‘The little woman is dead’: When a Kerry reverend shot his wife
In 1876, a workman made a grim discovery at his employer’s cottage near Kenmare
Reverend Watson was accused of being drunk during service at a hearing in 1869. Photograph: iStock/illustration
On the day he shot his wife, Reverend Arthur Vincent Watson spent the morning walking along the seashore at Killowen, Co Kerry. He was searching for a net he’d lost some time previously.
Finishing up at about 1pm, he travelled the short distance to Kenmare. These visits, The Irish Times reported, “were always unfortunate”.
The clergyman no longer performed any religious duties, owing to a suspension by the Bishop of Limerick some seven years before the day in question: Thursday, August 3rd, 1876.
“Unfortunately for him he pursued habits of life which rendered his administration of the holy duties of his office impossible,” reported this newspaper in March, 1877. “The bishop had to interfere . . .”
The “habits of life” included allegedly being drunk during service, and other unspecified mental health issues, described variously in other reports as “queer”, “insane” and “eccentric” behaviour, reports of which the reverend strongly challenged.
It was in May 1869, at a hearing of the diocesan court in the coffee room of the Lansdowne Arms Hotel in Kenmare, that charges were brought against Mr Watson. He refused legal assistance and chose to defend himself.
“The first and principal (charge) was for habitual drunkenness and intoxication,” according to a Kerry Evening Post report on May 26th, 1869. “The other charges were for using language blasphemous and obscene, and unbecoming a clergyman.” Other criminal charges were mentioned that had already been heard in court at petty sessions.
Over the following hours, a string of witnesses recalled occasions when Mr Watson would veer from scripture at the pulpit - usually at the evening service - as well as other, more serious incidents.
Head constable John Armstrong, who had been stationed at Sneem in the late 1860s, recalled the first time he “saw something strange about him”.
Mr Watson, according to the constable, “made mistakes; it was my opinion that he had something taken on that occasion, because I was at the morning service and he was different in his appearance.
“He used sometimes speak low and sometimes loud. I saw him going home; I could not say that he was drunk; I thought that he had drink taken,” he said.
According to the Post, Mr Armstrong said he “often saw something remarkable in his conduct in the village of Sneem – doing wild things and saying queer things; I didn’t mind him; I heard him make use of expressions unbecoming a clergyman; I often heard him say ‘so help me God’; I heard him say many things that I can’t recollect any precise expressions that he said”.
The reverend challenged Mr Armstrong, particularly on the point of mistakes being made. “What omissions did I make?” he asked, to which the constable replied: “None.”
“Did you not say I made mistakes in service? What were the mistakes?”
“I can’t say now.”
“Why don’t you remember?”
“I don’t remember now what they were exactly.”
At this point, an “excited” Mr Watson said he intended to lodge a complaint of defamation of character against the bishop. He then asked Mr Armstrong: “Did you ever hear the service performed more beautifully than in my church?”
“I often did,” he replied, “and better.”
A long list of other charges against the reverend - including firing a gun at a neighbour in a dispute over the price of hay - were heard.
Addressing some of the witnesses towards the end of the hearing, Mr Watson said: “Half of you would swear the leg out of an old pot for half a crown.” He produced his own witnesses, too, who said they had never seen him drunk in Sneem.
Ultimately, he was retired by the bishop and went to live with his wife, Anne, and their servant, Mary Sullivan, in a cottage near the sea in Killowen.
Seven years after the hearing, during the afternoon following Mr Watson’s walk on the strand at Killowen, he and Mrs Watson visited Kenmare, where they “both drank freely”.
By August 1876, Anne, his wife of 25 years and “a lady of considerable attractions”, had fallen “into the same habits as those of her husband, and became, unfortunately, addicted to drink,” according to The Irish Times.
When the Watsons returned home, according to the servant, Mary, the reverend had with him a basket filled with bottles of porter and whiskey. Both he and Anne were under the influence.
The pair dined at 3pm, “and there appeared to be some difference between them”, according to Mary, who had worked for the couple for 18 months. She “heard Mr Watson threaten to beat (Anne) with a bamboo cane. He actually did so”.
Mary detailed Mr Watson’s erratic behaviour, echoing allegations made against him in 1869. “He used often to go to the stables and preach there,” she said.
“He used to be baptising people that went to the hall door with messages.” The retired reverend often hunted rabbits, Mary deposed, and kept his gun loaded in the house.
Some time after dinner, Mr Watson mentioned the same gun, advising Mary: “Tell your mistress to take care of the loaded gun in the parlour.”
Patrick Hanson, another of the Watsons’ employees, was working in the yard at about 5pm that evening when he heard two gunshots coming from the house. Mr Watson then came out to him.
“Go in, I am afraid (the) little woman is dead,” said Mr Watson. When Mr Hanson asked what killed her, the reverend told him to mind his own business.
“The workman, on entering, found Mrs Watson lying on the floor bleeding from a wound in the side,” according to The Irish Times. “When the police arrived they found Mr Watson in his bedroom apparently getting out of bed. He made no statement.”
Police found a gun in the pantry, with both barrels discharged. They also recovered a pistol.
Anne lingered until about 1am on Friday morning, refusing to give an account of what had happened.
“Poor Arthur” were her last words.
On Thursday, March 8th, 1877, Mr Watson appeared before the Crown Court in Tralee. Sir Colman O’Loghlen, stating the case for the Crown, said the prisoner “stood charged with one of the highest crimes known to the law - namely, that of murder - and the person whom he was charged with having murdered was his own wife.”
Sir Colman knew the Watson family, and said “personally it was one of the most painful cases he ever had to prosecute in the discharge of his duty”.
A number of doctors were called by the defence in a bid to prove Mr Watson’s insanity. Dr John Nugent, the inspector general of the lunatic asylums, deposed that the prisoner had been in five different asylums.
Mr Justice Keogh charged the jury, partly directing them to acquit on the grounds of insanity.
After a short absence, Mr Watson was indeed acquitted and “ordered to be sent to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and kept there during her majesty’s pleasure”.
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.