On the morning of Wednesday 31 March 1926 a fire was discovered at La Mancha, a country house north of Dublin. Inside there were four members of the same family – Peter, Joseph, Annie and Alice McDonnell, and their two servants, Mary McGowan and James Clarke. They had all been murdered. Suspicion fell on their gardener, Henry McCabe, and a few days later he was arrested and charged.
The murders attracted massive attention. Hundreds of people came out from Dublin by train, car and trap, and the Guards had difficulty in preventing them from over-running the crime scene. ‘In some instances’, reported the Irish Times, ‘young women with cameras were annoyed because they would not be allowed to secure photographic souvenirs of the grim ruin of the house of death’.
The public seemed inclined to accept the story being put about by the papers, that the McDonnells were an odd family, and that one of them, most likely Peter, had run amok and killed the others before torching the house. It also emerged that not all of La Mancha’s doors were barred and bolted: Henry McCabe had shown police to a little door at the back of the house which had been smashed open, leaving open the possibility that the killings were the work of a gang of burglars.
Superintendent O’Halloran was unconvinced. While he went on building his case against McCabe, the gardener protested his innocence, claiming that he had been at a wake the whole of the Tuesday night.
McCabe’s trial opened at Dublin Central Criminal Court on 8 November, before Justice John O’Byrne and a packed courtroom. Post-mortems of the victims had discovered traces of arsenic – not enough to kill, but too much to have been administered medicinally. That would account for their illnesses. The state pathologist thought James Clarke should have bled more from the wound to his head; it looked as though he had been moved after being killed. The pathologist reckoned that everyone was dead when the fire started. Clarke, in fact, had been dead for some days.
And so had Peter McDonnell who, it now turned out, had also been killed by a blow to the head, along with his brother Joseph and, in all probability, the three women, although their bodies were too badly charred for that to be established with any certainty. That was rather awkward for the defence theory that Peter or Joseph had gone insane and murdered their siblings. Nevertheless, McCabe’s defence lawyer, Alexander Lynn, continued to suggest that the McDonnells were to blame. Annie McDonnell had been seen on Sunday, 28 March, and witnesses reported she was in an agitated state. ‘Was it because she knew that Clarke had been murdered?’ Lynn asked the jury. ‘I suggest to you that it was, and I suggest to you that she never suspected McCabe, but that she suspected a member of her own family.’
The Wrong Trousers
But O’Halloran had done his work well, and the evidence piled up against McCabe. It transpired he hadn’t attended the family’s funeral – highly suspicious behaviour in Ireland in the 1920s. The door he was so eager to show to police as evidence of a break-in had been smashed open from the inside. There were unexplained bloodstains on his shirt and boots. He claimed to have sat in the kitchen reading the paper with Joseph McDonnell on the night before the fire, when the pathologist said Joseph was already dead. A water inspector gave evidence that on the Monday afternoon, he had called at La Mancha with a bill for water rates: the blinds were drawn, the shutters were closed, and no smoke came from the chimney. McCabe appeared from the yard and said that Joseph McDonnell was inside and that he would take the bill into him.
Most damning of all, McCabe turned out to have been wearing Peter McDonnell’s trousers on the day of the fire, with the storeroom keys in the pocket. A former housekeeper told the court that a considerable quantity of jewelry was usually kept in the house, and that the keys were always with one of the McDonnells. And a Guard testified that while McCabe was under arrest in the police barracks, he had told him, ‘It is all up with me now. I am going to Mountjoy in the morning, and it is all over the pants I have on me.’ He tried to get the Guard to go to his wife and persuade her to say the McDonnells had given them to him months before the murders.
The story that emerged in court was terrible. If the prosecution case was true, McCabe murdered James Clarke, probably with a hatchet, on the Saturday night. He gave arsenic to the others, just enough to weaken them, and over the next day or two he killed them with a blow to the head, one by one. From Monday afternoon until Tuesday evening he rifled the house while the six victims lay there. Then he poured paraffin into every room and set the house alight in an abortive effort to conceal his crimes.
At 9.10 p.m. on the evening of Saturday 13 November, after deliberating for less than an hour, the jury returned its verdict. They had sat through one of the longest trials in living memory in the Central Criminal Court, lasting six days and hearing from sixty-three witnesses, and at the end of it they found Henry McCabe guilty. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint in Mountjoy Prison on 9 December. The papers reported that a large crowd, mainly of women and including his wife, gathered outside the prison gate. When the notice of his death was posted, ‘Mrs McCabe screamed and fainted. She was taken away in a taxi-cab.’
Seven years later, a boy who was digging in a Malahide garden where McCabe had once worked, found two silver watches and a heavy gold watch-chain with a sovereign case pendant. Both watches had names inscribed on them – ‘James Clarke’ and ‘J. McD.’