Violent Deaths: As taken from the headstone inscriptions and as reported in the newspapers of the time

By James O'Hanlon


“There is nothing I desire more to be informed of, than of the death of men: that is to say, what words, what countenance, and what face they show at their death…Were I a composer of books, I would keep a register, commented of the diverse deaths, which in teaching men to die, should after teach them to live.”Montaigne, Essays

A trawl through the Ulster Historical Foundation’s comprehensive database of graveyard inscriptions will unearth many colourful names: Nicholas de Lacherois Crommelin, Baptist Hogsett, Narcissus Batt, Pietro Nabucco, Espartero Jones, Ringham Bingham, Carberry O’Fey, Bartholomew Romanville, Patrick Coraboo. On the surface they would appear to be more at home in a Victorian melodrama than an Ulster graveyard, but delve a little deeper and you will find they lived their incident packed lives cheek by jowl with their more mundanely monikored contemporaries.

This website attempts to offer a window on the historical past by seeking out the more noteworthy, outlandish or bizarre stories gleaned from the final resting places of our forebears; and thereby encouraging everyone to value church graveyards and cemeteries as repositories of folklore and local history. Its aim is to convey the sense that every life has a story to tell, even if it is a life lived outside the spotlight of fame, notoriety or calamity.

Each graveyard inscription, be it lyrical or prosaic, gives only a brief snapshot of a life. All deaths have a

private or familial significance but some have a more public resonance. This essay deals with those benighted souls whose sudden and violent deaths were recorded by the newspapers of the time. The intention is not to awaken prurient or voyeuristic interest, rather to convey the truism that behind every graveyard inscription is a life lived to the full or as in these examples, brutally truncated.

These accounts offer an insight into the changing, and sometimes sadly unchanging, social climate of the country: the increasing industrialisation of Ulster that wrought its own havoc upon the working man and woman; the sporadic sectarianism that brutally and often haphazardly claimed new victims; the advent of the locomotive and the automobile that changed the landscape of the country, facilitated the movement of population and the increase in business, but in return extracted a heavy price in human life.

The newspapers reflected these developments with matter of fact and, occasionally, lurid or macabre descriptions of drownings, shootings and accidents.

The following stories have all been taken from contemporary accounts in The News Letter or Belfast Telegraph. They are framed in the occasionally arcane language or unusual sentence construction of the time. They flesh out the story behind individual graveyard inscriptions taken from our database. You will encounter a Portuguese sailor hanged at Carrickfergus, a man drowned attempting an heroic rescue on Christmas Eve, the death of a young man playing football, an unparalleled railway disaster, and the members of one Ulster family who fell at Waterloo, Ladysmith, Flanders and Burma.

Many more unusual stories are waiting to be uncovered from our database of graveyard inscriptions. Can you find the grave of an Ulsterman who died alongside Nelson on board the Victory at Trafalgar? Can you unravel the secret of Lufiaul Wisu, the beloved Congo boy of Rev Ross Phillips, who lies in Craigmore graveyard, County Antrim? Can you explain the enigma of Regimental Orderly, James Steen, buried in Antrim Unitarian churchyard, who served abroad for 21 years, surviving the Crimean war and the Indian campaign, only to die on the night he arrived back home in Antrim?

Why not do a spot of historical sleuthing yourself? Choose a graveyard, note down some arresting inscription, the name, date and manner of death, and check out the background in the newspaper sections at your local Library. A treasury of local history awaits you.


“They’re all together this time, and the end is come. May the almighty God have mercy on Bartley’s soul, and on Michael’s soul, and on the souls of Seamus and Patch, and Stephen and Shawn; and may he have mercy on my soul, and on the soul of every one is left living in the world....Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.”

J.M. Synge, Riders to the Sea on an island off the West of Ireland, a mother mourns the sixth and last of her sons to be taken by the sea.

Erected by James Burns in memory of his brother Archibald Burns who was drowned 27th February 1866 aged 28 years Dear wife and parents do not repine Although I was cut off all in my prime For it was done by heaven's high decree The waters proved too strong for me Dry up your tears and do not weep My troubles ended in the deep For I have reached that happy shore.


Bosola: The manner of your death should much afflict you,

This cord should terrify you?

Duchess: Not a Whit:

What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut

With diamonds? Or to be smothered

With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?

I know death hath ten thousand several doors

For men to take their exits

John Webster – The Duchess of Malfi

Northern Ireland has become synonymous with murder, shootings and general public disorder. The Troubles have left a dark legacy that the nascent peace process has difficulty expunging. The increased tourism still trades on the mayhem of recent times. It is de rigueur for visitors to be photographed at one of the many murals depicting our tribal grievances; a visit to the former war zones on the Falls or Shankill Roads is obligatory. However, as the following examples demonstrate, sectarian outrages have occurred regularly over the years, and the newspapers of the past carry headlines depressingly similar to their contemporary counterparts; paying eloquent testimony to our long held mutual disrespect.

Researching these newspapers can give one a bad case of deja vu. Headlines flagging up shootings, rioting and bomb attacks appear frequently. The Belfast News Letter, one of the world’s oldest newspapers, is a fascinating source of anecdotal accounts of historical events. The 1798 rebellion and the sectarian pogroms of the 1920s are brought colourfully, and agonisingly, to life.

A story from 1886 headlined “Desperate Rioting in Belfast – Firing on the people – Seven Killed” could be from 1972 so familiar is its content. The original search was for a William Matthews, who was mortally wounded in the violence, and is listed in the report as follows: “William James Matthews, aged 18, 47 Great Patrick Street, Carter, bullet wound through head (dying).”

The News Letter described the events which claimed the lives of Matthews and six other people as follows: “a scene took place last night which is unprecedented in the history even of Belfast Riots. The saying “I was under fire is often treated as a mere picturesque description. When applied to Belfast Riots it possesses a melancholy significance. As a result of last night’s work four deaths have already been recorded…the surgeons of the Royal Victoria Hospital have never had such a list of wounded since the riots of 1864.”

Railway Accidents

A momentary crash – a dense cloud, blacker than night, of suffocating vapour – an all-enwrapping, all-consuming flame of fire – and between thirty and forty human beings…all rejoicing but a minute before in life and its pleasures…were transformed into a heap of charred and indistinguishable remains.

Illustrated London News describing the Irish Mail disaster 1868

the papers day by day

Tell us how railroad screws have given way

Now bursts a boiler. O’er the embankments ridge

Rushes the hapless train; now falls a bridge;

Now sinks a viaduct; or wrapt in fire,

Or plunged in torrents, passengers expire

William Pickering, 1846

The first railway in Ireland was the Dublin and Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) line built in 1830. The network soon spread, facilitating the considerable traffic in seasonal harvest-time labour to England, and emigration after the Great Famine of 1846-7.

In London and the larger cities, the spread of the railway network seemed to offer a solution to the increasing problem of hygienically disposing of the dead, a concern brought to the forefront by the cholera outbreak of 1848-9. Plans were drawn up to construct cemeteries well away from built-up urban areas, served by railways that could transport the dead bodies and the mourners. The first such cemetery was opened on November 7 1854 and a daily train service was maintained until 1900.

Unfortunately, from the outset, trains were to make their own contribution to the cemetery population. William Huskisson, President of the Board of Trade, was killed at the inauguration of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1815, and, henceforward, untold accidents would claim many lives.

The Armagh railway disaster of 1889

The terrible accident at Armagh in 1889, which was occasioned by a runaway train fitted with no continuous brakes, led to a radical overhaul of railway safety, culminating in a Regulation Act of 1889 that required every train carrying passengers to be fitted with a standardised braking system. All railway companies were compelled to adopt the interlocking of points and signals; as a result accidents fell dramatically.

In Tassagh graveyard the following inscription records the death of one of the disaster’s victims:

Erected by Richard and Mary Crozier in loving memory of their children: William M, who died 3rd December 1862 aged 8 years, Samuel who died 4th January 1866 aged 4 years Also their dearly beloved son William, killed in the Railway disaster 18th June 1889 aged 24 years.

A contemporary ballad by an unknown bard described the accident:

Twas on the twelfth day of June, in the year of eighty-nine,

The Sunday school excursion train set out on the southern line.

From Armagh town to Warrenpoint, nine hundred souls tool train,

But seventy-six brave Ulster folk would ne’er return again.

The Times of 13 June 1889 made the tragedy the subject of its editorial: The excursion season has opened with one of the most appalling disasters which have ever happened in the United Kingdom. An excursion train left Armagh yesterday morning crowded with school children. As it steamed up a steep incline, at a distance of two miles from the city, the couplings in the middle of the train parted. The rear half ran back down the incline, accumulating speed as it went, and dashed into the ordinary passenger train which was following the excursion at a short interval. The effect of the collision was to kill some sixty or seventy, or possibly even eighty, people.

The Belfast News Letter commented: …the most appalling catastrophe of the kind which has ever taken place in the north of Ireland. It has plunged a city into profound mourning for the appearance of some quarters of Armagh last night suggested the visitation of remote antiquity of which it is recorded that ‘there was not a house in which there was not one dead’. In the neighbourhood of those public buildings which have been used as temporary morgues and surgeries, the scene last night resembles such as one can imagine occurring when some form of deadly pestilence has been raging unchecked and has converted a prosperous city into a charnel house. As the ghastly burdens were borne along the road during the afternoon and evening the gloom that was overhanging the city became greater.

The following inscription in Carrickfergus North cemetery was the springboard for a search that revealed a local man’s death on the continent:

January 1876, aged 63 years, their son Andrew born 19th January 1811, killed in railway accident, 9th march 1907, also his wife Elizabeth born 10th July 1937, died 16th of April 1900, their son James who died 16th February 1914, aged 69 years, Thomas Johnston 16th January 1876-77, no will, Elizabeth Johnston 16/04/1900)

On the 11th March 1901 the Belfast News Letter reported that a Carrickfergus man, Andrew Johnston, was killed in a railway collision near Courtrai, Belgium:

Yesterday a telegram was received in Carrickfergus to the effect that Mr Andrew Johnston, principal flax buyer on the Continent for Messrs James Taylor & Sons limited, Carrickfergus, had been fatally injured in a railway accident near Courtrai in Belgium. The news caused much sorrow, the deceased gentleman being well known and universally esteemed. His son left Carrickfergus yesterday for Belgium. At this time of thee accident the train was proceeding from Bruges to Courtrai.

In St John’s cemetery Donegore, close to the hill from where Henry Joy McCracken marshalled the Antrim United Irishmen prior to their fateful engagement at Antrim town, is found the following inscription:

Erected by James Nutt, in affectionate remembrance of his son Thomas Nutt, who met with an accident on September 22nd 1880, and died September 25th 1880, aged 30 years, also of his beloved wife Margaret Beck, who died March 25th 1881, aged 60 years, also the above James Nutt, who died December 9th 1890, aged 73 years, also their sons, Robert Beck Nutt, died 12th August 1914, and James Nutt, died 23rd July 1918, also Mary Jane Kinkead, the beloved wife of Robert Nutt, died 2nd December 1919, Not lost but gone before, Nutt, [Small Sandstone Plaque] In memory of James Nutt, accidentally killed G N R, 10th June 1919.

On June 12 1919 the Belfast News Letter reported the results of an inquest into the death of James Nutt of 54 Rockview Street, Belfast:

The evidence of James (sic) Nutt, brother of the deceased, showed that the latter often went for long walks. It is supposed that on Tuesday he went off in the direction of Dunmurry and, with the object of taking a short cut, crossed the railway lines about two hundred yards on the city side of the Finaghy Halt. The engine driver of the train that left Antrim at 5.30 pm on Tuesday for Belfast stated that when the train was approaching this spot he saw Nutt crossing the lines. He at once applied the brakes, but the train passed over his body. Witness did all he could to avoid an accident, and was of the opinion that if the man had not halted he would have been able to cross the line safely…Dr S. Hunter of Dunmurry, said deceased’s skull had been fractured, while the left arm had been amputated and both legs broken. Mr Young expressed the regret of the Railway Company at the accident and emphasised that they were not to blame. Deceased had no right to the crossing. A verdict of accidental death was returned.

Flying Accidents

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above


An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

Ulster has carved its own niche in the history of aviation. Amelia Earhardt completed her solo Atlantic crossing when she touched down on the old racecourse in Londonderry. Lilian Bland from Carnmoney was another redoubtable female pioneer who flew into immortality when her bi-plane the ‘MayFly’ took wing at Randalstown. Shorts have dispatched Sky Vans and other notable aircraft to the four corners of the earth. But for every triumph there is the occasional counterbalancing tragedy.

The Belfast Telegraph of July 22 1930 provided widespread coverage of a plane crash that wiped out some of the leading lights of Ulster society. The Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, the Speaker of the Ulster Senate, was killed when a Junkers monoplane, making a regular taxi service between Berck-sur-Mer and Croydon crashed near Gravesend, in Kent.

The death of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, the Speaker of the Ulster Senate, who was one of the victims of the air disaster in Kent yesterday, has occasioned much sorrow, and there is poignant grief in many circles.

The Marquis, who had been spending the week-end at Le Touquet, was returning to England in a large junkers monoplane when the machine crashed as it was passing over Meopham Green, near Gravesend, in Kent, resulting in the lives of six lives…

The family name of the Dufferins is Blackwood and a search on the Ulster Historical Foundation database reveals a fascinating account of lives dedicated to the service of the Crown, many of which ended violently on a foreign field. The ancestral home of the Dufferins is Clandeboye House, Co.Down, and many of the descendants, including the above mentioned Marquis, are interred in the family vault there.

The Dufferins appear to have had an uncanny knack of perishing during some of the most noteworthy battles in military history: Robert Temple Blackwood died at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 1815; Archibald Earl of Ava fell mortally wounded at the siege of Ladysmith in 1900, during the Boer War; Basil Temple-Blackwood was killed in action at Flanders on July 4 1917; Basil, the 4th Marquess, was killed near Fort Dufferin, Mandalay in March 1925, aged 35, while “liberating Burma, the country which his Grandfather annexed to the British Crown.”

General Accidents






The epitaph of one obscure Wedgwood:

Barbara and Hensleigh Wedgwood,

The Wedgwood Circle 1730 – 1897

Industrial accidents claimed many lives. The News Letter of Friday 14th to Tuesday 18th 1786 reported an early example, and, in an era without the equivalent of our Health and Safety Executive, was not afraid to offer some sage advice regarding good practice in the workplace: On Friday morning last, the mill-stone of the corn mill of Ardmillan broke in the course of work, and one of the splinters unfortunately struck John Barry, of Ringneel, with such force, that he died on the spot. He was singing clerk of the Presbyterian congregation of Killinchy, and Sergeant of the 1st United Killinchy Company. His corpse was interred with the usual military honours. He lived beloved and died lamented. – The above-mentioned shows the necessity of having the running stone of every mill well secured with an iron band of the strongest kind.

John Barry’s inscription reads: Here lieth the body of John Barry, late of Ringneal, who departed this life April ye 14th 1786 aged 36 years Also his son John Barry of Belfast who died 27th Sept 1826 aged 41 years And 3 of his children who died young Also his daughter Anna who died 13th Dec 1851 aged 31 years.

Belfast’s shipbuilding sector, the fulcrum of that city’s rapid industrial progress, took a heavy toll in lives over the years. The News Letter of Thursday July 1st 1909 reported that: A sad accident resulting in the death of a man named Robert Lundie, who resides at Carrickfergus, occurred in Messrs Workman, Clark & Co’s Ltd, North Yard yesterday. It appears that Lundie, who was employed as a shipwright, was engaged at his work, when he fell a considerable distance, and alighted on his head. He was picked up in an unconscious condition, and removed with all possible haste to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but on arrival at the institution life was found to be extinct. The matter has been reported to the City Coroner (Dr James Graham), who will hold an inquest, possibly today.

From St Columb's Cathedral, Londonderry to Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris,

by way of marauding United Irishmen, a Gothic pot boiler, and Oscar Wilde. How a commemorative tablet in a Derry City Cathedral unravelled a serpentine tale, from 1797 to 1900

The following case offers a very good example of how a simple inscription can uncover a network of interweaving stories. In St Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry there is a memorial tablet that commemorates the life of the Reverend William Hamilton. He was a noted local naturalist, whose work A Guide to the Causeway was highly thought of. However, it was his involvement in the political turmoil of the time, and the grisly nature of his death, that led to his posthumous fame.

The inscribed tablet reads:“The tomb of John Hamilton of this City of merchants, who died on the 9th August, 1780, aged 55 years. Likewise of his son, the Rev William Hamilton, D.D. Late Rector of Clondavadoch, in the County of Donegal, formerly fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. The cause of religion has to lament the loss of one of its ablest advocates; virtue one of its best supporters, and learning one of its brightest ornaments. He was assassinated at the house of Dr Waller, at Sharon, on the 2nd March, 1797, where he fell victim to the brutal fury of an armed banditti in the 40th year of his age. His acquirements as a scholar, equally solid and refined, are duly appreciated in the world of letters; whilst the sacred remembrance of his virtues is enshrined in the hearts of all who knew him”.

Hamilton was targeted for death while on duty in his capacity as Local Magistrate in County Donegal. Ulster in 1797, like much of Ireland, was in ferment. Insurrection was being planned. Supported by a troop of Manx Invincibles, he detained a number of Republican leaders in January 1797. In revenge 800 United Irishmen laid siege to Rev Hamilton’s Glebe House in an attempt to force the release of their detained comrades. The attempt failed when reinforcements arrived from Letterkenny. A number of weeks later, Hamilton was assassinated in a brutal and shocking manner. His successor as Rector, the Rev Henry Maturin, was the cousin of the Rev Charles Robert Maturin, a noted novelist. Maturin would later incorporate the details of Hamilton’s murder into his famous Gothic horror novel, Melmoth the Wanderer.

Excerpt from Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824) Oxford University Press 1968 Vol 3, Chapter XII, pages 255–6

Relating to the murder of Rev William Hamilton in 1797

“Amid yells like those of a thousand tigers, the victim was seized and dragged forth, grasping in both hands fragments of the robes of those he had clung to in vain, and holding them up in the impotence of despair.

The cry was hushed for a moment, as they felt him in their talons, and gazed on him with thirsty eyes. Then it was renewed, and the work of the blood began. They dashed him to the earth – tore him up again – flung him into the air – tossed him from hand to hand, as a bull gores a howling mastiff with horns right and left

Bloody, defaced, blackened with earth, and battered with stones, he struggled and roared among them, till a loud cry announced the hope of a termination to a scene alike horrible to humanity, and disgraceful to civilization. The military, strongly reinforced, came galloping on, and all the ecclesiastics, with torn habits, and broken crucifixes, following fast in the rear, - all eager in the cause of human nature – all on fire to prevent this base and barbarous disgrace to the name of Christianity and of human nature.

‘Alas! This interference only hastened the horrible catastrophe. There was but a shorter space for the multitude to work their furious will. I saw, I felt, but I cannot describe, the last moments of this horrible scene. Dragged from the mud and stones, they dashed a mangled lump of flesh right against the door of the house where I was. With his tongue hanging from his lacerated mouth, like that of a baited bull; with, one eye torn from the socket, and dangling on his bloody cheek; with a fracture in every limb, and a wound for every pore, he still howled for life – life – life – mercy!’ till a stone, aimed by some pitying hand, struck him down. He fell, trodden in one moment into sanguine and discoloured mud by a thousand feet. The cavalry came on, charging with fury. The crowd, saturated with cruelty and blood, gave way in grim silence. But they had not left a joint of his little finger – a hair of his head – a slip of his skin. Had Spain mortgaged all her reliques from Madrid to Montserrat, from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar, she could not have recovered the paring of a nail to canonize. The officer who headed the troop dashed his horse’s hoofs into a bloody formless mass, and demanded, ‘ Where was the victim?’ He was answered, ‘ Beneath your horse’s feet*;’ and they departed*’

Author’s Note –This circumstance occurred in Ireland in 1797, after the murder of the unfortunate Dr Hamilton. The officer was answered, on inquiring what was that heap of mud at his horse’s feet, - ‘the man you came for.’

The novel, brimful of bizarre, satanic events became a huge success, and is still in print today, critically acclaimed as one of the greatest of the Gothic novels. It detailed the unavailing efforts of one Sebastian Melmoth to renege on a pact he had made with the Devil. It contained references to the legend of the Wandering Jew, and was clearly influenced by the deep suspicion members of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland had for their disenfranchised and discontented Catholic neighbours. Doubtless, the fate that befell Rev Hamilton, brought home to Maturin the insecurity of his own position, as a member of a ruling minority surrounded by a disaffected majority. As a Church of Ireland Minister, Maturin had a deep antipathy towards Rome, and his narrative details all manner of indignities suffered in continental convents and cloisters, at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition or those feared shock troops of the Counter Reformation, the Jesuits.

The novel galvanised a generation of readers, and so affected the great French novelist, Honore de Balzac, that he was inspired to write a sequel, Melmoth Reconciled. Oscar Wilde, released from prison and embarking for Paris, used the name of Sebastian Melmoth as a pseudonym to evade the prurient interest of the press. A distant relative of Maturin, he clearly identified his own travails with those of Maturin’s anti-hero. Wilde died in Paris in 1900 and now lies buried under an elaborate Jacob Epstein carving in Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

It is sobering to think that readers who take such vicarious pleasure in the gruesome details of the fictitious slaying described above, are in fact reading an account of a real murder. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.