I was alerted a couple of months ago by Trevor McClaughlin from Macquarie University in Sydney and author of From Shamrock to Wattle about an book Murder Trials in Ireland 1836 - 1914 that had been published in 2009 by an Irish colleague, W.E. Vaughan. Trevor thought I would be very interested in the book as my ancestor James Agnew and his brother Henry had been convicted in Londonderry in July 1836 for having employed Patrick Toghill to take away the life of Henry McWilliam.
I immediately ordered the fairly expensive book from The Book Depository and eagerly awaited its arrival. I have not been disappointed. Although I haven’t read all the book yet, it is littered with post it notes and markings throughout the book (I never used to write in books!). It has really helped me to gain a better image of Ireland at the time and how the legal system worked.
Vaughan’s chapters include: an introduction discussing the scope of the study, apprehending a suspect, committal, indictment and arraignment, empanelling the jury, the Crown’s case, the prisoner’s defence, summing up, the verdict, judgment, prerogative of mercy and death by hanging.
And what does Vaughan say about the Agnew brothers?
There were cases that were not obscure, but where the commutation of sentence was surprising. James and Henry Agnew should have been hanged, if principle, precedent, and expediency had been any guides: they planned the murder of Henry McWilliams, they brought in assassins to beat him to death, but they were not hanged.
If you have an interest in the legal system of Ireland at the time, the book is definitely worth reading. If you have an ancestor who escaped death by hanging then definitely get a copy of the book.
Future posts will perhaps offer a reason why the murder of Henry McWilliams took place.