Seamus Breathnach’s examines Irish society through its norm-creating as well as its norm-breaking agencies. These include the Church controls of Ireland’s State -- its Schools, Law, Police, Courts, Prisons, Media and much more...


10.) Capital Punishment

    10.)  Capital Punishment
    10a.) Bk. 8: Last of the Betagii
    10b.) Bk. 10: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland


Volume 1: The Evil That Men Do

    10c.) Bk.11: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland

Volume 2: The Nineteenth Century Female Calendar

    10d.) Bk. 12: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland

Volume 3: Petty Traitors

    10e.) Bk. 13: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland

Volume 4: Infanticide Or The Mercy Miracle

    10f.) Bk. 9: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland

The Penology of Samuel Haughton


Other Works by the Author:


A History Of The Irish Police (From Earliest Times.,..) Publishers: Anvil, 1974


Emile Durkheim On Crime And Punishment (An Exegesis), 2002


The Riddle Of The Caswell Mutiny 2003


Crime And Punishment In Twentieth Century Ireland Vol. Two:

A Description Of The Criminal Justice System (CJS) (1950-80) 2003


Case 33   30/03/1835


The Case of John Dempsey

And Lucinda Sly

On Wednesday April 8, 1835,the following notice appeared on page three of The Kilkenny Journal:




On yesterday Wednesday   a man killed his wife in Carlow under the following circumstances: -

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.



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 o’clock

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.

His Lordship’s 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 excessively’.

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.

Before an 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 blood.

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 trial.

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:

“His whiskers 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 party man.

Persons named 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 until morning.”

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 Walter Sly.

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 person’.

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 money.

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 was that?

Witness – About October last.

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 suggestively:

“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.

Defence –According 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 my Lord.

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.

However comic 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.

Michael Connors 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”.

With Benthamite 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”.

          Mrs Sly 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”.

Connors replied:

“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 horse.

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.

Under 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 months.

Finally James 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 amendments:

“ 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 him.

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 last.’

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.

Apparently three 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 prosecutor, Mr.Martley.

The Jury again retired, and at ten minutes to twelve o’clock, returned a Verdict of GUILTY.

An eyewitness recalled:

“ 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 –

Dempsey in 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 execution.

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 local press:

“ 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.”

The Executions

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 much.

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 asleep.

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.


Appendix A

The Grand Jury

Carlow, March 1835


John Watson, Esq., Foreman

Sir Thomas Butler, Bart,

John S Rochfort

Thomas Bunbury

Wm. Bunbury

John D. Duckett,

Walter Newton

Robert C. Browne

James Eustace,

Philip Bagnal,

James John Bagott,

William Stewart

James Butler,

William Duckett,

John Whelan,

Robert Eustace,

Henry Faulkner,

John Alexander,

Pilsworth Whelan,

William Garrett,

John James Leckey,

Harmon Herring Cooper,

Samuel Elliott, Esqrs.


The Petty Jury in the Trial of

Lucinda Sly and John Dempsey,

Carlow, March 1835


Richard Creighton

Samuel Haughton,

William. Young,

Thomas Watson,

Robert Browne,

Arthur Cullen,

Francis Moore,

John Salter,

John Lucas,

Samuel Norton,

Solomon Pierce, and

Richard Smith.

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