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.
Of 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.
With 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.