Hodgkinson and six other innocent people.

The Clerkenwell Explosion Strangely the last fully public hanging in the British Isles did not take place until the 11th of August 1875, when Joseph Phillip Le Brun was executed for murder on the island of Jersey. The provisions of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 did not apply there.

The last hangings of all in Britain were carried out simultaneously at 8.00 a.m. on August the 13th, 1964 at Walton prison, Liverpool and Strangeways prison in Manchester, when Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans were executed for the murder of John West. Wales had its last execution on the 6th of May 1958, when Vivian Tweed was hanged for the murder of William Williams at Swansea. The last hanging in Northern Ireland was that of Robert McGladdery on the 20th of December 1961 at Belfast for the murder of Pearle Gamble. 21 year old Henry Burnett was the last person hanged in Scotland in the newly refurbished Condemned Suite at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen on the 15th of August 1963 for the murder of Thomas Guyan. Ruth Ellis was the last woman to suffer the death penalty in Britain on the 13th of July 1955.

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Abolition On the 9th of November 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder in the United Kingdom for a period of 5 years. On the 16th of December 1969, the House of Commons reaffirmed its decision that capital punishment for murder should be permanently abolished. On a free vote, the House voted by 343 to 185, a majority of 158, that the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, should not expire. Thus, the death penalty for murder was formally abolished. The gallows A tree was the earliest form of gallows with prisoners being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from a ladder or the tail of a cart. Two trees with a beam between them formed the gallows for 33 year old Mary Blandy's execution at Oxford on April the 6th, 1752. In other places more conventional gallows were built, having either a single upright with a projecting beam cross braced to it or two uprights and a cross beam where more than one person could be hanged at a time.

Both types still required the use of a ladder or a cart to get the criminal suspended. Many of these gallows were not permanent and were dismantled after each execution. In some cases, the gallows was erected near to the scene of the crime so that Newgate the local inhabitants could see justice done. the Earl of Ferrers at Tyburn. It comprised a scaffold covered in black baize reached by a short flight of stairs. Two uprights rose from the scaffold, topped with a cross beam. Directly under the beam there was a In 1571, the famous "Triple Tree" small box like structure, some 3 feet was set up at Tyburn to replace square and 18 inches high, which previous smaller structures and was, was designed to sink down into the at least once, used for the hanging of scaffold and thus leave the criminal 24 prisoners simultaneously. This suspended. This was the forerunner was on the 23rd of June 1649 when of the "New Drop" gallows. 23 men and one woman were executed for burglary and robbery, having been conveyed there in 8 carts. Another mass execution took place on March 18th, 1740 when the famous pickpocket and thief, Jenny Diver, was hanged before a huge crowd, together with 19 other The "New Drop" gallows criminals. Tyburn’s "Triple Tree" The 9th of December 1783 saw the gallows remained in use until the end first executions on Newgate's "New of 1759 and consisted of 3 tall Drop" gallows, when nine men and (approx. 12 foot high) uprights one woman were hanged simultajoined at the top with beams in a neously by Edward Dennis and triangular form to provide a triple William Brunskill for a variety of gallows under which 3 carts could offences. The gallows was on wheels be backed at a time. The structure and was brought out specially for was removed, as it had become a each hanging by a team of horses. It cause of traffic congestion, and was was a large box like structure with replaced by a portable gallows. At two uprights supporting two the end of 1783 executions were parallel beams from which a transferred to Newgate prison maximum of a dozen criminals could (where now stands the Old Bailey in be hanged at once. The prisoners stood on a platform, 10 feet long by London). On Monday 21st of April 1760 a new 8 feet wide, released by moving a design gallows was used to execute lever or "pin" acting on a drawbar

Belfast Executions under the drop. They now fell roughly to knee level. The "New Drop" had 96 customers between February and December of 1785, with 20 men being hanged on the 2nd of February of that year. By the mid 1820's, as hangings became less frequent, the double beam gallows was replaced with a single beam pattern which could still accommodate six prisoners at a time.

The "New Drop" pattern was copied by the county gaols and soon became universal, as executions were moved from their previous sites on the outskirts of towns to the actual prison. The gallows was normally big enough to accommodate two or three prisoners side by side and was erected for each execution. The platform was between 3 and 5 feet high and shielded by either wooden boards or black cloth drapes to conceal the legs and lower body of the prisoner in their final struggles. The trapdoors were released either from underneath by withdrawing bolts or latterly from on top of the platform by pulling a lever. In some parts of the country, the gallows had far more steps up to the platform. The “New Drop” was typically erected directly outside of, or on top of the gatehouse roof of county gaols, thus sparing the prisoner the long and uncomfortable ride to the place of execution in a cart. It was also more secure and much easier to police.

Some prisons used a balcony type gallows (as at York after 1868 and Lancaster from 1800 to 1868 where the prisoner was brought directly onto the platform through first floor French windows of the “Drop Room”. After the passing of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, all executions had to take place within the walls of county prisons. The existing gallows was generally used, set up in the prison yard rather than in public. Prisons that had more frequent hangings mostly had execution sheds built in one of their exercise yards to house the gallows. The shed stood apart from the main buildings and necessitated a fairly lengthy walk from the condemned cell. In some cases the gallows were set up in the prison van’s shed. The trapdoors were typically installed over a brick lined pit. With the coming of the long drop the pit was deepened to about 12 feet deep, as drops of up to 10 feet were not unusual in William Marwood's time. Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling and made it easier for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. The gallows beam at Newgate was wide enough to accommodate four prisoners side by side, as was needed for the execution of the "Lennie Mutineers" on the 23rd of April 1876. In 1881, a new gallows was built for Newgate, consisting of two stout uprights with a cross beam. Normally only one iron band was fitted to the cross beam in the centre

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and from it 6 links of circular chain dangled, to which the rope was attached. Additional iron bands could be added for multiple hangings. On each of the uprights, was a pulley for raising the trapdoors which were operated by a lever on the platform and fell against 3 bales of cotton in an attempt to muffle the noise. All the woodwork was painted a dull buff colour.

Prior to 1884, each county was responsible for providing the gallows for carrying out the death sentences passed in that county, and therefore all sorts of designs were in use. In 1885, the Home Office commissioned Lieutenant Colonel Alton Beamish to design a standard gallows for use throughout the country. This consisted of two uprights with a cross beam in 8 inch section oak. The beam was long enough to execute 3 prisoners side by side and was set over a 12 feet long by 4 feet wide two leaf trap set level with the surrounding floor. The trapdoors were made from 3 inch thick oak and were released by a metal lever set into the floor of the execution chamber. This was a great improvement over some of the designs then in use and considerably speeded up the process. The beam had one or more iron bands attached to it from which hung lengths of chain for

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The gallows at Kirkdale attachment of the rope using "D" shackles. This made the setting of the drop more accurate. The first person to die on the new style "stepfree" gallows was Matthew William Chadwick in 1890, at Kirkdale Prison in Liverpool. The gallows in the execution shed at Wandsworth prison around 1900 is one of the very few to have been actually photographed - you can see the lever, open trap and one of the boards laid across the drop for the warders to stand on whilst holding the prisoner.

In the thoughtful way of the Home Office, at least some of these gallows had the Royal Coat of Arms displayed on the beam which must have been a great comfort to the condemned! In the early 20th century, the Victorian pattern single beam was replaced by two beams of 8 inch x 3

inch section oak, running parallel to each other about 2 inches apart. From the centre of the beams, rose two heavy gauge metal brackets each drilled with holes offset at half inch centres through which a metal pin was inserted and to which a length of chain was attached. This allowed very much more accurate adjustment of the drop. This mechanism was further refined to allow the drop to be set to within a quarter of an inch. The beams were 8 feet above the trapdoors and were generally set into the wall at each end, there being no uprights.

hinges of the opposing door, the hinge ends were no longer supported and thus cause the trap to open allowing the prisoner to drop through into the cell below. The doors were caught by rubber lined catches to stop them bouncing back and hitting the criminal. It was normal for the hangman to make a chalk T on the trap so that the prisoner's feet could be correctly positioned exactly over the centre of the two leaves. During the early 1900's, there was a move to reduce the number of "hanging prisons" and in those where executions were to continue, purpose

The condemned cell at Newgate

The trapdoors were reduced in length as multiple hangings were no longer favoured and normally consisted of two leaves each of 4 to 8 feet in length and each 2 feet wide. The one nearest the lever being conventionally hinged whilst the other had extended hinges that ran under the first leaf and were held on top of an iron drawbar which had three slots. The trap was operated by a lever on top of the platform which moved the drawbar. When the slots in the drawbar lined up with the ends of the extended

built condemned suites were constructed within a wing of the prison on three floors. One or two condemned cells were created on the first floor within 15 -20 feet of the execution room. On the ground floor was a cell into which the trap doors opened and often an autopsy room immediately adjacent to it. The 2nd floor room contained the gallows beams, their ends set into the walls, where the drop could be set in safety, without the need for stepladders. The rope was suspended from a chain, attached to an adjustment

Belfast Executions mechanism bolted to the beams and hung down through a hatch into the execution room below. Two other ropes were also attached to the beams, one on each side of the noose, for the officers supporting the prisoner to hold onto with their free hand. Pentonville


display. It was last used on the 8th of September 1961 and was kept in full working order up to 1992, being tested every six months.



Pentonville, Wandsworth and Holloway in London all used this arrangement as did Durham, Strangeways and Walton prisons. This pattern remained standard, with minor improvements up to abolition. Typically what the prisoner saw was the trapdoors, the lever and the noose hanging down from the ceiling. Britain's last working gallows, at Wandsworth prison, was dismantled in 1994 and was sent to the Prison Service Museum in Rugby, being now stored in the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham but not on

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The Noose Calcraft and his predecessors used a simple halter style noose, consisting of a loop worked into one end of a piece of hemp rope, with the other end passed through it.


This was improved on in the 1890's by passing the free end of the rope through a brass eyelet instead of just a loop of rope, which made it more free running. Following the report of the Aberdare Committee in 1888, it was decided that execution ropes would be supplied by the Prison Commission of the Home Office and not by the hangman himself. A contract was duly entered into with John Edgington & Co of the Old Kent Road in London to manufacture and supply the ropes. The execution rope was formed from a 13 foot length of 3/4" diameter Italian hemp. Early versions had no covering and a simple leather washer to hold the noose in place. From the 1920’s, the noose itself had a Chamois leather covering sewn over the rope which was intended to reduce the marking of the skin and a plain rubber washer to hold it in place. The ends of the rope, where they were spliced together, had Gutta Percha coverings (Gutta Percha is a natural waxy resin and was used as the filling for golf balls). The Gutta Percha tended to splinter when cold and had to be heated with a candle

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to soften it and avoid cuts to the prisoner’s neck. In 1942, the plain rubber washer was replaced with an internally star shaped one which gripped the rope better. The Gutta Percha covering the rope over the attachment eye to the chain was omitted in 1952. In 1955 it was omitted from the noose end and replaced with vulcanised rubber. The rope was stretched before use, by dropping a sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner through the trap and leaving it suspended overnight. This reduced its diameter to about 5/8 inch. The purpose of this was to remove any tendency of the rope to stretch during the actual hanging which would reduce the force applied to the prisoner's neck. Hemp has always been the preferred material as it is both soft and strong with a smooth surface. Marwood and Berry, having positioned the noose, allowed the free rope to loop down behind the prisoner's back. Marwood had an unfortunate incident through this practice, at the hanging of James Burton at Durham in 1883. As Burton fell through the trap, the rope became entangled in his arm thus shortening the intended drop. Marwood had to haul the unfortunate man back onto the platform to free the entanglement and then pushed Burton back down into the pit where he died by strangulation. James Billington used a similar rope to Berry but coiled it up and tied it with a piece of pack thread to leave the noose at chest level to avoid the prisoner being caught up in it or himself tripping over it as at it lay on the trapdoors. This idea was also found

to speed up the process and remained in use to the end. The positioning of the eyelet of the noose under the angle of the jaw is very important as it is vital that the head is thrown backwards by the rope so that the force is transmitted into the neck vertebrae rather than being thrown forward and the force taken on the throat which tends to cause strangulation. It is also crucial that the noose is put on the right way round so that it rotates in the correct direction with the eyelet ending up under the jaw.

countries they are black. Typically the prisoner was hooded only at the last moment before the noose was put round their neck and adjusted. Although they had been able to see the gallows, the trap, the executioner and officials, and the noose dangling before them, this was found to be better than hooding them earlier and trying to lead them to the gallows as they were more frightened by not knowing what was happening. Both ideas have been tried but hooding immediately prior to the noose was normal.

The hood Over the last 250 years or so it has been customary to cover the prisoner’s face so that their final agonies would not be seen. In Tyburn and Newgate days the "hood" was actually a nightcap supplied by the prisoner. When they had finished their prayers, the hangman simply pulled it down over their face. In some cases, women might choose a bonnet with a veil instead and in other cases the prisoner possessed or chose neither. From the early 1800’s a white hood was used and the earliest verifiable record of this was for the execution of three men for High Treason in Derby in 1817. From around 1850, a white linen hood was provided by the authorities which was similar to a small pillowcase and was applied as part of the execution process. This was included in the execution box sent to county prisons from Pentonville in the 20th century. As the nightcaps had generally been white this became the traditional colour for British hoods, whereas in many other

Pinioning In England, the prisoner's hands were typically pinioned in front of them until 1892. In the days of public hangings, the prisoner's wrists were tied with a cord and often a second cord passed round the body and arms at the elbows. This was done to allow them to pray on the gallows, however, this made it easier for them to resist and fight at the end so pinioning the wrists at the sides to a leather body belt became normal by the 1850's - an idea invented by William Calcraft. James Billington introduced the idea of pinioning the prisoner's wrists behind their back using a double buckle leather strap, and this became the standard method until abolition. It also significantly reduced the time taken in the pinioning operation. With the advent of the long drop, the prisoner's legs were normally pinioned with a leather strap around the ankles to prevent them getting their feet onto the sides of the trap when the doors fell. Previously, the legs had been left free in short drop

Belfast Executions

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Britain was that of John Henry Johnson at Armley prison Leeds, on the 3rd of April 1877, when he was executed by Thomas Askern. The last woman to suffer this fate was Mary Ann Barry at Gloucester on Monday, the 12th of January, 1874. She was hanged by Robert Anderson and struggled for some three minutes after the drop fell.

hangings, although it had been normal to tie the legs of female prisoners to prevent their skirts billowing up and exposing their underwear! The "Short Drop" method Hanging using little or no drop was effectively universal up to the end of 1874. The prisoner could be suspended by a variety of means, from the back of a cart or a ladder or later by some form of trap door mechanism. Where a person was dragged off the tail of the cart they usually got only a few inches of actual drop. It was not unusual for the relatives and friends of prisoners to hang on their legs to shorten their suffering. With the standardisation on the “New Drop” gallows in the early part of the 19th century the condemned fell 12-18 inches and this was found to give a slightly quicker death than was normal using the cart. However death was

still typically by strangulation and the prisoner could struggle in agony for up to three minutes after the drop fell. After the “New Drop” was introduced the hangman sometimes had to pull down on the prisoner’s legs. The last short drop hanging in There are several recorded instances of revival

Surviving the gallows There are several recorded instances of revival in this country during the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the most famous is that of John Smith, hanged at Tyburn on Christmas Eve 1705. Having been turned off the back of the cart, he dangled for 15 minutes until the crowd began to shout "reprieve," whereupon he was cut down and taken to a nearby house where he soon recovered. He was asked what it had felt like to be hanged and this is what he told his rescuers:

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"When I was turned off I was, for some time, sensible of very great pain occasioned by the weight of my body and felt my spirits in strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. Having forced their way to my head I saw a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain. After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling or shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who had cut me down." Sixteen year old William Duell was hanged, along with 4 others, at Tyburn on the 24th of November 1740. He had been convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Griffin and was therefore to be anatomised after execution. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall, where it was noticed that he was showing signs of life. He was revived and returned to Newgate later that day. The authorities decided to reprieve him and his sentence was commuted to transportation. There are several other instances where people, including at least two women, survived their hanging. The "Long drop" or measured drop method of hanging In 1872, William Marwood introduced the "long drop" to Britain for the execution of Frederick Horry at Lincoln prison on the 1st of April of that year, as a scientifically worked out way of giving the prisoner a more humane death. The first woman to be executed by the new method was Frances Stewart

who was hanged for the murder of her grandson by Marwood on Monday the 29th of June 1874. The concept was invented by doctors in Ireland and Marwood had read about their theory. Longer drops were in use in other countries by the 1850's, but the short drop was universal in Britain at this time. During the five years from 1872 to 1877 both the short and long drop methods were in use with only Marwood using the latter. The long drop method was designed to break the prisoner’s neck by allowing them to fall a predetermined distance and then be

brought up with a sharp jerk by the rope. At the end of the drop, the body is still accelerating under the force of gravity but the head is constrained by the noose which delivers a massive blow to the back and one side of the neck, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death. The later use of the brass eyelet in the noose tended to break the neck with more certainty. Due to its position under the angle of the left jaw, the head is snapped backward with such force that the upper cervi-

Belfast Executions cal vertebrae cuts the spinal cord a little below the brain stem. The accurately measured and worked out drop removed most of the prisoner's physical suffering and made the whole process far less traumatic for the officials who now had to witness it in the confines of the execution cell instead of in the open air. The drop given from 1875 to 1892 was usually between 4 and 10 feet, depending on the weight and strength of the prisoner, the length of drop being calculated to provide a final "striking" force of approximately 1,260 lbs. force which combined with the positioning of the noose caused fracture and dislocation of the neck, usually at the 2nd and 3rd or 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae. This is the classic "hangman's fracture". The length of the drop was worked out by the formula 1,260 foot pounds divided by the body weight of the prisoner in pounds = drop in feet. Between 1892 and 1913, a shorter length of drop was used, probably to avoid the decapitation and near decapitations that had occurred with the old table. After 1913, other factors were also taken into account and the drop was calculated to give a final "striking" force of around 1,000 lbs. The Home Office issued a rule restricting all drops to between 5 and 8 feet 6 inches as this had been found to be an adequate range. The drop was worked out and set to the nearest quarter of an inch to ensure the desired outcome. In the late 19th century, there was a considerable amount of experimentation to determine the exact amount of drop and James Berry, who succeeded

Marwood, had an unfortunate experience when hanging a murderer called Robert Goodale on the 30th of November 1885, who was decapitated by the force of the drop and of Moses Shrimpton who very nearly was. Where the drop was inadequate, the prisoner still strangled to death. In 1886, Lord Aberdare was commissioned to report into hanging in Britain after these incidents and the unsuccessful attempt to hang John Lee on the 23rd of February 1885, because the trap would not open (he was reprieved after three attempts to execute him.) Part of his remit was to devise a table of drops which was finally issued in 1892 and specified shorter distances than Marwood and Berry had typically used to avoid the possibility of decapitation. The Aberdare Committee heard a lot of medical evidence and one witness, Dr. Marshall, described a hanging in 1887 as follows. "I descended immediately into the pit where I found the pulse beating at the rate of 80 to the minute and the wretched man struggling desperately to get his hands and arms free. I came to this conclusion from the intense muscular action in the arms, forearms and hands, contractions, not continuous but spasmodic, not repeated with any regularity but renewed in different directions and with desperation. From these signs I did not anticipate a placid expression on the face and I regret to say my fears were correct. On removing the white cap about 1 1/2 minutes after the fall I found the eyes starting from the sockets and the tongue protruded,

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the face exhibiting unmistakable evidence of intense agony." It is notable that there were quite few problems with early lethal injections in the USA before the learning curve was surmounted. After 1913, where there were special reasons, such as the prisoner having a diseased or weak neck, the Governor and Prison Medical Officer would advise the executioner on the length of drop to be used. It can be seen that the drops specified in the 1913 table are longer than those in the 1892 one, as in some cases, the prisoner’s neck had not been broken by the shorter fall. The official execution report on Alfred Stratton, who was hanged at Wandsworth in 1905, records evidence of asphyxia and states that the neck was not broken. This was not unusual at the time. Setting the drop It was necessary to know the prisoner’s height and weight accurately and to this end they were weighed and measured by the prison staff and this information passed to the hangman. The length of drop was determined from the drop table based upon the person’s weight in their clothes, combined with the hangman’s experience and his direct observation of the prisoner. A line was painted on the noose end of the rope marking the point where the internal circumference was 18 inches (457mm) which in the 1890’s was deemed to be equivalent to the circumference of the neck plus the distance from the eyelet to the top of

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the head after the drop. The 18 inch figure allowed for the subsequent constriction of the neck. Presumably this was increased where the person had a very thick neck. From the painted line the hangman measured along the rope and tied a piece of thread at the calculated drop distance. The rope was then attached to the D shackle at the end of the chain hanging down from the beam. The chain was adjusted so that the thread mark was at the same height as the top of the prisoner’s head. A sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner was now attached to the noose and dropped through the trap and left hanging over night to remove any stretch from the rope. The following morning it was removed, the trap doors re-set and the rope re-adjusted to get the thread mark back to the correct height. The Home Office issued the following instructions to executioners in the 1930’s for the correct setting up of the drop. "Obtain a rope from Execution Box B making sure that the Gutta Percha covering the splice at each end is un-cracked by previous use. Find the required drop from the Official Table of Drops making allowance for age and physique. At the noose end of the rope measure thirteen inches (allowance for the neck) from the centre of the brass eye, mark this by tying round the rope a piece of pack-thread from Execution Box B. From this mark measure along the rope the exact drop required (this must be to the nearest quarter inch),

Belfast Executions mark again by a piece of pack-thread tied to the rope. Fasten the rope by pin and tackle to the chain suspended from the beams above, and, using the adjusting bracket above so adjust the rope that the mark showing the drop is exactly in accordance with the height of the condemned man. Take a piece of copper wire from Execution Box B, secure one end over the shackle on the end of the chain, and bend up the other end to coincide with the mark showing the drop. Put on the trap the sandbag, making sure it is filled with sand of an equivalent weight to the condemned man. Put the noose around the neck of the sandbag and drop the bag in the presence of the governor. The bag is left hanging until two

hours before the time of execution the next morning. At this time examine the mark on the rope and copper wire to see how much the rope has stretched. Any stretch must be made good by adjusting the drop. Lift the sandbag, pull up the trapdoor by means of chains and pulley blocks, set the operating lever and put in the three-quarter safety pin which goes through the lever brackets to prevent the lever being accidentally moved. Coil the rope ready and tie the coil with pack-thread leaving the noose suspended at the height of the condemned man's chest. All is now ready."

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to ensure total death and in the days of public hangings to provide a continuing spectacle for the crowd. The 1947 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that this practice be discontinued and that the person be removed from the rope once the prison doctor had certified death which normally took place some 20 minutes after the drop had fallen. It is not precisely clear when this practice started but it is thought to be in the later 1950’s.

Up to 1832, except in a case of murder where the court had ordered dissection or gibbeting, it was usual for the criminal's body to be claimed by friends or relatives for burial. This burial could take place After the drop fell In the 19th and 20th centuries, once in consecrated ground provided that the person was suspended they were the person had not committed left hanging for one hour. This was murder. After 1834, it was held that the body of the executed prisoner belonged to the Crown and it was no longer returned to the relatives. In early times (pre 1752) it was not unusual for murderers to be buried under the gallows on which they had suffered. Gibbeting Prior to 1834, where the courts wished to make a particular example of a criminal, e.g. a highwayman, mail robber or murderer, they could order the additional punishment of gibbeting (also known as hanging in chains). After the hanging, the prisoner would be stripped and their body dipped into molten pitch or tar and then, when it had cooled, be placed into an iron cage that surrounded the head, torso and upper legs. The cage was riveted

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Belfast Executions was erected at the place of the crime at Jarrow Slake and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a 1-1/2 ton stone base, sunk into the slake. Jobling's body was hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace. Twenty one year old James Cook became the last man to suffer this fate when he was gibbeted at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832 for the murder of John Paas. From the prisoner’s point of view although their death would be no worse, being gibbeted was a major additional punishment as it was believed that one could not go to heaven without a body at this time.

together and then suspended from either the original gallows or a purpose built gibbet. The body was left as a grim reminder to local people and could stay on the gibbet for a year or more until it rotted away or was eaten by birds, etc. Gibbets were typically erected either in prominent places such as crossroads or hill tops at or near the site of the crime. One of the earliest recorded instances of gibbeting took place in August 1381. Gibbeting and hanging in chains became increas-

ingly used in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first recorded hanging in chains in Scotland was in March 1637 when a man called McGregor, who was a robber and murderer, was ordered to stay on "the gallowlee till his corpse rot". Gibbeting was formally legalised in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752 and was regularly used up to 1834. William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832, for the murder of a policeman during a riot. His gibbet

Dissection The 1752 "Act for the better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder", usually known as the "Murder Act", mandated the dissection of the bodies of executed murderers (including female ones) or gibbeting for male murderers in particularly heinous cases. Seventeen year old Thomas Wilford, who had stabbed to death his wife of just one week, was the first to suffer dissection under this Act on the 22nd of June 1752, having been first hanged at Tyburn. The words of his sentence were as follows : "Thomas Wilford, you stand convicted of the horrid and unnatural crime of murdering Sarah, your wife. This Court doth adjudge that you be taken back to the place from whence you came, and there to be fed on bread and water till Wednesday next, when you are to be taken to the common

Belfast Executions

place of execution, and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; after which your body is to be publicly dissected and anatomised, agreeable to an Act of Parliament in that case made and provided; and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul." Fights often broke out beneath the gallows between the dissectionists and the prisoners’ relatives over custody of the body. In London, from 1752 to 1809, the bodies were taken to Surgeon's Hall in the Old Bailey where they were publicly anatomised in the lecture theatre, often before a large number of spectators. Women were not exempted from this and the remains of the infamous murderer Elizabeth Brownrigg, who had been hanged at Tyburn on the 14th of September 1767, were kept on display in Surgeon's Hall for many years after her execution. The skeleton of Mary Bateman, “the Yorkshire Witch” hanged at York in 1807, is still preserved.

Burial Dissection was removed from the statute book on the 1st of August 1832, by the Anatomy Act. The same act directed that the bodies of executed criminals were now to be buried in the prison grounds in unmarked graves, often several to a grave to save space. Typically the person was placed into a cheap pine coffin, or even a sack and covered with quicklime which was thought

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to hasten the process of decomposition of the body. This practice was later abandoned, as the quicklime was found to have a preserving effect. The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 required that a formal inquest be held after an execution and that the prisoner be buried within the grounds of the prison unless directed otherwise by the sheriff of the county. This practice continued up to abolition. After the inquest, all clothing with the exception of the prisoner’s shirt or blouse were removed. The body was then placed into the coffin which had large holes bored in the sides and ends. The burial normally took place at lunchtime and was carried out by prison officers and overseen by the chaplain who conducted a simple burial service. The position of the grave was recorded in the Burial Register for the prison. Prisons in major cities soon had quite large graveyard areas. Where prisons were demolished for redevelopment the bodies were removed and buried elsewhere, normally in consecrated ground.

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Belfast Executions

Capital crimes At the beginning of the 19th century, there were no fewer than 222 capital crimes, including such terrible offences as impersonating a Chelsea pensioner and damaging London Bridge! One reason why the number of capital crimes was so high was due to the way that particular offences were broken down into specific crimes. For instance stealing in a shop, a dwelling house, a warehouse and a brothel were each a separate offence. Similarly with arson, burning down a house was distinguished from burning a hayrick. It should be noted that in practice, there were only about seventeen offences for which a death sentence was generally carried out in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These included murder, attempted murder, arson, rape, sodomy, forgery, uttering (passing forged or counterfeit monies or bills) coining, robbery, highway robbery (in many cases, this was the offence of street robbery, that we would now call

mugging), housebreaking, robbery in a dwelling house, returning from transportation, cutting and maiming (grievous bodily harm) and horse, cattle or sheep stealing. For all the other capital offences, transportation to America or Australia was generally substituted for execution. From the 1820’s, the number of capital crimes began to be rapidly reduced and were down to sixteen by 1837. After 1840 only two people were to hang for a crime other than murder, both of whom had been convicted of attempted murder. The Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1861 reduced the number of capital crimes to four, viz, Murder, High Treason, Arson in a Royal Dockyard, and Piracy. In reality all executions from September 1861 were for murder, except in time of war. This situation continued until 1957 when the Homicide Act of that year classified murder into capital and non-capital.

The role of the judges Where a person was convicted of a capital crime it was the duty of the judge to pass sentence of death. They were not given any alternative in sentencing but they could make recommendations to the King and Privy Council or after 1837 to the Home Office if they felt a reprieve was justified for a particular individual. In earlier times, they often did so leading to the very high reprieve rate prior to 1837. When they were out on the circuits they had the power to stay an execution to ensure the person was not hanged if they might be pregnant or if there was some reason to expect a reprieve. You may have heard the term “Hanging Judges” but this is really rather misplaced - the law simply did not allow judges the option of passing a lesser sentence. There have never been discretionary death sentences in British law. It is possible that some judges were less likely to recommend a reprieve than others

Belfast Executions but that is about all. However they ending of public execution or the never had the final say – it was introduction of the long drop. The always left to the officials. Murder Act of 1752 specified that execution take place two days after The sentence of death sentence, unless the third day was a For crimes for which the death Sunday in which case it would be sentence was mandatory e.g. for the held over until the Monday. From huge number of capital crimes prior 1834, a minimum of two Sundays to 1838 and for persons found guilty had to elapse before the sentence was of murder up from 1861 to 1957, the carried out, and from 1868 onwards, prisoner would be asked if they had three Sundays. From 1902, this was anything to say why sentence of reinforced by the Home Office which death should not be pronounced upon suggested Tuesday as the day for them. A woman might "plead her execution. In some cases, 20th belly," i.e. that she was pregnant and century prisoners spent longer in the up to 1827, men could demand condemned cell due awaiting their "benefit of clergy" which was a appeal hearing, but many condemned wonderful excuse cooked up by the chose not to appeal and their church to ensure that clerics could execution was frequently carried out not be executed for most offences. within the three weeks. However, if neither of these excuses were available, the judge (or his The role of the King chaplain) would place the "black and Privy Council cap" a nine inch square of black silk, Once a death sentence had been on his head and proceed to passed the judge had to notify the pronounce sentence. Privy Council or after 1837, the Up to the early 1950’s, the judge Home Office by letter. In this letter would say "(full name of prisoner) he was able to make his private you will be taken hence to the prison recommendations as to whether the in which you were last confined and person should hang or not. The King from there to a place of execution presided over what were known as where you will be hanged by the “hanging cabinets” where together neck until dead and thereafter your with members of the Privy Council, body buried within the precincts of the fate of each condemned person the prison and may the Lord have was decided. They could be offered mercy upon your soul". In 1948, The a reprieve on condition of transporRoyal Commission on Capital tation to America or Australia as an Punishment recommended that the alternative to execution. sentence be modified slightly by the substitution of the words "suffer The Home Office takes over death by hanging" for "be hanged by When Queen Victoria ascended to the neck until dead" and this applied the throne in 1837 it was not considto those convicted of capital murder ered right to expect a 19 year old girl between 1957 and 1964. Note that to preside over “hanging cabinets” the sentence did not change with the and so the duty was delegated to the

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Home Secretary who administered the Royal Prerogative of Mercy on her behalf. This situation continued up to abolition. The Home Secretary was advised by his permanent officials but was allowed to read the case papers for himself and had the final say. It is notable that reprieves were very rare in cases of murder by poisoning or shooting. If there was to be no reprieve the Home Secretary would endorse the prisoner’s file with the words “The law must take its course”. There was no formal death warrant in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries and the prison governor had to communicate the news to the prisoner verbally. In the 20th century, 1,485 death sentences were passed in England and Wales of which 755 were carried out. The ratio of death sentences to executions was therefore 1.95:1. Those who were reprieved had their sentences commuted to "life in prison" although this normally did not mean that they served the rest of their lives behind bars. In reality few served more than 12 years in practice but were subject to supervision upon release for the rest of their lives. The Home Office exercised increasing control over the conduct of executions after the passing of The Prison Act of 1877 and regularly circulated instructions to prison governors on all areas of the subject. It was, the Prison Commissioners, responsible for providing the execution equipment from 1891 on and maintaining the list of approved executioners and assistants for the High Sheriff to choose from. This system remained in place until

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Belfast Executions

abolition. Where there was a question as to the prisoner’s sanity the Home Secretary was required by the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1884. to order a medical examination of the person by two qualified medical practitioners and this was frequently done in the 20th century and could include the taking of an electroencephalograph if necessary.

The Condemned Cell Once a person had been sentenced to death they were housed in the condemned cell of the prison they had been previously remanded to. The living area was normally two or three standard cells knocked into one and was usually no more than 15 feet from the gallows itself. Having the condemned cell on the first floor obviated the need for the pinioned prisoner to climb steps to the gallows. The wardrobe concealed the door to the execution chamber and was pushed out of the way by a warder at the last moment. Not all British prisons had the condemned cell in such close proximity to the gallows, however. Oxford for instance required the prisoner to walk some distance down a corridor to it. Each county had a High Sheriff who was appointed for a year and who had the responsibility, amongst other things of carrying out the punishments ordered by the courts. In capital cases it was the sheriff’s responsibility to organise the execution and appoint the hangman. He also had to pay the hangman and later the assistant(s) and then claim the money back through “sheriff’s

pleadings” from the Home Office. The sheriff would proceed with the foregoing, irrespective of the fact that there may be a reprieve, even at the last minute. The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 required that the High Sheriff or the Under Sheriff be present at the execution. From 1891 the sheriff appointed the hangman from the Home Office list. Prior to that the hangman for London was generally used, i.e. James Berry, William Marwood and William Calcraft. Before Calcraft most counties still had their own hangman and he was generally appointed. The sheriff had the authority to admit witnesses and newspaper reporters to executions after they became private in 1868. This practice had ceased in most places by the early 1900’s. After the execution it was the sheriff’s duty to notify the Home Secretary that the execution had taken place.

The role of the prison doctor The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 required that the prison doctor be present at the hanging and examine the body of the prisoner after execution to determine death had occurred and then sign a certificate to that effect. He would look after the prisoner’s physical wellbeing up to the time of execution and could also have a say on the length of drop to be given to a particular prisoner. He might prescribe them a special diet in the condemned cell and also a glass of brandy immediately before the hanging.

The role of the prison governor and prison officers The governor of the prison had responsibility for the security of the prisoner between sentence and execution and for preventing their suicide as far as possible by ensuring that there were adequate officers to look after the condemned person round the clock. Typically from 1847 teams of two or three warders would guard the prisoner in three eight hour shifts. It was normally the governor’s painful duty to tell the person that there had not been a reprieve and thus the execution was to take place on such and such a day. He had to be present at this and not all governors found this an easy task. The governor of Bristol Gaol fainted during the execution of 17 year old Sarah Thomas on the 20th of April 1849. The governor was also responsible for ensuring that the apparatus for the execution was set up in an appropriate place and that the execution was carried out in an efficient and humane manner. He would appoint two or more prison officers to accompany the prisoner to the gallows and support them if required. It may have been that these officers also acted as assistants to the hangman prior to 1900, although this cannot be confirmed. Prison officers received an extra payment for assisting at executions and for helping with subsequent burial. In the 20th century, at least, the governor would send a report to the Home Office as to the conduct of the executioner and his assistant(s). This report had also to be signed by the prison doctor.

Belfast Executions The role of the chaplain Certainly by the 16th century it was normal for the church to play a part in executions. It was the practice, at least from the 18th century, that when a person was sentenced to death, the judge would finish the sentence with the words, "May the Lord have mercy upon your soul" to which the chaplain would add "Amen". Whereas the prison doctor looked after the prisoners physical health it was for the chaplain to look after their spiritual health and prepare them to meet their Maker. Confession and repentance was seen as vitally important for their spiritual well being in the next world, as they could still go to Heaven if they genuinely repented. The prison chaplain would spend time ministering to the person’s spiritual needs in the condemned cell and trying to extract a confession. Sometimes the chaplain would make persistent efforts to obtain a confession right

up to the last moment. In the centre of the chapel in Newgate was the Condemned Pew, a large black painted enclosure with seats for the prisoners, just in front of the pulpit. On the Sunday preceding their execution, prisoners under sentence of death had to endure the "Condemned Sermon" and hear the burial service read to them. Wealthy visitors could come and attend this service. Several Lords were present at the service held in 1840 for Francis Courvoisier, a Swiss valet, who had murdered his employer, Lord William Russell. It is unclear when this practice died out. Religious tracts were often given to prisoners by well meaning people in the 19th century. Old drawings of 19th and early 20th century executions often show a robed chaplain reading from a prayer book. They would read the words of the burial service during the procession to the gallows and con-

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tinue to pray with the prisoner(s) until the drop fell. In the 20th century, the prisoner could request a minister of their own religion to visit them in the condemned cell and pray with them and also to be present at the execution. The priest’s were often the only words spoken during a modern private British hanging. The executioner and officials typically said nothing at all on the gallows and the prisoner was not invited to speak. Up till the 1950's, the Anglican church largely supported capital punishment and saw a role for themselves in the administration of it. It was not unusual for the prisoner to take up religion in their last weeks on this earth and it is probable that many prisoners valued the support of a priest through their ordeal, as someone who was "on their side". Charlotte Bryant was said to be much comforted by the ministrations of Father Barney during her period in Exeter's condemned cell in 1936. Some prisoners asked for a cross to be placed in the execution chamber where they could see it. Mrs. Stylou Christofi asked for one when she was hanged at Holloway in 1954 and this was still present the following year when Ruth Ellis was executed, along with the one she had requested. The role of the hangman and his assistants In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the hangman was often a condemned criminal themselves who had been reprieved on condition that they executed the others condemned at that assize. Thus the names of very few provincial hangmen are

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known for this period. Prior to the resignation of James Berry in 1892, anyone could apply to a prison governor to carry out at an execution. Thus, for instance, William Marwood simply applied to the governor of Lincoln Gaol to hang Frederick Horry. Prior to Marwood there was very little science applied to hanging and it was really a question of the hangman having the stomach for the job rather than any specific skill. When Berry resigned the Home Office decided that would be hangmen should attend for interviews with prison governors. Several were interviewed at London’s Millbank prison to be Berry’s successor. The Aberdare Committee had recommended that there be a qualified assistant at every execution who could take over if required. This

didn’t really get implemented until the beginning of the 20th century, however. Up to 1888 the hangman supplied his own rope and pinioning straps and after the execution was also allowed to take the prisoner’s clothes and retain the rope. In notorious murder cases these items could be sold for a considerable sum to Madame Tussaud’s wax works and to morbid members of the public. From 1892 proper training was given to applicants, firstly at Newgate and then later at Pentonville prison. This lasted a week and taught the correct procedures for working out the drop and conducting a hanging. At the same time the officials were also able to assess the applicants personality and their motives for wanting the

job. Once qualified they would be added to the official list and work initially in the role of assistant until they had amassed sufficient experience to take over as principal. Not all assistants ever did graduate to principals however, perhaps they had no wish to. Those who did were solely responsible for setting up the drop, pinioning the prisoner and carrying out the hanging. They were required to be at the prison by 4.00 p.m. on the day prior to the execution. Once there they would arrange to take a look at the prisoner to assess their physical features and obtain their weight and height from the prison doctor to enable them to calculate the drop. The assistant’s duties were to help the hangman set up the equipment and the drop and to strap the prisoner’s legs. The hangmen did everything else and was in full charge from the moment he entered the condemned cell. After the execution the hangman and assistant were responsible for taking the body down and preparing it for autopsy. Having tidied the gallows and packed the rest of the equipment back into the execution boxes they were then free to leave the prison. They had to sign the Official Secrets Act and were not allowed to divulge any details of the execution to the public or the press.

Belfast Executions

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THE DEVELOPMENT OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT AT BELFAST Famous executions and evidence That the offender be drawn to the of the same are to be seen in St gallows on the ground or the Peter’s Church at Drogheda. The pavement; that he be hanged by head of Oliver Plunkett is still on the neck, and then cut down display in a glass case there. alive; that his entrails be taken Although it is in a reasonably good out and burnt, while yet alive; state to this very day, it is a that his head be cut off; that his gruesome reminder of how people body be divided into four parts were at one time executed in and that his head and quarters be Ireland. at the King’s disposal. The procedure for execution gradually developed to the situation whereby people were hanged by the neck until dead. When they were

cut down their heads were cut off and usually put on spikes. They were later raised aloft in a position where everyone could easily see them to act as a deterrent to others. A system of laws which became known as the Bloody Code ensured that the penalty of death was not only passed for murder but also for more than 300 other offences such as, stealing turnips or cattle, picking pockets, cutting down ornamental trees, and even to have a sooty face while on a public highway.

The de-capitated head of Oliver Plunkett which is still on display at Drogheda We learn from our history books that Oliver Plunkett was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn at the time of the ‘Popish Plot’ in 1681 but we are sure no-one has bothered to think what that court sentence actually means. It runs off the tongue so quickly that you can carry on to the next sentence in your history book without much further ado. The person before such a court would not have been so flippant however. As the judge asks him to stand up, he reads aloud the following gruesome sentence to a hushed court;

Drawing of 1700 showing Castle Place where Belfast’s first executions were carried out

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Belfast Executions

THE HANGING OF HENRY JOY McCRACKEN One of the most famous Belfast hangings was that of Henry Joy McCracken, the United Irishman, in 1798. At that time most of Europe was witnessing a general political upheaval and Ireland was by no means any different from the rest. The government of the time imposed a rigid clampdown after several small rebellions were organised throughout the country. In Belfast Henry Joy McCracken was one of the last United Irishmen to be publicly executed at High Street. McCracken was related to the noted Joy family, a well to do business family at that time and founder of the Belfast Newsletter. He was charged with treason relating to his part in the rising at Antrim but the Crown Attorney, John Pollock, hoped to do a deal with McCracken. In return for incriminating evidence against other

insurgents, especially the name of the leader of the Antrim Rebellion, in whose place he had acted, the Crown would offer him a term of banishment instead of execution. McCracken declined the offer and after his court-martial at the Belfast Exchange at noon on July 17th he was sentenced to death at 5 p.m.

The hanging of Henry Joy McCracken at the Market House at the junction of Corn Market and High Street.

As Henry Joy was led to his death at High Street, the grim reminder of the previous week’s executions were still in evidence for all to see. Three weeks beforehand James Dickey, an attorney from Crumlin, had been executed. Four days later John Storey, a Belfast printer, met a similar fate. Then Hugh Graham and Henry Byres were executed at the beginning of July for their part in the Rebellion at Ballynahinch. With the exception of Graham all the men had been decapitated after being hanged. Their heads were then placed on spikes and placed up on the Market House. A horrific site for the citizens of Belfast. In the case of Henry Byres he had been convicted of stealing cattle from Nicholas Price for the United Irishmen. In a cruel twist of fate it was Price who actually led him to the gallows. Like Hugh Graham, Henry Joy was not decapitated. After the execution, his body was cut down and was given over to Mrs. Burnside, a family friend. The body was immediately taken to the McCracken house at Rosemary Lane and it is stated that a close friend of the family, James Mc Donnell who studied artificial respiration, and Mr. McCluney, their ‘apothecary’, were immediately summoned. Nothing could be done to resuscitate the body and it was interred at St. George’s Churchyard later that same evening in accordance with the orders of the military who oversaw the execution.

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Mount Collyer from 1805-1815. It was believed at the time of the discovery that Dr. Drummond had quite probably been the owner of the mysterious box. Henry Joy McCracken’s bones, or what were believed to be his remains, were later unearthed in 1902 during reconstruction work on the site of the old graveyard at St. George’s Church in High Street. These remains were placed in a coffin and removed to the home of Francis Joseph Bigger, a local antiquarian. On May 12th 1909, the remains were re-interred in the grave of his sister, Mary Ann McCracken, in the burial ground at Clifton Street. A sealed glass phial placed inside the coffin reads;

The old Exchange Building where McCracken stood trial. This building still stands at the foot of Donegall Street. In ‘The Town Book of Belfast’ there man skull. It was believed that this appears a report on the finding of a head was one of those which had well made wooden box at Mount been spiked on the Market House in Collyer, the property of Mr. John 1798. Why was the box found at Thompson the City’s Assessor, not Mount Collyer? A very good friend far from the old fort at Milewater of those who were executed was a Bridge. To their horror the box con- certain Dr. William Hamilton "These bones were dug up in the old tained the decayed remains of a hu- Drummond who had a school at graveyard in High Street in 1902 and from several circumstances believed to be those of Henry Joy McCracken. The battle of Antrim which McCracken led. They were reverently treated and were placed here by Robert May of Belfast 12 May 1909 when the monument was placed to his beloved sister."

Mary Ann McCracken

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BELFAST’S FINAL PUBLIC EXECUTION The last public hanging on the streets of Belfast took place in 1816. At around this time Peter’s Hill area was to witness an outbreak of violent acts associated with a dispute between weavers and their employer, a certain Francis Johnston, a large manufacturer in the area. This man resided and had his business in the Peter’s Hill district, a Dickensian mill area at that time. The actual weaving was done in the workers own homes at Millfield and Brown Square. The weavers had organised a boycott between themselves and had taken an oath ‘neither to weave a web for him or portion of a web, nor permit others to work for him’. It was alleged that he had given out work at lower prices than other employers at the time and so the argument soon developed in intensity. The intimidation of Johnston began with threatening letters, then on August 24th 1815, an attempt was made to burn him out. He and his family had retired for the night when his door and windows were coated with tar (the petrol of that period), and after a further bucket of this concoction was left at the door the whole lot was set alight. Help was quickly at hand however and the blaze was extinguished. To prevent the same thing happening again Johnston had all his windows barred and shutters were sheeted with iron. The boycott and subsequent threats against Johnston continued untill the following February when events took a

different turn. A crowd of about twenty starving and angry weavers surrounded the house. After wrenching the bars off the windows to gain access, placed an object in the centre of the room and then set fire to the parlour. A servant, hearing the noise of the crowd, wakened the household and managed to hurl the cause of the blaze, a makeshift firebomb, out into the street again. Johnston was himself was by this time at his upstairs window from which he fired upon his attackers with his blunderbus. Just then the firebomb exploded with a tremendous bang which made the whole street shake. The Johnston’s large household consisting Johnston himself, his wife, eight children, two maids and one manservant miraculously escaped injury. After the explosion the weavers attacked the

house, firing in to it while Johnston did his best to defend his family and home. After several minutes the firing abated and the weavers scattered. A town meeting the following day was held to discuss this outrage against the business community and a £2,000 reward was offered, a huge sum in those days, for the conviction of the offenders. Several men were subsequently arrested for the offence and were detained in Carrick Gaol. Two of them, James Park and James Dickson, were sentenced to 18 months imprisonment with 300 lashes each. The other men were sentenced to be hanged on the 18th September 1816, even though no one at the Johnston household were killed. Another man William Gray turned ‘approver’ to save his own neck, and in return for his evidence was to secure the reward.

Belfast Executions On the first week of September the death sentence was duly carried out. Two married men with young families, John Doe and John Magill were brought along to Castle Place in Belfast. The exact location of the scaffold was at an open space opposite the Bank Buildings (Now occupied by Primark) around the site of the present kiosk. Four clergymen were in attendance to the condemned men, Revs. Joseph Alexander, B.Mitchell, J.Stewart and Jonathan Blackwell. The hangman was himself disguised by a crepe headmask. The Fifth Dragoon Guards and the Royal Scots under the command of

General Dalzell kept back the large crowds who thronged into Castle Place to witness this public execution. The scaffold was erected that same day and when the platforms and gibbets had been completed, the condemned men ascended the platform. John Doe, who admitted that he was among the crowd which attacked the Johnston house, read aloud a passage from the New Testament professing his hope in his salvation and contrition for his offence. As a last request he asked that the following statement be published;

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As I am shortly to stand before the judgement seat of Jesus Christ, the following in the presence of God, my Saviour, are my last words, dying declaration and true confession. I was formerly a professor of the Gospel and united to a church of Christ, but forgetful of my profession, I fell from the truth, co-habited with a woman of bad character, was cut off from the church, and thus from step to step was brought under the awful deserved chastenings of the Lord. I acknowledge that, although I have not been guilty of all the crimes laid to my charge at my trial, yet I have transgressed the laws of my country, and do justly merit the execution of the sentence pronounced upon me. John Magill also had a declaration written out which he wanted his minister, the Rev. J. Stewart, to read aloud to those gathered; I, John Magill, as a dying man and impressed with the awful idea of appearing shortly before my Judge, do solemnly declare my innocence respecting the following fact sworn against me by the approver, Gray. Contrary to the oath of said Gray, I appeal to the Judge of all that so far from calling him to a meeting of muslin weavers at the house of one Watson in the head of Mill Street, Belfast, I was never in that house in my life nor did I then know that there was any such house. I protest, moreover, in the same solemn manner that in various other particulars both Gray and his wife gave false evidence on the trial. I confess, however, with the deepest contrition that

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Belfast Executions

Castle Place around 1820

I was present when the outrage was committed on Mr. Johnston’s house. I now see and am extremely sorry that I acted under the influence of mistaken views. I was taught to believe that Mr. Johnston’s family did not sleep in their own house. I had no idea of taking lives. I now see the evil of all such combinations and outrages, though I once thought them innocent and even laudable. I see I have offended God, dishonoured religion, and injured society, for which I am extremely sorry. Imploring the pardoning mercy of God and forgiving all my enemies I die trusting in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, my only Redeemer. When both statements had been read to the assembled crowds the cart on which both men were standing drove away and the two weavers were immediately strangled to death. It was reported that Magill was for a

short time in severe convulsions while Doe died instantaneously. Both were left to hang before the crowd for around an hour before they were cut down. Their bodies were given to their friends who were present. The bodies were placed in black cloth-covered coffins with white mountings and were carried across the Long Bridge into County Down. They were buried in an unmarked grave in the Burial Ground at Meeting-House Green,

Knockbreachan, County Down. There is no existing evidence to what became of the Crown witness, William Grayor whether he got the £2,000 reward. No stone marks the grave of Doe or Magill who paid the ultimate price for their offence. Another person, it should be noted, was later executed for his part in the weavers action against Mr. Johnston. That man was Joseph Madden, another Belfast weaver.

Castle Place today

Belfast Executions

Belfast map of 1888 showing the Crumlin Road Prison

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EXECUTION OF Private Robert O’Neill 21st June 1854 n 22nd August 1853 in one of the common rooms of the Belfast Infantry Barracks, Private Robert Henry O’Neill wreaked a horrible revenge on Corporal Robert Brown. Both men were stationed at the Barracks at the time, being members of the 1st Battalion of the 12th (East Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot. Corporal Brown had earlier put Private O’Neill on report for a minor misconduct. Between eight and nine o’clock that same evening, when several soldiers, including the ill-fated corporal, were assembled in the Barrack room, Private O’Neill deliberately raised his musket and fired at his victim as he was writing at the table. As O’Neill tried to flee from the scene, he was arrested. The following day a verdict of wilful murder was found against him by a coroners jury. The trial came on at the Spring Assizes for County Antrim before Mr. Sergeant Howley, and the result was that he was ordered for execution on May 5th 1854. The defence counsel, Mr. Ferguson, having in the course of the trial, raised two points of law in O’Neill’s favour - one relating to the constitution of the jury, and the other to the omission of certain words in


the sentence of the judge - these points were argued in Error before the Judges of the Queen’s Bench in Dublin. Successive reprieves finally ended with a verdict of guilty. It was reported at the time that when the dreadful moment came for the judge to don the black cap and pass the death sentence tears were streaming down his face and his apparent unease and grief was equally matched by O’Neill’s convulsive sobbing as he was supported by warders in the dock. The convict was returned to the condemned cell (No.3 in ‘D Wing’). Three priests visited to comfort and console him. They were the Rev. Messrs. Fagan, McCartan and Martin. On the morning of his execution he expressed his desire to be executed in his military undress uniform, stating that it would completely unnerve him to appear before the crowds in his grave clothes. This request was subsequently complied with. Crowds began to assemble at the gaol from an early hour. By twelve noon it was estimated that the crowd numbered no fewer than twenty thousand. The throngs covered the road, the fields adjoining, and every eminence in the neighbourhood,

from which even the most imperfect view of the scaffold could be obtained. The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see. The authorities who had not anticipated such a large crowd quickly dispatched extra troops to the scene, for the preservation of the peace. The force present eventually consisted one detachment from each of the depots then stationed in this garrison, namely, the 62nd and the 68th, under the command of Major Mathias; the D troop of the 2nd Dragoons (Queen’s Bays); 110 of the County Antrim Constabulary, and 30 of the County Down Constabulary, under the command of Captain Flinter, County Inspector, and SubInspectors Daly, Henry, and Holmes, of the County Antrim, and Williams of the County Down. The infantry soldiers were posted inside the railings of the prison, and the dragoons and part of the constabulary kept the road in front, for some distance on either side free from the incursions of the crowd. The remainder of the constabulary were placed under the portico of the Court-House, in front of the Gaol. In true Belfast custom, a fine drizzling and penetrating rain fell during most of the morning. Within the gaol, the most profound and oppressive silence prevailed, those present only speaking in whispers a strange and awful contrast to the turbulent and unseemly spectacle outside. The final moment for O’Neill’s execution arrived and a melancholy procession moved towards the gallows (No provision had been

Belfast Executions made at the newly built gaol for a gallows and subsequently a temporary gallows had been erected in front of one of the windows of the upper storey of the main edifice inside) The hangman led the procession, next was O’Neill, his face and neck covered with the dreaded white sack, his arms strapped behind his back and supported by his clergymen. He was helped up the step ladder to the drop. As the hangman came into view, there was a sudden thrill in the crowd , as though the multitude had been awed by the scene for the first time. On this occasion however it was noted that the actual hangman, even though his identity was hidden

by a crepe hood, his prison garb was plain to be seen. He was himself a prisoner at Belfast Prison, having been sentenced to three successive terms of imprisonment by the magistrates for assaults committed during his stay in Belfast. The crowd began murmuring when O’Neill appeared on the scaffold and his prayers along with those of the clergy could be heard resounding off the prison walls. When everything was ready the hangman withdrew the bolt. The drop fell. The sharp chucking of the cord announcing to those inside the descent of the condemned man. The fall was measured at eleven feet and death was judged to have been instantaneous, for the

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limbs barely shrunk up and quivered for a little while, the hands grew black, and in less than a minute the corpse was motionless, except that it swayed slightly to and fro with the momentum of the fall. At the fatal moment, a loud and general scream went up from the crowd. The cries and wailing of the women were reported to have been most distressing and as the whole scene occupied but a few minutes the large crowds quickly dispersed. It was impossible for anyone, except maybe for those who were within the prison, to see the body as it was hanging, the front portion of the building having concealed it from the view of those outside, in consequence of the depth of the fall.

Belfast Infantry Barracks on North Queen Street (later Victoria Barracks)

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EXECUTION OF Daniel Ward 8th April 1863 n the 10th of May 1863 the body of Charles Wilgar was dragged from the river Lagan on the outskirts of Belfast. A thirty year old man by the name of Daniel Ward was subsequently arrested and charged with his murder. Both men were well known to each other. It appeared that Wilgar, because he lived quite some distance from his place of employment, was in the habit of sometimes staying at his uncle’s (William Wright) house which was situated close by. He was a sawyer by trade. It also transpired that Ward was a sawyer too but unlike his friend Wilgar he could not seem to get regular work. With this in mind, we also learn that being a married man with a young child he and his family were extremely distressed because of the bleak future a life of poverty held for them. On Saturday evening 10th May, Charles Wilgar's parents waited patiently for the return of their son, as he always did each weekend. The following morning , anxious to find out whether or not anything had happened, they contacted the uncle, William Wright. He informed them that Charles had left at six o’clock the previous evening in the company of Daniel Ward. The distracted


father and some relatives immediately went around to Ward’s cottage to find out what had happened and were told that Charles had went on to meet his brother who was returning from Belfast. The police were contacted and they immediately began a search of the area. A watch, which was known to have been in the pocket of Charles Wilgar was discovered in a Pawnshop in Lisburn, where it had been left on the night of 10th May and two pounds received on it. Ward, his wife and his mother-in-law were arrested on suspicion and lodged in Downpatrick Jail. The following Wednesday, May 14th, strange marks indicating that a struggle had taken place were seen on the banks of the Lagan and opposite them, in the river was found the body of Charles Wilgar, with his skull battered in. His own watch was missing but he had on his possession another watch which his uncle had given him. It had stopped, apparently whenever it was immersed in the water, at 7.15 p.m. Near the spot where the body had been found, the drag brought up a handkerchief with a stone tied in the corner of it .

Circumstantial evidence pointed the finger strongly at Ward. The handkerchief for example was identified by Jane Mc Cullagh, former sweetheart of Ward, who swore it had been given to him by her. The prosecution suggested that the stone tied to the end of the handkerchief would have made a formidable weapon, and whoever made such fatal use of it must have set out with murderous intent. On the tow-path which runs along the river bank, a watch key was discovered upon a drop of blood. A neighbour saw Ward and Wilgar turning from the high road and going down towards the water; a little over half an hour after another neighbour saw Ward returning alone, and actually greeted him. That same night Ward had been spotted in Lisburn by several persons and indeed several persons claimed to have seen Ward pawning the watch for £2. Daniel Ward was committed to the jail at Downpatrick on the charge of ‘Wilful Murder’. He was afterwards removed to Belfast, and at the Summer Assizes he was indicted for the crime, and a true bill was found against him. He pleaded not guilty. Counsel for the Crown then applied for a postponement until the Spring Assizes of 1863. It was later claimed that if they had went ahead with the trial in August, it is almost certain that he would have been acquitted. The trial eventually took place before Baron Deasy and extended over three whole days. It excited great interest in Belfast and indeed

Belfast Executions

throughout the whole of Ireland. The crime was of unparalleled atrocity. To gain a small sum of money, he allegedly took the life of one who had often done him a kindness, and the only circumstance that could have led any one for an instant to doubt his guilt was the very audacity of the crime, and the bold and defiant conduct of the accused after he had consigned the body of his victim into the river. Seldom in Ireland had there been a case where the circumstantial evidence had been so conclusive. Ward’s able defence struggled to discredit the witnesses but to no avail. The jury had no option but to find the prisoner guilty. When the verdict had been pronounced the prisoner still protested his innocence. His execution was to take place on Wednesday April 8th, 1863. He was then led away to Belfast prison where he awaited his doom. While here he was visited regularly by his

minister, Rev. Charles Allen from the Episcopalian Church. He listened attentively to the minister’s preachings and read scripture right up until his final hour. On Tuesday he was visited in his cell by his father and mother They had both been regular visitors during his imprisonment. His wife left him when the verdict was pronounced and their child was left with Ward's parents. Ward’s mother was inconsolable after this final visit with her son, and his father took a silent farewell. At eight o’clock in the evening Ward fell asleep and slept 'till ten. On Monday the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered to him at his own request. On Wednesday morning at seventeen minutes after eight o’clock, the execution of Daniel Ward for the murder of Charles Wilgar took place at Belfast Prison in the presence of between 8,000 and 9,000 people. As the Governor’s Lodge intervened

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between the road and the place of execution, the latter could only be seen by looking from the road in an oblique direction. The crowds therefore, were located above and below the jail, and they spread over the fields in the immediate neighbourhood for a considerable distance. The mood of the crowd was one of solemn quietude and the rain which commenced falling at eight only added to the seriousness of the situation. That morning Ward arose at an early hour and it was stated there was no difference in his demeanour. He was stolid as usual. Mr. Allen came to his cell at around six and resumed devotions. About a quarter past eight he was conducted from his cell, Mr. Allen being on his left and a warder on his right. A number of warders formed two in front and two behind; next came John Young Esq., High Sheriff; H. H. Bottomley Esq., Un-

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der Sheriff; Mr. Forbes, the governor of the jail; and then succeeded a number of reporters. The solemn procession moved along the passage and up the stairs to the press room. Ward walked perfectly erect, and held his cap in his hands in such a way that many believed him to be handcuffed. Such however was not the case because he was not restrained until he reached the scaffold. Prayers were said, the whole time this procedure was being

carried out, until ten past eight. The hangman then went into the room. He wore a mask but it is reported that he could be quite clearly seen to be ‘eyeing up his victim with the air of a bulldog’. He pinioned the doomed man. He then jumped up onto the platform of the gallows and Ward took his place over the drop. ‘O Lord Jesus, be merciful to my soul. God pardon my sins for the sake of the Redeemer, and bless all my fellow-creatures”

With that the bolt was pulled and Daniel Ward was launched into eternity. A terrific shriek erupted from the crowd, which for some minutes before had been in silent awe. Several documents were revealed after the execution; the most important being the following confession of his guilt which he instructed his minister not to make public until after his execution.

I, Daniel Ward, now a prisoner in the County Antrim Jail, Belfast, and under the sentence of death for the murder of Charles Wilgar, on the 10th of May last, in the presence of Almighty God, before whom I must soon stand, do make the following confession, and declare every portion of it to be strictly true :On the evening of the 9th May I was in Belfast seeking for employment at any work I could obtain, but did not succeed. I left Belfast between four and five o’clock in the evening, and, during my walk home, I thought of (as the last remedy) robbing or murdering some one in order to get money. My mind did not settle at that time on any one in particular but I felt no act whatever would prevent me from obtaining it. Before reaching home, I called at William Wright’s to ask him if he could give me a job, for I was idle. So far as to murdering Charles Wilgar in particular had not taken possession of my mind, nor any other if I could get money in any other way. On the next morning May the 10th, I went to Belfast. On going, I sat upon a heap of stones, thinking what to do; I took up a stone, and put it into my pocket handkerchief. I left Belfast between three or four that evening. On this evening also, I went to William Wright’s and waited till Wright and Wilgar returned from work. My object in waiting in Wright’s was till it was dusk, that I might obtain by some means what I wanted, and had not up till this time settled my mind in taking the life of Charles Wilgar. After tea in Wright’s, I started with Charles Wilgar, towards home, and I do not think it was five minutes before the act that I determined to take his watch or life. I knew he had a watch. We came to a narrow path - he went before me. I took then the stone which was in my handkerchief out of my pocket and gave him a blow. He fell, but did not speak. He was rising, I think, on his hands and feet. I then gave him a second blow - took his watch from him and put him in the water. The plunge appeared to revive him, for I saw him swimming across the Lagan, and thought he would get out at the other side. I then threw the stone and the handkerchief into the water, and went to Lisburn and pawned the watch for two pounds - and when on Monday evening I heard he was missing, I knew he was drowned. I also solemnly declare before God, that I never injured so as to take away the life of any other man, woman or child. I know and feel I am a great sinner in the sight of God. My past life has been an unprofitable one; happiness was the great object of my life, but I feel now what a bad way I took to obtain it. My short life may be said to have been a prayerless one, for although I did at times go through the form, I see now that it was no prayer at all. My sabbaths were badly spent, and the things of an endless life seldom or ever took possession of my mind. I thank God that for his namesake He has brought me to think of Him. The last four months have been the happiest days of my life. I have no enmity against a creature living. I willingly forgive all, and ask them to forgive me. I entreat all of my relatives and friends to live for eternity ; it is the only thing which will make them happy. I have cast myself for salvation on the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. I believe that he will fulfil His own promise, that whoever cometh to Him with a heart truly sorry for the past and trusting in the Saviour will not be cast away. I have nothing of myself, and deserve nothing but His wrath. I believe He will have mercy on me and receive me. I could wish that all who are living as I did would consider their ways, lest they are brought to an end like mine ; they would obtain more comfort from a single promise of Christ than from the whole world. ‘For God so loved men as to give His own son to die for them.’ ‘And He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give to them that ask Him true repentance and pardon.’ I have had a fair trial, and have no fault to find with it. But Jane McCullagh and Rebecca McCullagh’s statement, so far as ever having given me a handkerchief, or having had conversation with her in Lisburn on the evening of the 10th May, or having seen her at all on that evening, is untrue. I have no more to add, except to give my sincere thanks to the chaplain, the Rev. Charles Allen; the governor, and warders of the prison, for their continued attention and kindness to me during my imprisonment. DANIEL WARD County Gaol, Belfast, March, 1863.

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CAPITAL PUNISHMENT One of the most famous executions to have ever taken place happened around A.D.30. Then a man who was charged with treason was nailed to a cross and left to hang until dead. His death was hastened by a stab to the chest so that his suffocation was quick. The sign then which the ‘governor’ nailed above him, described his crime; “Jesus Christ King of the Jews”. Capital punishment has for a long time been used by the authorities to punish what are deemed to be serious offences. Many of those who have been executed, have pleaded their innocence. Many more however admitted their crimes and accepted the sentence of the court. For a long time, executions took place in public and some people observed scenes there which were a disgrace to their common humanity. The last public hanging on a Belfast street took place on September 1816. After a long struggle in Parliament, an act was passed transferring executions to within the precincts of the prison, and in the presence only of those officials who were authorised to be present. It was also enacted that a properly empanelled jury should hear evidence with a view of seeing that the sentence of the law had been duly carried out. Some of them, perhaps all, wished that the Legislature had gone a step further and altogether abolished capital punishment, leaving the taking of human life to the hands of God alone. Capital punishment was not abolished in the North until 1973 Altogether 17 people had been executed at Belfast Prison from 1854 to 1973. There are no figures available for those who were executed before 1854. In 1919 the Governor of Pentonville Prison, Major F. W. Blake once wrote, “Why is it that we feel a horror as if we were about to commit a crime, when a man is going to be hanged? Why is it that we feel something unholy, something not clean? It is not only my own feelings, but those of the warders, who have to assist in the hanging, are the same. They are given spirits to help pull themselves together. I shall be glad when this awful form of punishment no longer exists. It is frightful suffering, because one feels deeply the mind of the stricken man, and his thoughts seem to vibrate through the prison and give us some of the terror through which he is passing. Every prisoner in his cell seems to look very white and lined; his nerves are on edge. There is not a sound in the prison until the wretched man has found his last home and gone to a higher judge.” A large lobby also exists who believe strongly in the policy of ‘an eye for an eye’, believing it to be society’s right to have retribution against those who break the laws of man and God. For a long time executions were carried out in accordance with the law. A hangman had to be paid money to carry out this task and the other officials who had sworn to abide by their office, from time to time had to stand and watch that the law was seen to take its course however unpleasant they may have believed that job to be. The brief of this publication however is to catalogue the executions which took place at Belfast Prison and to investigate the reasons why these people and their unfortunate victims met with such violent deaths. It is a lesson in itself for the citizens of Belfast to reflect on while those who paid the ultimate price for their deeds lie in unmarked graves in a lonely prison yard.

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EXECUTION OF John Daly 26th April 1876 t an early hour on Septem ber 15, 1875, or late the previous night, a murder of an exceptionally brutal character was committed in Belfast. The victim was a charwoman named Margaret Whitley, a person bearing the reputation of being quiet in her habit, sober and industrious. The circumstances surrounding her death were at first surrounded in mystery. In fact the accomplishment of the tragedy with the secrecy and quietude which must have accompanied it was a very startling element in the outrage. The locality in which it is alleged to have taken place, and the neighbourhood in which the body was most certainly deposited, were thickly populated. Any alarm, cry out, or indeed a struggle anywhere in the vicinity, would have almost certainly reached other ears and brought assistance.


So far as can be learned no one heard any indication whatever of the perpetration of the fearful crime, which was only revealed by the discovery of the body lying in a semi-nude condition under the pale light of morning in an uninhabited lane within a few yards of a leading thoroughfare. Thomas Burns, a plasterer, was proceeding to his work

that morning at half-past five o’clock when he saw, in Bathurst Court off Durham Street, something bulky lying against the wall. On going over to the bundle, in company with another person called Callaghan, he found it to be the body of a woman terribly mutilated about the head, entirely uncovered about the legs and with the trunk enveloped with an old shawl and portion of a skirt. The body lay right across the footpath, the head being slightly elevated against a gateway. There was no blood upon the adjacent ground; no marks of a scuffle were apparent; and it was at once evident that the unfortunate woman, having been foully murdered elsewhere, had been conveyed to this entry and her poor body dumped there. The police were promptly communicated with, and in a few minutes Sub-Constable Peyton was in charge of the body. In a very short time a more immense crowd had assembled, principally composed of mill workers and artisans going to their work. The excitement which prevailed soon aroused the people of the district, and then began speculation as as to how the body was conveyed to the spot and whence it came. Bathurst Court

is a small narrow cul-de-sac running off Durham Street, a few yards from Divis Street and nearly fronting McMillen’s Place. It contains some half dozen houses on either side, yet none of the occupants of those heard anything during the night that in any way attracted their attention. Not even a footfall seems to have been made by anyone within its quiet precincts after dark. The body was allowed to remain where it was found for several hours in the charge of the police, but so disfigured were the remains that identification for some time appeared hopeless. At length a female named Whiteside recognised the body to be that of Margaret Whitely, of Humphrey’s Court. This was a clue and the police seemed to have followed and developed it with great vigilance. Inquiries were made at Humphrey’s Court, which resulted in the disclosure that the deceased had gone on the previous day to visit her niece, a Mrs. Daly, who lived in Durham Street, and had not since returned. Further investigation showed that this house was not a dozen yards removed from where the body was discovered and that it occupied about a central position between Divis Street and Bathurst Court. The premises are small, and consist of two upper rooms, built over a gateway, access to them being gained by stairs leading direct from the street door which is next to the gateway. Having knocked at this door for some time, and failing to gain admittance, the police managed to effect an entrance from the rear. No person

Belfast Executions was found in the house, which bore internally most of the tokens of penury and neglect. One of the rooms was evidently used as a kitchen and the other a sleeping apartment. In the latter the police found a number of articles which helped secure a conviction against the murderer. These consist for the most part of several articles of wearing apparel, the daily attire of the murdered woman; but no marks of blood are discernible upon any of them. In the centre of the room lay a quantity of straw used as bedding, and portions of this were found saturated with blood. The floor also appeared to be deeply stained here and there with the same ugly tokens of the commission of crime. But perhaps the most important of the discoveries made by the police as localising the place of the murder was the finding of a large heavy and clumsily constructed stool, which had beyond doubt, been recently split into pieces by violence, and was deeply dyed with blood. It was just such an instrument as would be most likely to commit terrible havoc if wielded by a powerful hand. A few blows from it would easily smash in a human skull beyond all recognition, and its fractured condition, the gore which stains it, and the nature of the ghastly injuries inflicted upon the deceased, combine to render this discovery awfully significant. Unquestionably the deceased was in this house on the previous evening, and it is stated that, contrary to her custom, she had taken some drink with Mrs. Daly, her niece. It is further alleged that the husband of

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Victorian photograph of College Square North looking towards Durham Street

the latter, John Daly, came home at night in a drunken state, and beat both the deceased and his wife. Mrs. Daly subsequently left the house, leaving Margaret Whitley in bed and her husb and also in the house. Margaret Whitley was never seen alive again. If it was in this house she met her death, the fact that her clothing bears no indications of blood, notwithstanding the ferocity of the attack made upon her, was quite consistent, seeing that Mrs. Daly left her in bed - in all probability undressed. There being no outcry of any kind was further explainable by the inference that the murderer, whoever he or she may have been, made the first assault when Whitley was either sleeping or unsuspecting, and the severity of the blow prevented any scream or alarm until all was over. It would be quite inexplicable that a healthy vigorous woman, of some thirty five years of age, could have been otherwise massacred - for such she surely was - without being able to cry out with some considerable distinctness and effect. On searching the scene around the house the

unfortunate woman’s clothes were found, placed over a grating, evidently with the intention of allowing the blood to drop out of them under the ground. Daly, who was a coal-cart driver, appears to have gone to his work as usual early yesterday morning, between five and six o’clock. Mrs. Daly, it should be said slept with a friend all night. At half past eight o’clock Sub-Constable Maguire, by direction of Sub-Inspector McDermott, arrested Daly. He was a little strong wiry looking individual, with a small face and regular but sharply put features. His hair was intensely black, and his appearance altogether gives one the idea of shrewd intelligence. In years he was rather over forty. When arraigned before the magistrates on the charge of ‘wilful murder’ he seemed to be acutely distressed, but merely for a moment. He looked feebly at the constable, and endeavoured to speak, but his utterance failed him. In a few minutes more he was again calm and steady looking, and replied to the bench in

a self possessed and resolute manner. The whole affair created great excitement throughout Belfast. The tragic news circulated with amazing rapidity and the residence of the prisoner and the place where the body was found had been visited by thousands of curious people. During the forenoon Mrs. Daly was arrested in the vicinity of the 'brickfields', Durham Street. She had with her at the time two children, one about six years old and the other an infant some eighteen months old and completely blind. The woman was completely exculpated from any participation in the outrage and was soon released from custody. The deceased was never married but she had a daughter, a very intelligent child of about eleven or twelve At the time and it was stated she was a native of Brookborough. A case was then built up against Daly but what secured a conviction for the prosecution was the vital evidence of a little girl. This girl, observed Daly attacking Margaret Whitley - then seen alive for the last time by any

Belfast Executions human being - this girl was Daly’s own daughter, who consequently became the prosecution's principal witness. The trial occupied nearly two whole days for there were a very large number of witnesses even though the facts were comparatively few. It must be pointed out that in his trial before the magistrates, Daly had not got any professional assistance, nor did he seem to care for any. A very able and ingenius defence was set up for him by Dr. Boyd, the counsel whom the Crown assigned to conduct the case of the accused. The fact that there were no blood marks from Daly’s door to where the body was found and that there was no noise heard in the house during the night of the 14th were dwelt upon as showing that it was impossible that the murder could have been committed in Daly’s house. It was also urged forcibly on behalf of the prisoner that the clothes which were found in the grating were not seen there at a very early hour on the same morning by the lamplighter who passed through the court in which they were afterwards discovered. Notwithstanding the very exhaustive defence put forward by the prisoner's counsel, the jury, on a short deliberation, brought in a verdict of guilty. At the hour of eight o’clock, John Daly, who was at the late County Antrim Assizes before Baron Fitzgerald and found guilty of the wilful murder of Margaret Whitley in Durham Street on the fifteenth of September 1875, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. The recommendation of mercy on the

part of some of the jury, and the petition sent forward to his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant praying a commutation of the sentence passed on the culprit, must naturally have given rise to some hopes in his mind that the carrying out of the painful sentence might be averted. But such hopes he was forced to relinquish when he learned that his Excellency, having considered the circumstances, had decided that the law must take its course. Doubtless this announcement brought him to a keener realisation of the end that awaited him. Even though he received it with that indifference and apparent fortitude that had marked his demeanour and conduct from his first incarceration, he continued to display a disinclination to the slightest conversation with the warders of the prison. Nevertheless, in his manner towards his religious advisors he evinced signs of penitence and resignation and an earnest desire to join in the spiritual exercises which were conducted by the Rev. Hamill, the Roman Catholic Chaplain at the Gaol. On Monday April 24th 1876, he was visited in his cell firstly by his mother and then later by his wife. Their stay was brief. The mother upon seeing her condemned son, shrieked most painfully and it was reported that she could scarcely be pacified. Daly himself, hardened as he seemed to be, was moved to tears. On the Tuesday Daly was visited by the Sisters of Mercy and his clergyman who had tirelessly ministered to him while he awaited his fate. The erection of the scaffold, which

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was commenced a week previous to the actual execution, was placed at the entrance to what was formerly known as the debtors prison, at the north end of the gaol. The scaffold was in the form of an oblong platform, having a trap-door in the centre. This door did not, as in ordinary constructions of the kind, open into two parts but opened and fell in one connected piece, a 56lb weight being attached to it by means of a cord which passed through several small pulleys running along the lower portion of the platform to prevent it from swinging back and coming in contact with the body. The platform was about 12 ft. wide by 16 or 17 ft. long, resting on six strong supports and was about 10ft. from the ground. At each side were uprights supporting a thick crossbeam from which hung a new rope about one and a half inches thick, having a running noose attached. The previous execution which took place at Belfast was, according to former regulations open to the inspection of the public. Since that time the Legislature, in its wisdom and humanity, altered the law in this respect and ordered that henceforth executions should be performed in private. For this reason the scaffold, though outside the walls of the prison proper, was perfectly secluded so that there was not any possibility of the execution being seen by the public. Still, there were many, who influenced by a curiosity to witness an execution, stood on the road opposite the gaol from which they could only witness a confused view of a small portion of the wood of the scaffold.

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Belfast map showing the Durham Street area at the time of the murder

Belfast Executions Daly was upwards of 40 years of age and from Dungannon, of which his parents were natives. His father died when he was very young and his only brother died in his early years through an accident at a coal pit near Dungannon. John grew up on the farm where he supported his mother, sister and his grandmother. His mother expected great things from him. After an argument with his mother, John Daly left the farm and went to Belfast where he commenced work as a labourer at the docks. Shortly afterwards he met Mary Anne Whitley, a mill girl, who became his wife and who was the niece of the murdered woman Margaret Whitley. Daly slept until 5 o’clock on the day of his death, when he was awakened by a warder. He resumed his devotional duties with every appearance of earnest penitence. He attended Mass at six o’clock and continued praying until the terrible hour arrived. Eight o’clock came and the unhappy man was pinioned with leather straps by the executioner, who it is believed was Marwood. The pinioning took place in the cell in the presence of Captain Keough, the governor of the gaol. Daly came out of his cell dressed in his prison garb, followed by the executioner, his clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Hamill, walked by his side reading prayers to the condemned man, who it is reported walked firmly to the scaffold. When he arrived at the place of execution the rope was placed on his neck, a white cap was drawn over his head and face. The drop fell and he died instantaneously.

As soon as it was observed that the man was dead the black flag was hoisted. Daly did not make a public confession of his guilt. A few minutes before eight o’clock the dismal tolling of the prison bell was heard which continued up to the time of the execution. The tolling was audible a considerable distance from the gaol and to the inhabitants of the surrounding district it brought the intelligence, if such were necessary, that a solemn and impressive scene was about to take place within the walls of the prison. The part of the prison bounding the Crumlin Road was quite crowded with people on the morning of the execution. The whole road and the streets leading off it from Fairview Street up to Agnes Street was thronged, and every available window in the neighbourhood was filled up with anxious spectators. The gate of the prison was anxiously watched by the crowd and nearly every person who entered the prison was taken for the executioner. The body, after hanging for an hour or so, was cut down and placed in an ordinary deal coffin painted black which had been in readiness for some time. The body, having been lowered into the coffin, was conveyed to a passage underneath the scaffold where it was placed on a stand prepared for the occasion. An inquest on Daly’s body was held by Dr. Dill; borough coroner and a respectable jury in the boardroom of the county gaol at half past twelve. Everyone concerned saw the body of the deceased. Sub-Sheriff - I am only aware of this

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- that the last question I asked him before leaving his cell was if he had any request to make and how he had been treated during his imprisonment here. He said to me that he had been treated in the kindest possible manner, and he returned thanks to Captain Keough, whom he described - to use his own words - He is a perfect gentleman; he has done all that he could for me and so have all the officials of the prison. The Foreman - Are you aware did he make any public confession of his guilt? Sub-Sheriff - I am not aware. The clergyman said he made no statement. After some more deliberations the jury then returned a verdict to the following effect:That John Daly, on the 26th of April, 1876, in due form of law, in pursuance of and in execution of the judgment of death passed upon him at an assizes held at Belfast, in and for the county, on the 22nd March, in the year aforesaid, for the murder of Margaret Whitley, of which he was there at convicted, was hanged by the neck until he was dead, in the prison in which he was confined at the time of his execution. The twelve members of the jury signed the verdict and with this the inquiry was terminated. Shortly after the inquest the body of the wretched man was divested of the whole of the clothing which he wore at the time of his execution and the coffin was filled up with quicklime. The lid was then screwed down and John Daly was for ever removed from mortal eye.

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EXECUTION OF Arthur McKeown 14th January 1889 umber 38 Robert Street, which was situated directly behind St. Anne’s Cathedral, was the scene of the brutal murder of a poor defenceless woman by the name of Mary Anne Phillips. When police arrived at the scene they found the woman's dead body lying inside the house. She had been badly beaten. The head and face were covered with blood from eight different wounds, varying from two inches to half an inch in length, some of which penetrated to the bone. The police quickly ascertained what had happened with the help of the main witness, an unfortunate young boy of only seven years. He pointed the guilty finger at his father, Arthur McKeown, a married man who was separated and lived at the time at 38 Robert Street with Mary Anne Phillips as husband and wife. He was promptly arrested and remanded in custody.


McKeown eventually went on trial before Mr. Justice Holmes and a twelve man jury at Belfast Crown Court. Counsel for the prosecution opened the case claiming that the evidence which they intended to submit constituted a continuous and unbroken chain of events which

would leave the jury without the slightest doubt of the accused’s guilt. They then proceeded to call on several witnesses who outlined McKeown’s movements on the hours leading up to the murder. This process finished with the evidence of a Mrs. Margaret Crommie who on the night in question was standing on Victorian map showing Robert Street which was later renamed Exchange Street West

the corner of Robert Street at around fifteen minutes after midnight. Arthur McKeown called on her saying that he thought Mary Phillips was dead or dying and that he did not know whether to send for the doctor or the police. Just at that the police came into the street and everyone went into 38 Robert Street. Constable John Douglas then went to describe the scene before him as he entered the house. In the back room (off the kitchen) the body of the murdered woman had been lying between the bed and a chest of drawers, parallel to the bed with the head resting on a pillow which was soaked in blood. There was a pool

Belfast Executions of blood half way between the body and the door which bore the evidence of an attempt to brush the same pool away. While Constable Douglas was examining the scene the accused entered the room and made the following extraordinary statement which the constables took a note of at the time; “You need not be uneasy about her . She has often been this way before. All the woman wants is to get pumped, when she will be alright. The fact of the matter is, she has me robbed. She went away in July last, taking £7 or £8 with her, and when she got me away at the Maze races she took two or three more out of that chest of drawers. Tonight I got her in a house in Morrow’s Entry and brought her home. Shortly afterwards we went to bed. I was lying at the wall and she next the door. About eleven o’clock the children wakened me saying their mother was at the drawer again. When I got got up she was lying as you see her. I then rose and went out and told Maggie Crommie. She said it would be better to tell the police. There was a bottle of whiskey on the drawers when we went to bed and if you were to see all that is left of it; I suppose she was drunk and fell out of bed. Do you accuse me of giving her foul play?” The police, on conducting a search of the house, discovered a man’s shirt rolled up under the pillows and covered with blood as well as spots of blood on the accused’s clothes. The police also commented on the fact that the bed appeared as if noone had slept in it that particular night. Dr. W.C. Graham who exam-

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Arthur McKeown

ined the body gave it as his opinion that the wounds on Mary Phillips’ body could not have been selfinflicted nor could they have been as a result of a fall. These findings were supported by Dr. Samuel McKee and so the Crown case closed.

ward the suggestion that the woman had been murdered by a third party and concluded by urging the jury that if they did not believe a third party was involved they could convict him of a lesser crime of manslaughter if they believed that the crime had not been wilful or The defence explained the serious- premeditated. ness of the jury’s task and asked them to consider two questions very The judge then summed up by carefully - first, did the accused explaining the law to the jury before commit the act laid at his charge - they retired to decide their verdict. and second, if he did commit it, was After a half an hour the jury returned he so provoked that the act was not with a verdict of guilty. The accused done wilfully, feloniously and of his was taken away to the gaol to await malign afterthought. He put for- execution.

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On Monday January 14th 1889, at eight o’clock in the morning he paid the full penalty for his crime on the scaffold at Belfast Prison. Crowds began to gather from Carlisle Circus right up to the gates of the gaol from as early as six thirty, eager to monitor the movements of anyone entering the prison. The scaffold had been erected at the end of ‘D’ Wing (the eastern wing of the prison). The hangman was James Berry and he and his able assistant had to adjust the rope so that all would go smoothly at the fateful hour. There was nothing peculiar about the scaffold as the mechanics were exactly the same as those used throughout the country. There was however this difference taken as a whole: the condemned man was asked to ascend a staircase - the platform being on a level with the corridor. This arrangement, while convenient from the inside, necessitated the digging of a pit underneath to a depth of some three or four feet to allow a sufficient drop. The bottom of this pit was strewn with sawdust. The press were allowed to visit the scaffold before the actual execution and after this they proceeded to interview the hangman. With a grin on his face that morning, Berry explained that he had “pushed off” considerably more than one hundred people in his time and the rope he would be using to hang McKeown would be a tried and trusty Manilla of the Government regulation type, three-quarter inch diameter. He went on to explain that he would have given the prisoner an eight foot drop but fear-

ing the weakness of his neck and considering that he was but little over eight stone in weight, he had reduced it to seven. Notwithstanding this reduction he assured the press that the strain on the neck was equal to one ton six and three quarter hundredweight. At that the sound of a heavy door opening along the corridor brought silence among the gathering of journalists. Everyone now stood breathless and the proverbial pin falling would have caused confusion. The first breach of the dead silence was caused by the Very Rev. John McAllister reciting the prayers for the dying. As the procession came into view it was reported that it was headed by Mr. H. H. Bottomley, the Under-Sheriff, who was followed by Mr. Jeremiah Mc Kenna, the deputy governor of the prison; Dr Stewart, the medical attendant at the prison; the clergyman already named, accompanied by Rev. Mr. Mc Cartan and the accusedand a number of warders bringing up the rear. Slowly and sol-

emnly the little company approached the hangman. McKeown held a crucifix in his hands and prayed audibly as Berry began to pinion him with the leather straps. When this was done the party proceeded through another door to the scaffold. The hangman now directed the proceedings by placing the condemned man over the trapdoor. The white cap was then placed over his eyes, the legs were strapped together. The assistant then handed the executioner the noose which he adjusted. All this time the man was constantly praying and imploring God’s mercy. Stepping aside he touched the lever and Arthur McKeown was launched into eternity. The last words upon his lips were ,"Into Thy hands Lord Jesus I commend my soul". McKeown died without making any formal admission of his guilt. The black flag was hoisted just on the stroke of eight and the large crowds who, having their morbid curiosity satisfied, quietly dispersed.

Belfast Executions Victorian map showing the Belfast Prison. McKeown was hanged at the end of D-Wing (arrowed)

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EXECUTION OF John Gilmore 17th August 1894 ollowing the shooting of Mr. Lyle Gardiner, a seventyeight year old man in Dervock on 30th April 1894, the police swiftly arrested a local man Mr. Robert Gilmore for the crime.


The following gentlemen were sworn on to the jury; Alexander Stewart, Ballyhavistock House, foreman; Campbell Ross, Knockavallen; David Camac, Coole; James Colvin, Coole; John Getty, Benvardon; William Colvin, Islandshoe; James English, Carnaff; Samuel Woodside, Carnaff; John H. Johnston, Derrykeighan; William Chestnut, Dervock; David Taggart, Ballyhavistock; Robert McKeown, Ballynarris; John Christie, Ballyhavistock; David Ross, Knockavallin; Richard M. Douglas, jnr., Dervock; and James Dallas, Deepstown. The purpose of forming this jury was to investigate and return a verdict on the death of Lyle Gardiner. The inquest was held in the kitchen of the deceased’s house where he had been shot dead several days previous. The first witness called was Mrs. Gardiner, the wife of the dead man. She was only asked a few questions by Mr. C. R. Ander-

son, solicitor of Coleraine, who in conjunction with Dr. Taggart, solicitor, of Ballymoney, had been entrusted with Gilmore’s defence. The only other witnesses called were medical men who gave evidence as to the cause of death and on this testimony the jury had no difficulty in returning an open verdict. Shortly after the postmortem examination the body was placed in a coffin and the funeral took place that very evening at Derrykeighan graveyard. Public interest, at the monthly fair in Ballymoney that Thursday, was centred around the tragic incident. All sorts of statements and suggestions were made as to the motives and explanations offered - but many of these were based on assumptions that the facts which were in police possession and were shown to be completely groundless. The police at once tried to trace all of Gilmore’s movements on that fateful day in order to build a case against him. It was found that on leaving Dervock the young man was driven to Ballymoney in a car by some young women and that he returned in the direction of Dervock in the same car and in the same company. According to Mrs. Gardiner's statement at

the inquest, she last saw Gilmore on Monday night he was leaving the front of the house. He was next seen at a house of a family friend named Wilson hundreds of yards away but a comparatively short distance from his own residence. The theory of the police is that Gilmore did not leave the yard but went round the house to the back window, waited his opportunity, fired the shot, then escaped over a hedge. From this field he crossed a bank into a field sown with oats and then into a grass field, in a corner of which is a large patch of whin bushes, a number of these forming a hedge. On the top of the shough is an old path which is a short cut between Wilson’s house and some other farm houses. It was in the whin bushes, just underneath the path and inside the shough, that the gun had been cleverly concealed. The discovery of the gun happened merely by chance and if fate had not so desired, this vital piece of evidence would not have arisen. The crime for which the unfortunate young man suffered the extreme penalty of the law was committed under circumstances which point to the greatest possible coolness and premeditation on Gilmore’s part. The victim was an aged farmer who lived close to the farm which was occupied by Gilmore’s father. Between the two families, close and friendly relations existed. Some weeks before the night of the shooting a daughter of the Gardiner’s gave birth to a child of which it was said that Gilmore was the father. There

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house by both Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner who came out to investigate. The two men then had a conversation in regard to probable proceedings with regard to the child and Gilmore then went away in the direction of the gate of the farmyard. Whether or not he left the yard has not yet been ascertained; but this fact is certain, that within a very short time he was at the rear of the house, having in his possession a loaded gun. While the old man was standing in front of the fire, and while he was in the act of undressing, Gilmore fired the fatal shot and fled.

Public interest, at the monthly fair in Ballymoney that Thursday, was centred around the tragic incident. appears to have been some talk about an action being brought against Gilmore in respect of his relations with the daughter and judging from the conversation that took place on the fatal night between the murderer and the murdered man, this talk led to the commission of the crime. Early on the evening of the fatal day Gilmore took a horse into the village of Dervock in order to have it shod.

He left the animal at the village forge and procuring a car, he drove into Ballymoney. In this town he purchased at the shop of Mr. Hamill, a single-barrelled hunting gun, a quantity of powder and shot, together with a few other articles. With these in his possession he returned to Dervock and thence found his way to the house occupied by Gardiner. He was seen looking around the

The police received notice of the incident at around eleven o’clock and arrested Gilmore in bed at his own home at around one o’clock. In his possession was found the powder and shot purchased during that day and an examination of that showed that enough had only been used to make one charge. The gun was later found under some furze bushes about four hundred yards from Gardiner’s house in the direction Gilmore would have most probably taken to reach his own house - where he was proved to have spent an hour and a half after the murder in friendly conversation. At the police court investigation which was held on May 6th, at Dervock, Robert Gilmore was charged with wilful murder and committed for trial. The trial took place at the Assizes for the county of Antrim, before Mr. Justice Gibson - and on the verdict of guilty being brought in by the jury, sentence of death was passed in accordance with the law.

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n the middle of the 16th century an architect wrote, ‘prisons consist of three descriptions; one for those who are kept confined until reformation of manners can be effected; another for criminals who are to be tried, as well as those already condemned; and a third for debtors. These ought to be secured and guarded against internal and external violence, healthy and commodious because the purpose of a prison is for their safekeeping not for the torment and pain of criminals or other men. Reforms to prisons and prison life were brought about by the persistent efforts of persevering philanthropists such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, the writings of Charles Dickens, and novels such as “It's never too late to mend” by Charles Reade. Carrickfergus was the old prison town of the North in days gone by and there is evidence that prisoners were confined there back in the days of the mighty Normans. In the charter granted by James I to the town, ground for a jail to be used for the County of Antrim is exempted. The jail at Carrick was built on the site of Joymount, a former residence of the Earls of Donegall, which was at an earlier date the friary of the Franciscans. In the House of Detention many of the men of '98 were confined, including William Orr. When the County Assize was removed to Belfast in 1850 the present prison on the Crumlin Road was built. The manor of Belfast had of course its Bridewell, a name derived from an ancient house of correction near St. Bride’s Well, off Fleet Street in London. Early in the last century the House of Correction was erected in Howard Street and had as its inscription over the door, ‘WITHIN AMEND, WITHOUT BEWARE!’ In 1822 the house of correction was in Henrietta Street and the Marshalsea Prison of the Manor Court was in Smithfield North. It was in 1787 that the celebrated prison reformer, John Howard, came to Belfast and the press at that time reported that he visited the Poor House and the Infirmary in Donegall Street and was pleased with what he found there. John Howard became interested in prison welfare when he was High Sheriff for Bedfordshire, and a book he published in 1777 resulted in the adoption of the hard labour system in British Prisons. Belfast Prison closed down in 1996.


Other prisons in Belfast which are not so well known were the Donegall Arms, which was situated at one time at High Street. The Rotterdam Bar was also used as a place where prisoners were detained before they were transported off into exile. It is even reported that the caves at Cavehill were once used as a prison by the O’Neills.

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EXECUTION OF William Woods 11th January 1901 t eight o’clock on the morn ing of Friday January 11th 1901, William Woods was convicted at the Assizes held in Belfast for the wilful murder of Bridget McGivern at Eagry, near Bushmills, on 26th September 1900, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. The crime committed by the condemned man was of an appalling character in its cruelty, without any extenuating circumstances.

That the said William Woods, a male person, of the age of fifty-eight years, and a pedlar, was a prisoner in Belfast Prison under judgment of death for the murder of Bridget McGivern, and that the judgment of death was duly executed on him by being hanged by the neck till dead within the walls of the said prison on the 11th January, 1901; not more than twenty-four hours before holding of this inquest, and that the body on which this inquest is held is the The City Coroner, Mr. E. S. Finnegan identical body of the said William held an inquest at eleven o’clock in Woods, adjudged to death aforesaid. the Boardroom of the prison on the body of the deceased William Following the business of a pedlar, Woods. The necessary formalities it appeared that Woods was in the having been complied with at the habit of visiting Bushmills and stayentrance to the jail, the coroner ing in the house of Bridget intimated to the officials that any McGivern, a widow with two chilresident in the County of Antrim who dren. William Woods went into the wished to be present at the inquest Taggart’s shop in Bushmills on 25th must be admitted. September and bought a razor, stating to the assistant who sold it to After the jury had been sworn in, him that he wanted it to sell again. they proceeded to the execution He subsequently went to Brigid chamber accompanied by a number McGivern’s house and stayed there of reporters and viewed the body and until a late hour where he had tea. the scaffold. He produced a naggin bottle of At the end of the proceedings the whiskey, gave the deceased a drink jury agreed with the doctor's verdict from it and then proceeded to take which was read by the coroner and the rest himself. Ultimately they all duly signed :lay down to rest. There were two

beds in the single room which formed the cabin. The deceased, preceded by the children, went to one of them and Woods went to the other. The youngest boy didn’t rise 'till late the following morning and missed his mother from the bed. William Woods


Looking round in the dim light of the early dawn, he saw her lying on the other bed while Woods had disappeared. Going over to his mother the poor lad found her covered in blood and, horrified he fled out the door to alarm the neighbours. William Woods however had already went to the police barracks in Bushmills. His clothes soaked in blood, he calmly admitted the murder of Brigid McGivern. The police rushed to the scene and found the unfortunate woman lying dead on the bed, her throat cut from ear to ear. The body by this time was almost cold. The place was like a shambles. Woods’ muffler had been thrown over the poor woman’s throat, and his coat placed under her head. Later on November 17th a razor, identical to the one sold to Woods at Taggart’s shop, was found in an old ruin half way between the scene of the murder and the police barracks.

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The case proved to be quite a simple one because in addition to the other conclusive evidence which the Crown produced there was also Woods’ statement of admission. At the trial before Mr. Justice Madden in December, Woods was reported by the press to seem to take very little interest in the proceedings, and appeared very callous throughout. He was ably defended by Mr. Thomas Harrison, who suggested that the crime was not one of premeditated malice but homicidal mania; but the jury after a short deliberation returned a verdict of guilty. Woods showed no sign of anxiety as to the result and after the judge had solemnly pronounced the death sentence, Woods airily remarked, Oh its not as bad as a bad marriage. He was returned to the prison to await his execution where he was attended-to daily by his minister, the Rev. Dr. Spence. This was not the first time however that William Woods had appeared in court. In the spring of 1890 he narrowly missed execution for the brutal killing of Mary Irwin. This incident happened near the village of Claudy after he was arrested along

with Mary Irwin for drunkenness. Both were released from the barracks at midnight. Next morning the woman was found tied to a cart wheel, brutally hacked to death with a scythe. It transpired that the deceased had often given the accused provocation, and the jury taking this into consideration and believing that the crime was not premeditated, returned a verdict of manslaughter. Woods was sentenced to twelve years penal servitude and released in July 1899. As further proof of his violent character, it was also shown that he had been convicted on thirtytwo other occasions, mostly for assaults on the police and in one case on a magistrate. Early on the morning of Friday January 11th crowds began to assemble in the vicinity of the prison. A new stone execution chamber which was specially constructed for hangings was ready to accept Woods as its first victim. This room was to be a permanent feature of the jail and was built in the wing adjacent to the Mater Informorium Hospital. It was described at the time as a substantial apartment entered from the corridor

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of the prison, with roughly plastered walls and a glass roof. Beneath the trap door, which is on a level with the floor, is a deep pit, sufficient it was said, "to give any length of drop considered necessary by the executioner". The scaffold was only a few yards away from the condemned cell. Scott of Huddersfield was the hangman and he quickly pinioned Woods and placed him in position over the trap door. The white hood was placed over his head. The noose was adjusted round his neck. The lever was pulled and Woods was hanged. For an hour or so the body remained hanging after which it was cut down and placed in a coffin which was laid out in the death chamber ready for the inspection of the jury. Outside at a quarter to eight the bell tolled to send the message throughout the neighbourhood of the grim events which were about to take place. Crowds had gathered at the prison and stood silently awaiting the hoisting of the black flag. The bell suddenly stopped at eight o’clock and the flag was hoisted. Then the bell recommenced, intimating that all was over. The crowd afterwards quietly dispersed.

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EXECUTION OF Richard Justin 19th August 1909 t 8 o’clock on the 19th of August 1909 a man named Richard Justin was hanged in the Crumlin Road Prison for the horrific murder of four year old Annie Thompson who died after being systematically beaten over a long period. Needless to say this crime caused widespread revulsion all over the city and a tiny part of this was shown in the following letter which was printed in a local newspaper shortly after the execution:Sir - The curtain having fallen upon the final scene on the sad tragedy of little Annie Thompson’s death, will you grant me space for a brief reference to it. On Friday 12th March, the day on which was terminated the child’s miserable existence, an anonymous letter which lies before me as I write, was received at this office. In the letter the writer details the sufferings of the child for the period of ‘two months’ and asks the Society to interfere. The opening sentence of the letter runs thus:"I was to drop you a note last week." Now "last week" meant at least six days before, probably longer. If the intention expressed by the writer had been carried out, it is possible that Annie Thompson would be alive


today, and Richard Justin also. The history of the case as revealed in the court shows only too clearly that if an officer of the Society had visited "last week" he would have found ample grounds for the Society proceeding at once to have the child removed to a place of safety. It is inconceivable why any person seeing an innocent child suffering"as Annie Thompson did, and knowing that the National Society existed to protect such a child, should delay even for one hour in giving information which would have brought immediate relief to the little sufferer. It is an unspeakably sad reflection that Annie Thompson might have been saved, but she is dead. She will not, however, suffered and died in vain if the memory of her cruel sufferings and terrible death be the means of impressing upon every individual member of the community the duty and responsibility of co-operating with the Society in preventing the wrongs of helpless children by making it known to it without delay the case of any child who is not being fairly dealt with. The names of persons giving information are kept strictly private, and a personaly call at this office, a telephone message, or a letter will receive imme-

diate attention. Yours faithfully William Rodden Belfast Branch N.S.P.C.C. The inquest into the death of little Annie Thompson on the 15th of March proved to be one of the most distressing ever to come before the Coroners Court . The child was just four years old at the time of her death and she was said to have been the daughter of Annie Thompson and Richard Justin who had just got married a few months previously and lived with three children at 84 Lepper Street. The first witness to be called before the Coroner was Brigid McWilliams who lived at 107 Hardinge Street on the opposite side of the New Lodge Road. She informed the court that the little child would call to her house every morning on the way to school. Around six weeks previously she told the Coroner that the child had called and had a black eye. The following day the child called again and this time the other eye was badly marked. A few days later she noticed that the child had a bad bruise on her chin. When the child was asked what had happened she told her that her father had kicked her. Mrs McWilliams also informed the court that on another occasion she saw the child’s body covered in bruises and that on another occasion before that that the little girls jaw had been ‘tied up’ and her’‘wee elbow’ was all swollen up and that the’‘skin was off her back.’ The litany of cruelty did not stop there and Mrs McWilliams told of

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It was tough being a child in the ‘Good Old Days’ and cases such as this were a common occurrence.

how the child’s wrist had been burned and how the poor creature had been subjected to regular beatings with a cane by her cruel father. She also told the Coroner that she had told Justin’s wife of her intention of reporting the cruelty to the authorities but that she had received an undertaking from her that the beatings would cease.

lived at 84 Lepper Street up until the 25th of February. She occupied two rooms on the ground floor while the Justin family lived in the two upstairs rooms. She told the court that she often heard shouting from the Justin’s part of the house and that she had heard young Annie Thompson scream "Da, Da, don’t beat me any more." She also stated that she heard the cries of the The next witness was a Margaret child almost every night and once Craig who lived in number 65 heard the mother saying, "hit me and Halliday’s Road. She stated that she let the child alone."

Professor Summers was then called and he informed the Coroner that he had formerly been a professor of pathology in Cario and that he had made a special study of bruises. He had the opportunity of examining the back of a man who had been given 100 whips with a cat-of-nine tails. Comparing the child’s thighs with that man’s back, the child had almost been equally injured and had been brutally treated. He went on to detail his horrific findings when he examined the body of the unfor-

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tunate child in the morgue. "On the front of the chest and belly wall were twelve bruises, each about the size of a six pence: these bruises were fading, being of several days standing. The right arm showed six similar bruises. On front of the right thigh were two recent bruises, each the size of a six pence. On the left forearm, to the outside, was a recent bruise the size of a shilling. On the right side of the forehead there was a recent bruise, the size of a five shilling piece, the skin over which was partly scraped off. On the chin were five bruises and on the back of the thighs there was bruising extending from the buttocks to the bend of the knees. This bruised area was marked by red streaks from one to two inches long, crossing each other at acute angles, the appearance being that of a severe beating with a stick or rod. Under the skin beneath these streaks there was blood poured out into the fat, so that the whole of the subcutaneous parts of the back of the thighs were sodden with blood. The legs below the knees were bruised in places, and blood was effused under the skin. On removing the scalp the whole of the top part of the head was found to be covered by recently shed blood, which lay in a mass over the front sides, top, and back of the skull bones, forming a cap over the whole vault of the skull. On removing the skull cap the brain was found to be covered by an enormous mass of recently shed blood. He concluded by telling the Coroner that the child’s death was due to haemorrhage on the brain due to violence. The Coroner

then asked the professor if this could ever waited in vain to see the black have been caused by accident. The flag. professor answered (emphatically) that the child was beaten to death! Another development in executions was that the press were now barred Justin claimed that the child’s in- from the actual execution itself. The juries were caused by a fall from her only people authorised to witness the bed. He also claimed in a statement hanging were the High Sheriff, the after being cautioned by the police, Under Sheriff, the Governor of the "Never in my life; never in my life. prison, and the prison medical officer My wife can tell you that the little and the attendant clergyman. The thing was often beaten down in executioner on this occasion was Hardinge Street by that woman Pierpont. Justin it was reported was Brigid McWilliams, who gave awake from an early hour, and was evidence at the inquest," Not- for a considerable time in conversawithstanding the able pleading of tion with Mr. Frederick Woolley, of Justin’s counsel, Mr Campbell, the the Unitarian Mission, Stanhope jury found him guilty and he was Street, who had regularly visited and sentenced to hang. Later efforts to given comfort to the unhappy man secure a reprieve failed and the since his trial. Shortly before eight prisoner went to the scaffold on o’clock, the governor of the gaol, Mr. Thursday 19th August. Thomas Stringer, in compliance with the official documents, delivered up Long before the time fixed for the the prisoner. On arriving before the melancholy ceremony, crowds of hangman, his arms were pinioned people, impelled by a morbid and he was led along the short curiosity, began to assemble on the passage leading from the Crumlin Road, and as the fatal hour condemned cell to the place of the approached the thoroughfare execution a stone chamber built between that building and the County several years earlier to take place of Courthouse became densely the old wooden structure which had thronged, even though there was been previously used inside the gaol absolutely nothing to be seen save when public executions were the occasional entrance of an official abolished. On arriving at the within the gloomy portals of the scaffold the pinioning process was prison, and, later on, the nailing upon completed. The white cap and rope were the door of the notice intimating that adjusted and the burial service was solthe dreaded sentence of the law had emnly recited by the attendant minisbeen duly carried into effect. The ter. A few seconds later the lever was tradition of hoisting a black flag, pulled, and the awesome ceremony was which was formerly always completed. The prison bell tolled for a associated with executions was not quarter of an hour. At ten past eight a brought into practice on this warder nailed a notice to the front doors occasion as the tradition was being of the prison declaring that "Judgement phased out. Many of the crowd how- of Death" had been duly carried out.

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EXECUTION OF Simon McGeown 17th August 1922 t 8.15 a.m.,Thursday Au gust 17th 1922 the large gate at Belfast Prison was opened to the awaiting crowd and the customary notice was placed up stating that the execution of the convict, Simon McGeown had been duly carried out for the brutal murder of little Maggie Fullerton from the Docks area of Belfast. At 10 a.m. an inquest held at the jail by Dr. Gordon, the City Coroner, passed the following verdict:- " That Simon McGeown, being a male person of the age of 38 years and a labourer, was a prisoner in the said prison, under judgement of death, for the murder of one, Maggie Fullerton, and that judgement of death was duly executed by him being hanged by the neck until dead, within the walls of the said prison, on the day and year aforesaid, not more than twenty four hours before the holding of this inquest and the body on which this inquest is held is the identical body of the said Simon McGeown, adjudged to death as aforesaid."


At the time of this nauseating murder, Belfast was witnessing some of the most violent atrocities associated with the political upheavals of the time. When little Maggie Fullerton's body was discovered

horribly mutilated on the slopes of the Cave Hill, Belfast’s warring citizens were united in their shock and horror. It was claimed at the time that McGeown had very few friends in Belfast. He had been born near Lurgan and at a very early age he joined the British Army. He was eventually drafted to India where, it was reported, he bore an exemplary character for some time. His downfall seemed to start however after recovering from malaria. He was reported for various offences for which he was punished by the military. Several times it should be noted, he was punished by courtmartial. He left the army and it was claimed, he ended up wandering around Belfast and the North of Ireland until the outbreak of World War I. McGeown then rejoined and because of his previous military experience he gained an easy passage through basic training and was soon on his way to France. Here he served for three years, during which time he had been wounded and gassed several times. Being judged unfit for further service he was eventually discharged. He returned to Belfast where he again adopted the life of a drifter, wandering the streets of

Belfast and surrounding area trying to scavenge for a living. He soon came to the attention of the police and was convicted on no fewer than six occasions, for such offences as breaking and entering, larceny and receiving stolen goods, for which he spent a total of thirty months before he eventually ended up in prison for murder. Mr. J. McGonigle K. C. and Mr. George Hill Smith K. C. prosecuted for the Crown and addressed the jury and advised them they had a duty to society to find McGeown, guilty as charged. Mr. McGonigle had previously explained the circumstances which resulted in the little girl being tricked into accompanying McGeown and then later the discovery of her body in the middle of the day on June 3rd, in a plantation on the Shaftesbury Estate on Cave Hill, concealed by rubbish and leaves.

Maggie Fullerton It was pointed out that the body was obviously dumped there by the same evil monster who violated her before strangling her. The dead girl, who was only 6 years old, had lived with

Belfast Executions her parents at Little York Street. At around supper time her father had given her tuppence (two pennies) to buy sweets. She went on out into the street to her friends. It was not until around seven o’clock that same evening that her parents realised something was wrong. All her friends were still in the street playing but little Maggie was no-where to be seen. Her parents and the neighbours began a frantic search but to no avail. On June 3rd, on the slopes of Cave Hill, a gamekeeper was working on a plantation there when he discovered her body, partly eaten by rats. She had been strangled.

Simon McGeown Lord Justice Andrews concluded his charge at 7 p.m., and the jury retired to consider their verdict. Three quarters of an hour later they returned a verdict of guilty. The judge, donning the black cap, went on to describe the murder as ‘one of the most brutal in the annals of crime’ and after advising McGeown to prepare to meet his maker, he pronounced the sentence of execution, in the usual solemn form, after

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which McGeown, who turned pale, on that dreadful day. As the execuaccompanied the warders from the tion day drew nearer he had hopes of gaining a reprieve but all these dock to his cell. hopes were dashed when on the 17th McGeown was not left alone for a August he was taken from his cell moment as he awaited his fate on the and led to the gallows. scaffold. He was fully resigned to his impending death and it was stated The execution attracted around 2,000 that he did not deny the crime, for people to the prisons vicinity and which he claimed he had not the their curiosity was satisfied when the slightest recollection owing to the notice was placed on the prison gate fact that he had consumed a consid- declaring that the death sentence had erable amount of methylated spirits been duly carried out.

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Belfast Executions

EXECUTION OF Michael Pratley 8th May 1924 n March 7th 1924, Nelson Leech, an employee with Messrs. Purdy & Millard (Sculptors) of Hamill Street had just returned from the Ulster Bank at Queen Street having collected the money to pay the wages of the firm’s employees. Unknown to him he was being stalked by a gang of robbers. Upon his return he was ‘held up’ by three masked men who burst into the office. All three men were carrying revolvers. As Mr. Leech ran to the phone to raise the alarm a shot rang out, which hit the phone kiosk above the head of the terrified employee. Mr. Leech continued to the phone to summon the help of the police when one of the raiders pounced on him. As a result of the ensuing struggle another shot rang out and Mr. Leech fell fatally wounded to the floor. At this the three men immediately fled the premises followed in quick pursuit by a girl from the office. One of the raiders ran down Hamill Street while the other two ran along Galway Street. Meanwhile an office employee was able to catch the attention of a policeman who was coming out of the Barracks at College Square. He immediately went after two of the raiders and caught one of them, Michael Pratley from Moira Street, Belfast. As he


caught up on him however it was claimed that Pratley pulled out his revolver and tried to shoot him but the gun jammed and he was quickly overpowered. This revolver when later examined had eight cartridges in it, seven of which were unused. One of the bullets had been fired, but the cartridge had not been ejected from the chamber. It was later discovered that Pratley had another clip containing eight more cartridges, and when his house was searched another revolver was found. The Crown tried to prove that if necessary Pratley was prepared to kill anyone who tried to prevent him carrying out this robbery. The Attorney General also pointed out that even if the Crown failed to prove

that the man who fired the shot was Pratley, but proved that he was one of the raiders when the crime was committed, then the prisoner was guilty of murder. Alexander Briggs, an employee with Purdy & Millard, told the court of witnessing the whole sequence of events from the entrance of the masked raiders, the scuffle with Mr. Leech, the shooting and the escape of the perpetrators. Elizabeth Allen corroborated his evidence and continued to tell how she raised the alarm which led to Constable Morteshed catching Michael Pratley in a nearby street. She said that she had no doubt that Pratley was one of the gang of armed raiders. Constable. Morteshed said he was on duty on 7th March when he heard the alarm in the street. He ran out and saw a crowd at Galway Street. Someone shouted , "They ran down there". Constable Morteshed reached Durham Street and told of how he saw two men running into Barrack Street. He caught Pratley half way down the street. He Purdy & Millard's workshop

Belfast Executions explained that when he eventually caught up with him Pratley whipped around and pulled out an automatic pistol. The pistol however jammed and he knocked it out of the prisoners hand. Head Constable Slake was then called as a witness and he told of his examination of the premises of Messrs. Purdy & Millard, where he found a bullet hole in the sheeting under the stairs. When he followed the line of fire he discovered embedded in the wood of the stairs, a bullet of the same calibre as those in Pratley’s revolver and it also corresponded to the one which killed Mr. Leech.

Constable Morteshed who arrested Pratley District Inspector Jennings told of how, when charged with the crime, Pratley said he did not fire the shot which killed Mr. Leech. He admitted taking part in the hold up but said he only fired one shot, which went over the Deceased’s head. On cross-examination Pratley refused to name his co-conspirator, one of whom he claimed was the person who shot Mr. Leech. He readily admitted entering the office with the intent of stealing the wages and claimed they all carried loaded revolvers to ‘fire over their heads’.

When he was asked to account for the fact that the bullet which killed Mr. Leech corresponded to those in his revolver he claimed that all the revolvers were the same. "Do you admit that the weapon you had when the constable caught you was the same as you had in the shop?" - "Yes." "And you had it in your pocket when the constable caught you?" - "Yes." The prosecutor then produced a pencil written letter and asked him was it his writing. "It might be". The Attorney General explained to the court that the letter had been intercepted and was evidently written to the prisoners wife although it had been addressed to someone else. "MY DEAREST JOE - I want to say a few things that are best said now. When I stand on my trial it is not unlikely that I may be sentenced to death, and it is best to know it now, instead of coming as a shock later on. This letter is being slipped out, and it would be better to burn it in case it comes into the hands of the police. No matter how the case goes I hope the two men who were with me will do their best for you. When the trial comes I am going to say that after the shooting I changed guns with one of the others, as his gun was too big to go in his pocket. That was how I had that particular gun." On being further grilled about the gun he admitted that he had never exchanged guns. The defence counsel appealed to the court on behalf of his client. He claimed that the evidence indicated that there was no premeditation and that Mr. Leech died as a result of a

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Michael Pratley struggle. It was undoubtedly a crime that the man had been shot but the defence’s point was that it was not necessarily murder because the man was shot and he further suggested that if the gang had gone to Purdy & Millard’s offices with murder in their hearts then Miss Allen and indeed Mr. Briggs would have certainly never have been allowed to survive as witnesses. He went on to say that the attempt on the life of the constable had been brought in as evidence purely to prejudice the chances of the man in the dock. He suggested that the jury should consider the shooting of Mr. Leech as manslaughter. The jury retired at 1.17p.m. and returned at 1.45p.m. with a verdict of guilty. Michael Pratley showed no emotion on hearing the verdict and when asked by the judge had he anything to say, he calmly replied - " I have no more to say than I have already said." The execution was duly carried out in accordance with the law on Thursday May 8th 1924. The executioner who was paid to hang Pratley was Willis.

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EXECUTION OF William Smiley 8th August 1928 he Armoy murder for which William Smylie paid the supreme penalty of the law was committed on 24 May 1928. The victims of this ghastly murder were Miss Margaret and Miss Sarah Macauley, both sisters in their forties who lived on the family farm at Mullaghduffbeg , County Antrim. The crime created widespread public interest as it had been the first double murder perpetrated in these parts in a very long time.


William Smylie was a trusted servant of the Macauley family and on that fateful day in May the two Macauley sisters were found dead on the kitchen floor with terrible head

injuries. They had both been shot at close range and the gun lay beside the bodies. The only other persons at the farmhouse that day were William Smylie and another house servant Kate Murdoch. The other Macauley brothers were out in the fields working. It transpired that after the murder was discovered, Smylie rushed off to inform the police. Several statements were subsequently made and eventually Smylie had implicated himself in the whole affair. On searching Smylie it was found that he had thirty pounds stuffed into his boot. It was later discovered that thirty pounds had been stolen from the house that same day from Andrew Macauley’s cash

The cottage where the brutal murders occurred

box. Upon being further questioned he admitted that he had stolen the money but that he did not murder the two sisters. The Lord Chief Justice summed up by pointing out that Smylie had been found in possession of the stolen money and there being no evidence of other persons having been in the vicinity of the house at the time of the double murder, it was up to Smylie to explain how he came to have the money. Was it before the murder or after? He emphasised that if the jury thought there was a reasonable doubt they should give the prisoner the benefit of it. If there was no doubt, the prisoner would have to pay the penalty for one of the most barbarous and brutal murders that had happened in their time and generation Less than a quarter of an hour was taken by the jury to reach their decision. The court was hushed and in a few moments it was realised the verdict which was agreed upon was GUILTY. The clerk of the court then asked Smylie if he had anything to say. Smylie who was slightly pale stood up and stated firmly, “I am innocent of the murder.” He was then taken across to the prison through an underground passage which leads between the courthouse and the prison directly below the Crumlin Road. It appeared that on the day of the murders, Margaret Macauley was left in the house after dinner. The servants had all left to go about their

Belfast Executions work and Sarah Macauley had went to bring dinner to her brothers who were out in the fields working, a couple of hundred yards away. It was at this stage that the ghastly sequence of events unfolded. Kate Murdoch, a domestic servant at the Macauley house, gave some interesting evidence which when added to the evidence of one of the Macauley brothers formed part of the conclusive evidence submitted by the prosecution. Kate Murdoch stated that she was watering the cattle after having dinner at 12.20.p.m. She saw Sarah Macauley coming from where her brothers were working. She waited for Sarah to join her and she left her to go to back of the house to bud potatoes. After working a few minutes she heard a shot, and a few minutes later she heard the sound of horses feet.

Kate Murdoch who made the horrific discovery raid and that the gun was lying across their dead bodies. This gun had been hanging on the kitchen wall and it had been suggested that it had almost certainly been loaded in front of Margaret Macauley before Sarah had come back from the fields. It was suggested that only the accused could have done this without She described her horror when she arising the suspicions of the went into the house and saw both murdered woman for he had used this sisters lying dead in their own blood. gun on several other occasions. She told Smylie, who at this time was ploughing, about the murders. The defence counsel declared that He immediately ran to the house the circumstantial evidence of the while she went out to raise the alarm. Crown was inconclusive and would Leslie Macauley told the court that not justify the jury in returning a from where he was standing he had verdict of guilty. He claimed that a clear view of the farmhouse. He Smylie definitely did not commit estimated that his sister Sarah would these murders. He reminded the jury get back to the house after leaving that the kitchen was like a shambles them at about 1 p.m. and the first on that instant and that the sisters had movement he noticed at the farm- been shot at close range yet there was house was around 1.25 p.m. when not one speck of blood on Smylie’s he saw Smylie leaving the house. clothes. He also drew the attention Smylie told the brothers about the of the jury to the fact that the police murder while they were working in were unable to find any of the the fields at around 3.30 p.m. and accused’s fingerprints at the scene of also told them that there had been a the crime.

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Smylie when he was arrested told the police that he had accompanied Leslie Macauley back to the farmhouse and had entered the house and the bedroom. When there, he claimed he found the money which was discovered hidden in his boot. “It was lying on the floor near Andy’s cash-box.” Leslie Macauley however testified to the fact that Smylie was not allowed to enter the house after the murder and did not accompany him to the bedroom. Asked if he had entered the house after the murder, Smylie said he went in at 5.30 p.m. along with Leslie Macauley while Constable Waugh was on guard duty. They went upstairs to the loft (bedroom) to see if the money was right. There were papers scattered all over the floor and he claimed he took three £10 notes which were lying in a lump under the dressing table. It was not until he made a closer examination in the stables that he found the lump of paper contained the £10 notes. Lord Chief Justice You did not think it was paper at the time! You would not steal paper? Smylie did not answer the question. In passing the death sentence the judge stated that he agreed with the decision of the jury You gave those unfortunate women not a moment before you hurled them into eternity. The law is more merciful to you because you will be afforded some period in which to make your peace with your Maker!

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Belfast Executions hand. The gun had been concealed in a hedge in the laneway where the murder took place. They therefore had the motive for the crime - robbery. They had the method used - the use of poteen as a bait and the callous use of a shotgun to shoot the victim at close range. They had also narrowed down the suspects to someone who was living A. B. Babington K.C., submitted that in the locality. the murder was done by a local, who obviously had prior knowledge of Many people seemed to have heard both the locality and of McCann’s the shot that morning but thought it movements and also knowledge of was someone scaring crows. Referthe fact that McCann would be ring to Cushnan’s possession of a carrying the money on that particu- gun, the judge thought it strange to lar morning. He finished his address have a certificate when his family’s by stating, the prisoner at the bar position did not really warrant the answered the description suggested need for one. When police went to inquire about this gun only the butt by these facts. could be found. Cushnan, when McCann had been shot through the asked what happened to the barrel, neck with a shotgun. Alcohol was claimed that it had been left in an later found to be in the victim's outhouse when he was ‘flitting’ from stomach when the post mortem one house to another and someone examination was carried out. The must have lifted it. Witnesses were police also found a porter bottle of produced however who testified poteen close to where the body was having seen him with the gun after found. These facts seemed very he had moved house. Cushnan also strange to the detectives who claimed to have been working in a wondered why he would have been certain field from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the morning of the murder but drinking at such an early hour. The Crown suggested that McCann other witnesses were produced by the had been lured down the lane by prosecution who gave evidence to Cushnan by the offer of a quick drink the contrary. They claimed that they of poteen. (McCann would not have had been working in adjoining fields perceived that such a move would and on that particular morning he have proved fatal as he knew didn’t come into the field until well Cushnan). It was this bait which after 10 o’clock. Witnesses also told ultimately led to McCann's death of seeing Cushnan’s bicycle in the and the stealing of the £60 from his laneway before the murder and it was still there at 6 or 7 that same evening. delivery bag. The murder had obviously been The greatest evidence according to meticulously planned out before- the prosecution was a piece of cloth

EXECUTION OF Samuel Cushnan 8th April 1930 ames McCann was a rural postman who carried the mail from Toomebridge post office to Crosskeys. He had to make a delivery of letters to people upon the way, and having done so, he went on to Crosskeys Post Office where he left the remainder of his delivery. On the days when the old age pension was paid out he also collected it at Toomebridge and brought it to Crosskeys with the rest of his delivery. Toomebridge to Crosskeys is a distance of about four and a half miles and on the morning of his murder, Thursday May 16th 1929, he had the money in a sealed bag which had been sent down from head office in Belfast. On May 29th police arrested James Cushnan and charged him with murdering James McCann.


James McCann set off from Toomebridge on his bicycle at 8.20 a.m. and should have reached Crosskeys around 9.30 a.m. The fact that he carried the old age pension money every Thursday was common knowledge around that area, a fact that the prosecution impressed upon the jury. His body was found later that morning. He had apparently been robbed and shot dead. The Attorney General, Right Honourable

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the murderer or someone concerned with the murder trying to escape? That was a matter for the jury." The prisoner was entitled to the benefit of any reasonable doubt in the case but the jury could not invent doubts for him. Now gentlemen, May God’s blessing rest on your labours and may you do your best in accordance with your oaths.

James McCann

allegedly identical in texture to that of the coat which witnesses said the accused was wearing on the morning of the murder. On the morning of the murder a friend of Cushnan’s, Mrs. Robinson and her niece told the court of how Cushnan hurried past them while they were talking at the door. She noticed that he was wearing a darkish coat and brown khaki riding breeches and leggings. Cushnan denied talking to either women that morning. Mrs. Robinson also claimed that Cushnan called at her house about a week after the murder asking if the police had interviewed her and if they had asked her had she seen him that day. Only one witness, Mrs. Brown saw anyone acting suspiciously that

William Cushnan was executed on the morning of April 8th 1930 for the brutal murder of James McCann, a postman, on May 16 1929. He had been sentenced in March 1930 after the jury at his original trial in December had disagreed. After the execution Fr. Mc Gouran said, Cushnan died with great Christian courage and charity. He was afterwards interred within morning and her evidence was used the prison in accordance with the law. to outline the supposed scenario. " It would be the natural thing for An eyewitness recalled that Cushnan the murderer to go through the back was in the condemned cell that fields rather than through the village. morning praying along with a priest A man, for the moment there was no when at two minutes to eight the evidence that it was the prisoner, Sub-Sheriff accompanied by made his way up the back fields and Pierrepoint, appeared at the door. got as far as a point from which he They demanded that the prisoner be could be seen from Mrs. Brown’s handed over for execution. The house. This stranger was seen by Governor of the gaol, Major Long Mrs. Brown from a distance of formally handed over his prisoner. Cushnan stood up and the hangman around 200 yards." Although Mrs. Brown knew strapped his arms to his side. In a Cushnan from childhood she could moment the procession to the not positively identify him; although scaffold had begun. from her observations she could Cushnan had only a dozen steps to confirm that he was of small build take and on the stroke of eight he (similar to Cushnan) and wearing a was dead. The morning had been darkish coat and khaki-coloured cold and wet and a slight fog which hung over the city added to the trousers. "Did they think that the man was dismal scene.

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EXECUTION OF Thomas Dornan 31st July 1931 ew crimes in the North have sent such a thrill through the community as the double murder of the two Aiken sisters near Newtowncrommelin, Ballymena, on the afternoon of 22nd May 1931. Both were shot while they working in a bog cutting turf. The most extraordinary feature of the crime however was the fact that the perpetrator of the cowardly deed carried out this foul act in broad daylight and in full view of several eye-witnesses. The last double killing in county Antrim was at Armoy when the Macauley sisters were both shot dead in May 1928.


Thomas Dornan, a farmer from the same area, eventually stood trial for the brutal deed. The crime appeared to have been committed as an act of revenge by a man who was apparently brooding over an imaginary wrong, or a financial burden. Dornan was a married man. An industrious farmer he held a high reputation as a respectable, hardworking member of his community. He had been on friendly terms with the Aiken family for a long time but a closer friendship soon blossomed with the younger girl, Bella. In December 1929, Bella gave birth to an illegitimate child of which Dornan

The cottage at Skerry East where the ill-fated girls lived

admitted to being the father. He had agreed through a firm of solicitors to pay a sum of six shillings per week in support of the child. The payments of this maintenance, it was claimed, were in arrears from time to time. Premeditation was stressed by the Crown at his trial. They proceeded to outline this premeditation by bringing the jury’s attention to the fact that on the afternoon of the crime Dornan had walked down and viewed the scene before going to his home and ultimately returning to the place with a loaded shotgun. Dornan also had a number of cartridges in his pocket. He calmly approached the girls who not even suspecting his evil intent continued with their work. The first shots rang out and the girls realising the danger they were in tried to flee from their assailant. As they tried to get out of the ditch they clung to each other in terror. More shots were fired at them and the two

Belfast Executions girls fell to the ground, wounded. James Aiken, a brother of the two girls, was an agonised spectator of the terrible scene and was horror stricken to see Dornan standing over the two girls firing shot after shot into their lifeless bodies. Six shots, it was later shown, were fired into one of the girls and four into the other. Dornan it was alleged, walked home in a leisurely fashion and even stopped on the way to tell a woman that he had shot the two girls. Medical experts at his trial suggested that he was not responsible for his actions at the time of the murders and that he was acting through an uncontrollable homicidal impulse.

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Maggie Aiken

The jury however weighed up all the evidence brought before them and after an absence of 32 minutes they returned with a verdict of guilty. Dornan was sentenced to death. His execution was scheduled for July 31st 1931 and he was brought back to Crumlin Road Jail where he was placed in the condemned cell to await his fate. Various pleas for a repreive of his sentence failed. Long before the execution, spectators began to assemble and were marshalled on the Court-house side of the Crumlin Road by the police. There was an ominous hush as the fatal hour (8.00 a.m.) approached and the tense silence was only broken by occasional tramcars passing up and down. Dramatic accounts of the execution were given at the inquest later that morning. Dr. O’Flaherty, the prison medical officer claimed that Dornan met a painless death. The Rev. Mr.

Simms told the inquest that he had visited Dornan three times a day and he was very penitent. “He died happy - I have no doubt of that” added Mr. Simms and he said Dornan

told him he knew nothing about what had happened on the day of the actual murder. After the inquest the body was buried in the prison graveyard.

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EXECUTION OF Eddie Cullens 13th January 1932 he 13th man to hang in the Crumlin Road Jail was American Eddie Cullens who was hanged on Friday the 13th in conclusion to one of Belfast’s strangest murders which took place on September 4th 1931. The naked body of Achmet Musa, a Turk, had been dumped in a field at Seskin near Carrickfergus after a horse on a milk cart refused to go any further on the nearby road. The man who had previously been shot through the head was naked except for a woman’s blue and white rubber bathing cap. The murder was similar to the Chicago style gangster killings in the United States of the time and caused great public interest in the North.


Through channels known only to the Ulster police a girl was found who had seen the distinctive blue and white bathing cap in the car of a man, later to be identified as Eddie Cullens, who she had met and was about to join on a trip to Derry City before the body of Musa had been discovered. Patient inquiries, and the intricate process of deduction, based on and centred around the bathing cap enabled the police to spin the threads of circumstantial evidence

into a rope strong enough to hang Cullens. The story that later transpired told how Cullens and Musa had been part of a syndicate formed in New York with another Turk, Assim Redvan, in an enterprise to exploit an old man named Zaro Agha, who was reported as "the oldest man in the world", aged 156 years. The quartet arrived in England and became a side show with Bertram Mills’ travelling circus. While in Liverpool it seems something happened which led to the

The body of Achmet Musa

beginning of the plot to murder Achmet Musa. Both Cullens and Musa split from the other two and went to live at a house at Wavetree. The landlord told the police of how Cullens, who now called himself Bernard Bermann, had negotiated the lease and was interested whether or not the garage floor was concrete. The landlord later told of how he had disturbed Cullens as he was digging in the garage. At the subsequent trial, the Crown suggested that they believed he was digging a grave for Musa and because he was disturbed he had to think of another way to murder his victim. It was after this that the two men ended up in Ireland. Cullens borrowed his other partner’s (Assim Redvan) car. The pair arrived in Belfast on the morning of Saturday August 29th and put up at Ryan's Hotel, Donegal Quay.

Belfast Executions On the Sunday afternoon, Cullens met two girls outside the General Post Office in Royal Avenue, intending to pick up Musa on the way to Bangor. While Cullens was changing the wheel of his car he asked one of the girls to give him out a towel which was in the pocket of the car door. It was then that the bathing cap fell out. This incident proved to be the damning at his trial. After the run to Bangor there were other excursions until the crucial date September the 2nd. On that evening Cullens said he went to the dog racing at Celtic Park with Mr. Ryan and left Musa outside in the car. When they later came out he claimed Musa must have wandered off because he was no longer in the car. He said he returned to the hotel with Mr. Ryan and remained there for the rest of the night. Ryan however denied this version of events and both he and his wife swore that Cullens did not stay in the hotel and that they never saw him again after leaving him, Mrs. Ryan from earlier that day and Mr. Ryan since leaving him at the Grosvenor Road at around seven o’clock. It was on Wednesday night that a farmer at Seskin near Carrickfergus identified Cullens as the man he clearly saw in the beam of his car headlights as he was sitting in a parked car not far from where Musa’s body was discovered. On Thursday a parcel of men’s clothes, cut and blood-stained were found on a doorstep at Church Lane in the centre of Belfast. On Friday, the dead body

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Eddie Cullens

of the murdered Turk was found in a field at Seskin. Cullens meanwhile had left Belfast on Thursday and travelled back to England. The police found in his baggage at Leeds, the case of a pistol of the odd pattern used in the murder. Cullens was later arrested by the London police on instruction and description supplied by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A long and complicated trial lasting three days followed his indictment which even the genius of the eminent defence counsel could not overcome. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty, the sentence of death was pronounced and the execution was fixed for January 13th 1932. Cullens claimed American citizenship and various appeals for clemency miserably failed.

Eddie Cullens was 28 years of age at the time of his death. Rabbi Shachter, who ministered to the condemned man was quoted as saying, "He went to the scaffold with the deep conviction that his hands were clean and clear of the blood of this man." Regardless of these claims he was executed at eight o’clock in the morning on Friday January 13th 1932 by Pierrepoint and his assistant Wilson. So ended a series of strange and tragic events which began in Eastern Europe, travelled the ocean to America, came back to England and ended at Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road.

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EXECUTION OF Harold Courtney 7th April 1933 n August 3rd 1932 a group of children came across the body of a woman lying in some bushes near Derryane in Co. Armagh. They immediately contacted the local police who in turn set up a murder investigation. The C.I.D. from Belfast were soon at the scene and upon further investigation identified the remains to be Minnie Reid. Her throat had been cut. The scene of the crime was covered in dense undergrowth, which made the search for clues more laborious. A bloodstained razor was eventually found in the undergrowth about 14 feet from the body. Head Constable Slack of the C.I.D. and District Inspector Anderson conducted the investigations and after a fortnight the police trail led them to arrest a man named Harold Courtney. After being questioned at Coalisland. He was charged with murder and taken into custody.


In his statement, Courtney acknowledged that he had known Minnie Reid for four or five years but had never kept her company at any time. He claimed he heard she had gone to work at Portadown but did not hear where she was until he read of her death in the papers. He further said

He said Minnie Reid had asked him to meet her in Portadown on July 12th, and as he was going there to a drumming party he saw her. She told him she was in trouble and he promised to make inquiries and he promised to make inquiries regarding a hospital for her. He was to meet her at Vernersbridge to tell her the results of his inquiries and went there, but apparently did not see her. He then wrote to her asking her to meet him. He hired a car to keep the engagement, but on the Tuesday night he decided to have nothing more to do with the affair and wrote her to that effect, posting the letter at Aughnacloy.

that he read she had gone to Vernersbridge Station and then to Verner’s Inn to meet a man on the Monday before her death. Courtney could not account for his own movements on that date, claiming he had been in so many places he could not narrow it down to a specific location. Courtney’s clothes were taken from after his arrest and sent to London The jury finally disagreed and for forensic examination. Courtney was sent forward to the Armagh Spring Assizes. There The accused was returned for trial at practically the same evidence was the Ulster Winter Assizes at tendered, but the defence brought in Downpatrick, before Lord Justice strengthened evidence that the Andrews, and the case excited the wound had been suicidal. The trial keenest interest all over the North. again lasted five days and the jury returned a verdict of guilty but The defence case claimed "not recommended the prisoner to mercy. guilty" while it sought to prove that Before passing the death sentence the the woman had possibly committed Lord Chief Justice (Rt. Hon. Sir suicide. Courtney to this end was William Moore) said he cordially magnificently defended by Mr. approved of the verdict, but proWilliam Lowry, Kings Counsel and foundly disagreed with the recomMr. B.J. Fox and the trial lasted for mendation to mercy. "I think it was five days with almost fifty witnesses cold-blooded, calculated and callous being examined. In the witness box murder. I think you betrayed this girl, Courtney had a severe ordeal. In his and under the stress of her claims direct examination by the Crown he upon you, you butchered her and her admitted that practically all his state- unborn child." ments to the police were fabricated, With passive countenance Harold but he claimed that he lied because Courtney, the 23-year-old he did not want his name linked to Dungannon motor driver, heard Minnie Reid as he was engaged. sentence of death passed upon him.

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS The Execution Bell At Belfast Gaol The prison bell’s dismal toll could have be heard several times echoing through the fog and drizzle of a gloomy Belfast morning. At exactly a quarter to eight the condemned man would have been saying his final prayers, making his peace with God before the arrival at his cell of the dreaded hangman. Throughout the gaol the other prisoners would have been sitting in silence thinking of the terror that would now be facing the convicted murderer. Their daily routine would have been interupted. No-one would have been working in the prison yard on that day. The morning’s solemn proceedings meant that they would have received their breakfast in their cells. Every time they heard a footstep, the jingling of keys or a door opening they were up trying to peek through the crack of their cell doors. The warders too would have been unusually silent at their work that morning. The bell’s resounding toll would have reverberated Asked by the judge if he had any- along the landings of every wing in the prison sending a shiver down everyone's thing to say why sentence of death spine.

should not be passed, Courtney, in firm, ringing tones declared, "I am Outside the confines of the prison however people who heard the bell knew that not guilty, my Lord. I did not kill it signified that the execution was going to run its course. The bell rang for Minnie Reid, and I am not guilty." fifteen minutes, then at exactly eight o’clock the tolling stopped. Those who made their way to the prison on the morning of such an execution would not have been alone. It had for a long time been the tradition for large crowds to Harold Courtney protested his assemble outside the prison even though nothing could have been seen save the innocence to the end. But was this black flag being hoisted at eight o’clock and the nailing up of the notice the end of this convicted killer? declaring that the execution had been carried out.

Rumours for years afterwards abounded in the Armagh area that Harold Courtney was indeed alive and well in Australia where he was said to have been seen by several people who took advantage of the £10 Programme. They must have surely been mistaken though because the inquest into his death was carried out at Belfast Prison by the City Coroner, Mr. T.E. Alexander at ten o’clock that same morning, two hours after the bolt was pulled. Pierrepoint was the reported executioner. Witnesses to the execution were; the prison medical officer, Dr. O’Flaherty; Captain R.W.Stevens, the prison governor; Mr. Valentine Wilson, the Under-Sheriff for the County of Armagh.

The procedure for executions gradually changed with the passing of time. When Belfast prison was first opened executions were held on the grounds directly in front of it. 20,000 people attended the first execution and although the prisoner could be seen standing with the clergy and hangman on the scaffold, when the drop opened and he fell through, the view of his body was obscured. Executions eventually moved indoors. There was no actual execution chamber within the prison until one was built a short time previous to William Woods’ execution in 1901. It was after his execution that regulations started to change. Firstly, the press were among those who were authorised to be present at the gallows but after William Woods’ death the only people allowed to witness an execution was the High Sheriff, the Justice of the Peace for the City, the Prison Chaplain and the Prison Governor. Secondly, the tradition of raising a black flag above the prison at the exact time of the execution to indicate that the law had run its course was discontinued. The only procedures which remained the same were the tolling of the prison bell and the nailing up on the prison gates of the Declaration of the Sheriff and then the Verdict of the Inquest. By the time the last person was hanged at Crumlin Road Prison in 1961 only the last two traditions were held.

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Belfast Executions

EXECUTION OF Tom Williams 2nd September 1942 xecution number fifteen in the Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road is without doubt the most famous of all that institutions condemned cell, in fact it is such a notable case that there are still many people who think that it was the only hanging in ‘The Crum.’ On July 31st 1942 legal history was made in Ireland when six young Belfast men were sentenced by a court on Belfast’s Crumlin Road to be executed on August 18th. There had been times when six had been sentenced by court-martial and there have been six fold executions in Dublin throughout some of Ireland’s troublesome history, but this was the first time six people were condemned to forfeit their lives for the life of one other. Those condemned to death were Thomas Joseph Williams (19), Henry Cordner (19), William James Perry (21), John Terence Oliver (21), Patrick Simpson (18) and Joseph Cahill (21), all were residents of the Kashmir Road area.


On Easter Sunday 1942, R.U.C. Constable Patrick Murphy was patrolling the Kashmir area of Belfast when a burst of shots were fired at them by the I.R.A. The

police van in which Constable Murphy was travelling gave chase and later stormed a house in Cawnpore Street. Constable Murphy was the first to enter the property through the back door and he was later found dead in the scullery of the house, still clutching his revolver, from which three shots had been fired. One of the youths who was

arrested was 19 year old Thomas Joseph Williams of Bombay Street. He had been shot three times and had been in police custody in the hospital before standing trial with the five other men. A woman, Margaret Nolan who was also charged was tried separately after pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Thousands signed petitions for the men’s reprieve and the whole country awaited the response. Mr. D. P. Marrinan, the solicitor for the young men, brought the news to them on Sunday night August 30th. The six men who had been divided into three cells, were brought together into one room for this extraordinary legal visit.

Belfast Executions

"I have very good news for you all with one exception". All had been reprieved except Williams. The other five men were immediately taken to another part of the prison and Williams was left to face the hangman. Father Alexis of Holy Cross Monastery, Ardoyne, celebrated Mass in Williams’ cell on the morning of the execution and the condemned man received Holy Viaticum. At 7.15, Fr. McAllister, the prison Chaplain and Fr. McAneaney of St. Malachy's, celebrated a second Mass after which Williams was anointed. Fr. Alexis

said, "Williams was praying all the time as he walked to the scaffold, a matter of a few yards. He seemed to be quite resigned to his fate. The condemned man went calmly to his death without a tremor." Crowds of rival demonstrators had gathered on the Crumlin Road, outside the prison. A prison official opened the gate and the Declaration of the Sheriff was nailed to the door. An inquest was held at the prison three hours after the execution. The jury of fifteen availed of the opportunity to witness the dead body, which after hanging for the tradi-

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tional hour had been cut down and laid out in a coffin below the gallows. Dr. Lowe, the City Coroner said the execution was ‘carried out to the letter of the law’ Death, in his opinion, had been instantaneous. A verdict was returned acknowledging that the body was that of Thomas Williams and that the sentence of death had been duly carried out. Afterwards, the body was taken and buried at a place set aside for such burials within the prison complex where it lay until the end of the last century. His remains were removed and buried in a family grave in Milltown Cemetery on the 19th of January 2000.

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Belfast Executions

EXECUTION OF Samuel McLaughlin 25th July 1961 orthy year old Samuel McLaughlin, of Cloughmills, County Antrim, was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife Nellie, and was hanged at Belfast Prison on Tuesday July 25th 1961. His hanging was the latest after a nineteen year lull.


house. Her husband, Samuel, had been working in England but had been home for the past few weeks. They had no children.

even though two petitions with several hundred signatures were submitted for his reprieve. McLaughlin claimed that he had no recollection of what happened on October the 18th except walking along a grass verge next morning. He claimed he couldn’t remember how he even came to be there. It was later revealed at his trial that he had come back from England when his wife brought maintenance proceedings against him. He had been drinking heavily that weekend. After the court case he had tried to see his wife on several occasions and he eventually met her in Richmond's public house in Cloughmills on October the 17th. His wife, who was under the influence, started to sing and this apparently made him cry.

At the winter Assizes the jury failed to agree on a verdict and the trial was rescheduled to take place at the Antrim Spring Assizes in April. His appeal to the Court of Criminal The condemned man had been Appeal based on the defence that he waiting in his cell in ‘B’ Wing, from was in an alcoholic delirium failed where a corridor led directly to the execution chamber. The other The cottage in which prisoners in the jail were awakened Nellie McLaughlin was found dead at seven and went to breakfast, but were taken back to their cells until after the execution instead of starting work as usual. A prison officer was quoted as saying that, "the atmosphere inside the walls was like that of a Sunday morning as the men sat quietly on their beds." A small crowd gathered at the jail and as the time for the execution drew nearer it had increased to around a hundred. Some women amongst the crowd wept openly and others were seen to pray. Mrs. Nellie McLaughlin was found with severe head wounds in the bedroom of her home on the 19th of October 1960 after the police were called, by a relative, to break into the

Belfast Executions He asked her to set up home with him again in Derby, England, where he had a job as a foundry worker. He then went to Lislaban that night with his wife and mother in-law and stayed the night. The next day he and his wife went to Loughiel and then returned to the cottage at Cloughmills. McLaughlin claimed that he had been drinking again and can’t remember what happened next. It was suggested by the defence that a verdict of ‘guilty but insane’ should be the proper action for the jury. In fact the defence counsel, Mr. R. W. Porter elaborated by saying, "You have already heard from Crown

witnesses that McLaughlin had been a heavy drinker for a number of years and I suggest to you that you will be satisfied on the evidence you have already heard that he had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol between October the 13th and 18th. You shall hear moreover that on occasions in past years McLaughlin suffered from blackouts as a result of his alcoholism." It was brought to the attention of the jury that when the couple separated, Nellie McLaughlin claimed her husbands heavy drinking and violent temper were part of the problem. At his trial, McLaughlin told of the extent of his alcoholism. Between

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October 13th and 18th he claimed he consumed, three dozen bottles of beer, a half bottle of rum and a half bottle of whiskey daily. Several witnesses were called in his defence testifying to his alcoholism and blackouts. It was the view of an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. John Nabney, called by the defence, that McLaughlin did not know what he was doing at the time of the murder. At eight o’clock on the morning of July 25th 1961 Samuel McLaughlin, the 40 year old Cloughmills man was executed within Crumlin Road Gaol. ‘He prayed with the chaplain and took communion immediately prior to his execution’

The Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road with the County Antrim Courthouse facing shortly before they closed

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Belfast Executions

EXECUTION OF Robert McGladdery 20th December 1961


here is not a man in this court can say I killed Pearl Gamble, because I didn’t, I am innocent of the crime! That was part of the dramatic speech from the dock by Robert Andrew McGladdery who was found guilty of the wilful murder of a 19 year old shop assistant. The speech came after a jury had returned a guilty verdict on the seventh day of his trial on October 16th, 1961. The trial captured the attention of the general public and Lord Justice Curran presided throughout. Pearl Gamble was found strangled and stabbed in a field near her home on January 28th after attending a dance at Newry Orange Hall. Her dead body had been dragged or carried across three fields before it was left partially concealed in a clump of whin bushes at a place known as Weir’s Rocks at Damolly. McGladdery who had danced twice with Pearl at the function that night denied having any part in the killing. He claimed that after leaving the dance hall he walked home alone by the Belfast Road. He had been in the witness box for almost six and a half hours in an attempt to save himself from the

hangman’s noose. His defence was conducted by Mr. James Brown Q.C. and Mr. Turlough O’Donnell (instructed by Luke Curran of Newry) and took 100 minutes in their closing address. At the end of this Mr. Brown asked the jury to retire to their room and ‘weigh well all these grave matters,’ and bring in a verdict which the defence submitted would be the proper one - Not Guilty. The Attorney General, Mr. W. B. Maginness, with Mr. C. A. Nicholson Q.C. and Mr. R. J. Babington appeared for the Crown. Their address took 80 minutes to deliver and they submitted that if the jury was satisfied, ‘that the man in the

dock on that awful morning of January 28th killed that young girl in this ghoulish fashion, then as men and citizens, helping in the administration of justice, and satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt, you will do your duty and bring in a verdict of guilty.’ There was a lot of circumstantial evidence and witnesses involved in the case although no-one actually saw the killing. The point of what clothes McGladdery had been wearing on the night of the murder was investigated in great detail during the trial. In particular, the articles of clothing, which corresponded in description to those, which witnesses claimed McGladdery had been wearing at the dance and were subsequently found hidden in a septic tank (close to the scene of the murder). There were thirteen witnesses and although some disagreed about the exact colour all agreed that it was a "light suit". McGladdery denied he had ever owned a light suit and claimed he

Pearl Gamble

Belfast Executions wore a blue suit at the dance. He later tried to implicate his pal, Will Copeland, by claiming that he had loaned him some clothes similar to those which were discovered in the septic tank. Lord Justice Curran had taken two hours summing up. The courtroom was crowded and many more stood outside unable to gain admittance. The all-male jury brought in their verdict of GUILTY after being out for 40 minutes. Lord Justice Curran stated that "the facts cry out that this was a brutal killing" donned the traditional black cap and fixed the date of the execution for November 7th. An appeal was immediately entered on McGladdery’s behalf by the defence counsel and they were quite confident of gaining a reprieve. While back in prison McGladdery wrote a 16-page autobiography which was submitted to the Cabinet as part of his appeal. All his attempts at avoiding the hangman failed and his execution was re-scheduled to take place five days before Christmas, December 20th. Before eight o’clock came McGladdery sat in the condemned cell and for the first time since his arrest, and perhaps realising that he might soon be going before his Maker after listening to the advice of his religious ministers, he confessed to the murder of the poor unfortunate girl. This execution not only ended the life of one Robert McGladdery but also the trade of the hangman in Crumlin Road Prison as his was the last to take place in that institution.

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Robert McGladdery

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Pleading for leniency, the man told the court that having no money when he came out of prison he stole cats and boiled them for food for himself and his wife ... BELFAST MAGAZINE 10

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I do hereby order that you be taken from the bar of this court where you now stand to the prison from whence you last came; that you be there confined and then on the ..... day of .... in the year of Our Lord you be taken to the public place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and that your body shall be buried in the prison in which such sentence of death shall be executed, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul!


Belfast Executions  

A History of Excutions in Belfast as well as the stories behind all those hanged in the old Belfast Prison

Belfast Executions  

A History of Excutions in Belfast as well as the stories behind all those hanged in the old Belfast Prison