Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Crime (page 1 of 5)

A Ghost Story for Christmas – the real murder hidden in Dead of Night

UK Poster for Dead of Night (1945)

I don’t know about you, but Christmas is the time of year when there is nothing better but curling up warm and reading ghost stories. We have a tradition in our house of watching the Amicus compendium horror films written by Milton Sabotsky and directed by Freddie Francis starting with Tales from the Crypt (1972) – well, it’s practically a Christmas movie judging by the Joan Collins story. However, great as they are Milton Sobotsky’s brand of compendium won’t do for this kind of blog post as none of the stories are based on real-life crimes – at least I hope they aren’t.

So to keep in the spirit of my intermittent series of real-life crimes behind famous films I’m going back to the compendium film that started the sub-genre – the 1945 film Dead of NightA rare example of horror from the first half of the 20th century, Dead of Night is about a group of strangers who find themselves together in a country house. One of the group, architect Walter Craig confesses that he has had a recurring dream of them all gathered together and the group start telling the stories of their own brushes with the supernatural. Now for the purposes of this blog post, I’m not interested in the most famous segments, including the ventriloquist’s dummy story with Michael Redgrave which scares me to this day. The section I’m interested in is the actual Christmas ghost story that makes up the second segment. This story is linked to a very famous real-life crime and that’s what I’m going to look at in this post.

The murder of little Francis Saville Kent at his father’s house in Road in Wiltshire was a sensation in its day. The gruesomeness of the crime – the child was found stuffed down the privy with his throat cut – the middle-class status of the family, and the succession of suspects with a sensational reveal of a teenage killer after many years guaranteed column inches at the time and it was a case that stuck in the memory. We don’t know why writer Angus McPhail picked the case for his Dead of Night segment. McPhail was a frequent scriptwriter for Ealing films and also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (also 1945) and The Wrong Man (1956) as well as the classic Whisky Galore! (1949). His segment Christmas Party involves a little boy who is afraid of his older sister because she wants to kill him. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Road murder is being referenced as there are name checks and a lot of biographical details are given. The fact that it’s a real murder though is completely incidental, it just gives an extra dimension to the horror and this may well have been the intention in including the details.

The Road murder has been well explored in recent times thanks to Kate Summerscale’s incredibly successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009) so I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of the case. On Sunday 8th July 1860 Lloyds Weekly Newspaper quoted the Bath Chronicle to give its readers’ the terrible details of the case. They were baffled by the mystery.

Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, July 8th 1860

It wasn’t long before a suspect emerged. Inspector Jonathan Whicher, who had been investigating the case was convinced from fairly early on that the murder had been committed by Saville’s half-sister Constance. On Monday July 23rd 1860 The Standard reported on Constance’s appearances in court with Inspector Whicher setting out the case against her.

The London Evening Standard, Monday July 23rd.

But Whicher’s suspicions against Constance proved difficult to prove. Then someone else confessed to the crime. On Thursday, August 16th the London Daily News reported on the court appearance of a John Edmond Gagg who claimed he had killed the child. However, it soon became apparent that Gagg had not even been in the vicinity at the time of the murder and could not have committed the murder. The Daily News was not impressed.

London Daily News August 16th 1860Constance finally confessed to the murder in 1865. The London Daily News carried the story as did many other papers. The Road Hill House murder had certainly captured the public imagination.

London Daily News April 27 1865

The story of little Francis Saville Kent and his sister Constance still has a draw today and I would recommend a read of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for the full details. But for a Christmas ghost story take a look at Dead of Night – be scared by the ventriloquist’s dummy but remember the sad, sordid tale behind that innocuously creepy Christmas party segment.

All newspaper snippets copyright The British Newspaper Archive.

On hashtags, secrets and the balance of power

This post is a hard one to write. I’ve kept this blog for years but this is the post I’ve always second guessed myself out of writing. I’ve written about dysfunctional homes so many times, homes that weren’t safe, predatory men, an inadequate legal system, but I’ve never said that what I had a personal stake in what I was writing – that I understood, that I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to live with a volatile narcissist who will make you doubt the facts in front of your nose. I know what it’s like to dodge ever-changing emotions. I know what it’s like to fear for your life – a dull practical alertness, not a nerve jangling panic.

Writing these words I’m consumed with an urge to qualify, to minimise, to explain. It’s an urge that always comes but I’m not going to listen to it today because I’ve got a few things to say. What happened to me happened. It wasn’t as bad as things that have happened to other people but it was sustained, and it lasted and I was in the middle of it – and I still feel my heart race when I think back to that time. I still jump to the doomsday scenario when I’m stressed because I spent long enough thinking about the bleakest outcomes because they were the only ones I could see. I read Lolita or watch Jessica Jones and I’m floored by the memories. I walked away and I rebuilt myself but I’m never free of it. Not really. I still have days when I’m caught by the tangled mess in my past and held by it. I might see his face in a crowd or on television. These cracks will probably always be there but these days the seams of their joins rarely intrude into day to day living.

So when a hashtag like #MeToo comes along I always think about writing this post. Don’t get me wrong, I think that this public sharing on social media is important. That by opening up the conversation about female safety and the ubiquity of sexual assault perhaps things will finally change – although I doubt it. When the outrage dies down will anything actually change? Will we see changes to the law? Will we see a proper societal shift? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. I’ve seen this before, I’ve read the articles by survivors who bravely shared their stories and the newspaper comments that called each time a watershed, a line in the sand. Things need to change, but will they change now? I’ll not be holding my breath.

You see, apart from having written about violence against women for a long time, apart from having gathered information for most of my adult life, I’ve been through it. A couple of years ago I went to survivors’ charity 1 in 4. With their support I contacted the Gardai and I told my story. Over three days I gave a series of detailed statements. I know what’s needed. I gave my statement to two very experienced gardai, who are used to taking statements, to analysing witnesses. They discussed the case with their superintendent who agreed there was a case to pursue. That man was questioned. The DPP were informed…and then it went no further. I still haven’t had any official notification that the matter has come to a close. I was only a witness after all. He was told. Of course he was told.

I’ll stop again here to silence that persistent little voice, the one that’s telling me I shouldn’t be talking about this, that there was no case to answer. Once again I’m going to silence it because I know what happened to me, and I also know that when it comes to justice for the victims of sexual abuse and assault Irish law could do much, much, much better. On my first visit to 1 in 4 they warned me about going to the gardai. They told me that of the people who come to them the majority choose not to report the case if it’s not necessary because there’s a continuing risk to children. According to the 2002 Sexual Violence and Abuse in Ireland (SAVI) Report, commissioned by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, only 8% of those abused disclosed to the gardai. Only 16%  of that 8% got to court. That’s a little over 1% of abuse cases.  According to a 2013 report from the CPS less than 1% of allegations of rape are prosecuted as false accusations (even though this is a British figure the percentage is a pretty standard one for false accusations). So when I’m writing about my experiences of this, even though my abuser was never convicted, I’m statistically far more likely to be telling the truth.

But again, that’s my instinct to minimise, to justify. It’s a normal response.

This is at the heart of what I’m writing here. I’m tying myself in knots because I know as a journalist that without a conviction my story is weakened. I can’t name my accuser, although I’d dearly like to. During the process of making my statement I mentioned that I thought there had been another victim. The gardai said they’d check it out. I told her I was writing this. We keep in touch – we’d known about each other for years and she’s the only other person who knows what it was like dealing with him. But the law makes me question my own experience because it wasn’t given a chance to stand up in court. And that’s  the problem with #MeToo. The abusers, the harassers, the rapists among us, live in a world that’s underpinned by that law. They are protected, their good name and innocence is sacrosanct. As the Garda Inspectorate report on responding to child sexual abuse points out “although substantial research in Ireland and elsewhere indicates that only a small percentage of allegations of child sexual abuse are false, the Inspectorate is mindful of the devastating consequences in those cases as well.”

This is what I see when I see the outpouring of shared experience under #MeToo. Our experiences are endemic because there is no come back. We are silenced because of the standard of proof of a behind closed doors experience, of our word against his, of his good name against the assumption of our untrustworthiness. I believe in the presumption of innocence, it is an important basis for a system of law. But it won’t lay to rest the experiences that are being shared at the moment or give us justice or peace. For that we would need a fundamental shift in the balance of power – and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Even after death

I’ve often written about the case of William Burke Kirwan on this blog. His was the case that caused me to pursue a different path in life. Since 2010 I’ve been researching his murder of his wife and it’s lead me back to university and in directions I never dreamed of and there’s plenty more to do. So at this stage I’m a little bit proprietorial. My friends know this about me and tend to point out interesting nuggets about the case they stumble upon. In Dublin, after all, it’s a very well know case indeed. You can still argue about it if you take the boat out to Ireland’s Eye from Howth.

So when the Irish Times featured the case as part of their series of stories from their archives, quite a few Irish friends sent me the link and asked me what I thought. Now I’ll say again that this is a case that is very special to me so I’m apt to be a touch judgemental but in this case the article in question raised my hackles both as a historical scholar and as a court reporter.

It doesn’t help that one of my particular interests in this case is the newspaper coverage. I gave a paper on that subject at the Shared Histories conference at the National Library of Ireland this summer and indirectly it gave me the thesis for my doctorate. I’ve got hard drives full of PDFs of newspaper pages, not to mention filing cabinets full of photocopies gathered before digital newspaper archives were as big a thing as they are now. The Ireland’s Eye murder was one of the most notorious cases of it’s day, as big as any of the cases I’ve covered or written about as a journalist. There were a lot of column inches in a lot of newspapers and you can only get the full story if you look at them all.

So my first problem with the Irish Times article is that it only really looks at an Irish Times article from 1904, 52 years after the murder took place. Now, fair enough, the Irish Times wasn’t around to cover the Kirwan’s trial in December 1852 although they did cover Kirwan’s imprisonment from time to time over the years. The problem with their reporting though was, since they had no staff who had covered the case, knowledge of the finer points of it was sketchy and I’ve always discounted their 19th and early 20th century coverage as too removed from the actual case to be much use.

There are numerous factual errors in the piece in the Times, which I’m presuming is down to the 1904 coverage. According to the article the prosecution case was based on the supposition that Kirwan had used a needle like blade to commit the murder. There was certainly a lot of chatter about Kirwan’s supposed sword stick after Patrick Nangle, one of the boatmen, described Kirwan’s “tuck stick” but this was it’s first mention and a sword stick was never the basis of the prosecution case. According to the Crown’s expert Thomas Geoghegan, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who advised the Crown case but did not give evidence during the trial, the most likely cause of death was suffocation. What the prosecution did suggest was that Kirwan had “burked” his wife, in other words smothered her by compressing her chest and covering her mouth and nose. According to the Freeman’s Journal coverage of the trial when Dr Hatchell, the police surgeon who had performed the post mortem examination was asked to give cause of death he said suffocation.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Cause of death

A more basic error is that Kirwan’s barrister, Isaac Butt, was not yet a politician. The trial took place the week of the British budget and there were press reports after Kirwan was convicted that Butt had taken the mail boat over to England to be back in Westminster in time for the debate. The Freeman’s Journal on December 13 mentions a motion Butt had been bringing forward being postponed.

Freeman's Journal December 13 1852 Issac Butt MP in Westminster for Budget Debate

In fact two months after Kirwan had been convicted Butt used the case as the basis for a bill on second trials in criminal cases which he raised in Westminster. Even though the bill was unsuccessful it gave the Kirwan case a place in legal history as one of the first steps on the road to second trials.

Lastly the piece cites a letter from a Mr Dennis, speaking on behalf of the trial jury in which they expressed relief at the sentence commutation. Actually that’s not quite what the letter says. Dennis is writing to back up the verdict he and his fellow jury members came to in the face of increasing public scrutiny.

Saunders Newsletter January 10 1853 Letter from Mr Dennis, foreman of the jury copyright the British Newspaper Archive

He was writing within days of the news that Kirwan’s sentence had been commuted to transportation for life and mentions in passing that the saving of a life is something to be relieved about. Given that, in 1852 no-one was hung in Kilmainham Gaol where Kirwan was sent, and while it would be years before the death sentence was done away with, in the years after the Famine there was little appetite for execution and most sentences were commuted. Seasoned observers of the courts would have known this and expected the news to arrive. This would have been why the Dublin papers were so slow to print the wild theorising and speculation that appeared in the British press.

There are other minor inaccuracies but these are the ones that really stick out. This is a moment in history not a story. The facts are sacred and deserve to got right.

My second problem with the piece is that it plays into a stereotype that has dogged this case since it happened. It’s a reaction you’ll still see about modern cases. When the accused is a “respectable” man from an affluent background, there will always be a proportion of the reaction that refuses to accept any evidence because he was “our sort”. You can see this reaction most clearly in the Kirwan case. Within days of the verdict, long before the Irish press started commenting, the letters pages of the London Times and the London Evening Standard were full of middle class men expressing their disbelief that one of them could have committed such a heinous act. Because of the outcry from middle class, professional men who identified with the Dublin artist the case became something of a scandal. The great and good connected with the case in Dublin had to justify their actions, some, like the Deputy Governor of Kilmainham Gaol lost their positions (although I’ll go into more detail about that another time.

But most pernicious in my opinion is the way Kirwan has entered history with his character surprisingly unblemished. This was an abusive husband and few who sat in that courtroom had any doubt of his guilt. I’ve seen far more evidence than I will go into here but the evidence was there during the trial. Female witnesses were not particularly thoroughly examined or cross examined but there is a nugget from washerwoman Ann Hanna on day 2 of the trial.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Ann Hanna's evidence copyright the British Newspaper Archive

But after a high profile trial like this everyone likes to be an amateur criminologist and very often it’s the victim who gets forgotten in this process. You might assume that the concept of victim blaming is a modern idea but in January 1853 the London weekly paper The Examiner was most outspoken.

The Examiner January 1 1853 copyright The British Newspaper Archive

Many British papers, who had often only carried part of the trial coverage, were quick to shout about Kirwan’s innocence. The London Evening Standard were particularly rabid when it came to fighting his corner. The whole thing had been a papist plot they hinted. On January 4 1853 they commented on a letter sent by Crown Solicitor William Kemmis, who had written in to argue for the impartiality of the judges and the jury. The Standard claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, that Kirwan was tried by a predominantly Catholic jury and didn’t have a chance as a Protestant convert.

London Evening Standard January 4 1853 Religious makeup of the jury copyright British Newspaper Archive

It didn’t seem to bother them that their jury analysis was wrong, a fact pointed out by Mr Dennis the jury foreman (in fact there were at least 4 protestants on the jury, one of whom knew Kirwan socially but still convicted). Together with the London Times they championed the Kirwan case as a great miscarriage of justice. At the same time more liberal papers like the Examiner and the Morning Post were more trusting of the evidence and the reporting of the Irish press. But as is so often the case, even now, it’s the loud entitled voices of the right who drown out the truth and all to often it’s a garbled version of the truth that gets passed down. It’s worth noting that the Dublin press, who had all sent staff to cover the trial, were pretty unanimous in believing in Kirwan’s guilt. The  Irish Times in 1904 obviously didn’t bother looking for accurate contemporary reports – a mistake repeated in 2016. I’ve been researching this case a long time and I’ve come up against this miscarriage of justice nonsense at every turn. But each time this lazy mistake is made it’s another disservice to the victim, Maria Louise Kirwan. I also wrote the Ireland’s Eye murder for the Irish Times a few years ago by the way – and made some of the points in this piece then. If you want to read in more detail about the trial I covered it here, here and here and there are other posts if you look under the tag. This is the case that changed the course of my life and I will keep writing about it as long as there is material and people keep getting it wrong!

Remembering a monster

Over the past few days this post has been getting a lot of traffic. Written back in 2009, it was my musing on how “Captain” Eamon Cooke, pirate radio legend and notorious paedophile, was still allowed his legendary status by some in the radio industry. Over the years the post has gathered quite a few comments, including from some of those who worked at Radio Dublin and others closely connected with Cooke himself. It’s hardly surprising given Cooke’s death last week and the astonishing news that he may well have been responsible for one of the most famous child disappearances in Dublin, that of 13-year-old Philip Cairns in October 1986.

But perhaps astonishing is the wrong word to use here. When I first read the initial RTE report on Saturday my gut instinct was that the story was credible, though unlikely to be ever proven. Cooke’s 2007 trial was one of the first sex cases I covered in the Dublin courts and gave me an opportunity to watch the monster at close quarters. It was not the first time Cooke had been on trial. He was convicted of a string of sexual offences against 4 victims in 2003 and sentenced to 10 years in jail but was released 3 years later in 2006 on a legal technicality. Cooke was one of those who benefitted from the existing Irish law on statutory rape being ruled unconstitutional as it did not allow for a defence of honest mistake about the victim’s age. The 2007 went ahead with 2 of the original complainants and should have only lasted a week or two.

Cooke grandstanded the whole way through the trial. It took place in one of the smaller courtrooms upstairs in the Four Courts, a tiny, airless room, especially on a warm summer’s day. Everyone found it airless but Cooke played up the elderly infirm little old man. He insisted on having one of the prison staff bring him a jug of water, while one of his victim’s took the stand. Evidence that should have taken a day or less to give was dragged out over days as he insisted on regular breaks. A trial that should, on the evidence, have taken no more than two weeks, dragged on for a month. I would see the two women who were the chief prosecution victims in the pub across the road from the courthouse at lunchtime every day. I found it more difficult than I ever have to keep a journalistic objectivity as I had my own reasons to identify with the evidence they gave. The same reasons that eventually made me stop covering those kinds of trials (nothing to do with Cooke – but one shrivelled, manipulative psychopath is much like another).

Sentencing Cooke, Ms Justice Maureen Clark, expressed a wish to make all his sentences consecutive rather than concurrent, as she had to under Irish law. Cooke was found guilty on 42 counts which would all have . If the sentences had run consecutively he would have faced a sentence of decades rather than the 10 years he received. With someone like Cooke, who it would be no exaggeration to describe as Ireland’s Jimmy Savile, such a sentence would have surely represented justice – but simply wasn’t possible under Irish law.

I had wanted to cover the trial though – call it curiosity. Anyone who’d worked in Irish radio knew about Captain Cooke. Back in the days of the pirate radio stations, before commercial licences were finally awarded in the late 80s, Radio Dublin was one of the first and one of the biggest. Cooke was a larger than life character but one that there were always stories about. A lot of people, judging by the stories you’d hear in radio circles when I started in the 90s, knew that there was something predatory about Cooke. It was well known that he had a nasty violent streak.

I’ve seen comments on social media the past few days about the need for caution with a case like this. We all know Cooke was a monster but surely he’s too convenient a hook to hang this on? What if the real culprit is still out there? But my feeling is that it’s a neat fit because it’s the right one. The gardai were obviously convinced by what they’d been told and Cooke was that much of a monster.

I’m not just basing that on the evidence I heard or a few weeks in an overly stuffy courtroom. Before I started working in the courts I had come across Cooke in another capacity. I had taken a break from journalism to focus on writing and was doing contract jobs in the meantime. I spent several months working for the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution who’s job it was to take submissions to decide where the Constitution needed updating or revising. I was there while they were examining the portion of the constitution that concerns the family – so we were looking at fathers’ rights, the place of the woman in the home, adoptive rights, gay marriage and the definition of the family – all things guaranteed to get a spirited response from the various sides. It was a major part of my job to go through the submissions received each day, copy and file them and write up a summary for the committee. I would flag major submissions on both sides and the best reasoned individual submissions were brought to notice.

One day a submission came in from Eamon Cooke. I recognised the name at once as I’d been following his 2003 trial, and noted that the letter was posted from prison (either Arbour Hill or Wheatfield I think, but I forget). Cooke argued passionately for the rights of fathers to have access to their children. He spoke of his own situation and how, since he had gone to prison, he was finding it difficult to see his children (I know he had 11 children aged between 4 and 18 at his 2007 trial). He argued for the rights of fathers in prison. He talked about custody issues. He neglected to mention the fact that the reason he was in prison was for sexually abusing children. One of my colleagues read the submission as well and not recognising the sender, wanted to make sure the politicians saw it. I made sure the submission had a note on it about Cooke’s conviction and the inadvisability of using it as grounds for any findings. If I had recognised the name, any other journalist would have done the same. I was shocked by how brazen Cooke was but it really fits with everything else I’ve learnt about him over the years. It would also fit with the kind of psyche who would hide a murder for 30 years and refuse to say where the body was even on his death bed.

I presume that submission is still in a file somewhere, but since the Committee was disbanded long ago goodness knows where you’d find it. I was told at the time, when I asked about access to the submissions in the future, that once the report was published the submissions were a matter of public record. This isn’t my field anymore, but given the recent revelations I thought I’d add this.

Cooke was a monster. He was uncovered as a monster many years ago but as with any prolific, narcissistic predator, there were many silent, ignored victims. Knowing a dark truth about someone who puts a carefully crafted face to the world can be a very lonely place to be. There’s no way of knowing, until that truth comes out, if you are alone or one of many – and men like that guard their reputations. In 2009, when Cooke appealed his 2007 sentence he complained that the allegations against him were simply to harm his reputation. When Radio Dublin staff walked out in 1978 and left the station off air while Cooke was in Spain (according to evidence given during his 2007 trial, with the winner of the competition for the holiday, a 15 or 16-year-old girl) he took to the airwaves on his return to refute allegations of child abuse. If you’ve a strong stomach you can hear part of that broadcast in this clip which someone uploaded to Youtube after that trial.

I hope that for Philip Cairns’ family and Cooke’s many victims there is some peace but men like Cooke don’t leave peace in their wake, they leave shattered lives. A truly evil man has died and, if it is true about Philip Cairns, he kept his power to the end. That sort always do.

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

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_02041944

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_15_February_1945

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_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

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

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

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…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

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

GreyfriarsBobby

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?

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.

References:

  • 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-Jack-the-Ripper-coverage-from-Illustrated-Police-News-1888

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.

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