The man with one hand and a bloody murder in Co Cavan
In 1864, years after losing his hand in an accident, Bernard Cangley visited his former boss
The visitor took a seat beside the fire at the home of Catherine and Peter Reilly in Co Cavan. Illustration: iStock
The couple didn’t recognise him at first. It was dark in the house, though not late in the evening.
Catherine and Peter Reilly were sitting at the fire in their home in Coolnacola, Co Cavan, when the man entered without knocking. A nephew and employee of the couple - 15 year-old James Molloy - was there, too.
Peter was a farmer of comfortable means and he sometimes used part of his reportedly healthy income for his second occupation - that of unofficial moneylender for the locality.
That perhaps partly explains why the couple did not appear concerned about an evening visit from a stranger.
“Is this not where Peter Reilly lives?” asked the man. He was told it was. The stranger pulled up a chair beside the fire. Catherine stood up and lit a candle. What happened next on the night of January 22nd, 1864, was later recalled by Catherine, who barely made it out of the house alive.
“Did you come far?” asked Peter.
“A pretty good piece. Do you not know me?” replied the man.
“How should I know you?” asked the farmer.
“Do you not know Cangley that the ass took the hand off?” said the stranger, revealing his arm that was missing a hand.
That jogged Peter’s memory.
Somewhere between 12 and 14 years beforehand, a boy he employed for farm work had been bitten on the hand by a donkey. The damage was severe enough to necessitate amputation.
The boy, Bernard Cangley, disappeared shortly after that, leaving the work, the townland and even his family behind. Nobody had seen him for more than a decade. Yet, there he was, sitting at Peter Reilly’s fire.
Hours before Peter was brutally murdered by his former employee, he greeted him as an old friend, shaking his hand and telling him he was welcome in the country.
They spent a long time talking.
Cangley asked about his mother and aunts. Catherine prepared tea in the parlour and insisted Cangley spend the night, offering him a bed in the loft with Molloy, above the Reillys’ bedroom. The stairs to the loft were in the kitchen, just outside the room where the Reillys slept.
At one point during the evening, Catherine and Peter went to milk the cows. In their absence, Cangley said to Molloy that he’d like to see Reilly’s stock. When the boy said he’d go with him, Cangley decided against it, saying: “They’ll wonder where is us two going.” Beyond that, there was no odd behaviour to indicate what would take place next.
‘Tis not James’
In the middle of the night, Catherine was awoken by the sound of steps above her head. Thinking it was James coming down the stairs, she called out: “James! Take care of yourself and don’t fall.”
But it was Cangley, not Molloy, who answered - from right outside the door: “Tis not James, Mrs Reilly, it is me.”
Through the closed door, Catherine asked him why he couldn’t sleep. Cangley said he had seen “flashes of fire” through the window.
There being no window in the loft, Catherine presumed he was seeing moonlight through the kitchen window. Peter, also awake at that stage, got up to investigate.
A short time after Peter entered the kitchen, Catherine heard him shout: “I am murdered!” When she entered the room, Cangley was standing beside her dying husband. He ran at Catherine, stabbing at her torso with a clasp knife.
The farmer’s wife bravely fought with Cangley, prompting the following summary from The Irish Times: “Being a woman of some nerve, she tried to defend herself, and did so with extraordinary courage.”
“He made a stab of a knife at me - stabbed me in the belly along the navel,” she later said. “I catched hold of him by the whiskers on his chin near his neck, he made two or three other stabs at me - one scratched the skin of my belly.”
Catherine attempted to catch the knife, but Cangley pulled it back through her hand, “and nearly cut a finger off”. The attacker pulled the knife away long enough for Catherine to take up a hedge slasher - an open faced blade at the end of a long handle.
“I made a blow at him with it, I don’t think I hit him. I had not the weapon in my hand till after I was stabbed. [Cangley] then went out of the sheet door - I think the ladder or stairs to the loft prevented my blow from reaching him.”
Catherine closed the door behind him. Peter, who had been standing behind the front door, walked back to the bedroom while Catherine went to light a candle. Before she managed to get the flame going, Peter fell. His wife lifted him up and called for Molloy, who went for help.
Realising that she may have put James in danger by sending him out, Catherine ran after him and encountered him one field from the house, returning with a neighbour named Patrick Smyth.
The three entered the house, where Catherine fainted. She recovered a short time later, but her husband died at about 3am. She said she knew by the strikes of the clock.
While police from Grousehall searched the countryside in the early hours, Cangley arrived at the police barracks in Virginia - having walked the entire distance barefoot - and confessed to stabbing Peter and Catherine Reilly. Peter, he was sure, was dead.
The knife had been discarded in a bog along the way.
Bernard Cangley was tried for the murder of Peter Reilly on Friday, March 4th, 1864, at the spring Assizes (the old way of conducting courts) in Co Cavan.
It emerged he was a ticket-of-leave man, meaning he was a convict who had been allowed early release from prison, with certain restrictions. As recently as January 9th, he had been an inmate at Smithfield prison.
Official records and the trial report in The Irish Times detail testimony from various witnesses, including the surgeon who examined Peter’s body - Dr Thomas McWhinney. The attack had been particularly violent. Deep stab wounds had penetrated Reilly’s intestines - one of the cuts was “large enough to admit my finger”, the doctor said.
“The body was very pale, showing great loss of blood,” said Dr McWhinney, according to official records. “In fact it was almost drained of blood. From the loss of blood I should say some arteries were wounded. I have no doubt that death was caused by the wounds.”
Mr Irwin, counsel for the prisoner, “made an able defence”, according to The Irish Times, during which he argued that Cangley had been suffering from “homicidal mania”. He said “the entire conduct of the prisoner was totally inconsistent with his being a sane or deliberate murderer; but it was consistent with his being affected by a sudden hallucination as evidenced by his statement that he imagined he saw ‘flashes of fire’ outside the house.”
The motive was unclear.
One report suggested that the murder was revenge for the amputated hand and that there had previously been some disagreement about compensation for the injury. Another potential motive was money - Reilly was known to be wealthy.
Exactly how wealthy Peter was is unclear; will records indicate the effects left to Catherine upon his death were valued under £100.
The Irish Times reported that Mr Henderson, for the prosecution, called the episode “ a melancholy, strange case as the motive for the commission of this dreadful crime could only be guessed at; but, from the facts submitted, it could not be regarded as other than a most deliberate murder”. The jury felt the same, returning a guilty verdict after no more than 30 minutes.
To the verdict, Cangley said: “I was unconscious at the time.” He was sentenced to death by Baron Fitzgerald, who “appeared a good deal affected” by the duty he had to perform.
The Irish Times reporter, who previously mentioned that Cangley was “a rather good looking fellow”, said: “The prisoner, who preserved a stolid aspect throughout the trial, turned pale, and looked bewildered for some moments.”
In the weeks before the execution, Cangley was a model prisoner, according to a report in The Irish Times on April 5th. Two memorials were forwarded in a bid to get a reprieve for the man - not because the signatories thought he was innocent, but to “save Cavan from the disgrace of public execution”.
They did not succeed. Bernard Cangley was hanged on April 4th, 1864 in Cavan - “without any visible struggle” - and his body was buried within the precincts of the jail.
The drama did not stop there. The hangman who performed the execution had something of a hard time getting the train out of town.
Hangmen, as with any perceived agent of the Crown, were not popular in Ireland in the 19th century.
The hangman is unnamed, but there is some evidence that he was an Irish practitioner. We’re told he’s the same “creature” who “hanged Ward in Belfast” the previous year - a reference to the murderer Daniel Ward, who killed a man for his watch so he could pawn it.
One report about that case identified the hangman as “Ackroyd, from Limerick”. That surname could very well be real; hanging was something of a freelance position, except for one man they usually kept on retainer in London.
Then again, many hangmen and hangmen’s assistants used aliases in a bid to dispel the odium attached to the role. Other reports refer to the hangman simply as “Jack” - likely a nickname derived from the real-life hangman Jack Ketch, whose reputation as a notorious brute responsible for various acts of barbarity endured long after his death in 1686. In short: it’s difficult to tell precisely who the executioner was.
In any case, at 12.30pm, the hangman attempted to catch the train to Clones. When he appeared on the platform with a jailer, a group of locals seeing off emigrants destined for the US recognised the executioner.
“The crowd commenced to hoot him, and pursue him, and were it not for the presence of a body of constabulary, he would have been roughly handled,” reported The Irish Times.
The train left the platform without the hangman, but stopped further down the line to allow him - and his five-man police escort - to board the train.