British Executions

Jeremiah OConnor

Age: 52

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 23 Feb 1909

Crime Location: West Stanley, Oxhill

Execution Place: Durham

Method: hanging

Executioner: Henry Pierrepoint


Jeremiah OConnor was convicted of the murder of Mary Donnelly 10 and sentenced to death.

He stabbed her to death in West Stanley on 14 December 1908. Her body was found five days later on 20 December 1908 in a field about a quarter of a mile from her home.

Jeremiah OConnor said that he had gone out with her and that she had been taken away by some navvies who attacked him.

Mary Donnelly lived with her parents and brothers and sisters as well as Jeremiah OConnor who lodged with the family for about three years.

Mary Donnelly was last seen in her house by her father on 14 December 1908 washing up some cups. He said that Mary Donnelly had been sleeping in an upstairs room with her brother until a fortnight before her murder. He said that when he got home on 14 December 1908 he found Mary Donnelly along with the children and his wife as well as Jeremiah OConnor in the house and said that Jeremiah OConnor had been getting his dinner. He said that Jeremiah OConnor seemed to have had a gill or two but was sober and he asked him if he was going to work that night and said that Jeremiah OConnor replied 'Yes'.

The father said that after, Jeremiah OConnor went upstairs to bed and that at about 7pm he went out to an Oddfellows Lodge, and that when he left Mary Donnelly was washing up some cups and that he never saw her alive again.

He said that Jeremiah OConnor had always behaved well to the children and used to give them pennies.

Mary Donnelly's mother said that Jeremiah OConnor paid her his fortnight pay on Friday 11 December 1908, £2 0s 9d and on that night, he had gone out to work. She said that the next day, Saturday 12 December 1908 Jeremiah OConnor got very drunk and didn't go to work and had gone to bed and slept all night. She said that Mary Donnelly had slept with her that night. She said that the next day, Sunday 13 December 1908 Jeremiah OConnor was under the influence of drink and that the following day, Monday 14 December 1908 he had gone out without having any breakfast and later came back at noon and had some tea and bread. She said that he then asked her for a loan of 6d for drink but said that she told him that she didn't have it.

She said that he then went out again and then returned at about 4pm and that at 5pm he had his dinner and then went upstairs to bed. She said that at about 7.30pm she lay down with her baby in the kitchen, leaving Mary Donnelly washing the dishes, and went to sleep and that when she woke up at 8.40pm, Mary Donnelly and Jeremiah OConnor were both gone. She said that Jeremiah OConnor had never been out with Mary Donnelly before and noted that he used to carry a shoe maker's knife.

She said that Mary Donnelly had been wearing a brown frock and had had no hat or pinafore on.

Mary Donnelly's mother said that she then went to see her neighbours and a search was made and then on 21 December 1908 she went to Pea Farm house where she identified the body of Mary Donnelly.

Jeremiah OConnor was later seen by a woman who lived at Hill Head, Gibside on Thursday 17 December 1908 between 12 noon and 1pm. She said that he was in a weak and distressed state and asked for some bread. She said that she asked him where he had come from and where he wanted to go but said that he told her that he didn't know. She said that she gave him some bread and butter and tea but said that he trembled so much that he could scarcely hold the saucer to his lips and said to her 'Oh, save my bairn'. She said that she asked him, 'What about your bairn?' and said that he replied 'A man has taken my child from me. I have fought for her and been stabbed. I have brought the child away to seek a home for her'. She said that she asked him where he had left the child and said that he replied, 'I cannot tell. I was going to send her to my father'. She said that she suggested that he go and see a priest but said that he told her that he would not do that as a priest might bite.

The woman said that Jeremiah OConnor then went off and that as he did so she saw him take a piece of paper out of his pocket and look at it.

She said that he came back to her house on Friday 18 December 1909 and asked her for a drink of water, saying that he had been lying out. She said that he repeated his story about the navvy having fought him for the child and said that she suggested that he sent for the police but said that he then moved off in a hurry.

Jeremiah OConnor was later arrested between Tanfield and Baron's Close Farm, about two and a half miles from Stanley. When he was questioned he repeated the story about the navvy taking Mary Donnelly and said that he had chased the navvy but had been stabbed.

When he was taken to Consett Police Station and charged with Mary Donnelly's murder he said, 'Who says that? Me? What Mary Donnelly? If that is not -------. Well by God. Well -----. Where?'.

When Jeremiah OConnor was examined he was found to be in a stupefied condition and suffering from twitching of the muscles. He was said to speak at random and muttered about going down the pit. He was also unable to stand up without support and unable to take off his own clothes. He was said to have looked like he was suffering from cold and hunger as well as from the effects of drink some time earlier and his condition was stated as being consistent with having lain out in the winter time without any food.

When his injuries were examined they were said to have not been the sort of cuts that one would expect a man to receive if he had been fighting with another man armed with a knife and that it was thought that they were self-inflicted. When a surgeon at Durham examined him he concluded that he was perfectly sane.

When he described the attack, he said, 'A big navvy took the girl off me and killed her. I tried to save her. He got a knife out of my pocket and did this to me', pointing to his wounds.

When Mary Donnelly's body was found she had a quantity of loose hair on her chest and a quantity of grass grasped in her hands.

The doctor that examined Mary Donnelly's body said that her spinal cord had been cut through and four inches below the breast bone, the abdomen was laid open right down to the lower part of the body. He said that the wound had been done with more than one stroke of a weapon and that she had at least sixteen wounds, five of which were sufficient to have caused her death quickly. He said that there was also evidence of penetration before and after her death, as though with a finger.

When Jeremiah OConnor gave evidence in court he said that he had felt ill on the Monday, 14 December 1908 as he had been drinking whisky on the Saturday and said that it didn't agree with him as he usually drank beer. He said that he was in a pub that afternoon but still felt bad and had a headache. He said that he had intended going to work that night but could not sleep and got up with the intention of having a long walk to tire himself. He said that he sent Mary Donnelly out to get him a bottle of Dandelion Stout and said that when he was drinking it she had clicked it out of his hand and that he took it off of her and went to the door to finish drinking it, and gave her a portion.

He said that he then went back into the house and Mary Donnelly went back off to the shop with the empty bottle and that he then told her to tell her mother that he was not going to work that night as he felt ill and asked her to tell her mother saying that she replied, 'All right'. However, he said that she followed him out on his walk but that he told her to go back and then went off again but that after he had got another 50 yards to a railway crossing she came up behind him and caught hold of his jacket and said, 'How way back'. He said that he told her that she should not have gone there but took pity on her and took her back home. However, he said he then saw a big powerful man with black bushy whiskers. He said that the man was wearing a brown jacket and cap and said to him in a rough voice, 'I will take charge of the child and take her home'.

Jeremiah OConnor said that he told the man that he had nothing to do with the child and said that the man then at once put out his hand to catch Mary Donnelly and that he then hit the man in the face with his fist. Jeremiah OConnor said that the man then clicked him by the right leg and tripped him up and said that they then fell to the ground together. He said that Little Pollie shouted 'Oh dear, what will I do?' and he said that he told her 'Run home, Pollie, as fast as you can'. He said that he heard Mary Donnelly run off and could hear her crying cease.

However, he said that he was still struggling with the man on the ground and said that he seemed to have no chance against him as he was big and powerful. He said that he ultimately managed to push him off but before he could get to his feet the man had a hold of him again and that as the man was on top of him he felt that he had been stabbed twice with a knife or dagger in the thigh. He said that he tried again to get up but that the man got the better of him and put his knee on his breast. He said that he then saw something shiny like a short knife and he clicked the knife with his left hand and tried to get it but was unsuccessful. He said that he felt the man lying on his left arm and felt him cut it. He said that there were no buttons on his shirt sleeves and his coat had become rolled up and he was cut on his bare arm. He said that he then at last managed to extricate himself and that as he did the man stabbed him in the leg and that he then lost his senses and could not remember when he recovered consciousness.

Jeremiah OConnor said that when he came to his senses he found that the blood on his arm had congealed and said that he saw no more of the man.

He said that when he got up he intended to go back home to have his wounds treated but said that he then fell back over and then said that he seemed to see snow, even though none was falling and noticed that his hands were dry. He said that he remembered nothing more until he came out of a wood and a woman gave him a drink of tea. He said that when he woke in the wood he thought that he was in his native wood in Ireland. He said that he was awakened by a shot fired over his head and saw a man walking away with a gun.

Jeremiah OConnor said that he didn't remember the conversation he had had with the woman but remembered coming to his senses on the Friday when waking in a holly bush and going to a house and asking for the road to Stanley. He said that a young woman there gave him a piece of bread that she wrapped up in a piece of paper that he said was the piece of paper that was later found on him and which he said he had never read. However, when he was found, the police said that the piece of paper he was referring to was an extract from a newspaper dated 17 December 1908 on him relating to Mary Donnelly and to his own disappearance.

Jeremiah OConnor said that he had fallen several times through sheer exhaustion and hit the back of his head.

He said that the last time he saw Mary Donnelly was when he was fighting the man at the railway crossing and said that he had nothing to do with her death and that he would not have hurt a hair on the child's head. He also said that he never took Mary Donnelly away. He said that the fight had lasted about ten minutes. He also said in court that the knife that the man had used had not been his knife.

The prosecution said that his story was of such a character that no twelve men of sense and intelligence would possibly accept it.

When the judge summed up he said that the most curious thing about Jeremiah OConnor's story was that the fight was said to have taken place no farther than 300-400 yards from his house but afterwards, instead of going home to see how Mary Donnelly was, he instead disappeared and apparently went to a wood three and a half miles away.

The judge also said that it was quite likely that in his ordinary moments Jeremiah OConnor would not have done such a thing as he was charged with. He said that in all humane probability, if he had kept himself sober and steady and lived that weekend like a respectable creature, he would not have been standing there in the dock awaiting the jury's verdict. He said that it was a terrible indulging that reduced men like him to a condition in which they were not acting in their ordinary natures, but a beastly, brutal nature, with a mind muddled by drink. He continued, saying, that was the condition to which they reduced themselves, adding that drink was no excuse for crime and that if they were going to make drink an excuse for crime, away went the whole security of human life and human property.

The jury retired for eight minutes and returned a verdict of guilty.

When Jeremiah OConnor was asked if he had anything to say he said ''Not guilty. I did not do anything to her. I am as innocent as any man in this court'.

see National Archives - HO 144/901/175218