Hanged in Cork: final moments of man who killed his family

In his weekly column Trevor Laffan recalls the murder of a Cork family
Hanged in Cork: final moments of man who killed his family

The public execution of the Manchester Martyrs in 1867. By 1886, when William Sheehan was hanged in Cork city, executions were carried out in private

IN 1882, William Sheehan was evicted from his farm outside Castletownroche during the Land War and emigrated to New Zealand.

Within a few months, there was a gruesome discovery when his former neighbours were cleaning out a disused well and found the decaying remains of William’s mother Catherine, his sister Hanna and brother Thomas.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) quickly identified William as the main suspect. He was located in New Zealand and brought back to stand trial for the murders in Cork.

He was found guilty and later claimed he murdered his family because his mother would not allow him to marry the woman of his choosing.

I came across this account of the hanging in the Freeman’s Journal, which was published in the Waikato Times in New Zealand: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WT18860313.2.43

It’s a fascinating insight into the final hours of a condemned man, written in the language of the time — 1886. The hanging took place in Cork city.

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To-day, Jan 19th 1886, Wm. Sheehan paid the penalty of the cruel crime of which he was convicted at the last Cork Assizes — the murder of his mother, brother, and sister, near Castletownroche.

The culprit, from the first moment he was charged, acted the hypocrite by indignantly protesting his innocence and threatening dire consequences to his accusers for the inconvenience caused him.

During the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him, he manifested the same thorough insensibility, and apparent absence of any of the feelings of our better nature of which even the most depraved are not wanting.

When he was located in the ‘condemned cell’ after sentence had been pronounced, he appeared to be utterly oblivious of his position, remorseless and callous to a degree.

Since then, however, thanks to the benign influence of religion, he was a changed man. The ministration of the prison chaplain reconciled him to his fate, and he faced it in the true spirit of penitence.

Since his removal to the condemned cell, Sheehan took his meals regularly and well, and slept soundly at night. He ate his supper last night in the usual way and retired to bed at ten o’clock. He directed his attendant to wake him at three o’clock, which was done, and from that till half-past six o’clock, when the Rev Father Barrett visited him, he was engaged in prayer.

The chaplain and the condemned man then proceeded to the chapel, and they continued the devotions. The unhappy man then made his last confession, and the Rev Father Barrett celebrated the sacrifice of the Mass, at which Sheehan received the Holy Viaticum.

After mass they received the Litanies together, and at a quarter to eight the chapel bell began to peal forth in slow and melancholy measure... the death-knell. The sound of the bell, as it was heard in the chapel, was like a summons from the grave, and the victim heaved a long, deep sigh as it fell upon his ear.

At six minutes to eight, the chief warder appeared at the chapel door and gave the order to move. The culprit was scarcely able to walk, and he leaned on the left arm of the priest, a warder walking abreast on the left. Then followed the sub-sheriff (Mr Gale), the governor of the gaol (Major Roberto), the deputy governor (Mr Patterson), and three warders.

From the chapel to the execution chamber is about 40 yards. The scaffold platform is level with the ground outside, so that the first idea which the condemned prisoner receives of the use of the room is when he sees the rope hanging from an iron beam overhead.

The procession having arrived opposite the door of the chamber, the executioner made his appearance, and at once proceeded to pinion the man. This operation was performed with some tediousness, and then the executioner took the place of the warder at the left of the culprit, and they stepped in on the trap.

On the route from the chapel to the scaffold, the Rev Father Barrett recited the Litany, Sheehan pronouncing the responses with a firm voice.

Precisely at eight o’clock, the bolt was drawn, and the unhappy man was launched into eternity. Before the trap fell, he, in an audible tone, begged God’s pardon for the murder he had committed. He recited an Act of Contrition, and the chaplain gave his absolution, and then breathed into his ear several pious aspirations such as “Jesus, have mercy on me,” “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” “Holy Mary, pray for me.”

The bolt was no sooner drawn than the black flag was hoisted over the battlements of the prison, thus announcing to the group of about 50 persons who had gathered together on the Gaol Road that the law’s stern vengeance had been satisfied.

Berry was the executioner. The drop was fix feet, and death was instantaneous. The body was kept suspended for an hour, and then cut down and removed to an outer yard, where it was viewed by a coroner’s jury previous to its consignment to an unhallowed grave within the precincts of the gaol.

The face, as he lay in the rude coffin, presented the usual appearance of death from strangulation. He wore the same raiment which he wore at the trials. The black flag was hauled down at one o’clock. Sheehan was only 32 years of age; his height was 5ft4in, and his weight 1461b.

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Thanks to Fin Dwyer for his help with this article. Fin is a historian and has written about the deaths of the four members of the Sheehan family that began with a dispute over land.

The complete stories of Cork’s Castletownroche murders are available in a two-part podcast series, A Land to Die For, by Fin Dwyer.

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