Other Works by the
A History Of The
Irish Police (From Earliest
Times.,..) Publishers: Anvil, 1974
Emile Durkheim On Crime And
Punishment (An Exegesis) Dissertation.com, 2002
The Riddle Of The
Caswell Mutiny UPublish.com 2003
Crime And Punishment
In Twentieth Century Ireland Vol. Two:
A Description Of The
Criminal Justice System (CJS) (1950-80) UPublish.com 2003
The Case of John Dempsey
And Lucinda Sly
On Wednesday April
8, 1835,the following notice appeared on page three of The
Wednesday a man killed his wife in Carlow under the following
The mother of his woman was Mrs Sly, who was hanged on the
preceding day for the murder of her husband (an account of the
execution will be found in our last pages) – and the husband of
the daughter murdered his wife, lest she should follow her example
by killing her husband! He has however put it out of her power,
though it is probable she may prove the cause of his death.
The above notice
invites our curiosity not least out of a sense of disbelief that
a) Someone should
express such a tragedy in terms of a conundrum or a joke, and
b) That the gender
gap in 1835 created such distrust as to lead the son-in-law to
imagine that because his mother-in-law had reason to kill someone,
her daughter (his wife) would follow suit and kill him, if he does
not defend himself by killing her first!
On Saturday -- three
days later -- The Carlow Sentinel issued the following
correction from their Tullow Street Offices.
ABSURD RUMOUR – MRS
It has been rumoured
last week, and such rumours have actually reached the Dublin
Papers, that the son-in-law of the late Mrs Sly had murdered his
wife, apprehensive that she would put an end to his life. We
regret our Contemporaries should be so grossly imposed upon, for
there is not one word of truth in the statement.
Was the first entry
meant to test the credulity of the Leinster public? Or was it a
deliberate joke, meant to illicit untold responses? And what, if
anything, did the accused persons make of it?
The Trial of
Lucinda Sly and John Dempsey
The Lenten Assizes
of 1835 opened in Carlow on March 16th, when the Lord
Chief Justice, accompanied by the High Sheriff, James Hardy
Eustace, Esq., entered the Crown Court shortly after eleven
Having read the
Commission the Clerk of the Crown commenced to swear in the
gentlemen of the Grand Jury. The names were very familiar to
Carlovians -- and they hardly changed throughout the century. Why
we list the names of the Grand Jury as well as the Petty Jury (See
Appendix A) is because such names, evocative of a harsh Protestant
legal formalism, can still summon up a Carlow, which to most
Catholics, was, to say the least of it, hostile and uninviting.
There is also
another reason for listing the names. Comparing the Grand with the
petty Jury suggests a real basis for an embryonic class formation,
which was unfortunately well hidden and disguised behind a prior
and well-defined religious confrontation. Religious beliefs,
notions of science and administration, as well as class, derive
from the initial Christian conquest of Ireland as well as the
Reformation. Doubtless, because of the exigencies of the Christian
churches, the religious aspect outweighed class-consciousness
throughout the century and took precedence over any
left-wing-right-wing European divide that might have arisen
authentically – rather than imitatively – in Ireland.
In many ways the
story of John Dempsey and Lucinda Sly defies that history.
Directly, through the breach with family structure, gender role,
and the commission of used to be called petty treason, they
betrayed the religious and political fixities of primogeniture and
Christian conquest. In this, the case is only one in line with the
witchcraft trial of Dame Alice Kyteler, 1324 (who was, after all,
a serial-husband-murderer), and with the case of Mary Daly, 1903,
where the religious roles were reversed, but the similarities
remained uncannily striking.
How a ‘simple’
murder trial can come to represent a societal-footprint in the
sands of time – short of a thorough enquiry -- can only be
imagined. Nothing of the sort is being claimed for the Dempsey/Sly
case, even though it occurs at the nodal point of great penal
reform, not to mention within an environment where
tithe-war–Catholics- and-Protestants were at each others throats
-- and not just in Graiguenamanagh and Carrickshock! Neither is it
being claimed that this case was a romance inspired by either
young infatuation or ennobled operatic longings. And, yet, while
there is no identifiable Romeo or Juliet (unless the 60-year-old
faded Lucinda may be considered so), there is a heresy of sexual
passion between the protagonists that cannot be denied. Here in
Carlow, in the cold foreboding climate of heresy and the
tithe-war, where extra-marital sex was regarded as sin, mortal
sin, as, indeed, was the pleasure principle itself; the passion
between the couple is the only positive thing that prevailed. This
passion is most peculiar. It was hewn no doubt out of the harsh
interactions of their own respective social realities, in a Carlow
that is hardly imaginable to us, and yet it was freely entered
into and, despite the absence of a Christian blessing was, as we
know, binding unto death.
opening address to the Grand Jury was short and sweet, but it
wasn’t until the following day that the prisoners on being placed
at the bar were ‘greatly agitated’ for a few moments. The press
described Dempsey as a ‘rather well looking man, about five feet
ten inches in height, remarkably well proportioned, and about
thirty years old’. He was also described as ‘ a smart,
well-dressed young man, of rather mild aspect.’ According to some
he was 27 years old; according to others he was 30.
The female prisoner,
on the other hand, was either 54 (the Kilkenny account) or 60 (the
Carlow account) years of age. Some unkind people said she was
twice her lover’s age. She was the wife of the deceased, Walter
sly, and according to the press on being arraigned, she ‘ trembled
The Clerk of the
Crown told both of them that they might challenge such of the jury
as they had an objection to, and inquired if they would join in
their challenges. The prisoners said no, and the Clerk then
informed them they might challenge twenty jurors each peremptorily
(meaning that the challenge was enough to get such jurors off the
panel) and as many more as they wished, so long as they showed
cause for so doing.
The panel was then
called over and each of the prisoners, ‘trembling’-or -no
challenged several of the jurors. The crown only challenged a few.
Both were charged
with having conspired, aided and assisted in the murder of Walter
Sly, at the Ridge of Old Leighlin on the morning of the 9th of November past (1834). A considerable amount of time was
occupied in calling over the panel, which was ‘the most numerous
and respectable we recollect’ for many years. During the reading
of the Indictment, which contained eight counts, the prisoners
stood unmoved, and pleaded not guilty. The son of the female
prisoner by a former marriage, a young man named Singleton, who we
understand is in the Police assisted throughout in the defence. Mr
Job L Campion, the agent for the defence, and Mr Seeds on the part
of the Crown challenged the panel on both sides, when the petty
Jury was sworn (See Appendix A).
Again we have an
array of Carlow names and noticeable among them is Samuel
Haughton, of the famous Haughton family, namesake to the man who
scientifically studied the most efficient way to hang someone.
In legal terms the
case seemed simple enough, but depended upon the quality of the
evidence given. Lucinda Sly was married and had issue by an
earlier marriage. She then married Walter Sly and had no issue by
her second marriage. Indeed, it was a lamentable fact that the
second marriage was not a very harmonious one, each party, whether
wittingly or unwittingly, made the other quite ill at ease about
their home at Old Leighlin.
About a year before
the incident Walter employed a servant, John Dempsey. And even
though Dempsey was half the age of Lucinda Sly, it was alleged
more than once that criminal intimacies had taken place between
them. Not unusually it was also suspected that this criminal
intercourse was the principal cause of the murder. If this was
true then the suspected murder was probably the result of a
conspiracy as well.
overcrowded court, now silenced by the astounding revelations –
probably in the Deighton Hall -- the prosecution detailed that
conspiracy between the couple, and the manner in which Walter was
boldly shot outside his own home and left to stew in his own
The prisoners were
defended by the Agent, Mr. Campion, whose Counsel were Messrs
Walker, Murphy, and Darcy. For the Crown, Messrs, Martley, Arabin
and Clerk, Agent, the Crown Solicitor.
The case opened with
the evidence of Francis Campbell.
The day before the
murder --Saturday, the 8 November 1834 -- was a fair day in Carlow
town. She remembered it well, not least because she chanced to
meet Walter Sly there. Walter was an acquaintance and, while at
the fair, she spent a few minutes in his company. About 5 o’clock
in the evening, she decided to leave the fair and made her way
home out by Graigue and up the steep incline past Bilboa and
Slievemargy right into the heart of Leix (then Queen’s County).
Walter Sly and a companion named Ned Radwell, who was riding with
him, overtook her, and they all rode together for some distance.
Walter had the
appearance of someone who had some drink taken, but there was
nothing unusual about that. Most people left a fair with a little
drink on them -- and there was nothing extraordinary about
Walter’s behaviour. When Radwell fell behind, Walter got talking
again to Francis. It was small talk, such as passes between
people going the same road.
He told her that he
was on his way to dine at the police barracks in Bilboa with a
young man named Thomas Singleton. Thomas Singleton was Lucinda
Sly’s son by a previous marriage and was therefore stepson to
Walter. Singleton was a policeman stationed at Bilboa and when the
party reached Bilboa they joined Singleton in a public house and
had a drink together.
They talked about
various things, Francis Campbell stating later that she never
noticed whether Singleton carried a gun or not. She bid her
company goodnight, saddled her horse and headed for home in the
hinterland of Slievemargy. It was, she said, the last time she
would ever set eyes on Walter Sly.
When asked what kind
of a man Walter was, she had no hesitation in replying that he was
“a man of robustic temper”. Such was the language of the times,
used no doubt to describe what was, perhaps, an independent
self-assertive -- and probably an unhappy -- man. As to whether
Walter ever spoke of his fear of being shot, she couldn’t venture
an opinion, although he did once mention that his life was in
danger. Persons named Brennan had some quarrel with him over land
– and yes; he was a drinking man and yes; he was in the habit of
carrying arms about his person.
Walter Sly rode home
to Leighlin and spent the night there. What transpired after his
arrival was a matter of speculation, which led on to the present
According to Dr.
Thomas Rawson, who examined the deceased’s body the day after the
Carlow fair, that is on Sunday November the 9th, he
found that Walter’s had a gun shot wound on the right side of his
head. “The ball entered on the right side of his jaw and came out
on the left”. He also had several contused wounds on his head, but
he thought that the gunshot had decidedly caused his death.
What then about
Walter’s neighbours? Had they seen or noticed anything unusual?
There were a few
houses neighbouring Walter Sly’s holding. Ben Stacey was his
nearest neighbour. Ben lived but a few perch from him. Apart from
Mrs. Sly, Stacey was probably the first to see Walter’s body.
About 4 or 5 o’clock on Sunday morning, just before first light,
Mrs Sly called on Stacey’s home. He was in bed and she was on her
own. She roused him and asked him to come urgently. He got up out
of bed, threw some clothes on himself, and off they went across
the fields over to Sly’s place. Stacey recalled:
“I saw the body
opposite the stable -- about three yards from it and about four or
five yards from the hall-door of his house. Mrs Sly told me that
Walter was shot just after he came into the yard. She told me he
rode by the door, she heard a shot and he fell. She then heard a
second shot fired. She then said a third shot was fired through
the hall door as if to keep the family within. Mrs Sly was crying
as she related these things”
The first thing that
sprung to Ben Stacey’s mind was to get help. He went and called
another neighbour named, John Griffin, who strolled about a
quarter of an hour later into Walter Sly’s yard. Until Griffin
came Ben Stacey was quite reluctant to go near the dead body. “I
was much affected at seeing him,” he told the court. “We searched
him, and found neither watch nor money on his person. Mrs Sly told
me he had it on going to the fair.”
Before leaving the
witness stand -- and in response to questions put in
cross-examination -- Stacey made the following responses:
appeared to be singed, and the powder blackened part of the face.
Walter Sly was
about fifty-four years of age. He was a comfortable farmer, and he
dealt in horses.
I never saw a
pistol in his house, and I never knew he carried any about him.
Sly was a passionate
man and constantly quarrelsome; he had the character of being a
Brennan held land under Sly and some time before that I heard that
Sly had dispossessed them.
I never saw a pistol
in Sly’s house but I heard of Sly’s mare being stabbed some time
before his (Walter’s) death.”
To a Juror – Mrs Sly
told me that Sly was shot about 11 o’clock.
To the Court – Mrs.
Sly also said that the people who fired the shot through
the door cried out
to ‘Keep Within,’ -- and that was the reason she remained indoors
He also heard that
some Whitefeet had paid Walter a visit at his home, since
when he cultivated the habit of returning home by an alternate
road to the one he left.
Another man who knew
the Slys was John Griffin. He lived about ‘eighty perches’ from
him. He recalled the night or the murder, although he only heard
of his death about sunrise the following morning. “I heard it from
a man named Ben Stacey,” he said, and went on with his evidence:
“ I was in bed at
the time. I went down to Connor’s house, and I went then to Sly’s
house. I saw Sly lying at the stable door dead. There was no
person about. Mrs Sly told me to go with Stacey and try if Mr Sly
was robbed. I examined his left pocket and found it empty. He had
not his watch. He heard Mrs Sly say: “Oh Lord, is the watch gone?”
In going from the close leading to his stable, Sly had to pass his
own hall door.”
Under cross-examination Griffin conceded that Walter Sly “was a
hasty tempered man”. He also confirmed that Walter drank
occasionally, but added that he did not see him intoxicated – at
least “not very often”. He also knew that Walter “often left home
on one road, and came back by another”. This suggested that he had
enemies and he employed this stratagem as a means of avoiding an
ambush. But as far as a person named Brennan was concerned, he
knew nothing of him: no more than he heard anything about anyone
injuring Walter’s corn or cattle.
Before leaving the stand Griffin was also asked about Mrs Sly’s
relationship with her husband. In the course of his replies he
said with customary understatement that there had been a
‘misunderstanding’ between Walter and Lucinda. He was careful to
point out that it had been so ‘a long time ago.’
One man who knew the
Slys and wasn’t afraid to speak out was the Rev. John Doyne. When
examined by the Crown he was quite forthright in his testimony. “
I knew Sly about 12 years”, he said, “and I knew his wife for the
same time.” He continued:
“ About five years
ago she complained to me of the ill-treatment she received from
her husband. He was a man of a most violent temper. She told me
that upon occasion she was turned out without any clothing at
night, and beaten with a horsewhip.”
Another of Walter’s
neighbours, Mr. Robert Phillips, Esq., was made executor of
Walter’s will. He testified that by will dated 16th of
January 1827, Walter, with the exception of a small legacy to his
nephew, left all his property to his wife, Lucinda. Mr Phillips
also saw the deceased’s body on the Sunday morning. He saw the
pistol that was found the following Monday after. “It was locked
up in Sly’s chest”, he said. Referring to Lucinda, he said:
“ I called for the
key, and she replied she had no key to open it. She then said that
Sly brought the key with him to the fair; I insisted on getting a
key. I examined her person and found two keys, the first of which
I took opened the chest freely. The keys now produced are the same
as those found. Her son Thomas Singleton, which he said belonged
to Sly, produced a second key. It opened the chest also. I found
the pistol. Captain Battersby and the Police were present. I
examined the pistol; it was loaded as if a person were in a hurry
or in confusion; the cartridge was not driven home. It was primed,
and had the appearance of being recently discharged.”
The condition of the
muzzle and pistol pans gave the appearance of a discharged
firearm. Moreover the ball taken from Walter’s chest was of a size
that answered the calibre of the pistol.
It wasn’t until
Catherine Landricken gave her evidence that the Crown’s case began
to take shape. She said she was in the house of the deceased, on
the Sunday after he was killed. She knew all involved, including
Dempsey, who was there at the time. She was asked to go to the
field with Dempsey to fetch some potatoes -- which she duly did.
But to get out they had to go over a stile and go through the
haggard, which accommodated 7 stacks of corn. Dempsey leaped
quickly over the style, and headed off. The witness hard set to
keep pace with him. He left her sight: “She not having been ever
there before and did not know the way”. She called out: “Where are
you, John?” he said: “Here, Kitty” Witness proceeded directly
towards the voice, and when she came up to him, she saw him pull his hand out of a stack, and settle the end of a sheaf.
This evidence on its
own meant little or nothing, but when sub-constable Joseph
Flanagan, came to search (on the 10/11 of November) for the
missing watch, he searched both the house and haggard and
miraculously found it in the very stack out of which Catherine
Landricken saw Dempsey draw his hand. The watch had a speck of
blood on it, and the corn stacks were served with a stepladder.
Thomas Singleton, Lucinda Sly’s son, who -- understandably -- had
been excused from the search for obvious reasons, identified the
watch as Walter Sly’s. Indeed, he had previously given Walter Sly
the key attached to the watch. The stack in which the watch was
found happened to be farthest from the stile, far enough at any
rate to give a nifty young man like Dempsey enough time to do the
business before the unsuspecting Catherine Landricken could throw
her leg over the stile, so to speak.
In response to some
skilful cross-examination, however, it was revealed that at the
time the watch was discovered a man named Tobin was sitting on the
stack and another named Brennan was assisting him. Brennan at one
time held a farm of his own but had been turned out of it by
This indeed put a
different complexion on the murder trial: and Joseph Flanagan
wasn’t finished his evidence. He said that he had been with sly
two days earlier; he cleaned and fired his pistol for him; and
before they parted, Walter Sly confided in him that he was afraid
of being murdered by the Brennans.
The jury must have
had their doubts about the case thus far: and that would assuredly
include Samuel Haughton, a Quaker with the sharpest of minds and
the most upright of characters. But that is not to cast any shadow
on any of the other jurors. Far from it. the case had its
difficulties and without further evidence there was serious doubt
as to who might have killed Walter Sly -- his faithless wife and
her young lover? Or any one of a family of mortal enemies whom he
had driven off their farm?
One thing is sure;
Walter Sly was very popular with the police. A couple of days
before the murder another Sub-constable -- John James -- went out
to Walter’s place to help him kill a pig. John Dempsey and
Lucinda Sly were there. James happened to the in the dairy when he
saw ‘ some symptoms of intimacy between the prisoners.’ More
significantly, perhaps, he also ‘saw her‘ taking hold of his
It became clear from
the tenor of the evidence that sexual impropriety, however
undesirable, was not going to successfully drive the murder charge
to conviction. There would have to be more substantial evidence
present about the actual murder itself. And the Crown sought that
assistance from the next two witnesses, Mrs. Bridget M’Assey and
old Michael Connors, who were expected to provide that extra help
that the prosecution needed to clarify the case for the jury.
Bridget M’Assey and
her husband lived ‘within two fields’ of Sly’s house and she
claimed to have known both Walter and Lucinda Sly well. She
recalled that the couple were very discontented ‘some nine years
previously’ and Mrs Sly used to complain more recently to her.
“When the turf was
cutting last season,” she said, “Lucinda showed me the marks of a
beating.” She also knew Dempsey, who was servant to the Slys. He
was hired because -- at the time -- there was no female servant
available. As a married woman, Bridget also thought it most
improper of Mrs Sly ‘to go into a room with Dempsey and lock the
door on herself’. She also saw her ‘frequently with her hands
about Dempsey’s neck’. She also saw ‘transactions’ when she was
getting the potatoes. The ‘transactions’ remained unspecified; but
the court seemed to know what she meant.
She also claimed
that Lucinda told her that when Dempsey saw her get money, he
would take it from her to buy tobacco. Indeed, according to the
witness, he used to sell milk and butter for her behind Walter’s
back. This left Mrs Sly short and witness used to give her some
On another occasion,
around the time a man called Potts was killed in the colliery, she
came to Bridget’s house in the morning. She asked witness: ‘Did
you hear that Potts was killed?’ and witness said she did. Then
Mrs Sly said: ‘Bad luck to them they did not kill Sly for love,
for money, or for God’s sake that deserved to be killed’. And
another morning she came so early into witness’ house -- looking
for a girl to pick potatoes – that she caught witness in bed.
While Bridget was getting up Mrs Sly noticed some poison near the
bed – poison, which Bridget’s husband had bought to kill rats.
Mrs Sly asked her for some of the poison, but was she refused.
Bridget M’Assey then asked her what she wanted the poison for, and
Mrs Sly said: ‘Why then the d-v-l take me but if I had it I would
give it to Watty’. With that there was what the Sentinel described
as a GREAT SENSATION in the courthouse. The prosecution had
got what they were looking for.
Defence – What time
Witness – About
The witness then
observed – almost as a lull in the proceedings --that the Slys had
in recent times lived on good terms. Nevertheless, she added quite
“On the night Sly
was killed I went to the house (Sly’s), and would not be allowed
in. I rapped and got no answer. It was after nightfall and there
was candle lighting on the table. Dempsey was within, and there
was a pistol on the table. The shutters were closed except a very
small part, as the shutters did not meet.”
She could go no
further with her evidence, but much of the damage was done. When
cross-examined she grew quite indignant and, drawing great
laughter from the court, said emphatically that she was not known as ‘BIDDY the Tinker!’ She said she never made up the
story, but always told the truth. Neither did she know anything
about stealing fowl. She said that part of her testimony had
already been sworn to Captain Battersby on the occasion of the
Inquest, but she conceded that she did not tell the whole story
until she was sworn. And it was also true that her husband was in
gaol; he was charged with Whitefootism --but he had never
been convicted. And if she never mentioned a word about the pistol
at the Inquest, it was because she was never asked about it.
To the court – I
swore to the fact before Captain Battersby, when he took her
information’s in wiring.
to your account Mrs Sly told you she intended to kill her husband.
Did you go and put that man on his guard?
Witness- I did not
Defence – Gentlemen
of the Jury on her examination she never told a word about the
pistol which she saw the Saturday night before. I think it right
therefore in giving chance to the prisoners to make this woman
explain away these contradictions before she leaves the table, if
not so far as her testimony is concerned -- you must take it very
scrupulously. She comes forward as the confidante and depository
of a murderous secret, while she never divulges it to the man who
became the victim.
Bridget M’Assey at times appeared, and whatever weight the jury
assigned to her evidence, it was all too probable that the focus
of guilt had swung back on the conspiracy theory. But the Crown
had more to come.
actually worked with Mr Sly in the month of April past (1834). His
testimony was that one evening when he had finished his work, he
had a conversation with Mrs Sly ‘at her own fireside’. It was
about a will, and he was lighting his pipe, when she said:
“Mick, I have a thing in my breast which is
burning me, and I don’t know whether it is safe to tell you or
not, and if you assist myself and my boy (Dempsey), you will be
nothing the worse of it”.
precision Mick, according to himself, responded:
“If it were any
thing that’s good, tell me; if anything that’s bad,
keep it to you”.
could hardly have felt too comfortable with such a reply.
Nevertheless, she proceeded:
“ This tyrant of a
husband I have, if he have only a head-ache, is threatening to
make another will. And there is one made this long time, which Mr
Phillip holds: and all his property is willed to me, except about
£10 to his son, Robert. He is going to Connaught one of these days
for some horses, and if I could get him out of the way before he
goes, it would be easier for me to hide money than horses. If you
assist the boy (Dempsey) and me, I will give you an acre of land,
and a house rent free while I live”.
“Oh Lord, woman! It
is I to assist you in such a thing. If I had all the ground from
where you sit to Carlow, I would not assist you.’
Three days later
Connors saw Dempsey and Mrs Sly being intimate, and he went to see
Mr Sly. He met him in a field and they got talking about Dempsey.
Mr Sly confided in him that he did not like his boy, and asked
witness ‘to come live with him as cottier’. Mrs Sly said further
that his own brother Archy and his mother were uneasy since
Dempsey came to live with him. At this, Connors said with a touch
of Saxon patois:
“I warn you on the
same thing. That is the very business I had with you, and advises
in the name of God to turn Dempsey away. I saw friendship between
your wife and boy I don’t like.”
Other of the evidence went to show Dempsey’s calculating and
wretched character. On the 1st of August past, for
example, he called upon Connors looking for Bill Murphy’s house.
According to Connors the following exchanges took place.
Connors: “I went
part of the way with him, and told him my shoes were bad and could
go no further”.
Dempsey: “ I don’t
pity you for having a bad cost and bad shoes, when you won’t do
what Lucy (Mrs Sly) desired you.
Connors: Go in God’s
name to some other farmer’s house.
Dempsey: “You are a
fool, and it is a good deed to see you in hardship. I would not be
more afraid of doing it myself (killing Walter Sly), than to cross
that little drain, (pointing it out). He (Walter Sly) never comes
home but he is stupidly drunk, and I need do no more than have a
wattle or a fork handle, and give him a blow on getting off his
Witness then told Dempsey not to attempt the like, for many a blow
of a Stick he would give him before it would take effect.
Dempsey said: ‘I’m
not without a pistol any hour that I please. I would only have to
knock him down and then fire through his carcase’. Witness again
said that if he did so, the almighty would not allow it to be hid.
Dempsey then said to
witness that he would get the Brennans turned out of their house,
and then the blame will be left on the Brennans or the Whitefeet. Connors then told Dempsey never to open his lips to
him on the subject. Even when Sly was killed, he admitted that he
did not tell what he swore that day until the Wednesday after.
cross-examination Connors informed the court that he could not
read or write, and he could not tell who wrote a document
presented to him in court. He said he was a resident of the County
Carlow, since he was eight years of age. He was born in the County
Wexford and had worked in Kilkenny, but he was never in a robbery,
nor was he ever accused of a robbing Mr M’Creery or anyone else.
He knows a man named John Byrne, an uncle of his, who lived at
Coolcullen about fourteen years ago. Yes; he recollected his uncle
being stabbed. He heard it was John Byrne’s brother who did it.
To further questions
he said: Yes; he had a few words of argument with Walter Sly,
about April past (1834). It was about two shillings, and Sly
charged him with telling stories about his boy and wife. That was
all that occurred. He worked for both Mr and Mrs Sly at different
times, and he never broke any confidence. Dempsey and he were not
very great friends. But at the time he made the proposition to him
to murder his master, they were on good terms, because he knew
witness’ private intimacy with Mrs Sly.
Court –Why did you
not tell your wife of this proposal to murder? Sly until three
weeks before the murder?
Witness: Said he
could assign no reason. It was for the sake of Dempsey that he
advised him not to meddle with Sly. He was in gaol these three
Battersby Esq., a County magistrate gave his testimony. It
recorded in that type of shorthand-journalese that jumps from
sentiment to sentiment, and is here reproduced with some minor
“ I know where the
late Walter sly lived, went to his house on Sunday the 9th of November. I saw the body of the deceased. The body was then
removed, but the spot where the deceased was shot was pointed out
to me. I saw a mark on the barn wall, which was at right angles
with the stable; the mark was about five feet from the ground.
It appeared to be
made with a bullet. I understand there was a ball found at the
spot. I saw the wound -- the ball appeared to have descended, as
it came out at the neck, and the shot must have been fired very
close, as there was powder on the whisker which was a little
singed. I was present when a box was opened and a pistol was found
in it. I made several inquiries for a key, and was told by Mrs Sly
that Walter always kept his own key.
On examining the
pistol, I remarked that the pistol was so much overcharged. If it
were fired off, it would burst. It appeared however that the
charge was not driven home. I put my finger into the pistol and
the powder came out damp, which is the case when arms are recently
discharged. I remember when the watch was found. I was near the
stable, and heard a general cry. It was found, and when the watch
was found I looked at Dempsey and observed he was much agitated.
He had changed colour. Almost immediately afterwards Dempsey said
that if he came to him to the gaol he would tell him all about
I told Dempsey he
was a wretched man, but whether before or after Dempsey? This he
could not recollect. Dempsey then said that there was no occasion
for throwing the corn about for the money was not in the haggard,
he was at the time in custody of a policeman, he said at that time
that he had neither hand, act or part in committing the murder.
I saw him in gaol
on the Wednesday following. I held out no inducement to him in any
way whatsoever. Dempsey then declared he did not commit the deed,
but that on the night of the 8th before his master came
home from the fair, he went out about 7 o’clock, and came in soon
after. He was told by his mistress Mrs Sly not go out any more, as
there was something to be done, and that after Sly was killed, Mrs
Sly gave him some money to count. He counted the money, one three
pound note, one thirty shilling note, three of one pound each, and
one shilling and a half penny that he gave her the money and never
saw it after.
I saw Dempsey in a
few days after at the gaol with two other Magistrates. I then told
him that perhaps he gave his information in a state of agitation,
and begged to know whether he would persist in his statement, and
he did so, but refused to have it set down in writing. Here the
witness read a
confession of his
signed on that day, which was a complete contradiction of
The only other
evidence against the defendants consisted of a pair of breeches,
which Dempsey acknowledged to be his. There were marks on the
breeches, which were thought to be blood, but which in a less
scientific age than our own, could not be proved to be his.
Nonetheless, Dempsey felt obliged to explain the blood and he did
so by stating ‘that there had been some persons beating his master
at Leighlin-bridge, and that in his defence the blood was
occasioned on the breeches.’
That concluded the
case for the Crown, and since there were no witnesses called for
the defence. the court charged the jury (at great length by all
accounts). After that the jury retired, but at the request of the
prisoners some prisoners were apparently recalled and re-examined.
witnesses were examined in order to impeach the damaging testimony
of old Connors. The effort, according to the Press, ‘ totally
failed, being broken down on their examination’ the Crown
The Jury again
retired, and at ten minutes to twelve o’clock, returned a Verdict
“ Nothing could
equal the awful solemnity of the scene, at the hour of midnight
the Court crowded to excess, and the intense anxiety of the
assembly. The Chief Justice himself was greatly affected, and for
a few moments after the delivery of the verdict, he held his
handkerchief to his face apparently greatly affected. He sat from
nearly ten o’clock in the morning to that hour, and seemed much
exhausted. On putting on the black cap, the court presented a
deadly silence. The prisoners appeared unmoved –
particular who cried out in a firm tone of voice “for a long day.”
A ‘long day’ was the
prisoner’s way of looking for time between the sentence and its
The Chief Justice
then pronounced judgement ‘in a very impressive manner’, and
concluded by ordering them for execution on the following Monday.
According to the
“ Dempsey received
his sentence without the slightest emotion, while the unfortunate
woman sank into a corner of the dock in a state of insensibility.
We have witnessed many such scenes in a Court to Justice, But
never beheld any that appeared to have made so deep an impression
upon all present, and as that which closed the mortal career of
the hapless woman, Mrs Sly. The chief Justice who was much
exhausted retired at half-past 12 o’clock at night.”
On Monday 30 March 1835, Lucinda Sly and John Dempsey were
executed in front of Carlow Gaol. Four months had transpired since
the murder of the 8 November 1834.
The Kilkenny Journal (8 April) briefly described the event :
At half past two o’clock the culprits were brought to the fatal
drop in white linen dresses. A Protestant and Presbyterian
Clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Hare and the Rev. Mr Flood attended Mrs.
Sly. The female appeared almost lifeless, being with difficulty
held in an erect posture by one of the Clergymen and the Governor
of the Gaol, who were both obliged to assist the executioner in
his part of the arrangements, otherwise she must have been
strangled before she was turned off. —
The Rev. Mr. Hume and the Rev. Mr. Duggan, R.C. Clergyman,
attended Dempsey. He came forward to the fatal drop, with a firm
step, and great apparent composure. He made a motion as if to say
something, but from the great noise of the multitude, which was
congregated to witness the tragic scene, he, at the instance of
the Clergyman, gave up his intention, and in an instant both were
launched into eternity.
The wretched woman, as we are informed, previous to her execution
evinced little or no symptoms of repentance, and appeared to be
almost insensible to the awfulness of her situation, though the
necessity of both was hourly impressed upon her by the Clergymen
in attendance, and several humane ladies, who were in the habit of
visiting the prison.
Dempsey, on the contrary, before and after his trial, manifested
the strongest desire of making peace with his God. He spent
several hours daily in prayer and other religious exercise. He
seemed perfectly resigned to his fate; and we have no hesitation
assaying he died perfectly penitent.
He was rather a well looking man, about five feet ten inches in
height, remarkably well proportioned, and about thirty years old.
Mrs Sly was probably double that age; it did not appear to be so
Prior to their execution the prisoners made the coveted admission
of their guilt, and according to the Leinster Independent at the time, the real circumstances of the murder occurred in the
following manner: -
Sly, as appeared on the trial, was a man of very violent temper,
and often beat his wife, without the slightest provocation.
Dempsey lived as a servant with them, and had often to interfere
between them. He generally succeeded in pacifying his master.
On the morning of the night on which Sly was murdered – previous
to going to the fair – he beat his wife, and promised her, on his
return – to sue his own words – to make skillets of her
skull. During the day Mrs Sly told Dempsey she was sure her
husband would murder her some time -- which he had latterly become
jealous of him; and would murder him also.
On Sly’s return home he appeared rather in liquor, and before long
commenced to beat his wife. Dempsey, as usual, had to interfere,
and with difficulty succeeded in making peace. Sly then went to
the fire, sat down, took off his leggings, and spurs, and fell
Mrs. Sly subsequently went to a chest or bin, brought from it a
hatchet, and placed it beside Dempsey, who was sitting on a settle
bed, saying, and “now is your time to settle him.”
He at first objected to her proposal, but finally yielded, and
taking up he hatchet, went over to where Sly was sleeping, but
upon attempting to raise his arm, felt himself devoid of the
power. ~He returned back to the place where Mrs Sly was standing,
saying he could not do it. She reproached him with his cowardice –
he went as second time, and found himself equally powerless. She
then said” give me the hatchet; I will do it myself.” –
He gave it to her, but she instantly returned, exclaiming in an
under tone, she could not do it either, and that he was no man.
Dempsey roused by this observation, took the hatchet, the third
time, went back again to where Sly was sleeping, and, raising his
arm, struck the deceased a dreadful blow on the head, which
instantly killed him –They then put on his leggings and spurs, and
carried him out, and threw him at the stable door. Dempsey then
got the pistol, and fired a ball through his head, and another
through the door, to make it appear that t Sly was murdered in
some other way.
The Grand Jury
Carlow, March 1835
John Watson, Esq.,
Sir Thomas Butler,
John S Rochfort
John D. Duckett,
Robert C. Browne
James John Bagott,
John James Leckey,
The Petty Jury in the Trial of
Lucinda Sly and John Dempsey,
Carlow, March 1835
Solomon Pierce, and