Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

A suitably blasted heath - or rainy cemetary

A suitably blasted heath – or rainy cemetary

I’ve always loved reading ghost stories at this time of year. Nothing else seems to hit quite the same spot the wind is roaring like a lost soul outside and the rain is battering against the windows in truly biblical fashion. As the nights draw in there’s always that primeval part of us that draws closer to the fire but is mindful of the fury outside. This is something that writers have always understood and those writing before homes were lit with the flick of a switch understood it by far the best. My favourite ghost stories always seem to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century, when the gothic imagination was at its height. I grew up reading M.R. James and E.F. Benson, first discovered in the volumes that made up part of my dad’s Everyman Library – hundreds of uniform cloth covered books with matching paper jackets that lived in special glass fronted bookcases in the dining room.

It was in those bookcases I discovered the Brontes and Dickens, Tacitus and Gidden’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Everyman mission was always to provide a world class library of classics accessible to the ordinary men and women. The Everyman collection taught me about the gothic imagination and it was from there I first discovered the pleasure of reading to be scared. There were other horror compendiums around the house, one Welsh Tales of Terror compiled by the great Chetwynd Hayes left a particular impression with a story of man eating rats, but there was something about the heft of the Everyman books that was special.

Back then, happy in my reading nook, I never really noticed that all the stories I read were written by men. When I started to collect my own horror compilations I found a few female writers – Edith Nesbitt and Edith Wharton for example – but I suppose I just assumed it was a genre that women didn’t write – even though, as a little girl who would grow up into a writer, I devoured horror stories and tales with a twist in the tale more voraciously than almost any other genre. As I grew up I kept an eye out for female writers in this area, and particularly in my favourite period. It was only last year when I really started to make headway, largely thanks to my husband’s discovery that Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, included several volumes of stories by female writers. Some are well known names, others should be and I’m going to run through some of them, in case you have been on a similar quest.

Marjorie Bowen

For me, the stand out discovery. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to discover her. I’d heard her name before as a novelist but had no idea about her ghost stories. She’s a fascinating character. A writer from necessity, she supported her family, including her absolute liability of a mother who was an aspiring writer herself. Bowen received no formal education but taught herself French, Italian and a little Latin. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms – in fact Marjorie Bowen was one of them, her real name was Gabrielle Campbell – many of them male. Her writing style is fluid and lyrical and her stories should be among the best known in the genre. My favourite of her stories is the extraordinary Florence Flannery, a wonderfully dark Wandering Jew type story. The collection I have is The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories  and Florence is in that in all her glory.

Edith Nesbit

I grew up reading E. Nesbit’s children’s stories but it was only as an adult I discovered her ghost stories, again in the Wordsworth edition. It’s well worth reading the introduction to that edition actually. It gives a great insight into Edith’s unconventional life, her unusual home life and founding membership of the Fabian Society. The story that really stayed with me was From the Dead , a tragic story of love, betrayal and forgiveness, but I don’t want to say any more, I don’t want to spoil the story. Nesbit’s stories are good, old fashioned shockers. She uses physical horror particularly effectively, her stories are told more bluntly than Bowen’s, though that doesn’t limit their effectiveness. Track them down – the collection is called The Power of Darkness.

May Sinclair

Another formidable woman as well as an excellent writer. May Sinclair, or Mary Amelia St Clair, was an active member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (now there’s an organisation to resurrect). She also wrote a fine line in chillers with a distinctively Freudian edge. The Flaw in the Crystal  is more of a novella than a short story, telling the story of a female telepath who must live with the consequences of her benevolently meant actions, while Where Their Fire is not Quenched  is a deceptively simple tale of lovers locked in an endlessly repeating, ever unfulfilling affair. Sinclair is writing a bit later than Nesbit and Bowen so her stories inhabit a less obviously gothic world. She is firmly 20th Century in her writing and her subject matter. The collection I have is Uncanny Stories and you will find both stories I’ve mentioned in there.

D.K. Broster

Dorothy Broster was a best-selling historical novelist, like Marjorie Bowen. She was a nurse during the First World War and afterwards worked as secretary for the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, where she had studied herself. Her stories are also somewhat later than the first two examples but Couching at the Door which gives the collection I have it’s name, is as good a creeping menace story as any devised by M.R. James. I can’t help but note that it says a lot that Broster, despite her literary success, was a mere secretary, while James was famously a career academic. Would more doors be open to her these days? It’s hard to know if she would have ventured through though, since she was a very private individual and little is known about her – although I’d be happy to be corrected on that, if you know of anything, let me know in the comments.

Lucy M. Boston

Another favourite author from childhood, I only discovered that Lucy M. Boston wrote ghost stories in the last couple of years. I loved the Green Knowe books, and you can see a lot of the same author in her stories Curfew and The Tiger Skinned Rug, possibly because both these stories feature young protagonists and indeed, both appeared in children’s anthologies. While I’ll let you track down copies of the other collections yourself, Wordsworth editions are relatively easy to track down in bricks and mortar bookshops as well as online, I’ll link to the stunning edition of Curfew and Other Eerie Stories  from Dublin based Swan River Press, as it might be more difficult to track down. Boston is the latest of the writers I’m writing about today, and one of the things I love about her story is that she was a late starter. Her first book was published in her 60s which gives hope to anyone out there still trying to make it as a writer. She wrote ghost stories throughout her life and it’s obvious from reading those published that like me, she was someone who had always loved the genre and had grown up reading M.R. James and the rest. You can see echoes of these in her stories but they more than stand up on their own.

One thing that’s struck me, reading all these female writers take on the ghost story is that there is a difference from the stories I read growing up. I hesitate to say there’s a male type of writer and a female type as we all know where that kind of thinking can lead (pink covers anyone) but on a very personal level I’ve noticed that these writers tend to give their characters more depth. Maybe it’s because I’m reading them as an adult, and as a writer myself, whereas I would have read all the others from childhood but I don’t remember feeling that before. The stories I remember tend to have very few female characters. Protagonists are invariably male and women only appear as wives, sisters or mothers. Now a lot of that could be because I’m thinking particularly of M.R. James who wrote the world he knew and consequently writes a lot about solitary, male academics. In the stories written by women the protagonists are often female, or children, but even when the story revolves around a man they tend to be less secure, more aware of the world and the relationships around them.

Most of male protagonists I remember reading about growing up were academics, or ex army or naval men. They work in the city or meet someone on a journey. I suppose that’s because that is the male experience. Just as female writers are sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the domestic, so male writers take their protagonists out into the impersonal world. Since so many of these uncanny stories focus on something that disrupts the ordinary, that disruption is going to occur in vary different places depending on the life experience of the writer. Personally I can’t help feeling that the stereotypical male life in this context, with it’s day to day work in an office of some kind, the home, a distant beacon rather than a natural focus, can put the horror at a remove. It doesn’t make me love these stories any less but when you read stories that bring that horror right into the home, into the safest of safe harbours, then that gives the story a totally different impact. I wonder if the female experience actually opens up the world more. Maybe we should be looking at all those male writers as the limited ones…

But that’s just an idea I’ve been playing with, not one I’ve any major thesis about. I hope these suggestions give you some ideas if you’re on the lookout for something spooky this Halloween. I’m planning another round coming up to Christmas, because that to my mind is an even better time for ghost stories. Do let me know what you think in the comments.

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…


I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.


Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.


Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.


Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.


Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…


It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

An Exciting Couple of Days


The Edinburgh statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who stayed by his owner’s grave for years, His nose has been rubbed bright by luck seeking tourists.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year. One of the biggest is that I’m finally starting to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the academic side of things. When I started working on the Kirwan case five years ago I was looking for the subject for the next book. I stumbled across the case doing a broad sweep of the National Library catalogue and knew instantly that there was something there. If William Kirwan came up in the courts list while I was on the beat there would be no question it’d be a case to follow. It’s got everything – middle class killer, attractive victim, sexual impropriety. I don’t think there was ever a period in history when that wouldn’t have made headlines.

So I told my agent that I’d found the next subject and started digging.

The one thing I could never have guessed is how much that case would take over my life. I usually get rather buried in my research but this was something else. Where ever I dug I kept discovering more. If I’d been in a certain type of film we would have been stumbling into a new hidden cavern filled with priceless golden artifacts every couple of days. Pretty soon it became clear that the research was too large for one book. There are so many angles to approach it from, so many side branches and interesting avenues to go down as my cast expanded and my timeline grew. This was no longer a single case to study – this was a field. Kirwan wasn’t an end in himself but a door into something so much bigger. I’m still finding stuff and I don’t intend to stop looking, it’s odd to look back these days and see that this whole change of direction came from one rather thin case (when you actually look at the evidence).

It became clear fairly early on that this research was more than just the book. The book will still get written (although it’s evolved rather from that early agent conversation) but things have grown quite a bit. I’m now hoping to start a PhD next year (more of that another time) and I’m working on proving myself academically. So that’s how I met little Greyfriar’s Bobby (in the picture) earlier this week. I was over at Edinburgh University delivering a paper on 19th century newspaper coverage of the Dublin Insolvency courts (and yes, Kirwan did get a mention). It was a fabulous conference. So much fun to get to meet so many people equally nerdy about 19th century newspapers and to so many expert views on a huge range of subjects. I learned that the paper I’ve often turned to for illustrative purposes, the Illustrated Police News, degenerated into a Victorian lads mag by the end, or that Harriet Martineau wrote extensively on the Irish Famine, or that Dicken’s speeches were his form of profile management. Here’s the programme of the full range of talks, with links to all the abstracts if you want to know more about each subject. Also here’s the Storify put together by organiser Dr David Finkelstein, to give a flavour of the couple of days.

I’m planning on putting my paper up on Academia.edu, or even looking into getting it published elsewhere but I’ll keep you posted. The Edinburgh trip was eye opening. Academic presenting is very different from anything I’ve done to date. It’s a specific skill that I want to grow but the experience – stimulating, intense and exhausting – was definitely one I want to get used to.

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

A Swiftpost Answer to Procrastination?


The grotto to Ste Expedit in the church of St Pierre’s in Bordeaux. Each on of the marble plaques is a prayer answered.

Since the hack, I’ve been been going through this site from the very beginning. I had to reconstruct everything because I ended up taking a fairly nuclear approach with getting rid of the pesky hacker and not everything had been backed up. It’s been fascinating going back over my old posts. So much has happened in the past 7 years.

Then I upgraded to Windows 10 so I’ve been putting my laptop back together as well. Well not literally, obviously, but it always takes a while to get everything back the way I like it after a clean install. Just as I was looking over old posts I ended up looking over old photos and found the one at the start of this article. I started writing this blog on a holiday in Bordeaux, just after I’d delivered the manuscript for Devil. I’d spent a semester there in college and got engaged to the husband while I was there. That return trip was 10 years later. Even though it was supposed to be a romantic occasion I had a book coming out so every day I sat down at the laptop and tried to work out this blogging thing.


Me, probably writing the first post on Ste Expedit. Looking very young.

One day, wandering around the city we came across the church of Ste Pierre. I forget why we went in, it was either raining or too hot or possibly we liked the architecture, it doesn’t really matter. Inside the church, the only thing I remember about it now, was a grotto to Ste Expedit.

Ah Ste Expedit. I’d never heard of his before that day but he’s remained one of my favourite saints (although it’s not really a long list). He’s the saint of getting help in a hurry, of hackers, of procrastination (or rather deliverance from). Seriously, what’s not to like when you spend your time trying to earn a living through writing and the Internet? He’s big in New Orleans apparently. According to legend St Expedite was a young Roman legionary who was thinking about converting to Christianity. As happens all too often in these circumstances a crow came to him to try to convince him not to. “Leave it till tomorrow” said the crow – yes it was a talking crow. But young Ste Expedite was having none of it. “Today” he insisted and, bearing in mind this is the saint you turn to if you want to kill procrastination, he did do it today. This is the reason why the very pretty young legionary you see in statues has a speech bubble that says “Hodie” or today and there’s a crow hanging around somewhere who’s saying “cras” or tomorrow. I approve of puns when you’re talking saints and Ste Expedite is all about puns. Starting with the crow who’s “cras” could be tomorrow or “cras, cras” or “caw, caw”.

But the puns don’t stop there. Ste Expedit got his super power of being there in an emergency from a pun. He sounded like that’s what he could do. So he did it. The plaques behind the statue in St Pierre’s church show decades of desperate prayers. “Thank you for saving my little girl” reads one. “Thank you, 1914-1918” reads another. Each one is a moment where time stood still for someone. Where they sent up a desperate prayer for themselves, for someone they loved, and were thankful when they felt it answered. I’m not religious but there was something so poignant about those little plaques. Ste Expedit isn’t one for Lotto wins or massive gestures. He’s there in a frightened moment, when you need him. Hardly surprising that he’s also the patron saint of students at exam time.

You can find websites dedicated to St Expedite, and voodoo potions (the New Orleans connection I’m presuming) but what I like about him is beyond any of that stuff. Because you see Ste Expedit probably didn’t exist. The Armenian centurion who talked to crows doesn’t have a name. Expeditus, is apparently Latin for a soldier marching with no pack so poor old Expedit was a nameless individual identified by his job. A body in a field perhaps, identified only by his breast plate. He’s not one of those saints with a complicated back story, just a conversion and a crow.

But that’s not all. Perhaps he wasn’t even a Roman soldier. Another story makes him the Saint of Swiftpost. A travelling priest was buying up relics and posted them back to the nuns back home in France. He wanted his purchases to get home before he did so he made sure the box was marked “Quickly”…”Expedite”. The nuns, being of a sheltered disposition and obviously not familiar with the finer points of the postal system assumed that the word was a name and that name belonged to the bones. So Ste Expedit was born.

I love the layers of the story of Expedit. From the relative detail of the original legend – the talking crow, the centurion – the story unravels and dissolves in layers. For his believers it doesn’t matter if Ste Expedit spoke to a crow, it doesn’t matter that he might have been an unknown soldier, it doesn’t matter that he might have been more than that, just random bones. For them, Expedit will save you in a tight spot. Those prayers are heartfelt, those plaques would have cost money. In the end does it matter if he existed, the logic seems to go, it works. There’s something in there that’s probably quite profound. It appeals to the writer in me.

I’ve thought about that little church many times over the years. Perhaps I need Ste Expedit myself. I was supposed to be researching a paper rather than writing here. Procrastination – I’m extremely good at it.

Scared out of his wits

Annex - Chaney Sr., Lon (London After Midnight)_02

Lon Chaney as the master detective Edward C. Burke in the film London After Midnight, which allegedly frightened a man to commit murder. Image thanks to Doctor Macro.

It’s been a while since I’ve told the story of a trial. Hardly surprising since that’s not what I do anymore but I haven’t moved very far away from that line of work really. I still spend far too much time immersed in the details of murders and murderers so I’ll continue to share their stories.

When I was growing up Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was notorious. We all knew it was banned, and unlike the so-called video nasties that were our favourite loans from the video store, it had been withdrawn by it’s  director after being linked to violence.

But 50 years before Clockwork Orange was linked to violence a sad little case came before the courts in London that had a similar link to Hollywood. It went largely unreported by the London papers, unsurprisingly since the case had that familiar ring that even now made it unlikely to generate many column inches. A woman killed by her partner.  I’ve covered so many down through the years and written about them here. But what this case extraordinary was the defence – that the accused man had been so terrified by a film he’d recently seen, London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney, that he had lost his mind, albeit temporarily.

On October 25th 1928 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced the “Hyde Park Tragedy”.

Hyde Park tragedy Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 25101928

The following day the Dundee Evening Telegraph carried a report from the inquest. An unnamed constable described finding the young Irish woman. She was lying huddled, face down with her left hand on her throat. Her glove was saturated with blood.

Patrick Mangan, her brother, told the inquest that his sister had been seeing Williams for three weeks. He had once had to throw him out of her place for being drunk.

Williams was expected to be discharged from hospital in about 10 days time. A picture was beginning to form. The inquest was adjourned until he could be questioned.

In November the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court. This was the first time details of the case had been heard in public. The Nottingham Evening Post informed it’s readers that 21-year-old Julia had been employed as a worked as a house-maid in a house on Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington.

The police doctor said that considerable violence must have been used to cause the wound in her neck. A policeman who had gone to charge Williams in hospital told the court that before he could caution him Williams had told him “I did it, she had been teasing me.”

A couple of months later the case came for trial in the Old Bailey. The Central Criminal Court after trial calendars show that Williams was charged on two counts. One of murder, the other of suicide.

CRIM9 Robert Williams listed in the After trial calendars

I can’t tell how widely reported the case was. I haven’t been able to find a single reference in the London papers, although this is probably down to the late (for digital archive sources) date, but there was quite a bit of coverage north of Watford, as my mum used to say.

The Hartlepool Mail on December 20th 1928 carried a report from the Central Criminal Court, Williams was being tested to see if he was fit to stand trial. He was indicted on the charge of murder and pleaded not guilty but a key medical witness was not available to back up his insanity defence. Williams took the stand and told the court that he had known Julia Mangan for around a month. He had wanted to kill himself three days before he had killed Julia, on October 23rd. He had put a cut throat razor in his pocket. He had not intended to hurt Julia, they were friends. He had wanted to marry her, although he had told her a false name when they first met.

There had been no quarrel he said. “I felt as though my head were going to burst and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that he had me where he wanted me.” The man, it appears, was Lon Chaney as he had appeared in London After Midnight, a film Williams had seen several months before.

The defence put forward their case. A local chaplain from Williams’ home town of Caernarvon told the court he knew of five separate incidences of insanity in Williams’ family. A London doctor said that while he had treated Williams for neurasthenia and would have considered him “abnormal” he would not have certified him insane.

Dr James Cowan Woods, described as a lecturer on mental diseases, suggested that Williams had been suffering from an epileptic mental attack, “epileptic automatism”, much to the consternation of the judge. “You have said that many people of high intelligence are going about their work, although they are suffering from epilepsy. Are you suggesting that they might commit murder tomorrow?”

But by the time Williams stood trial in January there was still some confusion about whether he suffered from epilepsy at all. No firm diagnosis was given during the trial according to the available reports. The Western Daily Press  was more focused on the Hollywood angle, as it appeared was the trial judge, Mr Justice Humphries, when he was summing up to the jury.

“I do not know whether you have been to see any film in which Mr Lon Chaney acted. One of them, we are told is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another London After Midnight. If any of your members of the jury have seen the later, or even the advertisements of what Mr Lon Chaney looks like when he is acting in that film you may agree it is enough to terrify anyone.”

"London After Midnight Poster 1927 MGM" by MGM - ha.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The film in question, directed by legendary director Tod Browning best known for his later films Dracula (1931) and the infamous Freaks (1934). It is known as the director’s first exploration of the vampire theme and is one of the most famous lost films – the last known copy was destroyed in a fire at MGM studios in 1967. Chaney plays a detective intent on discovering who killed Sir Roger Balfour. It was based on a short story written by Browning, The Hypnotist. Chaney, was already famous for his skills of makeup and one of the selling points of the film was that the audience got to see the master at work as the detective dons various elaborate disguises – including the famous one shown in the poster and the still at the top of this piece – with sharpened teeth and special wire fittings like monocles to give him that special hypnotist stare. The film was rather a flop.

However, during Judge Humphries obviously wasn’t a fan of such popular entertainment and was only going by what had been said in court.

Judge's comments reported in Western Daily Press, January 11 1829

Williams was found guilty and sentenced to death. Judge Humphries instructed that further inquiries were made by the Home Office to try to get to the bottom of that epilepsy diagnosis. I never did find out if he was executed or not.

So the case became part of the legend of a legendary film. Personally, having gone through all the newspaper reports while I was researching this I’d have my doubts about Williams’ story. The story at the heart has too many similarities with cases I’ve covered in the past. There’s Williams’ hospital statement, that he killed her because she made fun of him. Had he proposed and been turned down? Had she broken things off? These would be far more likely scenarios in cases where women are killed by their intimate partner. I’ve also covered cases where the medical evidence was in no doubt, where the accused could not be found guilty by reason of insanity. Those cases are so often marked out by the degree of violence. While the evidence is there that the wound to Julia Mangan’s neck was done with violent force there isn’t the overkill that so often goes with a psychotic break – and I’m not even getting into the whole epileptics as killers undercurrent to the evidence…that seems more like common prejudice than anything that would be born out by modern medicine.


  • Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 October 1928, page 8 of 8
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 October 1928, page 6 of 12
  • Derby Daily Telegraph, 13 November 1928, page 7 of 12
  • Hartlepool Mail, 20 December 1928, page 10 of 10
  • Western Daily Press, 11 January 1929,page 11 of 12
  • Central Criminal Court: after-trial calendars of prisoners (TNA Ref: CRIM 9)

All sources found on Findmypast

The Trouble with Jack


Detail of a contemporary illustration from the Illustrated Police News showing the face of Jack the Ripper as described by witnesses, 1888. Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

Jack the Ripper is a phantom, a bogeyman, a shadow in the night.  At the height of the terror the Illustrated Police News printed this picture, a mere artist’s impression based on the most recent witness statements. We know that someone committed those murders, that police suspected the deaths of five women, killed brutally in a three month window in the Whitechapel area, were killed by the same assailant. They assumed it was a man, they never caught him. “Jack the Ripper” flirted with the press for a while then faded away. He’s become one of our greatest bogeymen, the archetypal killer, a stock character in film, TV and books. There are countless theories about who he was, countless websites. For a man with no face he’s got a hell of a profile.

Then there were the victims. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. Very often they don’t even get a name check, they are simply victims one to five, just pieces of the puzzle that is Jack. Their dead faces are familiar, you can find them easily online (I’m not linking to them myself but if you want to find them go ahead).  They give nothing away in those grainy post mortem photographs. Death has brought them a kind of unity, a flat sameness similar perhaps to the way the hardness of their lives would have ground them down in life. These were working class women, whose poverty had dragged them into a precarious existence on the streets. As so many with no other choice they sold their bodies for pennies. These were the women the wealthy would pass by without a glance, unless they wanted to buy. These were the most vulnerable women, the kind that leave no mark on history apart from the odd arrest for soliciting or by meeting an extravagantly grotesque death. There are many like them who died nameless deaths. Take Mary Ann Nichols, whose sad, hopeless life was described by historian Fern Riddell on Twitter last year and in this Storify.

Even today the victim is all too often the missing piece of the puzzle. They existence during the trial of their killer is reduced to mere evidence, a collection of test tubes trying to confirm guilt. All too often the victim is a woman and the killer is a man. I’ve written about it so many times; the families outside the court describing the person they felt was missing from the proceedings. The families of Jean Gilbert and Celine Cawley both felt the need to go to the papers to give them a voice. They had the opportunity. How many women die in Ireland and elsewhere whose murder doesn’t cause headlines, doesn’t sell papers. Certainly in Whitechapel in the 1880s attacks on women were so commonplace that there has always been a debate about cases that could have been connected to the Ripper. As this timeline shows the 1880s were not a good time to be a vulnerable woman. And then, thirty years before, when William Kirwan killed his wife Maria, many of the papers didn’t even bother to get her name right. She often appears in the contemporary press as Louisa and these days she turns up as Sarah, Louisa or Maria or even sometimes Mary. It took a lot of digging to find Maria but you’ll hear her husband talked about on the boat over to Ireland’s Eye to this day.

That’s why the story of London’s Ripper Museum is in such appalling taste. The Evening Standard and several other London papers carried the news that a new museum opening on Cable Street in the East End will not be a celebration of East End women and the suffragette movement as the owners had suggested in their planning application but instead a museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper. At first they claimed that this was the way to humanise the victims but their Facebook page, as it stands this evening, makes no attempt to even pay lip service to anything but the public’s lust for a good murder “Jack the Ripper Museum, situated in a historic Victorian house in the heart of Whitechapel, tells the full story of the Jack the Ripper murders. Step back in time to the London of 1888, the greatest city in the world, where the greatest unsolved crimes of all time took place. As you explore the museum, you will discover everything there is to know about the lives of the victims, the main suspects in the murders, the police investigation and the daily life of those living in the east end of London in 1888. Once you have all the clues, will you be able to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I get why a Jack the Ripper museum would get visitors. I get why it’s a good commercial prospect. I made my living from the public appetite to murder. I’d be a hypocrite if I condemned it outright. But Dark Tourism needs to be respectful – and it certainly needs to be historically accurate. The frontage shown in the newspaper coverage looks more like a Disney Pirates exhibit and, as many of the angry local residents quoted in the Standard piece pointed out, Cable Street wasn’t the site of any Ripper murders. The area has it’s own proud history and that’s what should have been celebrated. What makes the story even worse, or at least adds a particular piquancy to it, is that the man behind the rather dodgy scheme, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, was formerly Google’s head of diversity and inclusion…he told the Standard today “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.” Because obviously a brutalised life gruesomely cut short is so much more inspiring than say, for instance, Sylvia Pankhurst. Local paper The East London Advertiser says that the planning document submitted by the architects cited the closure of the much lamented Women’s Library in the area that “the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it calls the project, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history””.

A museum of women’s history would be a great thing. It would be somewhere to teach our children and to educate ourselves. A celebration of murder will not do that. No matter how much detail they give about the women who died. The focus is on the phantom in opera cloak and top hat clutching a doctor’s bag. A cliche who will will teach nothing, inform nothing, provide nothing but cheap thrills and feed base instincts. Judging by the story so far this is a ghoul hunting expedition not a celebration of the resilience of East End women. If they’d done what they said the press they would have got would have been over-whelmingly positive. They would have been championed across the planet as an example of how we are moving forward. Instead the social media carrion crows are circling looking for blood. I wonder if the owners think they’ve made a mistake.

Things to do on a Wet Afternoon…

Deserted warehouse by Chris Miller on Flicker reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved

Not the warehouse I was filming in but one that would probably make a good location for a true crime documentary. This one photographed by Chris Miller from Flickr reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved.

It’s always a deserted warehouse. Over the years I must have visited more of them than your average movie gangster. Sometimes they are the elephant’s graveyard of boomtime optimism, other times the faded corners of old Dublin. Today’s was a relic of 19th century industry, all small basement rooms, crumbling masonry and pigeon droppings. The perfect place to discuss a murder – that’s why movie gangsters spend so much time hanging out in them. That’s why I was there on a rainy Monday afternoon in a Dublin summer.

There always seems to be someone making a true crime show for Irish television. It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for death and disaster. That’s nothing new of course. Thomas de Quincey turned a satirical eye on the aesthetic appeal of murder in 1827, although he was quite seriously disturbed by the public’s fascination with the crime. George Orwell wrote with more affection on The Decline in the English Murder in 1946. Why should the 21st Century be any different? So around this time of year – ready for scheduling when the nights start drawing in and the time for stories round the fire comes round again, the filming starts. For all our social networked world we haven’t changed so very much. I’ve written on so many cases over the years that I often get the call. If the murder came before the courts between 2007 and 2010 I was probably there and there’s a good chance I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. My words have become part of the record, that first draft of history that journalism provides.

That might sound a little pompous but I certainly don’t mean it that way. That “first draft of history” phrase is one that often runs through my mind as I research 19th century newspapers and I’m so conscious of the fact that the court reports I read there were written by people like me. Just as in modern Ireland it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of a transcript of a trial if you’re simply an observer or wish to tell the story of the case, so the official documentation of so many 19th century trials has been lost. Just as now what I have written and my journalistic colleagues continue to write, fills in the gaps in appeal judgements and provides the colour that gets lost as the public recollection fades, so the 19th century reports breath life into long forgotten cases that would have been forgotten decades ago.

Of course, the cases that generate the most newsprint are the ones that really capture the public imagination. The ones that get talked about in coffee breaks with co-workers, in the pub with friends, on doorsteps with neighbours. There comes a point when they blend into folk memory, become part of social history, inform a generation. Between 2006 and 2008 there seemed to be a mania for murder but that was simply the number of cases appearing before the court. After the press bonanza that was Joe O’Reilly the editors were always looking for the next big case and every month or so there seemed to be a new contender. It’s these cases that are the ones often revisited in warehouses on summer afternoons. Because if you’re going to talk about murder it should be in a suitable desolate setting. Odd perhaps, since the cases we remember are the ones that usually happen in comfortable suburbia with fitted carpets and mod cons. But it’s usually a warehouse, lit atmospherically even if the sun is shining. Perhaps we need that desolate setting to tell these tales. Would a comfortable setting, a living room or kitchen like so many actual murder scenes, be too real, too close.

We can only enjoy murder if it is at that remove. We don’t want to be confronted by the actual death of a person. We want to be told a story, a grim story perhaps, but one that has been told huddled around the fire since lions still had sabre teeth and deer were much, much bigger. If conflict is at the heart of any good story then murder is the perfect story if only we can come to terms with the blood of it, remove the smell of death. I’ve noticed that when I say I’ve written true crime, in some company, the reaction is dismissive, but if I mention historical true crime, or historical fiction the reception is far warmer. I’ve researched the cases as thoroughly, the details of the story might be echoes of each other but one subject has distance and the other doesn’t and that distance is increased as soon as I’m making it up. Because obviously it’s far healthier to be able to imagine the details of a perfect murder rather than simply recount someone else’s actions…

So that’s why I spent this afternoon in a disused warehouse. I was talking murder – just as I’ve often done in the past. It’s a bit of a culture shift talking about recent cases again but I’m sure some day when I’m talking about my 19th century murders I’ll end up doing it in another disused warehouse. It’s the obligatory setting. The expected scene. It wouldn’t be quite the same any other way. As for this afternoon’s effort I’ll give more detail when I have it.

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet. Pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

I’ve always known that the Internet was a bit like the Wild West, that if you turned the wrong corner there’s be the aggressive stall holder tugging at your sleeve to sell you some over-priced piece of knock-off junk while simultaneously picking your pockets while his dodgy looking mates beckon you towards a manky shed where you can hear the faked pants of the live sex show taking place on a filthy mattress inside. I’m not naive about the lawless side of things – I did some fairly comprehensive research that side of things when I was researching Devil, my first book, and I’m well aware of how out of date that research is now. But even so I didn’t see it coming. I thought this blog was a pretty safe place to hang out, a little bastion where I could whether the storm quite happily for as long as I wanted to.

Now that was naive.

It happened on my wedding anniversary. I only noticed that once I had saw the damage a few days later. They hadn’t known of course – but that coincidence made it feel like an utterly personal attack, a violation. My blog, this site, which I’ve been building since 2008 despite the fact I haven’t been posting as often as I should for quite a while now, had been hacked. It was a particularly nasty kind of hack known as the Pharma hack – or at least a variation of that hack. It works by highjacking your site as it appears in Google search results so that your site advertises whatever they happen to be selling – as the name suggests it’s often pharmaceuticals, in my case it was games. It’s a particularly annoying hack because it’s hard to detect. It only shows up in Google searches, everything looks fine on Yahoo or Bing and if you go directly to the site it’s absolutely fine. It usually effects the most popular links to your site – so in a way it’s the most backhanded of backhanded compliments. You only get affected if you’re doing something right.

So I was stuck with a website that, as far as anyone looking on Google was concerned, did a very good line in Fifa games in Polish. I changed every password I could think of and got onto my hosting company to ask for assistance but was told it was down to me to clean up. One of the staff might be willing to do it as a nixer – for a price. So I started doing my own research. It seemed the hack was quite common. It also seemed that getting rid of the hackers was not the easiest thing in the world. But there was good advice out there – in particular this WordPress forum and this excellent post. I started looking for the code the hackers had added to my site – but while I managed to find the files modified on the day I knew they got in, I couldn’t find the (hidden) code.

So I decided to take drastic action. If the hackers were going to squat on seven years of hard work because I’d managed to get some kind of Google Rank then I’d make sure it wasn’t worth their while. I’d whip the rug from under them. I’d burn the place down.

Ok there were probably better ways of doing it. Ways that wouldn’t have trashed my own ranking, especially since Google seemed blissfully unaware that I hadn’t just switched my line of work. But I’d had enough. Like I said, it felt personal. I suppose that’s what I get for having a self-named website – it’s all going to be ego in the end.

So I blew the whole thing up. I deleted the database and uninstalled the WordPress installation. Then I started deleting everything else I could find – except a load of folders that I didn’t have access to – where the backdoor actually was. It was actually rather liberating – in a decidedly destructive way. I’d backed up all my posts from WordPress (and thought I had all the images and sound files I’d uploaded over the years). What could possibly go wrong? At this stage my faith in the Internet was somewhat restored when Good Samaritan came forward on Twitter and offered to give me a temporary place to call home – without which I seriously doubt I’d have got things restored to the stage they are at the moment.

It took a while to sort out but I changed hosts and transferred my domain to the new guys. I wasn’t happy with the way my old hosts had dealt with things. OK I had been naive about the level of security needed but there should have been a bit more by way of support there. I had always felt with them that there was an attitude that if I didn’t know how to do something I shouldn’t really be managing my own website. I might not be madly techy but I’m independent. If you bother to explain how something works, or at least point me in the direction where I can learn more, I will read up. I’m learning as I go – and the past six weeks has been a very steep learning curve.

So for the past week I’ve been putting everything back in it’s place, here in it’s new home. I’m far happier with the new hosts  – they’ve been absolutely brilliant as I’ve been getting set up, no matter how trivial the question. The damage has been done with Google but I’ve been working on the SEO.  It doesn’t help that I’ve sort of changed address – there’s now a /wordpress/ missing in every link – so I’ve been setting up redirects left right and centre and doing a bit of firefighting. Hopefully everything will settle down eventually. What all this has done is meant that I’ve had to go back over all my old posts. It’s made me remember why I started this blog and why I kept it going. Over the past few years I’ve let things slide. Well from now on I can’t promise that I’ll post as much as I did when I had a book to sell but I’ll make more of an effort. I’ve already been tweaking the look of the thing – this will be an ongoing process – I have a very clear idea of what I want – but I’ll need to learn a bit of CSS first.

And if I do things right and make another tempting proposition for the hackers I’ll be ready for them next time. I’m not going to get caught out like that twice – next time I’ll go all Charles Bronson on them!

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have a job that I love. I’m even luckier that this job allows me to indulge in old obsessions and follow them in new directions. Lately I’ve been happily stuck up to my eyes in crime records, the UK National Archives newest records release to be exact. It’s been like revisiting old friends but I’ve been particularly excited to find the missing piece in a puzzle I’ve been grappling with for years. Regular readers will know that I’ve been working on the case of 19th Century murderer William Bourke Kirwan for years now. He’s brought me in a whole new direction professionally, not least this change of job and this long, long in the writing book (which is still long in the writing but I’m getting there).

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the case so here are the basics. In September 1852 Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye. They’d been staying in Howth for some weeks and often spent the days out on the Eye where he would sketch and she would read or swim. Maria was a strong swimmer. She loved the water. But that night when the boat came to pick them up Kirwan was standing on the foreshore alone. He hadn’t seen his wife for hours, he said. He’d looked a bit and called but she hadn’t answered. What to do? Where could she be? There was a search as the night drew in and eventually they found her. She was lying half in in the water in a place on the island known as the Long Hole. She was dead. The trial was a bit of a shambles. Kirwan’s mistress, a key witness, did not appear when she was called in evidence. Proof that Maria had lately discovered the existence of the mistress and a second family mere weeks before her death was never produced and the defence called medical evidence that no murder had been committed. One of the most eminent medico-legal experts of the day told the court that Maria had gone swimming too soon after her lunch. It was indigestion that killed her, not her husband. I’ve written an account of the full trial here, here and here by the way, if you want more detail.

Despite all the digging I’ve done on Kirwan and his women there have always been gaps in the story. It’s hardly surprising – this case is more than 160 years old. Although I’ve more documentation for this case than I’ve had for the more recent cases I’ve written about. One piece of the story was illusive though. I’d always known that Kirwan had been as determined as Joe O’Reilly to clear his name but hunt as I might I could not find any of his petitions. I’d presumed that they hadn’t survived despite tantalising breadcrumbs that I’d found along the way. So imagine my excitement when I idly keyed in his name in work and hit “Return”. I’d expected to find documentation about his journey through the prison system. If nothing else, 19th Century British bureaucracy was comprehensive to say the least. What I did not expect to find was his words. They had been lost. I knew that.

But there it was – his petition. Again, even though I was excited to find it, I expected to find departmental correspondence, rather than Kirwan’s own words, his own handwriting. I work daily with copies of three of Kirwan’s sketches pinned to the wall. He was a moderately successful artist, although the examples of his work I’ve seen suggest a rather naive talent at best. I’ve written about the collection of his paintings held in the National Library of Ireland on their blog here. I’ve always suspected that they say more about the public fascination in the murder rather than his artistic reputation. But I know those paintings very well by now. I know that there are some I’d doubt were by him at all. I know there are some that I’ve no doubt were by him. I photographed those sketches from every angle, I’ve shots of each and every signature, every doodle on the back of random pages. I’ve studied them as if they could let me see into the mind of the man who made them. That’s one this this case is missing after all those years in the courts. I can’t see Kirwan in the dock. I can read accounts from the hacks who were there and I can read the words of his evidence but it’s not the same. I can’t see him in the in-between moments, the moments at rest, unobserved. I can’t watch him sneaking a cigarette or talking to his family. I can’t watch him arrive. The pictures are the closest thing I have to that. I’d say they were something similar to whoever bought them, whoever was the reason that they ended up in the National Library collection.

I’m so used to deciphering his doodles that I’ve grown rather familiar with his hand. I know the pressure he put on the paper when he wrote, the way he looped the W and K in his name, even when writing his initials. Flicking through the results in the National Archive results I saw those same loops. Here it was, after years of searching, here was the murderer’s appeal. When I was working in the courts it used to be a standing joke that the prisons were always full of the innocent. You will seldom get a killer who admits what he has done. Once they’ve plead not guilty why would they? So it’s hardly surprising that Kirwan harks back to the “insubstantial” evidence of his case. I’d found rumours over the years that Kirwan had capitalised on his previous life as an anatomical draughtsman, familiar with doctors and death, by finding work with the prison doctor. Sure enough in his appeal Kirwan claims leniency in recognition of his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak at the Bermuda penal colony where he was being held.

Kirwan petition clip 1

He had also, wisely, not argued for the right to rejoin his mistress but instead pleaded to go to his children. In fairness to the man, he does seem to have been a doting father. I’ve a sketch over my desk I’m pretty sure is one of his daughters and it stands out among the pictures in the collection, to an extent that it’s easy to read affection into the precision that captures the tilt of the head.

Kirwan petition clip 2

I’ve stared at so many examples of 19th century handwriting over the past few years but Kirwan’s hand is unmistakable. He writes with speed and flourish. You could almost read an impatience there, perhaps an arrogance. Certainly his appearance in court was with a swagger that marks him out among wife killers. There aren’t many who would argue their case so fluidly and articulately – although I’d still very much doubt that he argued then as an innocent man. His petition is full of the same swagger, especially in his signature –

Kirwan petition clip 3

It appears that despite his fluency and flourish Kirwan wasn’t at all successful in his appeal. The rest of the correspondence suggests that the Irish authorities would have been happier if he had been discretely disposed of when the Bermuda camp was broken up. It would have been better if he had been “lost at sea” rather than returned to Ireland. It’s apparent that Kirwan did return though. Various accounts within living memory of the case describe his life at Spike Island prison in Cork. Apparently he painted murals on the walls of his cell. It was years before he got his wish in the end. This petition was written in 1862, ten years after the murder. It would be another 15 before he would see release. Contemporary accounts describe a broken, elderly man who paid one last visit to Ireland’s Eye before leaving for America (and presumably his children). How did they receive him? That’s a story for another day.

Excerpts courtesy of The National Archives from the Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection on www.findmypast.ie

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