A cancelled wedding and an unsolved murder in Co Wexford
120 years ago, James Kelly was found murdered on the morning he was to be married
James Kelly was due to be married to the widow, Mrs Frith, on Sunday, February 21st, 1897. But, “owing to some cause or another”, the ceremony was delayed until Tuesday. By that morning, James had been murdered.
Kelly was a farmer and relatively successful, considering the small size of his operation. His house and 13-acre holding were isolated, save for the nearby house of Mrs Frith, in Kilcavan, Co Wexford. In the house, too, was his elderly, sick mother, for whom he cared.
Next morning, he was found lying dead in his own kitchen, with a wound on the back of his head, through which the brain protruded
“He lived alone with his mother, a bed-ridden old woman of 86 years, and by his thrift and successful agricultural operations had amassed, it is believed, a considerable amount of money,” reads an Irish Times story headlined “Shocking murder in Co Wexford” on Friday, February 26th, 1897.
Mrs Frith’s first name isn’t mentioned, but we know “she was heiress to a considerable amount of property”. The report later mentions that her mother was a “Mrs Doyle”. A Mary Doyle is listed in the 1901 census as being widowed, 61 years old, head of household in Kilcavan Upper, occupation “Farmer”. Mrs Doyle’s young nephew Paul Frith lived in the house at the time, giving possible ties to Kelly’s bride to be. There are no records of a younger woman with the second name Frith.
On Monday, we’re told Mrs Frith went to Enniscorthy along with her eldest son, who is not named, leaving “an old woman and a couple of children in charge of her residence”.
James Kelly went about his normal business that day. He was accompanied by a young boy, whom he sent back to the house that evening to help him prepare to stay up with his mother that night - she was feeling worse than usual. According to the report, Mrs Doyle saw Kelly that night at about 9pm. His body was discovered on the morning of the wedding.
“Next morning, he was found lying dead in his own kitchen, with a wound on the back of his head, through which the brain protruded. There was a broken pane of glass in the window,” writes the reporter.
“On further inquiries, it was found that Kelly’s boxes had been broken open and their contents rifled, all his money having been abstracted.”
On Wednesday, the day that was due to be his first day of marriage to Mrs Frith, an inquest was held by the coroner for north Wexford, Dr DT Murphy.
“Drs Nolan and Murphy gave evidence that death resulted from injury to the brain, not self-inflicted, and the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown,” concludes the report.
The report leaves out the nature of the injury, or any possible motive. No suspects are mentioned in the report, nor does there seem to have been any arrests made - after all, “Kelly’s house was really isolated from all human inhabitants” and there seemed to be very few people around at the time the murder took place. We’re told, instead, that “witnesses were examined who gave evidence of the fact stated”.
Then, nearly a month later on March 23rd, 1897, the case pops up in the archive again, when a judge passed comment while opening the spring assizes, or quarterly court sitting. It seems to be the last mention of the case in the newspaper.
On the books before the grand jury was a litany of crimes, including a different murder, the theft of some chickens, burglary and assaults. Though it was not before the courts, Mr Justice Johnson made time to mention the murder at Kilcavan and in doing so, gave clues as to how the fatal blow was inflicted.
“If there was nothing more, I should simply stop here, but I regret very much to say that it has been reported to me by the constabulary that your county has been stained by a foul murder, committed last February,” he said.
“A man, whose wedding was to have taken place the next day, was shot dead through the window of his own house, there being no inmate except for himself and his poor old mother, who was unable to offer any assistance.
“For that crime no one has yet been made amenable, and, therefore, I offer no further observations upon it.”
This story is part of the ‘Lost Leads’ series - a revisiting of lesser-known stories that have made the pages of The Irish Times since 1859. What can you find? Let us know on Twitter: @irishtimes. For more information on subscribing to the archive, see here: www.irishtimes.com/archive