Murder in Mullingar: a canal walk that ended in tragedy
When Mary Walker didn’t return from her break in 1909, a grim discovery was made
In 1909, Mary Walker was due back at work in the evening, but did not return from her afternoon walk. Photograph: iStock illustration
At about 3pm on a dry, blustery day in Mullingar, 32-year-old Mary Walker left her house for a walk along the canal, which she often did after dinner. She wasn’t expected back in work until 7.45pm.
Mary, a telegraphist at the town post office, was quiet, and liked to walk alone. The promenade was popular among the residents of the town, but on that Thursday afternoon in 1909, it was all but deserted, but for two young men fishing on the bank. She knew one of them personally, an auxiliary postman named Thomas Nooney - the second man was his younger brother, 14-year-old Michael. She bid the two good evening and continued on her walk towards the racecourse, disappearing around a bend.
Mary’s landlady, Mrs Daly, became worried when she didn’t return for food at 6.30pm, before her shift resumed. Michael Daly, the landlady’s son, was sent to the post office to check for Mary. Nobody had seen her since she last clocked out at 2pm.
On his way home, Daly encountered Thomas Nooney at the Green Bridge, his fishing done for the day. He was standing, this time, with a second postman named John Lundy. Michael asked the men if they had seen Mary, and when Nooney recalled their encounter hours before, the three set off along the bank to look for her.
They stopped about a quarter mile from where the Nooneys had been fishing, in a well-known resting spot for walkers. The area was quiet, sheltered by the canal bank on one side and a railway on the other. The eastern was entirely hidden by 8 feet of hawthorn bushes.
They spotted her umbrella first. Then her gloves, and then a lady’s belt. About 40 yards up the path, there was a bundle of something the men couldn’t readily identify, partially covered with grass.
“They hurried forward and were horrified to discover it was the apparently dead body of Miss Walker,” reads an Irish Times report on Friday, July 9th, 1909. “The poor girl’s clothing was torn to rags, and the marshy ground on which she lay was stained with blood.”
Mary’s throat had been cut “from ear to ear”, and there had clearly been a struggle. Despite the Nooney brothers’ short distance from the crime scene, neither had heard screams. Winds had been fresh, and the Nooneys had been upwind.
Mary’s body was found at about 8.30pm. The doctor was sent for, but all he could do at that point was confirm her death.
Police secured the area, taking plaster casts of footprints at the scene. They determined “that the first contact of the murderer with his victim must have taken place close to the hawthorn bushes, as there were clearly defined traces of the body having been dragged along the bottom of the hollow for fully forty yards to the place where it was found.”
During searches of a nearby tunnel, a knife was later found, partially covered in mud.
‘A strange presentiment’
The murder rattled the community, with little else as gruesome having been seen in the country, let alone the area, for years. The Irish Times reported Mullingar had been “stirred . . . to its depth”. Crowds flocked to the scene on the banks of the Royal Canal that evening.
Mary was originally from Bagenalstown, Co Carlow. It fell to the postmaster there to break the news to Mary’s mother, who it was said “had a strange presentiment on Wednesday” that harm would befall her daughter. The news confirmed her worries, she said.
It wasn’t until the next morning that one of the Nooney brothers recalled seeing a second man on the canal that day.
A young labourer named Joseph Heffernan had passed a short time before Mary, walking in the same direction. He was identified as having been in the area by a number of other people that afternoon; all mentioned his distinctive leggings. When police arrived to his house the morning after the murder, they found his boots matched the plaster casts of the prints from the banks of the canal.
Heffernan was charged with murder. His clothes were removed and sent to Dublin for analysis, while he himself was “removed to Dublin under heavy escort, being accompanied to the railway station by a crowd of people, who vigorously booed.”
At the inquest, doctors deposed that one, four-inch wound in the throat had killed Mary. They couldn’t confirm whether she had been sexually assaulted, “but there was every appearance that such a thing had been attempted.” A knife, or sharp object, had been used, in a “stab and draw” motion.
An Irish Times report quotes the coroner as saying Mary’s murder “was one of the saddest events that had ever occurred in Mullingar, or the County Westmeath, so far as he knew.”
Heffernan was brought before the magistrate and charged, to which he asked “Is it me? I knew nothing about it. I am not that bad.”
Further witnesses emerged at subsequent court sittings. One, a boy aged 16, said he had seen a struggle on the bank of the canal, but from a distance, and he couldn’t say for sure who the two people were. A woman named Ellen Woods said that at about 5pm, she was picking watercress when she spotted Heffernan. He was sitting on he other side of the canal at the water’s edge, washing his hands.
“When he saw the witness (Ms Woods), he pulled his cap down over his eyes. . . he spoke across the canal at her, saying: ‘Have you e’er a match?’ she said no, and added: ‘If I did have one, how would I give it?’”
She also gave evidence of hearing a scream, as would other passersby, including a clergyman, who said he assumed it was just “children at play” on the canal.
A 14-year-old girl named Elizabeth Flanagan gave evidence at a hearing in July of a tense encounter with Heffernan. He arrived to the house on the day, saying he was looking for a woman named Molly. He invited himself in and produced a bloodstained knife from his pocket, and began cutting tobacco in the kitchen.
“The knife had a handle like lead,” according to Elizabeth. “It had a thin, narrow blade, which, said the witness, ‘wasn’t so bright’.”
Heffernan claimed the blood on the knife came from a goat he skinned earlier. According to a report in The Irish Times on July 31st, Elizabeth “began to get frightened of him, and ran out of the house to her cousin, who came back with her and ordered the man out of the house.”
She later identified the knife found in the tunnel as the same one he had drawn from his pocket.
‘A terrible thing’
Police Sergeant Cooke, who had been with Heffernan after his arrest, said that while on the train to Dublin, the accused had said: “This is a terrible thing to be charged with. I was not even in that direction yesterday, nor had I any business out there either. I never left the town. I did not take any drink for the past three months until yesterday, and I should never take it, because I am not accountable for what I do when I do take it.”
This evidence followed depositions from a number of publicans, who said Heffernan had drinking in their respective pubs on the day of the murder.
Heffernan was committed for trial at the winter assizes, to which he said to the magistrates: “I hope you won’t go hard on me anyway.”
Extensive forensic and technical evidence, as well as further witness testimony from a number of witnesses, was heard at the trial when it opened the following December. Heffernan pleaded not guilty.
An analysis of the yellow leggings Heffernan wore when he was arrested confirmed a number of blood stains. An attempt had been made to wash the leggings and a number of minute, spattered blood drops were found on closer examination, “which at once yielded to the reactions characteristic of human blood.”
On December 10th, 1909, the trial concluded at Green Street Courthouse in Dublin. According to a report in The Irish Times the next day, key evidence was heard from John Mansfield, as warder at Kilmainham, where Heffernan had been held in the interim months.
Heffernan, it emerged, had tried to take his own life while in custody, in October. After being transferred to the prison hospital, he lay in bed, raised himself on his elbow, and asked Mansfield: “What do you think I will get, sir?”
When the warder said he didn’t know, Heffernan had replied: “There is no use in denying it. I killed the poor girl right enough. Everybody knows it. I don’t know what came over me - the devil I suppose. I was drinking all that day. I put my arm around her neck and knocked her down. I cut a hole under her ear. The poor girl died easy.”
This statement, according to The Irish Times reporter, caused “much sensation” in the court.
On the issue of Heffernan’s sanity, Dr Richard A Leeper, said “his examination of the accused led him to the conclusion that he was a sane, but low type of man,” who was able to distinguish between right and wrong. On cross examination, he said “all degenerates were liable to uncontrollable impulses.”
After 25 minutes, the jury found Heffernan guilty of murder. When asked if he had anything to say, Heffernan “said something in a feeble voice, which was understood to be an appeal ‘for a few more days’”.
Heffernan was sentenced to hang and on January 4th, 1910, paid “the extreme penalty of the law” at Kilmainham Jail. A public meeting had been held long before the verdict, and it was decided a memorial would be erected in Mullingar, in memory of Mary Walker.
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 www.irishtimes.com/archive