At 8 o’clock on the morning of 31 March 1926, Henry McCabe noticed flames coming from the upstairs rooms of La Mancha, the country house north of Dublin where he worked as a gardener. He raised the alarm and locals tried to enter the house, but the doors were bolted and barred. Two men eventually smashed a basement window and managed to climb in, to make a grisly discovery. James Clarke, one of La Mancha’s two household servants, was lying on the floor of his basement bedroom, wearing only his underclothes. His skull had been caved in.
La Mancha belonged to the McDonnell family: brothers Peter and Joseph, and their sisters Annie and Alice. As the rescuers moved further into the house they found Peter, who was lying naked and face down on the floor of the dining room, with his vest and pants thrown over him. A poker lay beside him. His body was quite cold.
Joseph was upstairs in his badly burned bedroom. The floor had given way and his body lay grotesquely with its legs dangling through the hole. The two sisters and their maid, Mary McGowan, were together in another upstairs room. They were so charred as to be almost unrecognisable, and the roof had fallen in on them, but Mary lay on the floor beside the bedroom door, as though she had been trying to get away from something. Or someone.
The McDonnells were a prosperous family of siblings in their 40s and 50s. They had moved to Malahide, a pleasant seaside town ten miles from Dublin, after selling their family business in Galway in 1920; and although they seemed quite settled, it turned out that they had recently put the house on the market. None of them was married: Alice was known to be emotionally fragile since the death of their sister eighteen months earlier, but all in all they had a reputation as nice, quiet people. La Mancha was quite isolated, standing in its own grounds of about twenty acres at the end of a 100-yard avenue.
Six deaths. The thing was baffling. There was evidence that the fire had been started deliberately in several rooms at once – there were scorched patches on the ground floor, where the flames hadn’t taken hold, and a paraffin can was lying near the back door to the house. But the fact that the windows were shuttered and the doors bolted and barred seemed to rule out an intruder.
The first theory that the police came up with was that Peter McDonnell had gone mad in the night, beaten his brother and the three women to death with the poker, and set fire to their bedrooms. Then he went down to the basement to deal with James Clarke. But Clarke woke and the two men fought. (Clarke had tufts of hair that was not his own in his fists.) In a manic frenzy McDonnell overcame his servant and smashed in his skull with the poker before staggering back to the dining room, where he either died from a heart attack or took poison in a fit of remorse.
There was evidence that the family was unstable. It was claimed that Alice McDonnell wasn’t merely fragile. She was known locally as ‘Mad Alice’, and would sometimes rush into the garden with her hair streaming behind her and scream at the top of her voice. Peter McDonnell behaved oddly at times, too: he would run round the yard in a circle and then throw himself to the ground, laughing like a schoolboy. The manservant Clarke was also strange. Over the weeks leading up to the killings he had got into the habit of talking loudly to himself, and the McDonnells’ plans to sell La Mancha seemed to be preying heavily on his mind.
The source of all these stories was the McDonnells’ gardener, Henry McCabe, who also said that the family had been struck down with a mysterious illness in the week before their deaths. The last time he had seen Annie McDonnell, he said, was in the yard of La Mancha, where she had suddenly vomited. Mary McGowan had taken to her bed, and Peter and Alice McDowell were also sick.
The officer in charge of the investigation, Superintendent O’Halloran, listened to these stories and then formulated his own version of the events at La Mancha. On 13 April 1926 Henry McCabe was arrested and charged with murder.
[to be continued]