"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 17, 2014

Death at Ireland's Eye

Ireland's Eye, via Wikipedia

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Strange Company style, with a controversial Irish legal puzzle:

On the morning of September 6, 1852, a fisherman named Patrick Nangle delivered a couple to the banks of a charming, rocky little island named Ireland's Eye, in County Dublin. It was a popular local picnic spot, equipped as it was with a picturesque ruined church, a fine beach, and beautiful views.

The two sightseers were 35-year-old William Burke (or Bourke) Kirwan, a modestly successful artist, and his attractive 30-year-old wife Maria. He planned to spend the day sketching, while she indulged her fondness for sea-bathing.

Surely, a romantic, even idyllic, scene if ever there was one. But the day's outing would end in death and enduring mystery.

The Kirwans, a childless couple who had been married a dozen years, carried some dark secrets beneath their placid middle-class exterior. For one thing, Mr. Kirwan had a superfluity of wives. During the entire duration of his marriage to Maria, another woman named Teresa Kenny had been living across town, styling herself as "Mrs. Kirwan." She and William had seven children together. The vital question of whether or not Maria was aware that she only had a half-share, so to speak, in William would receive utterly conflicting answers. According to William and his supporters, Maria knew about William's mistress all along, and treated the situation with forgiveness, even acquiescence. Others stated that she had first learned of her rival a few months before this September day, and had reacted in a far angrier, even threatening manner.

As we shall see, the Kirwan case is overflowing with conflicting answers.

The Kirwans arrived at Ireland's Eye at about 10 a.m. They instructed the fisherman to pick them up at eight in the evening--about an hour and a half past sunset. A couple of hours later, the boatman brought to the island another party, who remained there until four in the afternoon. This group saw both the Kirwans going about their business, but they did not exchange words with them. After they left, William and Maria were alone on Ireland's Eye for four hours.

Around seven p.m., men on a fishing boat passing Ireland's Eye heard what one described as "a great screech" coming from the island. A few minutes later, they noted two additional, fainter screams. They saw nothing in the growing darkness, however, and they went on their way without further examination. Four other people on the mainland reported hearing these same piercing cries.

Shortly before eight, Nangle, accompanied by three other men, arrived at Ireland's Eye to pick up the Kirwans. It was by now quite dark. They found William standing calmly on the bank with his bag and sketch-book. It should be highlighted that although a number of people as far away as the mainland had recently heard very distressing-sounding screams emanating from the island, Kirwan himself showed no signs that he had heard anything amiss, and later made the curious claim that he had never heard any screams at all. When Nangle asked him where his wife was, Kirwan answered nonchalantly that he had not seen her for an hour and a half.

The men spread out over the tiny island, calling Mrs. Kirwan. They finally found her, spread over a large rock at an inlet known as the Long Hole. She was dead. Her body was lying on her back, on top of her bathing sheet, with her head hanging over one edge and her feet dangling in the water. Her wet bathing clothes were bunched up under her armpits. Her mouth was covered with froth, and blood was flowing from her ears and lower orifices. She had evidently died quite recently.

Contemporary illustration of the Long Hole

William exclaimed, "Oh, Maria, Maria!" and instructed the others to look for her clothes, pointing up to a high rock where he said they would be found. Patrick obediently searched the area, but found nothing. Then William himself went to the very same spot, returning a few minutes later with Maria's shawl and "something white," which was probably the dead woman's chemise. (That garment was never officially found.) He told Patrick to go up again. Patrick did, and immediately found her clothes in the exact place where he knew he had just looked.

They gathered up the body and brought it back to the couple's lodgings. Kirwan's landlady and other women present noted that William's trousers and boots were soaking wet. He ordered the women to wash his wife's body for burial. When they pointed out that the corpse must not be touched until the police had examined it and an inquest held, he snapped, "I don't care a damn for the police; the body must be washed!" The intimidated women complied.

They too noticed the large amount of blood on the body. Mrs. Kirwan's face and breast had several deep cuts, and blood still ran from her ears. The right side of her body was black from bruises. Her lips were swollen, and her neck slightly twisted. This once-pretty woman--"a beautiful creature"--in the words of one of the women--was now a horrifying sight.

Unfortunately, the young medical student later assigned to professionally examine the corpse was not so thorough. After making what he himself admitted was "a superficial examination," he concluded the woman had simply drowned. On this unsatisfactory evidence alone, the coroner's jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

Others, however, had far grimmer ideas of how Maria Kirwan met her death. Gossip soon spread about Teresa Kenny and her offspring, who had all moved into the Kirwan home when the legitimate wife was scarcely in her grave. William does not seem to have been a popular figure even before Maria's death. His next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Byrne, told everyone within earshot that "Bloody Billy" had not only murdered his wife, but her own husband as well. Dublin newspapers added to Kirwan's alleged body count, stating that he had previously murdered his brother-in-law, as well as a man named Bowyer. Patrick Nangle and the women who had washed Maria's body spread the word about the sinister amount of blood found on the corpse. The people who had heard the screams from the vicinity of Ireland's Eye began to talk of what they had heard. Public opinion became so loud against the new widower that the authorities realized more investigation into this death was necessary. One month after her death, orders were given for Maria's body to be exhumed. The doctors who examined her corpse were hampered by the fact that decomposition was so advanced, but they saw enough to rule that they believed her death may have come about through foul play, probably some sort of suffocation or strangulation. Their findings led police to arrest William Kirwan for murder.

At his trial in late 1852, William pled "Not Guilty." The prosecution witnesses had some damning things to say about the defendant. The Kirwan's landlady testified that the couple had often quarreled, and William treated his wife with great brutality, beating her and on at least one occasion threatening to kill her. She stated that Maria had been in good health when she departed on the tragic expedition to Ireland's Eye. Patrick Nangle told what he knew of that day, adding that he did not think the injuries on Maria's body could have occurred by natural means, such as the flow of the tides. He insisted that no one other than the Kirwans could have been on the island after four o'clock. He also did not believe William could have become as soaked through as he was that evening simply by walking into the inlet where Maria's body lay--the water was not deep enough. The witnesses who had heard the screams told their stories. So did the women who had washed the body for burial. The doctor who had examined the corpse after it was exhumed repeated his belief that Maria had not met an accidental death. It was also noted as being very suspicious that Maria Kirwan was found lying on top of her bathing sheet. Under normal circumstances, she would have left it on the beach, so she could use it to dry herself when she finished bathing. And why was her bathing costume found bunched up under her arms? Try as he might, Kirwan's attorney failed to shake any of these witnesses during cross-examination.

When it was the defense's turn to make their case, they naturally argued that just because their client was an adulterer, it did not necessarily make him a murderer. They claimed (without producing any proof) that Maria Kirwan had been aware all along of her husband's liaison, and was untroubled by it. They asserted that the witnesses who heard the screams were mistaken, or perhaps what they had heard was William himself, calling his wife. The cuts and scratches on her body were due to the bites of sand crabs. (Prosecution witnesses had earlier testified that the marks did not in the least resemble crab bites.) They pointed out that William had no injuries on his face and body, which would surely have been the case if he had been in a murderous struggle with his wife. If he had drowned her in the surf, they argued, surely his arms and coat would have been very wet, and such was not the case. Their argument was that, while bathing, Maria had suffered an epileptic fit, which caused her to accidentally drown. Such a fit, they suggested, could also account for the screams which were heard.

The only witnesses for the defense were two doctors. They had not actually examined Maria's body, but had merely heard the courtroom testimony of the prosecution's medical witnesses. These doctors said that it did not sound as if her body bore the marks which would have inevitably resulted from a violent attack. They stated that an epileptic fit, followed by drowning, could account for the appearance of the body. However, under cross-examination, they admitted that they had never seen such bleeding in any case of simple drowning. When asked if suffocation by means of a wet bathing sheet held over the victim's face could also create these same appearances, they agreed that it could. In short, the medical evidence said that Maria could either have drowned naturally or through foul play.

There was a great deal of fruitless argument over the question of whether or not Maria was epileptic. No definitive proof one way or the other was ever presented. Curiously, Maria's mother, who certainly would have been in a position to know, was never called to the stand by either side. It is telling, however, that after his wife's death, William never suggested his wife may have suffered from seizures until he found himself charged with her murder.

After all the evidence had been heard, the jury returned a verdict of "Guilty." The judge pronounced sentence of death, adding his own agreement with the jury's decision. However, the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. After a quarter-century in prison, Kirwan was released, on the condition that he leave Ireland. He emigrated to America, where, according to unconfirmed legend, he finally married Teresa Kenny.

The evidence in this case is just enigmatic enough for there to be a number of true crime writers who doubt Kirwan's guilt and see the jury's verdict as a miscarriage of justice. In his essay on the death of Maria Kirwan, crime historian William Roughead avoided explicitly stating his own opinion of William's guilt or innocence. He contented himself with quoting the report of a expert in forensic medicine whom he had asked to study the available medical evidence.

This doctor said the appearance of the body suggested death not by simple drowning, but through asphyxiation. He said there was no evidence to show Maria had an epileptic fit or apoplectic stroke. He could see no way in which the injuries she suffered could be consistent with an accidental or suicidal drowning. He believed she was suffocated while on dry land, and then her body was dragged to where it was found, in an effort to make her death look accidental.

In short, "It was a simple murder, clumsily carried out."

I see no reason to disagree.


  1. Though all the evidence seems to be circumstantial, I think Kirwan got what he deserved - or at least more than he would have gotten these days.

    1. To me, at least, the biggest mystery of this case is the number of writers who think Kirwan was innocent.

  2. I've found that historical murder mysteries are like that. They tend to draw writers and researchers who seem determined to show that justice was wrongly applied. This is especially the case with famous historical murder cases, I've noticed.


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