James grew up in a pretty normal suburban Melbourne home but as he describes in the book he was drawn to the underworld and wanted to be a “hard man” when he left school. And he did it successfully. He was an enforcer who moved with Melbourne’s underworld.
Addiction was ever present amid this life of violence and then there was the moment of clarity when James knew he was “done” with the life.
The skills that saw him a successful standover man are the same ones he now uses to work with men in crisis.
Get ready for an extraordinary read with this in-depth account of the 1973 fire know as the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub massacre where 15 people were murdered.
This horrific event happened in Brisbane, Australia and has remained one of the country’s most talked about and shocking crimes.
For many years Queensland was a corrupt police state. There was fraud, organised crime and injustices on a large scale.
What was always known and reported was that two men were arrested and convicted for that arson attack and mass murder.
(What’s interesting is that the trial happened in September 1972, six months after the incident. Quick justice so to speak.)
Author Geoff Plunkett is the first person to view the files created by the lead detectives in this extraordinary case. Plunkett is a noted researcher and historian for Australia’s Department of Defence.
This book details never-before-revealed aspects of the investigation and transcripts of interviews. There’s also details about that innocent 15 people who died at the nightclub, building the picture of the absolute tragedy and outrage of this crime.
The inquest into this crime could still be reopened.
This book is meticulously researched by author Dr Brian Williams and is an exhaustive story of the life of poisoner Martha Needle, who was hanged in Melbourne, Australia in October 1894 for the murder of her Louis Juncken, who was her prospective brother-in-law.
Martha’s case hit worldwide attention and she was dubbed a ‘black widow’ as her husband had died earlier. Martha elicited great sympathy before it was revealed she was a murderer because her three little daughters had also died from ill-health. Turns out Martha had poisoned them all. So Martha was a serial killer with five, probably six victims and to this day is still one of Australia’s most prolific female murderers.
Williams’s research is extraordinary. I have so much respect for the process and the passion that’s gone into this book.
There’s more to this story than Martha’s awful, cruel crimes. Williams delves into her childhood and it is horrific. Martha was neglected, raped by her stepfather and a product of extreme poverty.
Martha learned that to get what she needed and wanted she had to manipulate people. There’s also drug addiction in the mix as Martha was hooked on the strong over-the-counter remedies that were available during that time.
Get your hands on this book. Support the research and passion that’s gone into this story. Martha Needle is a chilling, fascinating character.
The Family was a cult that operated in Australia from the 1970s.
Led by the bewitching Anne Hamilton-Byrne The Family was able to infiltrate areas of Government and the healthcare system in Victoria, Australia whereby group members were able to “adopt” (in fact steal) children, with little scrutiny, and raise them in this strange and allegedly abusive environment. This was made possible because there were social workers, doctors and midwives who were cult members.
This book by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones is an in-depth investigation of the origins of a this cult and how Anne Hamilton-Byrne evolved into a cult leader.
For the true crime podcast I co-host we spoke to Chris Johnston and it’s a chilling chat about how Hamilton-Byrne manipulated so many people to gain riches and access to children.
The book also details the heroic, relentless work of a Victoria Police detective Lex De Man who pursued Hamilton-Byrne and tried to shed light on the cult and their fraudulent activities and tracked her to a farmhouse in upstate New York.
If you grew up in Melbourne’s outer east in the 1980s and 1990s you’ll know the stories of the Family cult who lives in some seclusion in The Dandenongs.
Australia hasn’t had many cults. The Family is the best known one that has left a trail of devastation for many involved who were ensnared by the manipulative Hamilton-Byrne who is now in her nineties with dementia and living in a nursing home.
In the depths of Provence, rural France in 1952, distinguished British Scientist Sir Jack Drummond, his wife Lady Anne and 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth were murdered at their makeshift campsite.
These murders remain one of the most notorious in European modern history. The case was a sensation and it was a farmer, the proprietor of the farm near where the Drummond family were camping, who was convicted of the murders.
But that wasn’t the end of the story…that’s why this book by Martin Kitchen is so gripping. Kitchen’s The Dominici Affair is a true deep dive into this case and what happened in 1960 and after ( the convicted killer was released from jail on the order of then President Charles De Gaulle).
This isn’t just a true crime book. There’s the fascinating social history of France, that cracks open for people to learn about after the terrible murders. Crime and society intersect so naturally so that’s why I found this book to be such a rich read.
I found this book a very satisfying read. I’m a 40-something woman in Australia and Kitchen’s book allowed me to learn about the way that French rural communities lived and the post World War II changes that posed great challenges to the way of life for these communities. (I’ve actually been to France several times and spent time in rut stunning Dordogne region but at the time I didn’t really appreciate the whole experience in terms of history as much as I would now.)
Hi everyone. It’s been quite a number of months since we posted here. There’s been a few reasons for that – overseas holiday, work and life commitments and I’ve been working on a podcast this year that’s going really well called Australian True Crime.
I’ve still been reading lots of true crime and Crime fiction and as part of the podcast my co-host Meshel and I have interviewed several authors.
So stay tuned for more posts. I share lots of true crime news on Twitter so follow the account if you’re interested.
I’m really proud to plug my new podcast with you. Well, it’s not solely MY podcast but a project with Meshel Laurie who as well as being a true crime fanatic is also a comedian, author, radio and tv presenter.
Together we are the Australian True Crime podcast, brought to you by Mamamia Netwiek and we released theee episodes this week.
Meshel and I take you beyond the headlines and probe the underbelly of Australia’s suburbs and towns, talking to crime experts, victims, and others affected by crime.
Our first episode is an in-depth interview with author and journalist Megan Norris about her book On Father’s Day that is the story of what happened when Victorian dad Robert Farquharson drove his car into a dam and killed his theee little sons. You’ll hear the inside story on who he was, the devastating impact on the boys’ mother Cindy Gambino and the other people in the case like witnesses and the police. You won’t have heard some of the things Megan reveals. It’s really quite an insight.
We also have an episode with the indomitable Janine Greening whose mother was killed in the most horrific way and the killers walk feee today. Hear about Janine’s tireless advocacy for victims of crime and people with disabilities. Not only was her mother killed but her disabled brother Peter’s life was destroyed too. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating.
Then there’s an episode with the fascinating Charlie Bezzina, former head of Victoria Police’s Homicide Squad who has been in the company of some of the most dangerous prowl in Australia.
Please subscribe, listen and review! There will be many more episodes coming…
This is a new section of the blog that focuses on crime shows and podcasts. To kick off here’s the television shows and podcasts I’m enjoying at the moment (I watch my programs from a subscription service to Foxtel.)
So think drones, apps, GPS…but while technology can do A LOT, it’s the street smarts and instincts of the beat cops that really drive the technology. And main character Detective Theresa Murphy, a naturally talented cop, tempers Gideon’s huge ideas and desire to use technology for ALL the crime fighting with her experience on the streets and dealing with criminals.
The Missing Season 2
I was hanging for the second series of The BBC’s The Missing. The gripping first series starred James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor as the parents of 5-year-old Oliver who goes missing while on holiday in France. The second series focuses on the return of Alice Webster who stumbles back into the main square of the German town where she went missing 11 years prior. The family – British soldier father Sam, mum Gemma and little brother Matthew remain in the town and as the series jumps from the time of her abduction, 2014 when she returns and the present day, we see the traumatic effect on the family.
It is great that central character from the first series, French missing persons detective Julien Baptiste returns in the second series. The return of Alice Webster ignites Baptiste’s quest to solve a 12-year-old missing persons case of a french girl that he believes is connected to Alice. He is an intriguing character (played by Turkish-born French actor Tcheky Karyo) who can’t enjoy his retirement with his wife and daughter at their home in the French countryside because he is haunted by the case he couldn’t yet solve.
I LOVED this podcast. It is truly a standout among the increasing number of true crime podcasts around. I remember back in 2007 when I started listening to podcasts there were probably three or four readily available including Dan Zupansky’s True Murder and Justice Interrupted with Robin Sax and Stacey Dittrich.
Now there are so many and Stranglers is top notch.
Stranglers is about the case of the Boston Strangler – an in-depth look into the case, the victims and the man who claimed to be the strangler, Albert DeSalvo. It’s so much more than this too. There were other suspects for some of the killings and there the 12-part series uses never-before-heard voices, interviews with actual suspects, presents new research and new conversations with the victims’ family members. Host Portland Helmich becomes a comforting, familiar voice detailing this gripping, horrific series of murders that shapes modern Boston’s history.
In 1991 Manhattan man Herbert Weinstein killed his wife. Weinstein confessed to the murder – the couple were having a heated argument and he dropped his wife Barbara from their apartment window. A shocking crime that left Weinstein’s family stunned. Weinstein had no history of violent behaviour.
Enter medicine and brain science. An MRI revealed that Weinstein had a tumour on the frontal lobe of his brain, the area that governs decision-making and impulse control. Could this be the reason Weinstein acted out in murderous rage? His defence used this argument, marking the entry into America’s courtrooms of neuroscience to explain criminal behaviour.
Author Kevin Davis uses the Weinstein case as the anchor of his book The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms. The book also explores the history of brain science in criminal trials and the scientific links between brain injuries and anti-social and criminal behaviour.
You’ll be intrigued to find out more (if you don’t already know) about the University of Texas mass shooter Charles Whitman and whether the tumour detected in his brain post-mortem could have contributed to his killing rampage of 13 people (31 others were injured). He was shot dead by the police and that’s the only thing that stopped him killing more people. The correlation between Whitman’s dreadful crime, his mental health and the pecan-sized brain tumour found is still subject to debate.
The Brain Defense posed a lot of questions and issues. Can science and medical conditions really be a rock-solid explanation for crimes, especially murder. There’s some really stark evidence about how early-life stress and violence affects the developing brain of children. I found this so interesting and disturbing because it seems that children who have stressful or abusive homes and upbringings are really at such dire risk of stunted health and development.
Davis speaks to experts in the field of neuroscience and psychiatry, including Dr Martin H. Teicher, a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard.
“Society reaps what it sows in nurturing it’s children,” says Teicher.
Davis writes: While abused children may know right from wrong, their brains are so irritable and the connections between hemispheres so tangled that they lack the ability to use logic and reason to control their aggressive impulses…”
Meet Charles Sobhraj – conman, escape artist, expert manipulator and serial killer.
His story is unbelievable. Except it happened and authors Richard Neville and Julie Clarke documented the extraordinary and frightening life and crimes of Sobhraj. in 1977 Neville and Clarke were invited to interview Sobhraj to tell his life story. They did this and more, investigating the murders by Sobhraj of the western tourists in Bangkok and Kathmandu. The result is The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.
Sobhraj was able to expertly seduce women, con tourists (some of whom had very lucky escapes with their lives), and escape jails.For instance one young man, a French tourist in Bangkok, found himself seriously ill with what he thought was dysentery, and unable to care for himself. he was virtually help captive in Sohraj’s apartment, and though he thought Sobhraj and his girlfriend Marie were taking care of him, they were actually poisoning him. The apartment attracted many travellers and this is where Sobhraj lured some of his victims.
This book is investigative journalism with the pace of a novel. I was gripped and quietly terrified reading it. Married couple Neville and Clarke (Neville passed away in 2016) chart the odyssey of Sobhraj’s crimes and the people caught up in his web – the victims, girlfriends, wives and the people who started to piece it all together (your heart will be in your throat when you read about the married couple, neighbours of Sobhraj and the diplomat went with their suspicions).
This is absolutely one of my top crime reads. An extraordinary book that deserves to be a true crime classic.
This is a great read about a notorious drugs syndicate that spanned Australia, New Zealand, the UK and beyond.
The drugs syndicate, known as ‘The Organisation’ was spearheaded by a Kiwi-born criminal called Terrence ‘Terry’ Clarke, who started selling cannabis known as ‘Thai Sticks’ and graduated to trafficking heroin using his network of associates.
The stakes were high and the rewards were big.
Author Richard Hall paints a comprehensive picture of this crime saga, starting with the murder of Kiwi man Martin Johnstone, the one dubbed ‘Mr Asia’ because he was The Organisation’s Singapore contact. Johnstone’s body, sans his hands, was thrown into a flooded Lancashire Quarry.
This book, which I picked up at an op shop (a great way to find hard-to-get and out-of-print true crime reads) was published in 1981, after five men, including Terry Clark, tried under the name Terry Sinclair) were convicted for their part in Johnstone’s murder.
The book details the court trial, the movements of the syndicate and how they smuggled drugs to various countries and the luxury lives these people led. As the title of the book suggests, it was greed that led to the downfall of Terry Clark/Sinclair.
Highly recommend this read. (I love that this copy is a Pan Original paperback.) It had been republished in the wake of the Underbelly: A Take of Two Cities series.
This is quite a read. This book is disturbing, sad and also inspiring in terms of the strength and dignity of Cheryl Pierson, who endured shocking abuse at the hands of her father at their home in Long Island.
In 1986, Cheryl was arrested for hiring a fellow high school student to murder her father. The case made national headlines and, as stated in the book: “The reason my case attracted so much national attention was because of the disturbing moral and social issues it raised…”
The book is told from both Cheryl and her husband Rob Cuccio’s perspectives and co-written with author Morgan St James. The narrative is quite raw, which I liked. As a reader you feel like you are sitting in a room with Cheryl and Rob and them telling you their story. Cheryl met Rob when she was a teen and he vowed to protect her and stick by her no matter what.
This book intersects the personal story of Cheryl and Rob with the overarching subject of sexual abuse and the extreme damage it does to victims. It’s sickening what Cheryl’s father did and it’s hard to believe that people questioned the truthfulness of her story.
Cheryl was desperate to keep her sister safe and traumatised from years of being raped and beaten by her father, the one man meant to protect and love her.
The sexual abuse is simply shocking and does make for very uncomfortable reading, as it should. Cheryl suffered for so many years and many people had suspicions of what was happening:
“During my hearing I discovered more than twenty adults apparently suspected what was happening to me, but nobody did anything to help me!”…”
Cheryl’s mother died of kidney disease when she was a teen, just one year before she was arrested for her father’s murder and Cheryl talks about how much she loved her mum and her vow to protect her little sister. I did find it shocking that clearly the mother knew what was going on and did nothing but I realise there is complicated psychology and issues surrounding abuse victims.
Despite this case being in the national headlines for several years, Cheryl had only done one interview in 30 years. So this book really does represent “her story”. I was chatting to an author friend of mine recently and we were discussing how sometimes, often, there’s needs to be time between a case and a book being written – often there needs to be years so that a greater understanding of what happened.
I think the strength of this book is that it’s Cheryl’s story and she could write from a place of maturity and experience. There’s also the added thread of the story with Rob’s near death experience later in his life that threatened their family unit that was so hard-fought for and cherished.
Another aspect of the book I found intriguing was when Cheryl would mentioned a book written about her just a few years after her court case. This book is clearly something that still upsets Cheryl and she details some of the preconceptions detailed in it by the NY Times reporter who wrote the book. As a crime author myself this gave me real pause about the nature of true crime writing and reporting and the ethical questions that arise when you write about other people’s lives.
I definitely recommend reading Incest, Murder and a Miracle.
Derrick Hand was the New South Wales State Coroner for five years and had served as a magistrate and deputy state coroner for many years before that. In fact, at the time of his retirement he’d worked 47 years in the court system.
This book is a fascinating look into his career and the many cases – some of Australia’s most high profile – that Hand worked.
Police shootings, the death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, the Threadbo disaster and many murders including that of Anita Cobby – Derrick Hand writes from his unique perspective.
Having seen so many deaths and complex cases, Hand details the case that affected him the most – 1991’s Strathfield Plaza massacre in Sydney by taxi driver Wade Frankum.
On the massacre, Hand writes: “People ask what was my most harrowing experience. This was it. Six bodies lay where they had fallen”.
Hand was the magistrate when Sydney’s “Granny Killer” first appeared in court. Hand recounts the case of John Glover who murdered six elderly women from Sydney’s North Shore, an exclusive enclave of the harbour city.
Co-written with journalist Janet Fife Yeomans, The Coroner is a gripping read. I Highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.
THIS book was published 25 years ago and has been reprinted several times – and for good reason.
Someone Else’s Daughter: The Life and Death of Anita Cobby tells the horrific story of the crime that shocked and sickened Australia.
In January 1986, Sydney nurse Anita Cobby, 26, was abducted as she walked home from Blacktown train station. It was a hot Summer night and Anita, a nurse, was on her way to her parent’s house where she was living at the time.
What happened next forced Australians to confront the absolute worst of human behaviour. Anita’s body was found two days after her abduction. She’d been repeatedly raped and savaged, her throat slit in a final indignity.
Author Julia Sheppard details the crime, the police investigation and the criminal trial that saw 5 men sentenced to life imprisonment for Anita’s murder.
This book is distressing to read in many parts but it also tells the story of Anita’s life and that of her stoic, loving parents Grace and Garry and how they coped with the shocking loss of Anita and the intense gaze of the press and the public. They were ordinary Australians who were thrust into the public arena in the worst of circumstances.
I had read this book when it first came out and then picked up my current copy at an op shop and re-read it, which I think had more impact on me the second time (and by this stage I am a mother to daughters).
This is one of the finest Australian true crime books. Julia Sheppard did an extraordinary job writing about this crime that has been dubbed Australia’s crime of the 20th Century.
Certain Admissions by well-known Australian cricket journalist and writer Gideon Haigh is one of my favourite true crime reads of recent times.
The book was released in 2015 but I finally got around to reading it last week (too many books, too little time!).
This book is about John Bryan Kerr, who was subject to one of the most high profile murder cases in Melbourne. At the end of 1949, at age 24, sometime radio announcer and dapper young man Kerr was arrested for the murder of young typist, Beth Williams, 20.
A passer-by had stumbled upon Beth’s body at the beach at Albert Park. Her clothes were torn and it appeared as if she’d been strangled.
Controversially, an unsigned confession by Kerr was entered into evidence and he stood before three trials because then, capital crimes (murder) needed unanimous decisions from the jury. Kerr was sentenced to death and went to Pentridge Prison where he seemed to adapt to life behind bars as a debater, actor and avid basketballer.
However Kerr’s death sentence was commuted and he was released in the mid 1960s.
This is where the story, well to me at least, gets really intriguing. On his release Kerr finds it difficult to adjust to life and changes his name to Wallace. Haigh is able to recount, through interviews and research, what life is life for Kerr/Wallace as he tries to hide his past.
The description by Haigh of his research process for this book is also intriguing and the Public Records office of Victoria plays a large part in this story because the author was gained unprecedented access to files to dig into the story of Kerr/Wallace, who always maintained his innocence. But the reader will also wonder whether Kerr could have committed the murder…
The novel, part of the “A Death in Paradise Mystery Series,” resembles Agatha Christie’s mastery of the slight-of-hand-murder. A dead woman at the bottom of a long ancient outdoor staircase leading to the sea, only a few suspects who are all houseguests, a missing cell phone and a sister in a wheelchair are all elements that must be sorted through by Police Chief Richard Poole and his able but humorously quirky staff.
The ‘Chief,” as most on his staff call him, has a secret of his own — his mother is about to come to St. Marie for a vacation without his father. To Richard, his parents are a pair and always should be. What’s going on back home?
The dead woman Polly Carter is a former internationally famous model whose riches bought the home. Her friends are in for a bit of a reunion — with no set date of departure. Her sister is wheelchair bound — or is she?
Digging through the clues and characters to find the killer is a delightful escape laced with romance, secret passages, the down-and-out situations of almost every guest and the basic question “why Polly?” How she was killed, however, is where Thorogood keeps readers turning the pages.
If you wish you were on an island paradise with cool sand at your feet and hot breezes, then take a break from true crime and read The Killing of Polly Carter. The antics, plot twists, lush environs and dysfunctional characters will bring a smile to your face.
These are all cases of where men kill their children to exact the ultimate revenge on their ex-partners. These brutal, emotionally stunted men kill their own children so the mothers will suffer for the rest of their lives.
Norris, who has for many years written about some of the most difficult crimes and the issue of violence against women and children, expertly covers the cases of seven women whose children were murdered by vengeful fathers.
She has previously written the book On Father’s Day about the revenge murders by Robert Farquharson of his three little boys. Norris wrote the book with Cindy Gambino, the mother of the boys and raised awareness of this ultimate form of family violence and punishment to the woman and mother of children. The case is also included in this new book.
There’s the case of Karen Bell, who continually had to flee the isolated New South Wales property she shared with her violent, drunk and drug-addicted husband Gary. The only slight assurance in Karen’s mind every time she had to escape the beatings she endured was that her husband had never hurt their children…until the fateful day he gassed himself and their three kids Jack, 8, Maddie, 7 and baby Bon, 16 months.
There’s also Michelle Steck’s case. In 1993, Michelle’s three-year-old daughter Kelly East was gassed by her father Kevin, who also killed himself. East was a violent control freak who, when he could no longer control his ex-partner, exacted the ultimate form of family violence by murdering their little girl.
Michelle is an inspirational woman. She has advocated for the rights and safety of women and children and entered into local politics in Western Australia. Long before family violence became a topic that is now widely covered in the media and in politics and is a key crime focus for police, Michelle was trying to get prominent people to wake up and see the legal systems in Australia needed a complete overhaul.
Look What You Made Me Do is also a stark reminder that these horrific crimes by vengeful fathers have been happening for years and seems it’s only since the high coverage of the tragic, and very public murder of 11-year-old Luke Batty in 2014 by his father that the message that the anti-violence message has reached Canberra and politicians who have the power to change laws. His mum Rosie has become the public face of family violence.
Norris details how Michelle predicted it would take the murder of the child of a celebrity by its father or a very public murder for anyone to pay attention. Tragically her predictions came true.
As Michelle powerfully states: “The worst of it is there are so many of us mums walking in Rosie Batty’s shoes. And we’ve ben out there campaigning for changes and canvassing these issues for many years without anybody really listening”.
This book is a difficult read. I just have to firstly put that out there. And it’s the subject matter that’s difficult and confronting, rather than deficiencies in the prose. True crime, memoir and social commentary, The Blood On My Hands is a like nothing else I’ve read.
Shannon O’Leary’s story is harrowing. Set in 1960s and 1970s Australia, Shannon’s childhood was full of depravity. It was so horrific it’s often hard to believe this book is an autobiography.
O’Leary used pseudonyms for herself and family. It’s understandable because the terror and abuse she suffered is unbelievable. The fact that the author has been able to survive, let alone write, quite eloquently, about a life that is straight out of the worst horror film you could imagine is amazing. And O’Leary’s tone throughout is consistent and engaging…if that’s even the right word to use in this context.
In the prologue. Shannon mentions how she first wanted to commit suicide at age 4. She went on, in her words, to become a nationally recognised children’s entertainer. (I keep wondering who she is.)
The true crime writer in me became instantly hooked on the claims by O’Leary that her depraved father was a serial killer, probably responsible for the disappearances of many Australian girls. In fact the author describe how she and her mother witnesses her father murder a young woman. They did not know who she was or where her body was disposed of. I wanted to know more.
Her father died in 2009, never facing justice for the crimes, the dreadful abuse, described in this book.
I’ve read several other reviews of this book that say similar to what I will say here: I can’t say I enjoyed this book but I read it with intrigue and commend Shannon O’Leary for writing this with such candour.
Colm Wallace has written a book “Sentenced to Death: Saved from the Gallows” about thirty Irish men and women who had the death penalty imposed on them between 1922 and 1985.
Here’s his guest blog post on one of the cases:
By February William O’Shea had been married to his wife Maureen for three years, although he was aged just 24 and she was 21. At this point the couple were blessed with a baby girl, the young family living together in a nice cottage in Ballyhane, outside Cappoquin. Instead of being at the start of a happy matrimony and enjoying parenthood however, O’Shea seemed to resent his wife. She, in turn, was afraid of him.
William O’Shea may not have been a devoted husband but he did earn a living by working for Waterford County Council doing odd jobs and was also considered good at trapping rabbits. It was early 1943 that he had begun to spend a lot of time with a 17-year old local youth by the name of Thomas White, despite the significant age gap. White, who it would be later ascertained was mentally subnormal, frequented the O’Shea household and Maureen did not approve of the amount of time he and her husband spent together.
On 22February, Thomas White came to the O’Shea household to enquire about a pair of shoes. William was absent from the house so White conversed with his wife, before leaving several minutes later. The young mother then went to bed with her young infant and was on the verge of sleep when she smelled the unmistakable odour of smoke. The thatch of the cottage had suddenly gone up in flames and the occupants made a hasty exit.
Maureen and the child were fortunate to escape with their lives. The young bride’s family did not, however, believe that the fire was a terrible accident. Maureen had already begun to think that O’Shea and White had ideas about killing her and had informed her family of her suspicions. Maureen’s stepfather even accosted William O’Shea, insisting that the fire had not been accidental. O’Shea did not respond but his wife tellingly remarked “Oh well, they want to get rid of me, and the baby, and I suppose they will get me yet.”
William O’Shea and his wife were forced to live in O’Shea’s mother’s house after the fire had made their cottage uninhabitable. On 15March, three weeks after the blaze, O’Shea returned home from work at 6pm as was his normal routine.
After dinner, he uncharacteristically invited his wife on an evening stroll. She agreed and the pair left the house. As they were walking arm-in-arm in Knockyoolahan, a townland close to their home, a shot rang out without warning.
Maureen slumped to the ground. The gun, a firearms expert would later testify, was only a couple of inches behind the unfortunate woman when the shot had been fired. Instead of staying with his dying wife, William O’Shea left her lying on the road and ran to his mother’s house. He was in the house for several minutes without mentioning the horrific incident that had just occurred.
Finally when his mother inquired as to Maureen’s whereabouts he told her that his wife had been shot. When asked why by his panicked mother he hadn’t stayed by her side, O’Shea replied “I couldn’t bear it.”
By the time she was discovered it was too late, the Maureen O’Shea having died from the shotgun wound. When the deceased woman’s family were informed about the tragedy they were far from being sympathetic, the stepfather openly voicing his suspicions. He said accusingly to O’Shea “You were after spilling blood tonight, my boy,” O’Shea reacted by jumping from his chair and saying “Do you think I shot her?” He made no denial of the charge, however. The Gardaí were quick to act on the suspicion. Later that night, they went to the house were Thomas White was staying and discovered a shotgun under the bed.
On 16th March O’Shea was summoned to the station in Cappoquin. Almost immediately he complained bitterly about his recently deceased betrothed: “My wife has been at me since about the first week of our marriage. Anybody that used to come in she used to be fighting with them”.
Later in the statement he admitted that White burned his house. “White said that he would do it, but I was not sure he would. He told me he set fire to the back of the thatch…he was disappointed she had not been caught in it.” O’Shea also knew that White had fired the fatal shot. He said in his statement that White had said “If we could get a cartridge we could shoot her…I knew it was Tommy White that had fired the shot because we had arranged that he do it.” O’Shea went on to confess that when he felt his wife going down he whispered an act of contrition gently in her ear. In a later statement, O’Shea admitted that White had told him that the signal he was about to shoot Maureen would be a tap on the shoulder.
O’Shea and White were tried jointly, the case beginning in Green Street, Dublin, on 7 June. Thomas White’s counsel immediately asked if the jury could rule on the sanity of their client, the judge granting their request.
Dr. John Dunne of Grangegorman Mental Hospital told the court that he been examining White in Mountjoy. His conclusion was that the prisoner was suffering from a mental deficiency and that he would be unable to follow the proceedings of the court. The jury retired for ten minutes before returning with a verdict of “not sane.” White was not fit to face the court and instead would be detained at the government’s pleasure. O’Shea thus faced trial for the murder of his wife alone.
O’Shea had already confessed to conspiracy to murder. However, he sensationally withdrew his statement before the court case, complaining, “I never arranged to have my wife shot. I don’t even remember saying that. That is all I have to say”.
The defence Solicitor Mr Nolan-Whelan said that there was no evidence to suggest a conspiracy between O’Shea and White. O’Shea had no drinking problem and no motive. “A man does not murder his wife without a motive, unless he is insane,” continued the solicitor. He also declared that the statement made by his client was involuntary and made under duress. They also stated that there was a case for an insanity, one doctor declaring that O’Shea’s mental age was about seven years. The prosecution disagreed and contended that he was acting simply to fool the jury into declaring him unfit to stand trial.
After the evidence the jury were given their chance to decide the truth. They needed fifty-five minutes to decide that the defendant was guilty of murder. O’Shea was visibly trembling and did not reply when asked if he anything to say. The judge told the jury he agreed thoroughly with their verdict before donning the black cap and sentencing O’Shea to be hanged. Several appeals were mounted against the sentence and the government cabinet of the day met to discuss a possible reprieve. In this case however, they chose to let justice run its course. Despite not firing a shot, William O’Shea was hanged in Mountjoy Prison on 12 August, 1943. He would be the only Waterford man to climb the scaffold in the history of Ireland’s independence.
Author Kate Summerscale investigates one of the Victorian England’s most disturbing murder cases in her latest book The Wicked Boy.
The book recounts the 1895 murder trial, conviction and subsequent life of Robert Coombes. At 13, Robert stabbed his mother to death while she was sleeping.
Summerscale provides a restrained but detailed picture of England’s Victorian era, its penal system and the redemption of a disturbed boy. The author is not shy about exposing the failure of England’s educational system for the lower classes or its prison system that merely warehoused criminals.
There were contributing factors to the murder. Robert’s youth was, to say the least, shaped by domestic violence, a dysfunctional family and the lack of a strong father figure.
Although Robert never tells the court the reason why he killed his mother, the spark may have been the repeated beatings Mrs. Coombes dealt her sons. These beatings occurred while she was left alone with them with little money while her husband eked out a living as a seafaring deck hand on some of the British ships.
After one of the more violent, bloody beatings of his younger brother, Robert hatched his plan to murder his mother.
The crime is discovered only after the stench of death seeped out of the bedroom windows as Mrs. Coombes’ corpse decomposes on her bed. Robert readily admits the killing, is tried for murder but never tells the court why he did it. Left with little choice, he was found guilty but insane. Not really knowing what to do with the child murderer, he is sent to Broadmoor, a lunatic prison.
Unexpectedly, Robert flourishes at Broadmoor soaking up an education in books, music, sports and more that he would have never received if he had remained with his family.
While her writing style is unemotional and measured, Summerscale’s research carries the story and enables readers to travel back the to the Victorian era seeing the failures of a country led by a minority of aristocrats who steadfastly ignored how their cultural system treated the majority of British subjects — the poor.