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A shocking case of a baby buried alive in Belfast

On a Sunday evening in 1884, gravedigger William Spence had an unexpected visitor

The Knock burial ground in Belfast. Photograph: Belfast City Council

It was late on a Sunday evening in winter when William Spence, a Belfast gravedigger, had an unexpected visitor.

The woman at his door, Jane McCracken, had a job for him. She told Spence that her daughter, Jane Lawther, had given birth, but the baby had been stillborn. This was an unusual way to do business, as was the offered payment of 5s - off the books - nevertheless, Spence agreed to perform the burial. They arranged the meeting for 6am the next morning, November 10th, 1884, at the Knock burial ground - where, the woman said, the McCrackens owned a family plot.

At this point, it was believed the baby had been born on Halloween night with “a broken back” - McCracken had told a woman named Ellen McCann as much by the time she called on the gravedigger.

At 11pm on the night Spence was hired, a carriage driver named Fitzsimons had an odd, late-night call of his own. John Lawther, father of the child, asked to arrange a lift early the following morning, also at 6am, according to a report in The Irish Times on December 17th that year.

The Knock burial ground in Belfast. Photograph: Belfast City Council

When the driver pulled up to the Lawthers’ house the next morning as arranged, he was surprised to see John carrying a small coffin - which, as a carpenter, he had assembled himself. For Fitzsimons, this was his first idea of the purpose of the trip.

“Lawther told the carman that he wanted the coffin brought to the Knock. The carman said if he had known that that was what he was hired for he should not have come,” reads the report.

It was John himself who placed the coffin on top of the carriage, covering it with a sheet. They set out for Spence’s house, arriving at 6.30am, and then drove on to the Knock.

On arrival, John took the coffin down from the car and it was placed in a “little house or box near the graveyard entrance”.

The coffin was not buried straight away. The report says they then left and called into a pub, each taking a couple of glasses of whiskey, before going home.

It wasn’t until about noon that Spence returned to perform the burial. In the meantime, he researched the records and found no McCracken burial plot at the cemetery. Another “remarkable fact”, was that no payment had been made to the registrar.

His attention was attracted by what he in his depositions described as ‘wee’ moans proceeding from the coffin

Without an exact guide on where to start digging, he decided to move the coffin to the corner of the cemetery. When he did, he heard a noise.

“When doing so, his attention was attracted by what he in his depositions described as ‘wee’ moans proceeding from the coffin.”

Startled, he left the cemetery and went immediately to Lawther’s house, arriving at about 2pm. There, he found John and his wife, Jane.

“How is it that you brought you to the Knock?” he demanded of John, but before he could answer, Jane interrupted, addressing her husband: “You tout, why did you not bury it yourself?”

“I left it over to this man to bury,” John replied.

‘Moaning and croaking’

The two men boarded a car and began, for the second time that day, the journey to the cemetery. On the way, the baby’s father told Spence he could prove the child died on Saturday - but arriving at the side of the coffin, the gravedigger “called Lawther’s attention to the moaning and croaking” still coming from inside the box.

Lawther was undeterred. He told Spence to carry on with the burial, but the gravedigger refused.

“The father then proceeded to bury the coffin himself, and he put over it five inches of earth. He then shook hands with Spence, and when he did so, said - ‘Let there be nothing more about it’.”

The men parted. Later, at home, Spence’s conscience began to get the better of him. As the evening went on, he “felt that it would be very much better to repair what he had done, if not too late”.

For the second night in a row, he was visited by Jane McCracken - the baby’s grandmother - who asked if the child was buried. He said it was, but that it may still be alive, and she should come with him to the Knock. She declined, saying Jane had taken ill; but Spence had seen Jane in fine health only hours before, and challenged her story.

McCracken said she regretted not hiring a different gravedigger.

Spence left his house and went to his brother in law’s for help investigating. Two men arrived at the Knock at about 8pm.

“They both went to the burial ground and lifted the little coffin, and they ascertained that the child was still living,” reads the report. “They then went to the house of a man named McFadden and borrowed a turnscrew, with which they opened the coffin.”

Inside, as the gravedigger suspected, the baby was breathing. They rushed the child to the nearby house of Mr and Mrs Gelston, the woman of the house being “of natural sympathy and kindness”.

A doctor was called as they warmed the baby by the fire. On his arrival at 9pm, the doctor fed the baby some warm milk, and at one stage it appeared “tolerably lively”. Despite their efforts, the baby died at about 1am.

By 10am, John and Jane Lawther were under arrest. The morning after that, the grandmother was taken into custody, at which point, she asked if the baby had lived until 3 in the morning - the same baby which she had previously said was stillborn, the prosecution would later point out.

All three were brought to trial at the winter assizes in December, charged with conspiring to murder the baby by burying it alive.

Solicitor general Walker, in evidence, said it was a “melancholy sight to see in the dock the father and mother, and the grandmother all arraigned for an agreement to get rid of the child - to whom it ought have been more than an object of sympathy, and more than an object of mercy - by burying it alive, and for no other reason than because it was a weakly child, and therefore probably looked upon as a burden to them, and, that in any event its days might be short.”

‘In a trance’

Medical evidence was heard, which described the curvature of the child’s spine - a detail which Mrs Gelston had remarked upon.

“Mrs Gelston observed, what was obvious to everybody who examined the child, that there was a malformation on the back, a malformation of the spine of a more or less serious character, which, perhaps, the child might have outlived; but the parents appear to have thought that it would have been the cause of at least a very unhappy life to the child.”

McCracken later went on to say the child had been in “a trance”; Mr Walker said the question for the jury on that basis was whether or not they believed the child was in this state when the parents buried it. He himself dismissed the idea as “absurd”.

Two doctors determined the baby had been alive when it was buried, and that the cause of death was 12 hours locked in a coffin “without nourishment, and excluded from all air”.

On this occasion, Mr Walker said, each person in court would likely condemn the actions of the gravedigger, “however, he did what he could to repair the great injury that he had done and the child was, at all events, alive when he went back, and he did his best to preserve its life.”

The jury found all three guilty of conspiracy to murder. Each received eight years’ penal servitude.

Belfast City Council records show that a baby boy with the second name Lawther was buried on November 11th, 1884, at the Knock, aged 12 days.

No name is given, just “Infant Male” - revealing a detail seemingly left out of the newspaper reports.

The grave number was not recorded.

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 or@deanruxton. For more information on subscribing to the archive, see here: www.irishtimes.com/archive