The (Would-be) Serial Killer of Church Street, 1861

From the Belfast Morning News, 2 January 1861:

“Joseph Dwyer is now in custody on a charge of having made one of the most daring and diabolical attempts to deprive a fellow-creature of life, for the mere purpose of pecuniary gain, that perhaps the world ever heard of. A young man of simple appearance, scarcely to be known out of his own street, had taken a stable which he sought to convert into a slaughter-house and a cemetery.

The stable in question had been, it is said, in the possession of the father of the accused at one time; he knew it well and, no doubt, selected it on account of its comparatively isolated position. A shovel and pickaxe were purchased, and discovered in the stable alongside of the grave which had been dug in it in secret and in silence, and many persons residing in the neighbourhood observed this well-dressed young man passing to and for, never dreaming of the horrible agency that was working within him.

The accused being identified as the perpetrator, into the old double house, No 65 Church Street, the searchers went, put their shoulders to a door on one of the landings made scrupulously fast, and revealed Joseph Dwyer standing in company with a woman in the centre of the room. In the meantime Mulholland was sent for, and at once identified the prisoner as the person who had shot him. The wretched culprit, on seeing his intended victim, lost all firmness and self-control, and burst into tears. In the course of his observations he stated that he was not in his right mind, and with strange adroitness referred to the fact that some member of his family had been insane…”

What had Joseph Dwyer done? He had rented a stable at 57 Queen Street, Smithfield, purchased a pistol and a shovel, and then gone to buy some second-hand clothes from Hyam & Co, Dame Street, engaging Mulholland, a porter in the establishment, to carry them back to the stable for him, only to fire at him with the pistol when he arrived there. Fortunately, Mulholland managed to flee and raise the alarm; the police, arriving at the stable, found a freshly dug grave presumably intended for him.

No 69 Queen Street today

Dwyer was subsequently sentenced at Green Street Courthouse to penal servitude for twenty years after pleading guilty to shooting with intent to murder. In passing sentence, Lord Justice Christian described his actions as unprompted by any passion, vengeance or rankling sense of wrong, but rather a thirst for plunder due to having fallen into irregular habits of living and a practice of supplying himself with money by pledging clothing.

With respect to Lord Justice Christian, the cost of renting the stable probably well exceeded the monies garnished from a couple of coats and some trousers. As with many reports of cases where the accused pleads guilty, there is a sense of some information lacking.

65 Church Street, where the accused was apprehended, is now long gone. 57 Queen Street is also no longer there, but would have looked very much like No 69 above. The rear stable the scene of the crime would have backed onto what was then the Bluecoat School and what is now the headquarters of the decidedly non-criminal Incorporated Law Society of Ireland!

Image Credit (top) (bottom)

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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