Dublin is a wonderful, energetic cultural center—the pride of Irish achievements in architecture, arts, and literature. But it is also a city of paradoxes and conflicts—and a long, fascinating history of crime.
Stephen Wade now reveals Dublin’s “strange eventful history” in this thrilling collection of murderers, thieves, daredevil highwaymen, libelers, seducers, and bloody avengers—from eighteenth-century turncoats to Victorian-era rogues to a twentieth-century parliamentary candidate with a killer past. Amid tales of sensational investigations and infamous courtroom trials, readers will discover the truth behind the disappearance of the Crown Jewels in 1907; the bizarre motives of nineteenth-century serial killer John Delahunt; and the startling charges leveled against Oscar Wilde’s father, a revolutionary doctor embroiled in a felonious and sexual cause célèbre of his own.
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Highwaymen and Robbers 1640
'... he issued his own laws, levied tolls on pedlars, he was Captain General of the Irish robbers ...'
Lives and Adventures of the Most Notorious Irish Highwaymen
As soon as the eye chances on a reference to 'highwaymen' we think of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, and legend takes over from the history. Turpin, for all the Victorian glorification, murdered and raped; there was no glamour there, and the same may be said of Ireland's 'gentlemen of the road' who were in fact, no gentlemen at all. They were heartless rogues out for survival at first and then later for wealth, profit and the thrill of tormenting victims.
Ireland, along with every other country with a rich folklore, has its share of tales from that distant past in which truth is shrouded in myth and legend. There is a long and rich tradition of oral storytelling in Irish culture, of course, and also a good store of texts from popular street literature such as last dying speeches and hanging narratives. But among those old tales, few themes are as attractive and enduring as stories of highwaymen.
The Dick Turpin figure in Irish history is undoubtedly Redmond O'Hanlon, probably born around 1620 in County Armagh. As a soldier, he fought with the Irish Catholic rebel army under Owen Roe O'Neill at the battle of Benburb in 1646. After various adventures across Europe he came home and learned that he had lost his land and inheritance, so he took to the road. The truth about him appears to be that, far from being a romantic figure, he was capable of extorting money for protection and of putting the fear of God into anyone who opposed him.
In Dublin, at the time when O'Hanlon was about fifty years old, the authorities were out to get him and there were posters around the town offering a reward to anyone with information that would lead to his capture. The militia were out to find him, but it seems that he had a tough and numerous gang with him and it would have taken a considerable force of men to take him. The turning point, something that spurred the authorities to more determined attitudes and actions, was the murder of James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, in 1679. But, as with many tales of past villains, his downfall came from his own kin, his brother killing him in his sleep. This was near Hilltown, County Armagh, in 1681.
His myth persisted, particularly with the publication of William Carleton's novel, The Irish Repparee, in 1862. But there is little of myth in the sordid and thoroughly nasty life of a more earthy and unscrupulous thug, Patrick Flemming, who figures in the celebrated Newgate Calendar and in the Old Bailey records. Flemming was one of Dublin's worst rogues in the seventeenth century who, after an assortment of crimes in Dublin, began a reign of terror in the Bog of Allen.
Flemming, like O'Hanlon, began his working life in the service of the nobility, being a foot-boy with the household of the Countess of Kildare. The rebellious spirit was in him from early on, and he was reported to grow 'not only careless but insolent' and he was discharged. After that he managed to find some work at the home of the Earl of Antrim, and after becoming totally unmanageable, he was told to go, but according to his biography after his execution, Flemming '... found means, before he left the neighbourhood, to rob his lordship of money and plate to the value of two hundred pounds, with which he fled to Athenry ...'.
After hiding out for a while, he decided to go to Dublin and there he joined a gang on the streets, housebreaking. The Old Bailey record says that in six years in Dublin he was 'concerned in more robberies than had ever before been committed in that city in the memory of man'. In Dublin, he was very close to being hanged on a few occasions, and it looked as though his destiny would be the gibbet on Stephen's Green. But he left town and moved to the place that would be forever linked to his name – the Bog of Allen.
There, he became the most feared robber of his age, willing to prey upon anyone, regardless of their status or power. He even robbed people such as the Archbishop of Armagh and the Bishop of Rapho. His biographer was fond of exaggeration, we have to say, because the claim was that Flemming, in just a few days, 'robbed one hundred and twenty five men and women upon the mountain of Barnsmoor'. That was apparently his den where the gang assembled. After a kidnapping and blackmail campaign, he left the area and did the same reign of terror in Munster.
The story was that he was captured and put in a country gaol but then smashed his way to freedom. But fate caught up with him and he was taken at a house near Mancoth. There, the landlord turned informer (in true Billy the Kid tradition) and the law arrived.
Flemming was hanged in Dublin on 24 April 1650. His body suffered the indignity of being hanged in chains, as with the English gibbet tradition, for birds to peck at and for other aspiring villains to see and shudder at, on a public road not far from town. Some said that the landlord who informed on him even wet all the firearms of Flemming and his gang.
The course of his career is entirely typical, with all the elements of a good story told around the fire from the oral tradition. One of the distinctive features is the fact that he was betrayed by someone who knew him. That he was the king of his own little patch of ground, making people pay tolls to pass, is entirely in keeping with the Robin Hood and the O'Hanlon tales.
But the Dublin highwaymen do not stop in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the tradition went on in the Australian bushrangers, where one of the most infamous, a Dubliner called Jack Bradshaw, taken from Dublin to Melbourne by a relative; and there, when he grew up, highway robbery became his trade. The title of his autobiography says it all: Highway Robbery Under Arms without Shedding Blood. Of course, as with all these misguided heroes of popular tales, the truth is that they were often locked away, as Bradshaw's sub-title says: 'Twenty years of Prison Life in the Gaols of New South Wales.'CHAPTER 2
An Abominable Sin 1640
'My whole life seems ruined by this man. The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing ... '
Oscar Wilde's words in a letter to 'Bosie' were written 300 years after the subject of this chapter, Bishop John Atherton, was in serious trouble for alleged sodomy. But the words in Wilde's letter could easily apply. One man brought down the Bishop, starting with one accusation of serious misconduct and then the house of cards, that was the Bishop's life, came down.
But our story begins with a ghost story, told at great length recently by Peter Marshall, who has researched Atherton's story in depth. When Susan Leakey of Minehead died, she supposedly returned in spirit to disturb all kinds of good Somerset people. Her son-in-law, John Atherton, was to feel the after-shocks of that when he progressed in his church career. He married Susan's daughter, started out as vicar of the village of Huish Champflower, and then became Bishop of Waterford and Lismore from 1636 to his death in 1640.
It is a long and complex tale, but it ended in Dublin with the Bishop at the end of a rope. In the first part of the tale, when Susan 'Mother' Leakey began to appear in apparition and the society around Minehead was stirred up. At a time when such things were more often linked to demonic than to Christian notions by Protestants, it was a phenomenon that attracted interest in the higher echelons of the church. Catholics would have had no problem as they believe in purgatory of course. But in the seventeenth century when witchcraft was a dark art in need of severe punishment in the eyes of many, Minehead and its doings were seen by some powerful people as possibly the centre of some evil doings.
But for John Atherton, there was a way of escape. There had always been strong links between Somerset coastal towns (and indeed Bristol) and Dublin, with both trade and piracy being common over the centuries. But Atherton was fortunate in having Irish links at a time when the Earl of Strafford, Thomas Wentworth, became Lord Deputy of Ireland, and he had caught the eye of some powerful clerics. Preferment came his way and he was placed in Lismore for the centre of his Bishopric.
Atherton, initially related to Strafford's star on the rise, would have seen Wentworth, when he was sent to govern Ireland in 1633, become a tyrant, and he must have seen that what was to become known as the 'Bishops' Wars'. When he was impeached for alienating the King's subjects, matters were grim and he had to defend himself with his life at stake. At that point, Atherton was already dead, an early casualty of the 'wars'.
Strafford was executed on Tower Hill a year after Atherton had been hanged in Dublin. Atherton's downfall started with an accusation from his steward, John Child. Child claimed that he had indulged in sodomy with him – and that was a felony and a capital offence in 1640. Almost a century before, in 1533, parliament had made the 'abominable vice of buggery' into a capital offence. Then, in contrast, in Ireland it had only been a hanging offence for six years at the time of Atherton's trial. It was also bad luck for Atherton in that just a few years before Child's accusations, there had been a high profile case of sodomy against a nobleman, the Earl of Castlehaven. The crime was in England, but the Earl, Mervyn Touchet, had his title from Ireland.
It all began when Child, who would be committing a felony himself if the accusation were proved, so the implication had to be that he was telling the truth, unless he was totally out of his senses. Just to make that accusation publicly was a confession about one's own offence. Child made a petition and that was presented to parliament and the man who was then in place as the new Lord Deputy, Sir Christopher Wandesford, who announced that what he found in the petition would make all men blush when they saw 'what stuff was in it'.
As for John Atherton, he planned to attend what would be his last service at Christ Church cathedral, and he did not exactly hide away in a corner, because he was noted to be dressed in all his fine ecclesiastic attire. But Wandesford, perhaps fearing open trouble did not allow him to go. Clearly, there was a great deal of embarrassment in the men of the cloth in the midst of all this 'bad press' for the church. Other enemies of Atherton came out of the woodwork and joined in the attack. One of these was the steward to the Earl of Cork, John Walley, who delighted in taking the opportunity to gather all kinds of other scraps of evidence against the Bishop. In one of his letters he wrote that the Bishop of Waterford had been found out and 'his filthy and odious sins of sodomy and adultery laid open to the world'.
Tongues wagged across England as well as Ireland and other men set about laying into Atherton. One of these was a scandal-monger, Edmund Rossingham, who told anyone who came across his pamphlet that Atherton had been accused by a servant of his being buggered by the Bishop. He added that many other charges had accumulated, and these he described as 'many other foul offences' which were 'adulteries and single fornications'.
The Bishop was arrested in June 1640 and a number of other men were charged and imprisoned following Child's letter. Atherton's career in the church was over, even if he escaped conviction. The dirt-digging carried on, and someone searched the man's past, back in Minehead. What happened was that a researcher found that the Bishop had committed incest because he had married the sister of his wife. That was regarded as incest at that time. But to make things worse, the ghost of Susan Leakey, known as 'Mother Leakey' had been alleged to have said rather cryptic things, including the statement that a religious man there had been 'vomited out to Ireland'.
Atherton was tried at the King's Bench court in Dublin Castle but unfortunately, the records of the trial were destroyed in 1641 when there was a general rebellion across the land. But fortunately for the historian, felons about to die were in the practice of making last dying speeches (seeChapter 4) and Atherton did so. He had had to put forward his own defence as he had not been allowed a lawyer; he had prepared a detailed written defence for himself after researching in reference works. But things were extremely severe for him because there had also been a charge of rape. A certain John Price saw Atherton die, and he knew something of the trial, saying that Atherton had had to answer sodomy and rape charges; it seems that a surprise witness, a young boy, had given evidence which almost certainly condemned Atherton. He was found guilty on the two capital charges.
One small detail on the day of his execution gave one consolation in terms of posterity, yet it meant nothing. That was the fact that he was still technically a Bishop when he died. The Board of Trinity College took away his doctorate on the morning on which he was to die, but Sir Christopher Wandesford died that morning so there had been no signature to enact that measure. Atherton died a bishop and, as Peter Marshall has noted, he was the only Anglican prelate 'to have been convicted and executed for the crime of sodomy'.
As Atherton walked up the ladder on Stephen's Green he said: 'I thank God, I dread not death.' But even in his last words there is dispute. One witness said his last words were:
I do here before the Lord, his holy angels and you all, own the Sentence against me to die this manner of death be just, and I was Guilty of the charge laid against me.
But another man said that Atherton denied the crime. On 12 May 1641, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, also died for his supposed crimes, and he was beheaded, an exit from this life considered to be more swift and merciful. It was with a good, skilled axeman and no doubt Wentworth parted with some money to ask for that last favour.
A poem of the time has this to say of Atherton:
He surely warned was to mend his life,
By his own sister, Master Leakey's wife,
And in her lifetime conscious how he led His lustful life, her ghost in ghastful wise Did oft appear before her sister's eyes.
And the ghost said: 'Daughter, 'tis the wicked life your brother leads, warn him to mend his life.'
It seems that she did, but to no effect.CHAPTER 3
Sham Speeches: Charles Donnell 1712
'Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.'
A convicted killer in 1712 in Dublin tried everything he could to save his life. There was even a signed statement by his father-in-law concerning his morals; Thomas Pullman of Capel Street wrote: '... ever since the said Charles was married to the deponent's daughter he never assaulted, beat or abused this deponent or this deponent's wife, as has been scandalously reported. This deponent further deposeth that since the said Charles has been confined in Newgate, he never was unthankful for any victuals sent to him from this deponent's house..' It would be difficult to find anything more desperate than that, from a condemned man. His luck never changed for the better, either, and it does look as though he had enemies who wanted him gone, maybe people with scores to settle, for the man in question lived a life of violence and antagonism.
Charles Donnell was born in Ballymena, Antrim, but after going his own way in life and running into all kinds of trouble, his father decided that the best idea for the wayward son was to send him off to sea, so he was bound apprentice to a Dublin seaman, Captain Robert Macarroll. But after a trip to Virginia which was full of difficulties, he drifted home. He married Mrs Esther Pullman in Dublin, after cutting himself off from his family. From that point, he had grand plans, mainly the notion of going back home, but fate stepped in. He took the life of another man.
We know from his last dying speech spoken near Stephen's Green on 8 November 1712, that he was, as expected, contrite and bursting with regret and self-reproach:
My dear father's inclinations were that I should follow my study as my brothers had done; but to my great sorrow and grief, I did not observe his paternal and good advice in that, and many other occurrences of my life ... let me advise and admonish all young unthinking men, to be obedient to their parents ...(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Dublin"
Copyright © 2008 Stephen Wade.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Highwaymen and Robbers,
Chapter 2 'An Abominable Sin' 1640,
Chapter 3 'Sham Speeches': Charles Donnell 1712,
Chapter 4 Tory Gangs and Turncoats 1720s,
Chapter 5 A Case of Abduction 1730,
Chapter 6 Liberty and Ormond Boys 1730–1790,
Chapter 7 The Lord Santry Trial 1739,
Chapter 8 Fatal Duels 1750–1820,
Chapter 9 Trouble for the New Police 1780s,
Chapter 10 Sheriff Vance on Trial 1789,
Chapter 11 Delahunt, Child Killer 1841,
Chapter 12 Murder on Ireland's Eye? 1852,
Chapter 13 The James Spollen Trial 1857,
Chapter 14 Libel and Dr Wilde 1864,
Chapter 15 A Chronicle of Victorian Murder 1870–1900,
Chapter 16 Lured to Death 1884,
Chapter 17 Smotheration in the Monto c1890–1920,
Chapter 18 A Fight Over a Play 1907,
Chapter 19 The Crown Jewels Disappear 1907,
Chapter 20 An Orgy of Anarchy 1913,
Chapter 21 Mountjoy Tales 1900–1960,
Chapter 22 War Crime by a Madman 1916,
Chapter 23 Murder and Mayhem in Malahide 1926,
Chapter 24 Blood Everywhere 1936,
Chapter 25 A Murderous Attack in Church 1948,
Chapter 26 The Mohangi Case 1963,
Epilogue Horror and Farce,