Murder in Monkstown: Catching a killer with blood on his hands
Dublin, 1881: ‘He struck a match and on examining her, found blood flowing . . .’
Murder weapon: In 1881, a man accused of murder in Monkstown didn’t own a razor, but preferred to go to a barber’s in Dublin. Photograph: Illustration/iStock
A labourer watched his neighbour, Fanny Collins, shouting insults through the window of her house at Monkstown Avenue, Dublin. As she stood at her back gate, apparently with drink taken, she seemed to be directing her ire at her husband, Richard.
It was late, after 11pm, on November 17th, 1881, when James Byrne spotted the commotion. Others had noticed, too. The local postman, Daniel Murray, looked on, and not for the first time. He had seen the same show many times before.
The woman - aged in her 60s - began to cry for her children. She left the window, crossed the road and sat with her back to a hedge near a neighbour’s house. It took another 10 minutes of shouting before the cottage door opened and Richard emerged.
Byrne watched from a distance as the husband, also in his mid-60s, walked to the hedge and stooped over his wife. A moment later, she abruptly fell silent.
Richard remained at the hedge for another few minutes before returning to the house, Byrne recalled. Mrs Collins’s name-calling had stopped, but now a faint gargling sound took its place, “as if she was sea sick”. Byrne moved closer to the hedge to investigate.
“He struck a match and on examining her, found blood flowing over her arm and breast, but her hair prevented him from seeing any wound,” reads an Irish Times report. “She stretched out her hand to him, but could not speak.”
While pools of blood gathered on the ground where Mrs Collins lay, Byrne marched into the house to confront Richard, who stood near the door in his shirt sleeves. “Mr Collins,” he declared, “you have done it.” In reply, Richard told the labourer to mind his own business and close the door.
I asked him to show me his hands, and he refused
Sergeant McElroy was the first policeman on the scene. By that time, between 1am and 2am, Byrne and Murray had carried Mrs Collins into the house. A doctor named O’Flaherty knelt over her as she lay on the floor, dressing the large, bleeding wound on her throat.
The woman’s husband, the policeman was told, was in the back room of the cottage.
Sgt McElroy found Richard in bed. On being roused from his sleep, he told the sergeant his wife had been fine at midnight, when he saw her sitting under the hedge at the back of Mrs Williams’s house.
“I asked him to show me his hands,” recalled McElroy, according to another Irish Times report, “and he refused. I took down the bedclothes and then stretched out his hands, and his right hand, from the last joint of the thumb down to the end, was covered with blood.”
The bloodstains were a mystery to Richard. When asked if he knew his wife’s throat had been cut, he was equally dumbfounded.
McElroy arrested Collins in his bed on suspicion of cutting his wife’s throat, and escorted him back through the cottage. Fanny Collins was alert, still laying on the ground, when she saw Richard being taken out: “You have done for me at last,” she said, “you are long threatening this.”
The next day, Richard was charged at Kingstown Police Court, showing, all the while, “the greatest indifference” towards proceedings. Reporters noted his “strange calmness”.
That month, multiple hearings revealed a relationship fractured at the hands of alcohol addiction, though Mrs Collins, from her bed in Monkstown Hospital where she remained critical, said no single dispute let to the attack.
“The evidence disclosed a wretched state of things,” reads one Irish Times account, “a divided household, into which the drink demon had penetrated with the usual results - quarrels, contentions, domestic misery and disunion.”
A number of the couple’s children lived in the house, but the episode largely passed them by as they slept. Richard jnr, aged 17, deposed that his mother had owned a razor for cutting her corns and often kept it in her pocket, but his father did not own one, preferring regular Saturday trips to Dublin or Kingstown, modern-day Dún Laoghaire, to be shaved.
It was widely believed a razor had inflicted the devastating wound, but despite discovering its case, police could not locate the alleged weapon. A penknife discovered in Richard’s waistcoat was clean, and quickly dismissed as unimportant.
On the night in question, Richard jnr had retired to bed before 11pm, feeling sick. He heard the heated argument, but only got out of bed after the labourer, Byrne, confronted his father at the doorway of their cottage. It was the younger Richard who fetched Dr O’Flaherty, after seeing his mother’s wound.
It emerged in evidence Mrs Collins had been ejected from McCrystal’s pub in a “very drunk” state at about 11pm, before heading back to her house, where the fracas sparked. Despite Richard’s denials of any wrongdoing at these early hearings, he was remanded in custody at Kilmainham Gaol.
By the time the case was covered again in The Irish Times in February the following year, Mrs Collins had succumbed to her injury. On Valentine’s Day, 1882, at Dublin’s Green Street courthouse, the “old man” Collins appeared again, this time on murder charges.
At that hearing, Mrs Collins’s final deposition, taken from her deathbed, was read. “She stated that her husband had on the night in question, without provocation, knocked her against the wall, and cut her throat,” the court was told.
The judge charged the jury, ruling that the woman’s abusive language couldn’t justify a manslaughter conviction, as sought by the defence. As the judge spoke, Richard Collins leant forward anxiously, resting his elbows on the bar of the dock, his hands firmly clasped.
It took the jury fifty minutes to make a decision. They returned just before 3pm and amid “breathless silence” in the courtroom, handed down a guilty verdict, with a recommendation to mercy.
“I am quite innocent of the charge,” was Collins’s reply.
The judge assumed the black cap and sentenced Collins to death, directing that he be hanged on March 13th.
Regarding the jury’s recommendation to mercy, the judge told a pale-looking Collins to spend his last days wisely: “I warn you that in the apparently short period of life that remains to you, you should endeavour to repent the grievous crime you have committed and to make your peace with your Maker.”
That warning would prove meaningless.
Collins’s death sentence prompted petitions of mercy to the Lord Lieutenant; such bids were common, and sometimes effective. The main memorial, organised by Kingstown resident William Galbraith Esq, was heavily-backed with “numerous” signatures. In the end, it was successful.
On February 27th in a letter to The Irish Times, Galbraith attached the reply he received from W M Kaye of Dublin Castle: “I am directed by the Lord Lieutenant to acquaint you, for the information of the memorialists, that, after a careful consideration of the case, his Excellency has been pleased to commute the sentence passed up on Collins to penal servitude for the term of his natural life.”
A day after the letter was published, Richard Collins was booked into Kilmainham Gaol to begin his life sentence.