A surprise encounter for gravedigger William Spence was the catalyst for a harrowing story from 19th century Belfast.
On Sunday 9th November 1884, Spence’s evening was interrupted by a knock on his door.
He opened the door to be greeted by a woman named Jane McCracken, who had an unusual request for him – one she wanted to be kept off the books.
McCracken told Spence that her daughter had given birth to a still born child. She wanted Spence to perform the burial the following morning at 6am at the Knock burial ground, where her family owned a plot.
She told Spence that the baby had been born with a broken back on Halloween night and offered him payment of 5s and stipulated that the matter was to be kept off the books.
Later that night, a carriage driver named Fitzsimons was contacted by the baby’s father, local carpenter John Lawther.
Lawther contacted Fitzsimons at 11pm to arrange a lift the following morning at 6am.
Fitzsimons obliged and turned up at Lawther’s house the following morning as agreed. It was then that he saw the tiny coffin that the carpenter had built and realised the nature of the trip.
A report in the Irish Times from 17 December 1884 said: “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.”
Lawther placed the coffin on top of the carriage and covered it with a sheet. They went to pick up the gravedigger and then headed to Knock burial ground.
They took down the coffin and left it besides the entrance. The men then headed to the nearby pub and had a glass of whiskey before heading home.
Spence returned to the burial ground at noon but in the meantime, he had done a little digging of a different kind.
Spence had looked into the McCrackens and found that they didn’t have a burial plot at the cemetery. He also discovered that they hadn’t made any payment to the registrar.
Despite this, he decided to get on with his work. As there was no family burial plot, Spence decided to start digging at the corner of the cemetery.
Suddenly he heard a noise that sent chills down his spine.
The Irish Times report said: “His attention was attracted by what he in his depositions described as ‘wee’ moans proceeding from the coffin.”
After hearing the noises, Spence headed to the Lawther household and confronted John and his wife Jane.
Jane believed that John was going to handle the burial himself and scolded him for involving somebody else.
Spence headed back to the cemetery with John, who insisted that his son had died on the previous Saturday.
At the cemetery, Spence told Lawther about the noises coming from the coffin and told him to listen to the ‘moaning and croaking’ that was still coming from inside.
The two men argued. Lawther insisted that Spence carry on with the burial. Spence refused to have anything more to do with it but stayed as Lawther buried the coffin himself.
After burying the coffin under five inches of earth, Lawther shook Spence by the hand and said: “Let there be nothing more about it.”
Later that night Spence found his conscience eating away at him. He wondered if there was time to return to the cemetery and dig up the coffin. If there was a chance the baby really was alive surely he must?
His thoughts were interrupted by another knock on his door. For the second night in a row he received a visit from the baby’s grandmother, Jane McCracken.
McCracken wanted to know if the baby had been buried. Spence told her that the job was done but he was worried that the child might still be alive.
He told McCracken that she should go to Knock with him to dig up the coffin as there is a chance that her grandson might still be alive.
McCracken said that she couldn’t as her daughter, Jane, was ill. Spence knew that this wasn’t true as he had seen Jane earlier that afternoon. McCracken said that she regretted hiring Spence and should have found another grave digger.
Spence contacted his brother in law and the two went back to the cemetery to dig up the coffin at about 8pm.
The Irish Times report stated: “They both went to the burial ground and lifted the little coffin, and they ascertained that the child was still living.
They then went to the house of a man named McFadden and borrowed a turnscrew, with which they opened the coffin.”
A mixture of horror and joy hit Spence as he realised that he had been right – the baby was still alive.
The men rushed the baby to a nearby household of Mr and Mrs Gelston. Mrs Gelston was known as a woman ‘of natural sympathy and kindness’ and she took them in.
They contacted a doctor who came by to see what he could do for the baby. He fed milk to the child as they kept him warm around the fire.
The baby appeared to be ‘tolerably lively’ at one point but tragically it was too late and he died at around 1am.
The baby’s parents were arrested at 10am the same morning. The grandmother, Jane McCracken was arrested the following day.
While in custody McCracken asked whether the baby had lived until 3am. The prosecution would later point out the she had claimed the baby was stillborn.
The parents and grandmother were brought to trial on the charge of conspiring to murder the baby by burying him alive.
During the trial, solicitor general Walker 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.”
Medical evidence showed that the child did indeed have problems with his spine.
The Irish Times reported: “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.”
Two doctors stated that the baby had been alive when he was buried and that the cause of death was the 12 hours locked in a coffin without nourishment and air.
Mrs McCracken said that the baby was in a ‘trance-like state’ when he was put in the coffin. Mr Walker said that the idea was ‘absurd’ and said that the jury must decide whether they believed that the child really was in such a state.
The parents and grandmother were found guilty of conspiracy to murder and received eight years’ penal servitude.
As for the grave digger William Spence – Mr Walker told the court: “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.”
Belfast City Council records show that a 12-day-old baby boy with the second name Lawther was buried at the Knock cemetery on November 11th, 1884.
Written by Michael Kehoe @michaelcalling