The concluding part of the Stackpoole murder case that caused a sensation in county Clare and beyond between September 1852 and October 1854

map-of-clare
Miltown Malbay is situated to the west of the county town of Ennis close to the Atlantic coast of Ireland

Trial

On Wednesday 23 February 1853 the two Stackpoole couples were reunited in a courtroom in Ennis. Thomas, Richard, Honor and Bridget were indicted for the murder of James Stackpoole at Blanalough near Miltown Malbay on 18 September the previous year. The lawyer for the prisoners decided that he did not want them tried together and so the proceeding against Richard began first.

Witness after witness presented a damning account of the events of 18 September. A young boy named Malquin found the body of James Stackpoole and he was the one to inform the police. John Halpin spoke next. Given that he was sleeping alongside the victim when the attack began, he was a key eyewitness. Anne Stackpoole was the eleven year-old daughter of Thomas and Honor. She was asleep in the same room and proved a powerful witness against her parents and the other adults on trial. With an extraordinary level of detail and recall, Constable May was next to testify and he was followed by Burdett Morony, the magistrate who accompanied him at the murder scene.

Eyewitnesses in the courtroom confirmed that sixty year-old Dick Stackpoole was agitated and weeping during much of the witness testimony. The case for the Crown closed and the prosecutor addressed the jury. After being charged by the judge they retired to consider their verdict. Guilty.

The trial of Bridget and Honor took place the following day and much of what was presented at Richard’s trial was replicated. After just a few minutes of deliberation the jury again returned a guilty verdict. In reaction to the verdict the women were apparently unconcerned and this was in keeping with their demeanour throughout the trial.

The only outstanding matter in the case was that of Thomas Stackpoole, clearly the ringleader of the attack. The prosecutor revealed to the judge that Thomas was in a very poor state of health and called his doctor to give evidence in this regard. Dr. O’Brien, a prison surgeon, confirmed that the prisoner could not safely go to trial in his current condition. The judge and prosecutor agreed that his trial should be held over until the next session of the assizes.

bridget-and-richard-marriage-register-entry
Roman Catholic Marriage Register entry for Richard and Bridget Stackpoole

Sentencing for ‘a foul and brutal crime’

Eventually, Richard, Honor and Bridget Stackpoole stood before Judge Perrin at the Ennis Assizes to hear their ultimate fate. Outwardly they were unconcerned and unresponsive. The clerk asked them if they had anything to utter before hearing their sentence but he received no reply. The judge began to speak. He described ‘two most anxious investigations’ that brought the prisoners to this position and nobody, he claimed, could disagree with the verdicts. This was ‘one of the most barbarous, brutal, and unnatural murders that ever came before a court of justice’. Not only were these people guilty of a ‘foul and brutal crime’ but of committing that crime in the presence of their children who, ironically, were the ones most responsible for bringing them to justice. He described the necessary pain of seeing a child giving evidence against her own mother and relatives. The prisoners, he declared, ‘should not entertain the slightest hope that their lives would be spared’. They were to be executed on Friday 29 April 1853.

Eyewitness accounts described how the Stackpoole family left the court in silence and with considerable self-assurance. Richard, however, was heard to say “it is too bad that three lives should be taken for one”. It was revealed that the trial of Thomas was not expected to take place at all because he was apparently close to death from illness. It seemed that the leader and most vengeful of the perpetrators would escape the reach of the law.

Friday 29 April 1853

Considering the high-profile of their case and the widespread reporting of the murder and the trial, the Stackpoole family attracted a smaller crowd than had attended previous executions in Ennis. There was some ‘minor excitement’ in the town from early in the morning but noting on a par with other such spectacles. The local press saw this as a good thing. Those who did turn up to witness the punishment behaved with ‘strict propriety and decorum’.

At approximately 11 am a detachment of the 72nd Highlanders under the command of Captain Norman arrived from nearby Clarecastle and positioned themselves in front of the county gaol in Ennis. They were later reinforced by a group of policemen under Sub-Inspector Kelly. The execution mechanism was engineered somewhat differently to structures that existed at some other gaols so it was only possible for two prisoners to hang at one time. The condemned had decided among themselves that Richard and Bridget Stackpoole, a husband and wife, should hang together.

At 1.15 pm they appeared on the scaffold before the crowd for the first time. They were accompanied by a local Catholic curate, Reverend Quinlivan. This was his second appearance on the scaffold that day. Earlier he came out and pleaded with the crowd to

gallows
A typical and similar gallows scene in England later in the 19th century. Source: Illustrated Police News, 19 June 1897

treat the occasion with respect and to pray for the culprits. All of this was standard fare on an execution day in Ireland. As they climbed the ladder to the scaffold the Stackpoole couple displayed the same firmness as they had done in court just two months earlier. Two executioners stepped forward to carry out the sentence. As one of them adjusted the rope around Bridget’s neck she was heard to utter, in Irish, “squeeze it well”. The caps were drawn over their faces and neither spoke again but appeared to be consumed in silent prayer. Just minutes after they climbed the steps a bolt was drawn and the platform fell beneath their feet.

The bodies of Richard and Bridget were suspended for three quarters of an hour before the time came for Honora Stackpoole to face her fate. She climbed to the gallows alone as her husband Thomas remained critically ill. Onlookers observed that she was quite weaker and less self-assured than the others. Honora briefly huddled in silent prayer with the Reverend Quinlivan. She continued to pray quietly until the platform fell from under her feet and she died. Honora Stackpoole was the forty-sixth person to be executed in Clare since 1830. Bridget and Honora Stackpoole were two of only four women hanged in Ireland between 1852 and 1921.[1]

July 1854 – The trial of Thomas Stackpoole

On 11 July the Freeman’s Journal reported that Thomas Stackpoole was again postponed at the Ennis Assizes. At sixty-five years of age he had been kept alive by ‘stimulants’ since March and was permanently confined to bed. On his most recent visit the prison medical officer declared him unfit for trial. Yet, during that same session of the assizes, Thomas was put forward for trial and the evidence of the previous year was set before a jury. In the dock he appeared in ‘a most enfeebled state’ and was supported by pillows in an armchair. He needed the assistance of three turnkeys.[2] Observers noted that his appearance had changed so much since his arraignment almost two years earlier that his own children were unlikely to recognise him. Many of the same witnesses including Stackpoole’s daughter, John Halpin, Burdett Molony and the coroner, gave evidence. The jury was sent out at 8.30 pm and returned two hours later for clarifications. Following some further discussion they informed the court through the Sheriff that there was no probability of reaching agreement. The judge ordered them to be locked up for the night for further discussion. After a night of deliberation the jury failed to agree a verdict and it was decided that Thomas Stackpoole’s fate should remain in the balance until the next assizes.

The long saga that began with the death of an elderly landowner in Dover in the early Spring of 1852 finally came to an end on Wednesday 25 October 1854. James Stackpoole died in a Dublin prison and the press reported that ‘every class in the town rejoices at the death of this wicked old man’.[3] Many were apparently unimpressed by the sight of Stackpoole, bent over and ‘decrepit with disease’, listening passively and unmoved as his young children testified about carrying out, committing and covering up his evil deeds.

The many accounts of the murder of James Stackpoole variously name the site of the discovery of his body as Swallow Bridge, Bellfordbridge or Anna-bridge. Local naming peculiarities aside, the harsh reality was that within four hours of the discovery of the mutilated remains, the police and magistrate had arrested, questioned and committed to gaol, those ultimately convicted of the murder. Although particularly brutal, this murder was not difficult to solve. The ham-fisted attempts at covering up what in the twenty-first century would be vital forensic and blood evidence proved that the Stackpoole’s were not the type of criminal masterminds that would greatly challenge any investigative team, even one using crude mid-nineteenth century methods. This could not necessarily be considered an agrarian crime in the truest sense of our understanding of that phenomenon in 1800s Ireland. It was a grudge killing. It was a killing borne out of greed and vengeance for a perceived wrong. Ironically, there is no evidence that James Stackpoole ever canvassed or lobbied for the inheritance that would result in his brutal death.

[1] W.E. Vaughan, Murder trials in Ireland 1836-1914 (Dublin, 2009), p. 322.

[2] Londonderry Standard, 27 July 1854.

[3] Nottinghamshire Guardian, 2 November 1854.