Magheragall Parish Church. It is believed that the murder of baby William John Bashford Bell was carried out by his grandmother in the Magheragall district over 180 years ago.
The news of a tragedy that had occurred in the Magheragall district on Sunday 9th August, 1829 was circulated to the readership of the Belfast Newsletter over a month later, on the morning of the 15th September 1829.
The details of the incident had been captured in print and presumably the events attracted a lot of public interest. Almost two hundred years later we can piece together the events and circumstances of the tragedy that had taken place in the parish of Magheragall. The exact location is presently unknown but there is a clue given in the reporting that state the events occurred at “Farmer’s Glen,” near Magheragall.
William John Basford Bell had been born about November 1828. He was the illegitimate son of Eliza Graham. She in turn was the daughter of Jane Graham. We know little of the child’s first months, but we know that his mother took him away for two weeks and returned with him again sometime around May 1828.
In August 1829 Mary Hamilton was employed as William Bell’s nurse, by his grandmother, Jane Graham, a lady in her late forties. She was to be paid 20 shillings a quarter for her services. During this time Mary lived with John Doran, her uncle, whilst she was nursing baby Bell. It was reported that Jane Graham, was residing approximately a quarter of a mile away from the Doran household. She was the wife of a thatcher, and she was reported to have been residing at Palmer’s Glen, near Moyle. She was the mother of twelve children of whom only three sons and three daughters survived. The youngest of her children was aged five years. She frequently visited her grandson, although for reasons unknown, she had not visited him for a month prior to the 9th August 1829. On that date she arrived at the home of John Doran to see her grandson presumably. Mary Hamilton, the child’s nurse was out and was visiting the home of William Gorman. There she was met by Jane and they returned to Mary’s house accompanied by Charlotte Hagan. The child was passed between Mary, the grandmother and Charlotte Hagan. Mary had to go out to the well and on her return she learnt that the child had been crying. She took the child from the grandmother’s knee and commenced feeding it. There is no indication as to the whereabouts of the child’s mother in any of the reports. During this feeding process Mary was nipped by the child and it was reported that she scolded it. The child resumed crying. It was at this point that Jane, the grandmother was alleged to have made what could only be considered as a very strange comment and one that would be noted and later recalled by those who were present in the room. “Beat it – it has not the cry of a child. It has more the cry of a young devil.”
Later a neighbour, named as Betty Gorman called and Jane asked her for a “sup of broth.” She left with Betty to get some. The child had fallen asleep and had been placed in the cradle by Mary Hamilton. She and her friend Charlotte left the house at that stage. It appears that Mary went to Betty Gorman’s also where she engaged in conversation with a man in the house for about fifteen minutes. During this time Jane Graham returned to see her grandson. John Doran later recalled how he had returned to find her sitting in the house beside the cradle. She would later be joined by Mary again. One report states that Mary found her rocking the cradle and there were several children playing round the door of the house. Another report states that in fact when Mary returned she found that the cradle had been pulled down. The grandmother had explained to Mary that it had fallen over as she had rocked it. One of those children playing in the vicinity was named as Robert Rannagh, also reported as Grannan. He was aged about 8 or 9 years and he was stated to be the son of Mary Hamilton. He also resided at the home of John Doran. Several children of Jane Graham’s were also present at the Doran household that day and were playing round the door area.
Mary Hamilton later recalled that about ten minutes after Jane Graham had left the baby, it began to vomit. Mary noted a powder substance around the neck of the child. She herself tasted it and remarked it had a sweetish taste. She had the presence of mind to catch some of the child’s vomit in a cup. Jane Graham was sent for and on arrival it was reported that she attempted to spill the contents of the cup. The professional opinion of Dr. Robert Reid, a surgeon, who arrived at the scene, was that the child had been poisoned. He took the contents of the cup to Mr. Hill’s home. There he poured them into a phial which was left with the local churchwarden for the attention of Dr. William Thompson, a physician, from Lisburn. William John Bashford Bell did not recover from this sudden bout of illness. It was reported that the child died about five hours after it had first taken ill. In a post mortem examination Dr. Thompson found a considerable quantity of arsenic in the child’s stomach. He also analysed some fluid in the bottle that had been passed to him by the churchwardens and he discovered that it contained white arsenic.
Young Robert Rannagh’s observations that day would make him a key witness to a series of events that would have an everlasting effect on the lives of all those present in that household. He later told the court held on Monday March 29th 1830, that on the day in question that Jane Graham had told another inquisitive child that she was fixing the baby’s head in the cradle. She had however been spotted putting a white powder into the child’s mouth which Robert described was like flour. The events of that day were recalled in great detail to the judge and jury present at the trial at Carrickfergus. No defence was entered into by Jane Graham and the jury were reported to have returned a verdict of guilty without having left the box.
The Judge was left with no choice in his sentencing and despite what was described in the press as “a most impressive and feeling address to the prisoner,” Jane Graham would have known her fate when the black cap was placed on the judge’s head. She was sentenced to execution on Wednesday of that week and her body was to be given up for dissection. Observers in the courtroom that day noted that the prisoner remained unmoved during the trial and the address.
Jane Graham had time on her side to think things over whilst awaiting her fate in the condemned cell at Carrickfergus. She received visits from the Rev. Reid, described as a dissenting Presbyterian minister, throughout the duration of her incarceration. It was reported that she had been unable to read, and she had no knowledge of the scriptures prior to her imprisonment. Her husband visited her in her cell on the night of her conviction and at first it was said that she denied involvement in the murder of her grandson. She had a change of heart, and before she bade her farewells to her husband she confessed to the murder. She asked that her family and relatives would bear no enmity or ill-will towards any of the witnesses who were called at her trial. The following evening she asked the Rev. Reid to write to her family instructing them to take warning from her deeds, read the bible frequently and attend worship on a regular basis.
Jane stated that in fact the evidence given at her trial by the young boy Robert Rannagh was partly incorrect and he had not been in the room when she administered the poison to her grandson. She did however admit that she had planned the murder some months prior to the fatal administration of the drug. She stated she had come on the arsenic in a tin by accident one day when she had been working at a “fixed- in” bed. The poison been there for two years and had originally been purchased for the purpose of killing rats. On the fateful day in question she said that she had mixed the arsenic with sugar and water and administered it to the child. It was also reported that a gentleman had asked her if she was aware of the enormity of her guilt in this matter. “She considered it to be a sin; but, not so great as if she had done it to a grown up person.” She also stated how upsetting she found it to hear her own unsuspecting daughter crying out for “eternal vengeance on the murderer of her babe” prior to her guilt being exposed.
Jane Graham knew that Wednesday 31st March, 1830 would be her last day alive on this earth. She slept a little that morning and later had a cup of tea, refusing any food. She was joined by the Rev. Reid and she engaged in prayers of forgiveness and in religious ceremony. “I hope the Lord will be merciful to me,” she was reported to have said. At ten minutes before midday the Rev. Reid, the governor, the sheriff and the matron of the prison all accompanied her to the press-room. She was dressed in a black calico gown. She participated in the singing of the 51st Psalm and she knelt in prayer with those present. She had the presence of mind to thank the governor and matron of the prison for their kindness prior to the executioner’s standard preparations. It was reported that she was perfectly calm and composed and when asked of she wished to say anything to those present she replied “Oh no.”
At fifteen minutes past twelve, the final preparations had been completed and Jane Graham lost her own life on the scaffold. At approximately one o’clock her body was cut down and placed in a coffin for removal to the County Infirmary. There, the instructions handed out during sentencing would be completed and the public dissection and anatomising of her body were carried out. It was reported that the crowd on this occasion was not great and consisted of approximately 250 onlookers who were mainly boys.
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The Digger would be interested to hear from anyone who has any further information relating to the murder or to the families and locations in the Magheragall area mentioned in the article.