The executions of the Phoenix Park Murderers.
“The Invincibles” as they called themselves were a previously unknown Irish Nationalist group who had stabbed to death the Permanent Under-secretary for Ireland, Thomas Henry Burke and Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, as they walked through Dublin’s Phoenix Park on the evening of Saturday 6 May 1882. This high profile case was put in the hands of Superintendent John Mallon who rounded up a number of known Fenian activists. He persuaded “The Invincibles” leader, James Carey and Michael Kavanagh to testify against the others and in due course Joseph Brady, Thomas Caffrey, Daniel Curley, who was alleged to have masterminded the murders, Michael Fagan and Timothy Kelly were tried separately and all condemned to death. William Marwood came to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin to carry out the executions of the five men on a gallows set up specially for the purpose in one of the prison’s yards. These were the first private executions at Kilmainham Gaol. In view of security concerns newspaper reporters were not allowed to witness them.
Twenty two year old Brady was the first to die on 14 May, with Curley following on the 18th. It was a busy period for Marwood who had to return to England to carry out the hangings of Joseph Wedlake and George White at Taunton on 21 May and then travel to Glasgow to execute Henry Mullen and Martin Scott on 23 May at Duke Street prison before returning to Dublin for the executions of Fagan on 28 May and Caffrey on 2 June and finally Kelly on 9 June. A metal plaque close to where the gallows stood bearing the names of the five “Invincibles” can still be seen in Kilmainham.
My friend Traugott Vitz has analysed the executions of these five men below.
I was not looking for it. I was just reading an old British government paper, over 120 years old. It was the “Minutes of Evidence” of the “Capital Sentences Committee” (1886-1888). I needed it for my research project “British hanging technique 1868-1964”.
This Committee had been convened in 1886 by the then
Home Secretary Sir Richard Assheton Cross. Sir Richard was fed up with a
seemingly never ending series of botched executions and embarrassing public
The Committee very meticulously reviewed every circumstance, item of equipment, theory and person involved in the process of judicial hanging, and for that purpose heard surgeons, prison warders, aldermen, under-sheriffs, engineers, even the hangman. No stone was left unturned.
The “Minutes” made fascinating read with a wealth of details. One day I was working my way through the evidence given by one William Alexander Carte, surgeon in the Coldstream Guards, on several executions which he had witnessed. And there I suddenly stopped. What was that? Describing himself and his field of expertise to the Committee, Dr. Carte said that he had been “acting as Medical Officer in one of Her Majesty’s prisons” when he saw these executions.
“Acting as” – so he was not actually holding that position, was he? And why didn’t he say which prison it was? Only a few pages earlier I had read the evidence of a Dr. Gibson who had made no secret of the fact that he had been the prison surgeon of Newgate.
Slightly bemused, I read on. And then there was one more sentence which looked odd: Dr. Carte was asked by a Committee member to say, without mentioning names, whether he had seen “this case hanged”, and what his findings at the post mortem examination were. Dr. Gibson, I remembered, had freely enumerated names and execution particulars without being restricted. What was this? What was so frightfully secret about the “cases” Dr. Carte had seen and about the prison where he had seen them that the Committee did not want to see it in print? Not even in such an unobtrusive pamphlet as the Minutes of Evidence of a Departmental Committee? After all, this would in all probability never be circulated outside the circle of Home Office bigwigs and their gentleman friends.
This was worth a closer look.
I traced Dr. Carte’s military career and found that
there was not one military surgeon by the name of Carte but two, both of them
christened “William”. But one of them was a participant in the
(By the way: It all came to a sudden end in May 1896 when one day after midnight a police constable encountered him in the company of a young female, described as “flower seller”, in the shrubbery of a London park – drunk. Such behaviour was deemed inconsistent with the conduct of an officer and gentleman.)
Anyway – “
A few internet searches later I was glaring wide-eyed at the fact that “Carte”, “Kilmainham” and “execution” made sense only in connection with five Irish radicals who had been condemned to die for the murder of Lord Cavendish and Under Secretary Burke in Phoenix Park, Dublin.
From then on, every bit of information that I gathered
from newspaper reports and contemporary books on the events in
The Committee had tried to shroud in secrecy which name belonged to which execution particulars, and vice versa. Would it be possible to pull away the veil?
The names of the five men hanged at Kilmainham could easily be found:
Joseph Brady was hanged first, on 14 May 1883. Four days later Daniel Curley was executed. On 28 May, Michael Fagan followed. Thomas Caffrey was hanged on 2 June, and one week later the youngest of them, Timothy Kelly, was put to death.
At that time, executions were very often witnessed by press
representatives, and their narratives were sometimes remarkably detailed. In
the case of the
According to The Standard (15 May 1883 page 3 column E), “Dr. Carte, jun.” was present at the inquest. He asked the coroner “whether it was desired that he should make a post-mortem examination” and, after having received a positive answer, disappeared from the courtroom.
Then, says the Standard, “Frederick Searle, chief warder, gave evidence of identification.” How long might Mr. Searle’s evidence have taken? Two minutes? Five? This is of some importance because immediately after the sentence just quoted, the newspaper report continues: “Dr. William Alexander Carte then returned into Court and said he had made an examination of the body; the immediate result of the hanging was complete dislocation of the cervical vertebrae, causing rupture of the chord” (sic!) “high up in the neck. Death was instantaneous.”
It seems impossible that Dr. Carte’s examination, if it had taken place during Mr. Searle’s evidence, could have been a complete autopsy – he just did not have the time. Even cutting into the neck only (plus washing his hands before returning to the courtroom…) could hardly have been done in that short space of time. Dr. Carte’s diagnosis at the inquest was therefore in all likelihood based on manipulations of head and neck, perhaps combined with manual scanning of the vertebral column from the mouth.
That it was Dr. Carte junior who was present at the execution is further confirmed by an eyewitness quoted by Tighe Hopkins (Kilmainham Memories, p. 94f): “The doctor was standing on a chair immediately under the drop, so as to examine the body the instant it had fallen; and he took out his watch to note how long the pulse beat after death. Dr. Carte himself was not present at this execution, and his representative was an extremely cool young fellow, who is now an army surgeon.” (Italics mine.)
I think we may assume that Dr. Carte senior, the staff surgeon at the
The Standard does not give particulars such as height, weight, and length of drop. We have to look elsewhere. The anonymous “History of the Phoenix Park Patriots”, allegedly by James Francis Corrigan, contains the following passage (p. 41): “Death was instantaneous, the vertebrae of the neck being literally smashed to pieces. The length of the drop being eight feet eleven inches, the effect of this on the neck of a man who weighed fourteen stone can easily be imagined.“ (The same sentences are to be found as well in the New Zealand Herald of 7 July 1883, p. 2). Patrick Tynan adds (The Irish National Invincibles And Their Times, p. 322) the recollection of a man who knew Brady well and describes him as “about five feet ten” in height.
Now it is time to return to Dr. W. A. Carte’s evidence before the Capital Sentences Committee. He witnessed several executions but also collected recorded cases in addition to those of which he had personal knowledge. He saw three different hangmen at work (MoE [Minutes of Evidence] 410), one of whom had never hung a man before.
When asked about individual cases, Dr. Carte says that he saw a man hanged with a drop of 8 ft 11 in, weight 194 lbs, age 21 or 22. The injuries he found were: a complete separation (by one inch) between the second and third cervical vertebrae with a complete rupture of the spinal cord – it was completely disintegrated from the medulla oblongata one inch and a half down the cord. The axis sustained a fracture through its left pedicle at the margin of the superior articular, and through the posterior arch of the canal for the vertebral artery, accompanied by displacement down-wards on that side; the tip of the left transverse process was also broken off. On the right side there was an imperfect fracture or cracking of the pedicle at its junction with the superior articular facet (MoE 462-465).
I think this evidence refers to Joseph Brady. Drop height and weight agree with the description in the “History” and in the New Zealand Herald. (Dr. Carte mentions only one other case where the drop distance was 8 ft 11 in but says that in this case death was due to asphyxia.)
It is quite clear that these anatomical details could not have been gathered during five minutes and by feeling and scanning the neck. Dr. Carte claimed that he performed complete post mortem examinations on all executed persons of whom he gives anatomical details before the Committee. I think that he must have done that after the inquest and before Brady was buried. Since he had the coroner’s authorization there was no impediment in law. F. M. Bussy (Irish Conspiracies p. 155f) says Brady’s head was cut off and transported in a table napkin to the Royal College of Surgeons by Detective John Mallon, to be left for Dr. Carte. Such a removal of body parts from the prison would be quite unheard of – on the other hand: For a thorough and meticulous examination the facilities in the college were surely far better than in the prison. The head and neck may have been returned to Brady’s coffin before burial.
Newspapers describe Daniel Curley as a man of about 35 years, a labourer.
The Morning Post (19 May1883, p. 2) says he got a drop of 9 ft 2 in, and that death was instantaneous. As the medical officer present “Dr. W. A. Carte” is named. “The doctor’s examination proved the terribly destructive force of the long drop. The vertebrae were completely broken. … Dr. Carte deposed that death was caused by rupture of the spinal cord, the result of hanging, and the usual formal verdict was returned.”
The Morpeth Herald (19 May 1883 page 5 column F) was a bit more verbose, even quoting verbatim from the inquest: “Dr. Carte said: I have examined this body, and found a severance of the spinal cord high up in the neck, which was the result of hanging. The only external mark was a slight excoriation, the mark of the rope. The injuries I found on making a post mortem examination.“ Towards the end of the article the correspondent of the paper says that the drop was “about” nine feet.
This same paper, in describing security precautions, gives a hint why
Dr. Carte senior needed a deputy at all: “Dr. Carte, military magistrate, is in
charge of the military and police. … The Commissioner of Police has just
arrived, and is in consultation with Dr. Carte as to the arrangements of the
military and police in reserve at the neighbouring barracks and in town; but no
other military magistrate besides Mr. Carte has been requisitioned for duty, no
serious disturbance being apprehended.”
In Dr. W. A. Carte’s evidence before the Committee, this execution appears, I think, as follows (MoE 494-497): Age 31, weight 154 lbs., length of drop 9 feet. Result: Dislocation was between the second and third vertebra; the axis had sustained fracture through the canal for the vertebral artery on the left side; the tip of the transverse process was also separated; upon the right side, the transverse process was broken off, but there was no fracture through the canal for the vertebral artery. The tips of the transverse processes of the third vertebra were broken off on both sides; there were also fractures of the anterior arches of the canals for the vertebral arteries on both sides.
The age given by Dr. Carte does not quite agree with the newspaper reports, but Curley is the only one of the five who is over 30 at all.
Fagan was 24 years old, a blacksmith and a native of Kilpatrick, a village near Mullingar (Lloyds Weekly, 3 June 1883 p. 7).
The Freeman's Journal (29 May 1883 page 5 column D + E) reports verbatim from the inquest: “Dr. William A. Carte sworn and examined by the Coroner — You have examined the body of this man? I have. On a superficial examination I found that there was under the angle of the left jaw just a slight excoriation, caused by the thimble of the rope. There was an unusual amount of mobility in the face. Then I made a post mortem examination, and I found a very complete dislocation high up in the neck — dislocation of the bones with rupture of the spinal cord. That was sufficient to cause death. That was the effect of hanging? That was the effect of hanging.“
I should like to connect Michael Fagan’s execution to the following evidence of Dr. Carte (MoE 469-480): Age 22, height 71 inches, weight 161 lbs, length of drop “9 feet ½ inch measured after death and after the stretching of the rope”.
Dr. Carte describes his further findings thus (MoE 478-480): “In making an incision along the vertical spines the finger ran suddenly into a cavity between two of the bones, which were discovered to be the third and fourth cervical vertebrae; there was also a gap of nearly an inch between these vertebrae. … The tip of the transverse process of the axis on the left side was completely broken off. … The posterior root of the canal for the vertebral artery on the left side of the axis was also fractured ; the right side retained its integrity. The anterior tubercle of the transverse process of the third vertebra was also broken off on the left side and the tips of the transverse processes of the fourth bone were torn off on both sides.”
Again, the age does not quite fit the description in the newspapers, but I don’t think the reporters had access to official data, and had to rely more or less on their own guesses and some hearsay.
It seems that his execution went wrong although it may be hoped that he was not aware of it. The newspapers agree that he did not die from a broken neck but from asphyxia.
The Manchester Courier (4 June 1883 page 6 column E) reports:
“The inquest, although fixed for nine o’clock, did not commence until a quarter to ten, at which hour the representatives of the Press were admitted. The jury had been previously sworn, and had viewed the body.”
It is not probable that the swearing of the jury and the viewing of the body took up 45 minutes; a good part of this delay must have been caused by something different. It is tempting to presume that perhaps Dr. Carte performed his post mortem examination before the inquest but took longer than planned. The newspaper report goes on:
“Subsequently Dr. W. A. Carte was sworn. He stated that he had made a post mortem examination.
What was the cause of death? — The cause of death was asphyxia, produced by hanging.
Was there no rupture? There was no rupture of the spinal cord as far as I could make out.
A Juror — Was death instantaneous?
Dr. Carte — No; not quite instantaneous. Insensibility was instantaneous. Death was painless.
The jury then returned a verdict that Thos. Caffrey died from asphyxia, caused by hanging.”
The italics in the above quotation are mine – the wording should be remembered. (Lloyd’s Weekly, 3 June 1883 p. 7 has the same wording.)
Other newspapers reported similarly: “Death was not instantaneous, but sensibility must have been lost immediately, the death being painless.” (Reynolds’s Newspaper of 3 August 1883 p. 1 – precisely the same words appear in the Morning Post of 4 June 1883, p. 3)
Now Dr. Carte, in his evidence before the Capital Sentences Committee, said the following:
“435. Have you ever witnessed a death by strangulation which was immediate? — No; but I have witnessed one which, I believe, was perfectly painless.
436. You think that insensibility followed immediately? — Yes, it followed immediately, because the shock was very great, there was nearly dislocation.
437. What were the circumstances of the execution? — The man got a sufficiently long drop, but the noose was badly placed, it was applied almost at the back of the neck (suboccipital), the worst possible position in my opinion, but he got such a long drop that I think concussion immediately resulted and sensibility was at once lost. He did not show any violent voluntary struggles, but remained in a perfectly quiescent state for two or three minutes, the initial period of voluntary struggling being in abeyance, and then ensued about two minutes, during which movements of a rhythmical and apparently automatic nature took place.
438. Do you think that the involuntary struggling was attended with any distress? — I do not believe it was; I believe that the execution failed to secure dislocation because the position of the knot was wrong, though the length of the drop was correct.
439. Do you remember what was the drop? — It was 8 feet 11 inches. I remember carefully contrasting that case with another case, both cases being almost precisely the same except as regards the position of the knot in one case it was occipital and in the other it was submental, death being caused by asphyxia in the former, and resulting from dislocation in the latter.”
There are but few points in this description on which to base the identification of this “case” with Thomas Caffrey: The drop length reported by Dr. Carte agrees with the “nine feet” mentioned by the Manchester Courier (loc. cit.), and the circumstances match: The prisoner died of asphyxia while unconscious after having got a very long drop. However it must be admitted that there is one general assumption: That Dr. Carte, during his evidence, gave the details of all the Kilmainham executions, not just of four of them. If this is so, this execution is the only one of which the description matches the newspaper reports on Caffreys hanging.
He was the youngest of the conspirators, being only 19 years of age.
The Sydney Morning Herald (25 July 1883, p. 4) wrote: “There was not the slightest hitch in the execution, and death was instantaneous. At the inquest Dr. W. A. Carte deposed that there was a complete severance of the spinal cord.”
The Western Daily Press (of
Again we are told that Carte senior was on duty
outside the prison, the most verbose description being given by the
So Dr. William Carte senior was a J.P., a justice of the peace, in addition to everything else.
This is what his son had to say on Timothy Kelly’s hanging (MoE 483-491): “Age 19; weight 152 pounds; and the drop was 9 feet 1 inch. […] 484. Now will you describe the injuries to the spinal column; where was the knot in this case—was it submental?—It was just as before—a shade to the left of the point of the chin, and it finally rested beneath and slightly anterior to the angle of the left jaw. […] 486. Now would you describe the injuries after death, if you please, beginning with the second vertebra?—As before, there was a dislocation between two bones, the second and third cervical vertebrae. […] 488. What was the injury in this case?—The transverse processes of the axis were both torn through and separated. 489. On both sides?—Yes; and also the transverse processes of the third bone on both sides. 490. Both the processes of the third?—Yes; but on the left side the injuries were more severe, more concentrated. 491. Was the fourth injured?—The fourth was uninjured.”
The age of 19 years alone would be enough to connect
Dr. Carte’s evidence to Kelly, none of the others was that young. Dr. Carte gives 154
pounds as his weight - this is not very much. And as being a lightweight Kelly
obviously considered himself: "Marwood will have a terrible job on me, the
weight of my body will never break my neck." (Freeman's Journal (Sydney),
17 November 1883, p. 5, quoting from
a letter by the informer Carey to Brady's parents.)
If we assume that Dr. Carte’s evidence contains the details of all five Phoenix Park executions, then it is clear that the person whom he describes as “weight 194 lbs, drop 8’ 11” must be Brady – his weight and drop length are corroborated by other sources.
As we just said already, the youngest prisoner must be Kelly.
The asphyxiated one must be Caffrey which leaves only Curley (the oldest, over 30) and Fagan. If we accept that Curley is the one whom Dr. Carte describes as “31 years old”, then the remaining case must be Fagan.
Sources (in addition to the newspapers mentioned in the text):
Minutes of Evidence of the Capital Sentences Committee, The National Archives (Kew), Public Record Office, HO 144/212/A48697,2 | (Dr. Carte’s evidence: No. 407-552) http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/Aberdare%20Minutes%20of%20Evidence.pdf
[Anonymous; allegedly by James Francis Corrigan] A History of the
Phoenix Park Patriots,
Bussy, Frederick Moir, Irish Conspiracies. Recollections of John Mallon (The Great Irish Detective) and Other Reminiscences,
Tynan, Patrick J.[oseph]
P.[ercy], The Irish National Invincibles And Their Times (English Edition with
Appendices and Index),