It is a November evening in 1856, and we are in Galway, the city on the west coast of Ireland. A mail train is due to leave to cross the country to Dublin, a distance of some 125 miles. On its way, the train will call at many stations, some no bigger than halts, and collect cash boxes containing the day’s takings. These boxes will, eventually, find their way into an office in Dublin’s Broadstone Station, the headquarters of the Midland Great Western Railway Company. Thee cash boxes will be emptied, the cash counted and the sums entered into the ledgers by 42 year-old George Little, the chief cashier.
Little was a modest man of good education, but the cruelties of fate had left him the sole provider for four widows – his mother, his aunt and his sister. His diligence, attention to detail and willingness to work whatever hours it took to get the job done had endeared him to his superiors, and he was highly thought of – if not lavishly well paid. Little was known to stay after hours if there was a particularly large amount of money to deal with, but was always at work on the dot the next morning.
It was lunchtime on Friday 14th November before anyone suspected that something might be wrong; Little’s sister, Kate, had come to the station to ask after her brother, who had not come home the previous evening. His office, however, is locked. When the worthies of the MGWR eventually manage to break in to George Little’s office, they are faced with a scene from hell.
What follows is a classic locked room mystery as the police hunt for the killer of George Little. Even establishing a motive is a puzzle, as most of the money George had been counting was still there in various piles on his office table. The initial investigation is lead by three Dublin detectives – Acting Inspector Daniel Ryan and his two subordinates, Sergeants Craven and Murphy. Try as they might, their enquiries uncover more questions than answers, and Superintended Augusts Dye is brought in to head up the hunt for the killer.
Days, weeks and then months go by. Suspects come and go, and are released for lack of evidence and motive. Fast forward now to Wednesday 24th June 1857. Crown Solicitor Thomas Kemmis, who had initially been involved with the murder investigation was working from home – a handsome house in Kildare Street, Dublin. A servant announces that he has a visitor, and a middle aged woman is shown into the room. She is Mary Spollin, and she has an astonishing piece of news. She tells Kemmis that her husband James – a local painter and handyman – is the murderer of George LIttle. Her evidence is clear and damning, and James Spollin is arrested.
There is a problem, however, for the legal team. Under the law, a wife is not allowed to give evidence against her husband in a criminal trial unless she herself is the victim. It also becomes abundantly clear that the relationship between James and Mary Spollin is, to put it bluntly, a poisonous one. When Spollin’s trial, presided over by Lord Chief Justice Thomas Langlois Lefroy and Chief Justice James Henry Monahan, the accused man’s defence team are not slow to capitalise on this. A contemporary engraving (below) shows Spollin in the dock.
On Tuesday 11th August 1857, shortly after 4.00pm, the jury in the trial of James Spollin returned to the courtroom, having reached their verdict.
“Mr Alley, the clerk of the court, called out the names of the jurors to check they were all present.
When he was satisfied, he asked, ‘Gentlemen of the jury, do you agree on your verdict?’
‘Yes,’ said the foreman, handing him a piece of paper.
James Spollin had risen from his seat in the dock and leant uneasily on the railing in front of him. Mr Alley unfolded the slip and examined its contents carefully. The courtroom remained in breathless silence as he lifted his eyes and announced in a sonorous voice:
‘You say James Spollin is not guilty.'”
Astonishingly, James Spollin went on to capitalise on his notoriety by going on tour with a kind of celebrity show, which included, among other exhibits, a scale model of the scene of the crime. He then emigrated to America. Author Thomas Morris has written a book which brings Victorian Dublin to life, and he written as erudite, well researched and entertaining a True Crime story as you could wish to read. It is published by Harvill Secker and is out now.