The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland II

Battling the Resurrectionists

To have a relative, no matter how distant, exhumed from their place of rest and taken away after death to be cut into pieces was as repugnant then as it would be today. Anyone who designated themselves to be Christian had a strong belief that the complete body of a person was needed to be reunited with the divine soul on the Final Day of Judgement and, as a result of this strong fundamental religious view, there was great popular opposition toward the dissection of human corpses because of the fear that victims will not be able to enjoy resurrection in the afterlife. This opposition was said to be particularly strong among the Irish population and elaborate steps were, therefore, taken to prevent the continued trade of the resurrectionists.

Mort Safe
Mort Safes

In many places lamp-standards, watch-houses, and corpse-houses were established as an attempt to deter the resurrectionists from robbing fresh graves. The strategy was simply to deter the grave robbers until decomposition made the corpse useless for dissection and medical experiment. The authorities were very much aware that the fresher the corpse was, the greater was its value to the surgeons and it was to the advantage of the grave robbers to exhume a body as soon as possible after its burial. Those assigned to watch these fresh graves were usually close relatives or friends of the departed person and, therefore, this ‘watch’ period coincided with the height of their mourning. The average duration of a ‘watch’ was usually two weeks, but in times of cold weather it was often necessary to stay a while longer. Those unable to maintain an around-the-clock watch of the grave would often place a flower, shell or other object on the freshly- dug grave, as a means of detecting if the earth had been disturbed by resurrectionists. The body snatchers, however, were always careful to replace such items.

In some areas a ‘watch’ of up to six weeks was common, while estimations showed that it could take a body two or three weeks to reach far-off destinations such as Edinburgh or London. As a result, those bodies would, on arrival in Edinburgh and London, more suitable for the grave than for the study of anatomy’. So, the nearer the source of the bodies to the anatomical study students, the more valuable the bodies became and any efforts to prevent grave robbing needed to be overcome. Violence against watchers was, as a result, not a rare event and there are records describing how watchers who fortified themselves with whiskey often woke up in the morning to find the body they were watching, and the whiskey, gone. Unfortunately, after the body had been taken all that could be done was to offer a reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.

In some areas armed professional watchers would be hired to constantly patrol the burying ground with guard-dogs constantly by their side, a task for which they were paid a pittance. In quite a few places heavy stone slabs, mort safes and iron frames were put in place to ensure that the resurrectionists would be deterred from their tasks. These devices took too much effort to remove and helped to protect the coffins and their contents until decomposition of the body was well advanced. Other equipment employed by the burial grounds were ‘spring guns’ with trip wires and loose stones placed on the cemetery walls to render them harder to climb. Another strange device to be used was the ‘mort collar’, which was a loop of iron placed around the corpse’s neck and bolted from below through the base of the coffin. Such was the demand for devices like the ‘mort safes’ that many of them were mass produced in Scottish iron foundries, one of which was “Shotts Iron Company.” As early as 1818 a patent was obtained for a coffin that had been designed to prevent resurrectionists from stealing the body buried within. It was manufactured in metal and had contained special spring-loaded devices that would prevent opening and were accompanied by various other forms of reinforcement. It is hard for us today to imagine that such contraptions could have been produced for use by those who could afford them. But once the threat of grave robbers had passed, such underground devices would have simply been left in place, while those on the surface would be dismantled or recycled to rid burial grounds of memories from an unhappy era in history. Some people took such measures to the extreme, as explained by a report from one Scottish newspaper that stated the father of a dead child was in such fear of the resurrection men taking the body that he buried the body in a small box that also enclosed some other apparatus that included wires from the four corners going to the top of the coffin. Immediately before the body was lowered into the earth, a large quantity of gunpowder was poured into the box, and the hidden mechanism made ready for activation. It was believed that this machinery would cause the box to explode if anyone attempted to raise the body. It was said that the sexton appeared to fear an explosion, for he jumped back immediately after throwing in the first shovel of earth.

This paper has already mentioned just how the poorest people bore the brunt of the resurrectionist’s activity, while the wealthier people could protect their remains with better quality coffins. In fact, some of the leading anatomists of the day went to great pains to ensure they were buried in such a way that none of his former employees or students could resurrect him and make money from their bodies. A noted Dublin anatomist, Sir Philip Crampton, established a private dissecting room and lecture theatre at the rear of his house in the city in 1804. He was said to hold his lectures with open doors and gave anatomy demonstrations to the poor people, who, once he had gained their interest, would bring him bodies to dissect. In accordance with his last wishes Crampton was entombed in Roman cement. Unfortunately for him the cement specified was not truly ‘Roman’ but a less durable type patented by James Parker in 1796.

THE IRISH ANATOMY SCHOOLS

Past records show that by the time that Queen’s College, Dublin, was built in 1845 there had been six anatomy schools in Cork city, some of which had as many as ninety pupils. Keeping these places stocked with fresh bodies demonstrates that there was a plentiful supply being provided by the resurrectionists were active. One story told of this period relates how one grave robber had attempted to lift a body by tying a rope to it and passing it over the branch of a tree. But the rope slipped over the resurrectionist’s neck and the next morning he was found hanged from the tree branch.

Old Dublin Harbour
Dublin Quays

Meanwhile, in Dublin fifteen private medical schools were established between 1804 and 1832, brought about by an increasing interest in pathological anatomy, which had been imported from France in the early part of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1816 “The Association of Members of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland” was established in Dublin. The thrust of the association being the improvement of Pathological science’ and, as elsewhere, the demand for bodies to meet the swelling ranks of anatomy students continued to grow. It was the inclusion of two key professors of anatomy that made Dublin the favourite centre for medical students during the 1820s and 1830s.

Abraham Colles, at the College of Surgeons, had an innovative way of teaching anatomy in that he pursued a topographical approach as opposed to a systematic one, namely not requiring students to dissect a system, e.g. blood vessels, one at a time, as previously required and which caused students to fail to grasp the interrelationships between systems. James Macartney meanwhile had built a fine reputation for himself in London before bringing his expertise to Trinity College. Macartney’s major contribution here was to encourage the voluntary bequest of bodies for dissection and the furtherance of medical science. With the increase in the number of anatomy students in Dublin the need for bodies to dissect had grown correspondingly, the major source of these being an area called ‘Bully’s Acre’, which was named for the large number of rowdies or ‘bullies’ that were buried there. It lay close to the Royal Hospital and there were so many people buried there because no charge was made for the graves, and Body snatching by resurrectionists and students was so rife there that quite often there was violence between the two groups.

Peter Harkan, a notorious resurrectionist engaged by the noted anatomist Sir Philip Crampton, was discovered there with some students by ‘watchers’ and forced to flee. The ‘watchers’ began to chase and while the students easily cleared the perimeter wall, the less agile Harkan got stuck, and the students began pulling him one way and the ‘watchers’ the opposite direction. Harkan, it is said, was never quite the same again after the experience with the ‘Watchers’. The rewards of the trade, however, were worth the setbacks when a corpse could be bought for a guinea in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and before the export traffic in bodies drove prices up.

In Belfast the first anatomy school was established at ‘The Academical Institution’ (‘Inst’) in 1818, when James Lawson Drummond was appointed to the chair of anatomy and physiology, which was an isolated medical professorship in the faculty of arts. At this time, it was common for students for ministry in the Presbyterian Church to obtain some medical knowledge alongside their studies in divinity and, when the classes began in 1819, they involved some anatomical demonstrations. The small number of dissections involved would have created only a modest demand for fresh corpses, but the Resurrectionists certainly very busy in Belfast and surrounding areas from the earliest years of the nineteenth century and this must have been nearly all due to supporting the export trade.

In Belfast, dissection was carried out as a matter of form since a large number of the doctors based there were trained in Edinburgh medical schools. In fact, records suggest that almost one-third of Edinburgh’s medical graduates during the last quarter of the eighteenth century came from among the Ulster-Scots tradition and were exposed to the Scottish emphasis on dissection. Among these was Samuel Black, a physician from Newry, whose book, “Clinical and Pathological Reports” was published in 1819 and describes eighteen dissections that he carried out between 1792 and 1819. It is clear that some of these took place with the full consent of the family of the deceased, who were invariably of the Protestant tradition. There is little doubt that Samuel Black did make a valuable contribution to medical knowledge, particularly in the field of heart disease. His activities, however, were not without opposition and after suffering a severe accident in 1804, he almost always managed to find others to carry out the dissections on his behalf.

EXPORTING BODIES FROM IRELAND

Old Belfast QuayWhen it comes to medical examination the fresher the corpse was, the better research sample it would be, and decomposition rendered the body’s presence unbearable and its anatomy useless. This was a time when the use of preserving fluids in dissection was not yet known. Freshness of the sample, therefore, was dependent upon rapid delivery and ambient temperature, which meant the grave robbers have much more leeway on delivery during the winter. There were two major factors, however, that assisted the growth of the export of corpses from Ireland to the more distant markets in Scotland and England – the short sea crossing and the use of the more rapid steamships. The escalation in demand for bodies in the anatomical centres in London and Edinburgh had forced the resurrectionists to spread their nets ever wider in search of a good source. New sources of fresh corpses was also made necessary for resurrectionists as vigilance by the relatives of the dead and the authorities increased in those burial places close to the main centres.

It is unlikely that there was a large trade in exporting bodies from Cork because the sea crossing to Wales would have taken too long to complete. The export trade from Dublin, however, began in the late eighteenth century, and rapidly accelerated after 1820 when steamships were introduced to the main sea routes, particularly to Glasgow, just as demand there was approaching its height. Although the advantage of speed provided by steamships was offset to some extent by the warmer ship’s holds in which the bodies were transported, the disadvantages were far outweighed by the advantages and the openness of the trade even caused one doctor to recommend that ‘casks’ should be left on deck, on the lee side of the vessel, during the journey to help keep the cadavers cool. That ‘Casks’ were employed for transporting bodies is confirmed from a report concerning Dublin in 1829.[1]

Yesterday a large hogshead was brought by a carman to a sailing vessel here (we believe the Mary), bound for Glasgow, to be shipped for that port, as containing hams. A strong smell, however, which proceeded from the cask, excited the suspicion of the Captain as to the contents – examination followed, when it was discovered, that instead of hams, the hogshead contained the bodies of no less than seven individuals – four males, two females, and a small boy.

In fact, for most of the 1820s a company of corpse exporters turned the anatomy school of the ‘College of Surgeons’ a form of storage place for their trade goods. On one occasion, in early 1828, a body that was ready for export was discovered and caused a mob of people to attack the place and a porter in the college, Luke Redmond, was murdered. But when a motion was submitted to award his widowed wife ten pounds in compensation for his tragic death the motion was defeated.

Prior to the arrival of a gentleman called Rae and his fellow resurrectionists the trade in grave robbing in Dublin had been conducted with a certain decency and secrecy. But because of the free market forces in Dublin, the export trade in corpses resulted in a very deep shortage of bodies for dissection in the Dublin anatomy schools. The introduction of various efforts to restrain the activities of the resurrectionists had also helped to increase this shortage. It was widely regarded that the trade generated by Rae, who had often been openly seen in the College bargaining for bodies when there were plenty, had gone now gone beyond control. The impact that this ghastly trade had on the population had grown to such a point that the ‘Humane Society of St John’ was formed to provide men to watch over the newly interred remains of the city’s citizens’. Nevertheless, records show that in December 1831 three Irish bodies were sold in London for thirty-eight pounds, demonstrating that the trade had become so profitable that many unscrupulous persons, even professional criminals, were now involved. At its height it is estimated that there were over fifty professional resurrection men who were engaged in the body export trade in Dublin alone.

sailing ships in dockMeanwhile, from the situation north of Ireland bodies had been exported to Glasgow and Edinburgh for at least the previous thirty or forty years. Usually these bodies were smuggled, being landed from boats on lonely parts of the Scottish coast, particularly that of Ayrshire. Sometimes, captains of these vessels would conceal the bodies in holds laden with limestone that was imported from Belfast and other Irish ports. Since there was not much of a demand for bodies from local medical schools before the first was established at Inst., the bulk of cadavers taken by the resurrectionists in the north of Ireland supplied those schools established in Scotland. The routes along which the bodies were taken generally followed those same short sea crossings taken by Scottish settlers during the ‘Plantation of Ulster’ by King James I. The most well used routes were those from the small port of Donaghadee to Mull of Galloway, and the crossing from Ballycastle/Fairhead to the Mull of Kintyre. In fact details suggest that the trade in bodies from Northern Ireland may actually have started a little earlier than further south because of its proximity to Scotland. But another factor that may have stimulated the trade in corpses was the older tradition of smuggling stolen linen, since the similarity between the smuggling of both commodities was very close. In both cases the theft usually took place predominantly at night, and both enterprises caused the establishment of nocturnal vigils and the building of watch houses, and both involved the transport of bulky commodities. While in the case of linen it was the bleach-green that was kept under surveillance, in the case of bodies it was the cemetery.

With linen being the chief item produced in the north of Ireland, the theft of linen from bleach-greens became such a serious problem that watch houses were built to accommodate the watchmen who guarded the cloth at night. To deter thefts the stealing from bleach-greens was made a capital offence in 1763 but the severity of the punishment defeated its purpose since those who stole only trivial amounts were often dealt with more leniently. Finally, this law was repealed in 1811 and substituted with transportation for life was substituted. But none of these penalties had much effect on theft from the bleach-greens because there was a deep sense of justice among the people in the North, and there was a great reluctance to prosecute anyone for a crime for which the punishment was severe when compared to the offence committed. Sadly, the theft from bleach greens had a much more severe punishment than the theft of human bodies from their graves.

By 1817 regular cross-channel traffic in stolen linen was being carried on and Belfast was a major centre for this trade. The ships that entered and left these Irish ports exchanged the stolen goods of Ireland for the stolen goods of Scotland and elsewhere. The stolen Irish linen would be made into shirts and sold at low prices on both sides of the Irish Sea. The same criminals involved in developing the routes and techniques smuggling stolen linen across the Irish Sea also led the trade in the export of stolen human cadavers to Scotland within a few years. Although the first steamship to sail from Glasgow to Belfast did not do so until 1816, and regular sailings did not start until 1818, the sea crossing under sail was short. The only drawback to the trade, however, was that the journey on land through Scotland to their destination was slow.

Steam sailing shipThere are frequent references in the local Northern press to the activities of resurrectionists, but at least half of these accounts refer to events in Dublin, and they appeared with increasing frequency throughout the 1820s. It is reported that in a burial ground not too far from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, a party of resurrectionists was arrested in 1823. They had been suspected for some time of carrying out an organised export of bodies from Irish graveyards to Edinburgh. It was discovered that the resurrectionists had attempted to ship a barrel containing the bodies of a woman and child to Scotland. Their arrest encouraged a torrent of stories including tales of frightful murders having been committed. Then, a few days later, customs officers at the port of Greenock in Scotland had their suspicions aroused by another cask that was of ‘questionable shape’. This cask, it turned out, contained the bodies of another woman and child in very poor condition which were being sent from Belfast to Edinburgh.

For resurrectionists in Belfast the most favoured places to obtain bodies appear to have been Friar’s Bush, Old Clifton Street and Shankill graveyards. In fact, in September 1829 the ‘Northern Whig’ newspaper that a gun battle of sorts occurred between a group of twenty men and two men ‘corpse watchers’ in the Shankill graveyard. Quite startlingly the same newspaper, in a later edition, the same newspaper commented that ‘there are Resurrectionists walking our streets every day, and we could point them out’. This suggests that the trade in selling bodies was of a limited scale at this time.

In the rural districts outside of Belfast there were plenty of incidents reported, such as that of two medical students being arrested in Dromara for trying to export two bodies to Scotland. Even those people employed by the Church could not resist the temptation of easy money and several sextons of various rural churches were dismissed after being found guilty of having knowledge about grave robbing. The trade had grown to such a level that corpse houses and mort safes were being used in Irish graveyards, and the revelations of the actions of Burke and Hare led to heightened fears and demands for greater vigilance. It is the actions of these two famed grave-robbers that we will consider in the next instalment….

[1] John F Fleetwood, “Dublin Body Snatchers”; Dublin Historical Record, Vol.42, No. 1; Dec., 1988

The Legend of Captain Gallagher

An Irish Highwayman

There had always been a long tradition of guerrilla warfare in Ireland since the time of the first Norman invasions in 12th Century. By the time of the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1640s, these native Irish foot soldiers were the mainstay of the rebel forces in Ireland and known to their enemies as ‘Tories’ (Tóraí or ‘Pursuers’). During the ‘Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland,’ they caused the English Parliamentarian forces a lot of problems by attacking isolated and vulnerable garrisons, tax-collectors, and supply columns. In a campaign of ‘hit and run’ tactics these guerrilla gangs would strike their enemies hard and then disappear into the countryside among the native people. Punitive expeditions were led against these groups of guerrillas that had now gained the name ‘Rapparees’, but these were less than successful at first. Parliamentarian forces did capture several strongholds, killing hundreds of guerrillas, and destroying food sources in a vain attempt to force the Rapparees into submission.

rapparee-randalNative guerrilla forces were eventually defeated by forced eviction of all civilians from areas where they operated, and subsequently killing those civilians that were found within those areas. By April 1651, the Parliamentarians had designated many areas in the south of the country as ‘open areas’, in which any person found was open to being taken, killed, and destroyed as enemies, and their cattle and goods could be confiscated as being plunder from an enemy. In many of the large towns, including Dublin, the native Irish were expelled because it was feared that they were aiding their fellow Roman Catholic guerrillas in the countryside. Many of the captured ‘guerrillas’ were sold as indentured labour and sent to the West Indies and elsewhere. The last organised guerrilla bands eventually surrendered in 1653 and many of their number were permitted to leave Ireland to serve in the armies of France and Spain. Some refused to leave, however, and in smaller numbers continued their opposition to the new regime in more criminal ways. Moreover, their ranks were constantly filled by those native Irish whose land and property were confiscated under the ‘Cromwellian Plantation’.

These ‘Rapparees’ sought vengeance for being dispossessed of their property, which was then given over to the Protestant favourites of Parliament and the Crown. The dispossessed, like the guerrillas before them, were forced to take to the woods, hills and other remote areas, from where they could sweep down upon the new landlords with as many followers as they could gather. So, events would continue until the middle of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the ‘highwayman’. These criminal types came from among the native Irish and many of them had learned to use firearms and other weapons by serving time in the military or militia units. Some these highwaymen carried out raids and holdups of mail coaches singly, while others would operate with a small band that rarely exceeded half a dozen.

Born in Bonniconlon and reared by an aunt in Derryronane near Swinford, Captain Gallagher was one of the last of these infamous robber leaders in Ireland. In the West of Ireland, he was considered a hero and champion of the oppressed native Irish peasantry who had suffered serious injustice at the hands of the rich, Protestant landowners. They saw him as a romantic figure, like the legendary hero Robin Hood, and like Robin, when he took to his criminal career, Gallagher decided to pick three or four trustworthy companions to join him. Equipping themselves with fast horses and the firearms of the period, they rode all over east Mayo and parts of south Sligo, and west Roscommon. Reports of the state that Captain Gallagher and his small band were bold and utterly fearless, committing daring robberies on the public roads, in open daylight. The homes of the local gentry were plundered regularly, and there was no place that could be considered safe unless it was strongly guarded. Such was the notoriety of the man and his followers that their adventures are still recalled in the folk history of the region. Much is made within these accounts of his great generosity toward the poor peasantry and his amazing ability to evade and escape the ‘Redcoats’. Visitors to the region will find that some of Gallagher’s famous hideouts are still well known, such as ‘Leaba Rudaigh’ that lied in the Ox Mountains near Rooskey. Nearer to the town of Swinford people will tell you that he hid out in Ballylyra Wood, where his ‘Treasure’ is said to lie undiscovered, and close to the town of Pontoon, on Glass Island, he is said to have had another hiding place.

It was reported that on one occasion, Gallagher and his band raided the home of a landlord in Killasser, who was very much despised by his tenants. It is said that, in addition to seizing all his silver and other valuables, the gang forced him to eat and swallow several eviction notices that he prepared for his tenants. Another story tells of a shop in Foxford town that was being robbed on a regular basis and the shop owner could never discover the culprit at work, despite hiring a guard to protect his property. Captain Gallagher, we are informed, offered his services to the shop owner to capture the thief. Gallagher hid in a large chest in the corner of the shop and watched as the guard arrived and began to rob the store. Captain Gallagher leaped from his hiding place and captured the guard, who had been the thief all along.

Local folklore tells us that on another occasion a woman was coming home from the fair in Tubbercurry. The poor woman had sold her last cow so that she could pay her rent to the landlord and avoid eviction. But, as nightfall approached, the woman was passing through the ‘Windy Gap’ near Lough Talt when she spotted a strange shadow in the distance. As they met on the road, the stranger stopped and asked her where she was going in such a hurry. The woman told him that she was trying to get back to her own home before darkness fell because Captain Gallagher might rob her of what little she had. As the woman spoke the strange man smiled at her and proceeded to give her enough money with which she bought another cow, as well as pay her rent to the landlord. He then gently told her to go home and to tell all she met that Captain Gallagher was not the rogue that the authorities made him out to be.

Yet another tale speaks of an occasion when Gallagher, having been ‘set-up’ for capture, escaped through a window of a house just as a military troop, led by a local magistrate entered through the front door of the building. On reaching the ground, Captain Gallagher crept quietly around the house to where the magistrate’s horse was tied up, and, loosening it, he galloped off at full speed. The next day, however, Gallagher is said to have returned the horse, with his thanks, to the magistrate for allowing him the use of such a good beast when he most needed it.

HighwaymanIt was precisely because of such escapades that a reward of 500 guineas was offered by the authorities for information leading to his capture. Not surprisingly, after some narrow escapes from the English soldiers, Captain Gallagher’s run of luck finally came to an end. His small of men band were arrested by the authorities near Westport in County Mayo, but Gallagher managed to escape on that occasion. Although he successfully evaded the English patrols for some time, he was finally apprehended by the authorities in the parish of Coolcarney or Attymass, which lie near the foothills of the Ox Mountains.

Local legend says that Captain Gallagher was spending a quiet Christmas in the house of an acquaintance, whom he had formerly helped, while he recovered from an illness. He was given a meal, which had been laced with something that caused him to fall asleep, and the family then got to work. They put him to bed in the ‘cailleach’ bed beside the fire, tying his ankles and wrists were with flax ropes. With Gallagher secured, a message was sent to the military stationed in Foxford, whose officer immediately sent messages to the military stationed in Ballina, Castlebar, and Swinford for assistance before attempting to capture the fugitive. With a force of almost two hundred men, the Redcoats surrounded the house and captured the infamous highwayman without resistance. Without much ado, Gallagher was rushed to Foxford where, after a hasty sham trial, he was sentenced to death by hanging and was taken to Castlebar for the sentence to be carried out.

Gallagher pleaded with his executioners to spare him and he promised them, in return, he would lead them to the hidden treasure that he had buried under a rock in Ballylyra Wood. His captors, however, did not fall for this ploy and the officer in charge quickly carried out the execution and then dashed towards the wood of Ballylyra with a hand-picked squad of cavalrymen. The vision of new-found wealth and rewards from the Crown helped them to hurry to the alleged hiding place of Gallagher’s treasure. But, when the soldiers reached Ballylyra Wood they found that there were not just a few rocks that they had envisioned, but countless thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes. After searching for three days all they found was a jewel-hilted sword, but it is still thought that Gallagher’s buried gold is still buried in that wood, seven foot from the river beside a tree.

In 1818 Captain Gallagher’s execution was reputedly the last public hanging to take place on the famous hanging tree standing opposite Daly’s Hotel on the Mall in Castlebar. We are left with the following account of the execution taken from a late nineteenth-century author: “He died fearfully. He and his ‘Secretary’ (Walsh) having shaken hands and kissed on the gallows, were flung off together. Walsh died at once, but Gallagher’s rope broke, and he was precipitated to the ground; he got a glass of wine and was again shoved out on the trap-board by the executioner, seated like a tailor, his legs having been broken by the fall.

References:

Article by Brian Hoban; www.mayo-ireland.ie;

“Tales from the West of Ireland” by Sean Henry @ www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk

Bessie Kane’s Trial

Was Justice Served?

Some 250 years ago, Dublin was divided by a case that was being conducted in the criminal courts. From the highest to the lowest strata of society in that city appeared to be divided into two warring factions on this case. It was almost impossible to speak in the home, or on the street, about this case without causing a quarrel because it was viewed as an elaborate means of illustrating the justice of the English administration in a troublesome country.

This case centred on a dispute between an old gipsy woman and a young servant girl. The question at issue was whether the gipsy had robbed and forcibly imprisoned Bessie Kane, or had Bessie Kane falsely accused the gipsy of being guilty for these things. It was, however, the force of incidental circumstances that caused the case to become so important to the populace, the jurists and the administration. In fact, the case became a question on the efficiency of Britain’s judicial institutions in Ireland, and how able they were to protect and provide justice to the innocent. Unsurprisingly, there were to be many inquiries and trials associated with the case, but I have space only to outline the most prominent highlights of these.

Bessie Kane was an unexceptional young woman who was almost nineteen years of age, and she had been employed in the house of a wealthy man, Edward Laing, living in Cohannon. On New Year’s Day she had been given permission to visit the home of her uncle in Lismore, but she failed to return to the Laing household at the time specified. Concerned about her whereabouts, Mr Laing’s family asked Bessie’s mother if she had seen her daughter, but she had not made called on her or any of her other relations after visiting her uncle.

The days passed into weeks as inquiries continued to prove unfruitful and Bessie’s mother suffered torment every hour that her daughter was missing. The newspapers were made aware of the mystery surrounding Bessie’s disappearance and the affair was soon the talk of every town. Much to everyone’s surprise, at the end of January, Bessie entered her mother’s house in terrible condition, being both emaciated and exhausted, and she had hardly a stitch of clothing on her back, leaving her almost naked. She was, of course, asked so many questions that they put her head in a spin and she found it difficult to give a coherent report of what had happened to her. But, Bessie gathered her senses sufficiently to give her listeners the story behind her disappearance.

Bessie told her audience that she had set out on her visit to her uncle at eleven o’clock in the morning, and that she had stayed with him until nine o’clock in the evening. She said that her uncle and aunt accompanied her as far as the edge of Lismore. From there she set off alone along the narrow country roads and passed by  the rear of the Hospital, at which point she was seized by two very strong, well-built men.

“They didn’t speak a word to me, at first,” Bessie told them, “but stole half a guinea from a little purse in my pocket, and three shillings in loose change. Then they stripped me of my dress, apron, and hat, folding them up, and putting them into a greatcoat pocket. When I screamed out, the man who took my dress put a handkerchief or something into my mouth.”

Bessie then described how the men tied her hands behind her, swore at her lewdly, and dragged her along with them. She said that she fainted, but when she recovered she found herself to be still their captive. They shouted at her, swearing terrible things, and demanded that she move on quickly. But, because she was still in shock, Bessie was carried or dragged for a considerable distance. She could not which, however. It was daylight the next morning, she told them all, when she was finally at her journey’s end.

Bessie Kane 1Of the place she finally ended up, Bessie could only recall that it was a disreputable-looking house, where she was met by a woman, who told her that if she would accompany her, she would be given fresh clothes. When Bessie refused, she said the woman grabbed a knife from a dresser, which she used to cut open her stays, and removed them. She then went on to describe how the woman and the other people in the house hustled her upstairs into a wretched-looking attic and locked the door. In that space she found only a miserable straw-bed, a large black pitcher nearly full of water, and a loaf of bread that had been cut into twenty-four pieces. Bessie continued to describe how she remained in that attic space for four weeks, eating so much of the bread and drinking a little water every day, until both were exhausted. She then told them how she made her escape, by removing a board which was nailed across a window. “First,” she said, “I managed to get my head out, and kept a tight hold of the wall, and got my body out. Then, I was able to turn myself around, and jump into a small, narrow alley-way that led to a field not far away. Having no other clothing  than an old bedgown and a handkerchief, that I found in that attic in an old, grimy fire-grate, I managed to travel twelve miles along roads I did not know until I reached my mother’s house. And, as I travelled, I did not dare to call into any place along the way, in case I would fall again into the hands of those horrible people.”

If Bessie’s disappearance had created excitement, her sudden reappearance in the condition she was in, and with such a story to tell, caused uproar. Although not an exceptional woman, Bessie was an attractive-looking girl. When she saw the sympathy that was being showed to her she became excited, and quickly agreed to a theory that had been formed by some of her friends. They suggested that the people who had taken her had wanted to use her in the most awful way, and they would weaken her resolve by forcing her to stay in such poor conditions, but Bessie had courageously and patiently resisted them. This was now the story that was told far and wide, and it was spoken of in every tavern and at every dinner-table, rousing the anger of many of the good citizens.  Being the parents, and having daughters of their own, they feared who might become the next victim of this diabolical crew from which this poor girl had fortunately escaped. As the story spread more and more people rallied around Bessie, ready to avenge the wrongs done to her and punish the perpetrators.

Bessie soon found that she had become one of the most important people in Dublin. She was given many, and considerable funds were raised to assist her to bring the kidnappers to justice. She, of course, was required to help in the investigation by remembering every little incident in her dreadful experience that might just lead investigators to the place where she was held. She believed that it must have been on Henry Street, because she had been able to look out the window and managed to catch of sight of a coach, which she recognised as being one that a former mistress had been accustomed to travelling in. This clue, along with the distance she had travelled, gave investigators an idea that they should concentrate their search in that area of town. During their search they found a dilapidated old lodging-house that was kept by a family named Wallis, who appeared to match persons that Bessie had described to them. Moreover, this house had an attic space in which lay an old straw-bed, and there was a black pitcher found in the house.

Bessie was taken to this house in a coach alongside her mother, with her friends accompanying her on horseback. It was like a triumphal procession through the streets, with many of the crowd rushing into the squalid lodging-house, and the natural astonishment and confusion of those people living in the house was taken to be a sign of their guilt. At first, Bessie seemed to be a little confused and undecided, but this was taken to be a sign of the excitement she was feeling as she recalled the horrors that she had endured. She was told not to worry any more since she was now among her friends, all of whom would support her. Finally, she told them that she was in the house where she had been imprisoned and treated so wretchedly.

There was a gipsy woman in the house and one of the witnesses recognised her as being like ‘Mother Carson’ the sorceress, whose portrait they had seen. She sat, totally calm, bending over the open fire smoking a clay-pipe, and ignoring the hustle and bustle around her. Bessie immediately pointed to her and said that she was the woman who had cut her stays and helped to put her in her prison-room. But, even this direct accusation did not disturb the total indifference that the old woman was showing to what people were saying. However, when the old woman’s daughter stepped up and said to her, “Mother, this young woman says you robbed her,’ she jumped to her feet, turned on the group.

Bessie Kane 2With an ugly and angry face, the old woman said, ‘What do you mean I robbed you? You had better take care what you are saying. If you have once seen my face, you could never mistake it, for God knows he never made another like.’ Then we she spoke about the day Bessie was robbed, she gave a wild laugh, and told them all that she was more than a hundred miles away in Cork. She did not call herself ‘Carson’, but ‘Sullivan’ and her son, George Sullivan, was with her. Although Bessie did not seem to recognise him at first, she finally declared him to be one of ruffians who had attacked her at the rear of the hospital. At last, the people around Bessie were satisfied and imprisoned all the people they found in the house.

The strange, wild facial features of the old gipsy woman appeared to have added some sense of terror to the whole affair and, in the afternoon, when two of Bessie’s friends were discussing the whole matter over a meal in a local Inn the conversation turned to the gipsy. One of the men said, “By God, Mr. Laing, I hope the Almighty has already destroyed the model that he made that face from, for I wouldn’t want him to make another like it.”

It was discovered that Mrs. Wallis, who kept the lodging-house in which Bessie had been held, belonged to a well-known disreputable family, and she admitted to investigators that her husband had been hanged. This admission caused events to speed ahead and Bessie, if she had told lies in her effort to hide the real causes of being absent, suddenly found that the entire incident had taken a much more serious turn than she had intended. Before things went too far and innocent people were hurt Bessie had to make up her mind whether to recant everything or go through with it. Now that she was something of a celebrity and enjoying all the attention she decided on the latter course, certain in her own mind that all Dublin would support her. Alone, Bessie could not have pursued the charges, but the popularity of her cause had given her courage. Then, a young woman named Purity Hill, who lived in Mrs Wallis’s lodging-house, took it into her head that it could be very profitable if she was to partner Bessie Kane and she came forward to give testimony which corroborated the whole story.

On the 21st of February, Mary Sullivan and Susan Wallis were brought to trial for a capital offence, the evidence against them being contained story told by Bessie. When Mrs Sullivan was called on to testify in her own defence, she gave a short and clear account of how she had, from day to day, gone from one distant place to another during the entire time of Bessie’s alleged confinement. Two or three witnesses came forward and, somewhat timidly, corroborated her statement. There were, however, others who would have appeared on her behalf to provide convincing testimony of Mary’s innocence, but were afraid to expose themselves in the intimidating atmosphere that filled the city, where contradiction of their idol’s story was not well received. Indeed, three men who did come forward to dispute Bessie’s story were treated unpleasantly, and money was collected to prosecute them for perjury. Dreading the strength of the popular opinion against them, these men had to incur great expense to prepare their defence. But, before the day of trial some of Kane’s supporters began to feel certain misgivings, and no prosecutor appeared. The counsel for the accused complained that this was totally unfair, especially when they had incurred great expense to defend the charges. The accused men felt that it was vital that the stain of perjury should be removed from their character, and they said that they had witnesses  who would give clear, ample, and convincing testimony which would fully prove their innocence of all charges and the falseness of Bessie Kane’s story.  They believed that without a trial they would not have the triumphant acquittal they wanted but might be suspected of having agreed to some dubious compromise.

Mrs Sullivan was finally convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. But the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who was nominally at the head of the commission for trying Sullivan, believed that she was the victim of lies and public prejudice. He now decided to carry out an in depth and searching investigation, to avoid, if possible, the scandal that might befall British institutions in Ireland carrying out what could be perceived as a judicial murder, although the victim was from the lowest strata of society. Initially, an inquiry was established by the law-officers of the crown, and this resulted in the woman Sullivan receiving a royal pardon. The Lord Mayor, however, having satisfied himself that this poor woman had narrowly escaped death from lies told about her by Bessie Kane, supported by an outbreak of popular zeal, was not happy. The gipsy woman had escaped, but the Lord Mayor thought that an example should be made of the one who falsely charged her. Accordingly, although he was met with much opposition to his efforts, both verbal and written, with controversial pamphlets being published against him as an enemy of Bessie Kane, he was determined to bring this popular idol to justice.

At the end of April, Bessie was brought to trial for committing wilful and corrupt perjury. Over the three weeks of trial the case against Bessie proved to be complete and crushing. With perfect clarity the whole truth about the movements of people involved in the trial was laid open. The absurdity of Bessie Kane’s story was shown to be inconsistent in every little detail with her initial testimony and the facts that had since been discovered. When Bessie had first described the room, in which, she said, she was shut up, it was subsequently was compared with her story and important and serious discrepancies were discovered. She said that she had been unable to see anything that went on in the house from where she was confined. But, in the room in question there was a large hole through the floor for a jack-rope, which gave a full view of the kitchen, where the house inhabitants usually congregated. Bessie also gave a description of every article in the room in which she was held prisoner, had made no mention about a very remarkable chest of drawers that were found in the room she identified as being the same. Any possibility that this piece of furniture had been recently placed there was shown to be impossible because of the damp dust gluing it to the wall, and the host of spiders which ran from their webs when it was removed. Bessie had also said that she escaped her prison by stepping on a penthouse, but there was none against the attic of Mrs Wallis’s house. Furthermore, the windows were high, and she could certainly not have leaped to the ground without causing herself severe injury. She stated in her testimony that not one person had entered the room during the four weeks of her imprisonment there. It was shown, however, that during the same period a lodger had held an animated conversation from one of the windows of the same attic with someone chopping wood outside.

These differences were, however, far from being the most surprising part of the evidence. Not content with showing that Bessie Kane had told lies, the prosecutor took up the laborious task of discovering just where the gipsy woman had been at that time, along with her co-accused son and daughter. Because of the wandering habits of gipsies, evidence into the most minute details had to be collected over a large area of country. But, the precision with which the statements of this group of people, from different ranks of society and quite unknown to each other, as well as to the person they spoke about of fitted each other, is very interesting. The most trifling and unimportant facts told with great precision the true story. The keeper of the lodging-house remembered the woman Sullivan being in her house on a certain day, making certain of it by an entry in an account-book. She also remembered that she had consulted the almanac at the time to ensure that she got the right day. The day of the same woman’s presence in another place was identical with the presence of an Excise surveyor, and the statements of the witnesses were tested by the Excise entry-books. The position of the wanderers was in another instance connected with the posting of a letter, and the post-office clerks bore testimony to the fact, that from the marks on the letter it must have been posted on that day. Bessie Kane had stated that she had been seized on New Year’s Day. The journey of the gipsy family, however, was traced throughout the distant parts of Ireland, covering every day from December until the day they arrived in the lodging-house, which was 24th of January. With their case strengthened with incontestable facts the counsel for the prosecution felt himself in a position to make Bessie’s whole story look ridiculous and show how absurd it was to those in Dublin who had so resolutely believed her.

The prosecutor stated, “Was it not strange that Miss Kane should subsist so long on so small a quantity of bread and water, almost four weeks in all? It is peculiar that she should ration her meagre store so well as to have some of her bread left, according to her first account, until the Wednesday. According to her last statement she said until the Friday before she made her escape, and unbelievably she saved some of her miraculous pitcher of water until the last day. Was the twenty-fourth part of a small loaf a day enough food to satisfy her hunger? If not, why would she not continue eating to satisfy her appetite, so she could ration herself for what appeared to her to be a precarious, uncertain future? Shall we suppose it was some revelation from above that came to her? Perhaps it was an angel from heaven that appeared to this model of virtue, and told her, that if she ate more than one piece of bread a day, her small ration would not last her until the time she was able to make her escape. Her mother, we know, is very enthusiastic when it comes to consulting conjurors and those who interpret dreams. Maybe her daughter dreamed what was to happen, and so she would not eat when she was hungry, nor drink when she was thirsty. This conduct by the prisoner, however, I suggest exceeds all bounds of human probability.”

Despite of her criminality being exposed, Bessie Kane, was not entirely deserted by her supporters. Two of the jury members had difficulty in reconciling themselves to the verdict of guilty and suggested that her story might be substantially correct, though she had, undoubtedly, made a mistake about the persons by whom, she said, had injured her. There were some imperfections in the verdict, and her supporters tried to take advantage of them. But, their objections were overruled, and a verdict of guilty was recorded against Bessie, who immediately pleaded for mercy, saying that she had sinned much less than she had been sinned against. She declared that survival had been her only objective, and that she had no wish to undertake the life of a gipsy.

The court had to seriously consider what punishment they would inflict on her. There were many of the ordinary people who were still convinced that she was not a wicked person, and there were fears that some supporters would make efforts to break into the jail in which she was imprisoned to free her. But, because there was no established transportation system in those days, it was not unusual for some criminals to be sent to plantations in North America or the West Indies, with their consent. In the case of Bessie Kane, therefore, the court acceded to the wish of her relations, that she should be forever banished to North America.