In the final part of a series about a murder in the Irish community at Albert Hill, in Darlington, “Gentleman John” McConville hangs for the shooting death of Philip Trainer

“THE morning was dull, and threatened rain, and the aspect of affairs about 7.30 was cold, cheerless and dreary,” reported the Darlington & Stockton Times of events at Durham jail 150 years ago today.

“At a few minutes to eight o’clock, the bell began to toll. The solemn sound, as it rose in the still morning air, was depressing and melancholy in the extreme.”

The morning of March 22, 1869, was to witness Durham’s first double execution. It was to be the first execution to be held in private, behind the tall jail walls rather than in the front of the courthouse before a crowd of thousands in Old Elvet.

And it was to be the first execution of a man who had committed murder using a firearm in County Durham.

That murderer was “Gentleman John” McConville who, as recent Memories have told, was found guilty of shooting a fellow Irish ironworker through the eye from point blank range in a melee outside the Allan Arms on Albert Hill in Darlington.

He was to hang alongside John Dolan who had got into a drunken argument with Hugh Ward over his treatment of their landlady, Catherine Keshan, in Union Lane, Sunderland. When the police had failed to intervene, Dolan had used a shoemaker’s knife to stab Ward in the bowels and the eye.

Although Dolan was also Irish, his was just a crime of alcohol-fuddled violence, whereas there was a fear that McConville, an intelligent, educated man of about 25, was involved in the Fenian Brotherhood which wished to overthrow the British government and set southern Ireland free. So great was the fear that since the McConville’s conviction, police had been guarding Durham jail in case the Fenians staged a jailbreak.

The Durham authorities engaged the City of London executioner, William Calcraft, but were surprised the night before when he turned up on a train followed, a few hours later, by Thomas Askern.

Askern was a York-based hangman who operated in the north. He had performed the last execution at Durham, on March 16, 1865, when the rope around Gateshead wife-murderer Matthew Atkinson had snapped on the first drop.

Atkinson had been revived with brandy and spent an hour discussing the situation with members of the large crowd until Askern had procured a thicker rope. After such a bodged operation, the Durham authorities had preferred the skills of the “grim finisher” Calcraft.

At shortly after 8am, the two convicts were led from the cells, accompanied by Catholic priests, past their own freshly-dug graves to the scaffold.

“McConville’s face was very pale, but his bearing was bold and erect, and his tread about as firm as on the day in which he appeared in the dock,” said the D&S.

“The convicts took their stand upon the drop. Calcraft immediately fastened the end of a rope to the crossbeam and slipped the noose at the other end of it over the head of McConville. The white cap was then drawn over his face.

“A similar proceeding took place in the case of Dolan.

“Both men prayed earnestly, and were attended to the last by their spiritual advisers.

“Everything being in readiness, a few minutes after eight o’clock, Sheriff Ranson, in accordance with previous arrangement, drew a pocket handkerchief out of his pocket. Calcraft, observing the signal, immediately drew the bolt, and the wretched culprits were launched into eternity.

“Dolan appeared to die very easily; in fact, beyond slight convulsive movements of the fingers and legs, no sign of life was visible after being thrown off.

“It was very different in the case of McConville. A tremendous struggle appeared to be taking place within him. His whole frame appeared to be convulsed, and his body occasionally was seen slightly to rise. During the time his fingers also moved convulsively, and it was not till 8.20am that the body became completely still.”

The bodies were cut down at 9am. The ropes and paraphernalia were burnt. Inquests were held at 11.30am, and the bodies were buried in the yard soon after.

The D&S was content that the private execution had prevented a grotesque spectacle where the thousands of watchers were usually stupefied by the majesty of the law and the amount of alcohol they had consumed.

“The only outward sign that such a thing had taken place was the hoisting of a black flag from the top of the prison,” said the paper.

But had the execution of “Gentleman John” McConville prevented internecine Irish warfare from breaking out on the streets of Darlington?

CRIME and punishment was very different 150 years, as the Darlington & Stockton Times also reported this week in March 1869 that three pitmen had become the first to be flogged in Newcastle jail.

Ralph Charlton, 34, Thomas Charlton, 24, and William Fatkin, 21, each received 18 lashes from a cat o’nine tails for their part in a highway robbery in which rent collector Charlton Foster had been garrotted near Byker.

In 1861, Parliament had severely limited the number of crimes for which someone could be flogged to robbery with violence and vagrancy. It was not a common punishment.

A triangle was erected in the gaol to which the men were tied in turn having been striped to the waist. As the oldest Charlton was the ringleader, he was to go last and to increase the emotional effect, he was required to watch “the punishment and sufferings of his companions”.

Fatkin, the youngest, went first. “Every lash left its mark, and as the number increased, louder and more piteous groans came forth”, said the D&S. “On the 18th blow being struck, Fatkin was writhing from head to foot.”

Thomas Charlton came next, his confident bluster blown away by hearing his colleague’s pain. “He winced and moaned terribly under the lash,” said the paper.

Finally, the ringleader. “The punishment seemed to have a terrible effect upon him, and this need not be wondered at when it is remembered that he was a spectator of the sufferings of his two companions,” said the D&S. “Every stroke of the cat told its tale. At times he cried and moaned loudly, but the terrible sweep of the lash was continued until the full dose of 18 had been administered.

“On being released from the triangle, he wore a countenance betokening an acute feeling of shame and intense suffering.”

The three were allowed to recover in Newcastle before being sent to jails in the south to see out the rest of their hard labour.