Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

The Borough Mystery: continued

Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
View as single page
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Noble's lawyer, a Mr RJ Drake, hoped to go a step further, suggesting that his client carried no responsility at all for Kirwan's death. "Noble thought that Waller and Balch were taking the deceased up the passage for a legitimate purpose," The Times said in its summary of Drake's argument. "He had no knowledge that a robbery or anything else was going to take place there. Noble simply stood in the passage waiting for the others."
Mr WM Thompson, defending Waller, argued that no-one had testified they'd actually seen his client strangling Kirwan, that no-one planning a murder would have let themselves be seen so publicly leading the victim to his death, and that it was ridiculous to think Waller would have confessed to a stranger like Featherstone a few minutes after meeting him for the first time. Ernest Beard, speaking for Balch, contented himself with saying the case against his client thad not been proven.

The fascinating thing about Kirwan is why he went out of his way to invite such a violent end

The judge, Mr Justice Bruce, briefed the jury on how the law stood on cases like this, and they retired to debate a verdict. They returned with a shock decision that all three men were guilty only of manslaughter, rather than the murder charges that had originally been brought. Waller and Balch were each sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Noble to 14 years. (24)
Many people found it incomprehensible that Waller had escaped a murder conviction. A Lincon's Inn lawyer, who signed himself only "AR" wrote a letter to The Times saying he found the Waller verdict "wholly inexplicable".
"It is a settled point of English law that a man who, in commission of a felony, kills a fellow creature, whether intentionally or not, is guilty of murder," the letter continued. "Yet the jury found Waller guilty of manslaughter only, and seemed entirely unaware that if he had done what he was alleged to have done, the offence would have been murder, while if he had not done it, there would have been no offence at all. The public will await an explanation of this matter with some anxiety." (25, 26)

Southwark's death records for the final quarter of 1892 show that Dr William Patrick Kirwan - our man's full name - was buried at age 42 in St Olave's Parish, right next to the St Saviour's Parish where he died.
The fascinating thing about his death is not the strangulation itself, but why a respectable professional man of moderate habits would go out of his way to invite such a violent end. If this was Kirwan's version of what Oscar Wilde called "feasting with panthers", then why choose a moment for it when he was so utterly unable to defend himself?
In trying to think this through, I consulted two medical experts: a family doctor and a county coroner, both with many years' experience in their fields. Neither wanted to be quoted by name, so I'm just going to call them "our doctor" and "our coroner" here.
Both these gents agreed to look through the evidence I'd gathered about Kirwan's death - principally the eye-witness statements and the post-mortem report - to see what conclusions they could reasonably draw. I didn't prompt them in any way, and they each produced their conclusions independently of the other.
Bearing all that in mind, let's consider the possible reasons for Kirwan's reckless behaviour one by one:

1) Too much booze?
We have the testimony of Kirwan's friends and landlady that he was not an habitual heavy drinker, and William Carling's autopsy confirms this. In one sense, this may have counted against him, as an unaccusomed session of heavy drinking would hit someone like that all the harder.
We know Kirwan was sober at 11:15 on the Tuesday night. We have no idea what he did in the hours between then and 5:30am Wednesday, but the barman in The Alfred's Head, who served him at that hour, thought he was still sober. Kirwan and Roberts then disappear again until 10:15am, when the Great Dover Street florist describes him as "weary".
As far as we can see, Kirwan drank only two or three beers in the five hours that followed, and witnesses are about evenly divided whether he was drunk or sober when they saw him. If he had been drinking heavily between 5:30am and 10:15am, you'd think he'd either be keen enough to carry on drinking till he collapsed altogether, or pull himself together sufficiently to go home and sober up.
Suddenly switching to moderate drinking half way through a day like that seems the least likely option of all. The only way I can imagine that happening is if Kirwan realised he was horribly drunk and tried to leave for home, but his companions kept talking him out of it. That much is plausible enough, but it doesn't explain why he'd behave so out of character in getting that drunk in the first place.
"His previous, apparently abstemious, nature makes DTs, as suggested by the pharmacist Williams, unlikely," our coroner said. "It doesn't really match the picture."
Our doctor added that the traces of alcohol found in Kirwan's stomach at autopsy suggested no more than the moderate two or three drinks we have direct evidence of him taking. The one beer Kirwan was seen drinking in the Lord Clyde just after 2:00pm would have still been in his stomach when he died less than an hour later, which explains the smell of beer Carling noticed when opening him up.
"A drink will typically take anything up to two hours to empty from the stomach," our doctor said. "Most people metabolise a unit an hour, so he would never have had very much alcohol in his system. I think, with the evidence you have, the amount of alcohol he drank was very modest."
Taken together, I think these remarks rule out alcohol as the sole - or even the prime - cause of Kirwan's behaviour. As we'll see in a moment, though, it still may have acted as the trigger for a more serious underlying problem.

2) Some other drug?
Kirwan's death came bang in the middle of the period historians call "The Great Binge" (1870-1914), when Londoners could legally buy morphine and cocaine preparations over the counter. As a medical man, Kirwan would have had even more access to these drugs.
It's a tempting theory, but Carling's autopsy seems to rule it out. He specifically stated that he found no drug except alcohol in Kirwan's system, and no trace of any poison or other irritants either. "If he'd had a large dose of opioids, he'd be quite happily high, but you don't get confused with that normally," our own doctor said.
Our coroner was less willing to dismiss the idea. "There must be a strong possibility of his being drugged or having a 'spiked' drink," he said. "One has to suspect he was drugged by an agent not detected in testing at that time."
Some form of doping may have played a part in tipping Kirwan over from vulnerable to helpless in that last stumble up Whitecross Street, but it can't explain why he ended up in Southwark in the first place. That would require the dope to be administered in Canning Town on the Tuesday night, and it's hard to see what anyone could hope to gain from that. What would be the point of spiking someone's drink and then letting them slip miles beyond your grasp before the drug takes hold?

3) Lack of sleep?
It's true that Kirwan didn't make it home on the Tuesday night, but one night's missed sleep at the age of 42 doesn't knock you out to the extent that he showed.
Roberts was in the business of offering quick knee-tremblers up an alleyway rather than hosting clients in her room, so I doubt he spent the night with her. If he'd slept rough for some reason, his clothes would have shown the marks of that, but no-one mentions any such dishevelment next day. Perhaps he'd simply walked the streets all night and it was that extertion that left him so tired?

4) An earlier mugging?
If someone had jumped Kirwan after he left the Aberfeldy in Canning Town on the Tuesday night, that might go some way towards explaining his strange behaviour next day. But any attack like that would surely have left some evidence - either as damage to Kirwan's clothes or a visible injury on his person.
Everyone who saw Kirwan in Southwark next day reports he was perfectly smart, and Carling found no injuries on his body that could not be accounted for by the Whitecross Street assault. Even in 1892, our doctor confirmed, a post mortem would certainly have picked up any head injury Kirwan may have received, and none was mentioned.
Also, if someone had attacked Kirwan on the Tuesday night, why would they not have taken the gold watch-chain he was later seen wearing in Southwark?

Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Gangland rule in Southwark: July & August 1898

There's never been a time when respectable Londoners didn't fret about groups of drunken, violent young men roaming the streets.
      The men who maimed John Wentworth's donkey were far from the only gang in Southwark in the 1890s, and it's no coincidence that's when the word "Hooligan" first appears in print.
      The word's believed to derive from Patrick Houlihan, an Irishman who made Southwark's Lamb & Flag pub the HQ for his family's criminal operations in (I think) the 1880s. (32)
      He was a skilled thief, a formidable fighter and much in demand as a bouncer in the borough's toughest boozers. He gathered a big gang around him, attracted by what Clarence Rook's 1899 book Hooligan Nights calls his "combination of skill and strength, a certain exuberance of lawlessness [and] an utter absence of scruple."
      It was a small step to corrupt Houlihan into "hooligan", and hence create a handy genric term for all men of Patrick's type. Most of those who earned that nickname were not the charming rogues I've implied in my description here, but simply vicious little thugs.
      Southwark was one of the London boroughs most plagued by these gangs. By 1898, they were powerful enough there to routinely intimidate any witnesses asked to testify against them, and their members often escaped punishment as a result.
      "Very few people dare to either prosecute or give evidence against known Hooligans," one newspaper lamented. "They enjoy comparative immunity." The same story adds that the gangs sometimes gave themselves colourful names based on stories they found in the cheap, gory magazines called penny bloods. (33)
      Here's a few examples of the cases passing through Southwark Police Court in the summer of 1898.

James Darcy was part of a six-strong gang who brutally assaulted a young butcher's assistant called George Fish when he asked them to let him pass in a narrow alley.
      He was arrested, and other gang members offered Fish ten shillings to drop the charges. He refused, but admitted £10 might have been another matter.
      Two of the girls in the gang swore in court that Darcy had never touched Fish, and police were unable to find anyone who'd testify against him. The court fined Darcy for drunkeness and keeping a disorderly house, but had to drop the assault charges for lack of evidence. (34)

continues >>>