Michael Dwyer recalls a murder trial that captivated the town of
Newtownstewart, County Tyrone, in 1873
In the summer of 1871, a murder occurred in a small Tyrone town. A young clerk, William Glass, was brutally killed as he put away the cash from the day’s transactions in the Northern Bank. When Thomas Montgomery, the local RIC Inspector, was charged with the cold-blooded crime it caused a sensation. “It was heard throughout the Empire with unutterable horror,” the Irish Times trumpeted.
Montgomery was only 29, well connected and a rising star in the police force. He had recently married and his wife was expecting their first child. By the end of June he was in desperate need of cash. Montgomery was a secret speculator who had lost a great amount of money and had swindled his widowed mother of £800 as well as two constables, Kelly and Kenny, of their life’s savings. Kenny now wanted his £30 by July 1st. The money had never been invested in railway stock as promised. If he couldn’t repay, Kenny could make a formal complaint to the constabulary authorities. It would result in his dismissal from the force- and ruin.
Thomas Montgomery held a privileged status in the country town. As the head of police he could come and go as he pleased in the bank. Glass and he were friends. The day chosen for the robbery was Thursday, June 29th.
The cattle fair at Drumquin, required most of Newtownstewart’s police for good order and security. The bank manager attended to provide facilities to the well-heeled farmers and buyers. Montgomery judged it to be the perfect opportunity: only the clerk had to be reckoned with. Unfortunately he would have to murder his friend.
After two hung juries the third trial began in Omagh on Monday 21 July, 1873, and lasted a week. The court-room was packed and included a posse of reporters from the principal Irish papers. Ladies of quality were allocated the side galleries. Montgomery appeared healthy and composed.
The outrage required the state’s leading lawman, the attorney-general himself, to prosecute. Much of Monday was given to jury selection, and the crown commenced its case on the Tuesday.
The murder took place shortly after the bank closed at 3 p.m..
No one saw Montgomery arrive. However, a Miss Thompson was upstairs in the bank’s drawing-room, and Montgomery spoke to her briefly. It was 2.30 p.m. by the clock in the room. she stated. The last customers, Mr Montcrieff and a Miss Fulton, were disputing a 6d charge on an American money order.
At some point, Glass went to the inner office. Miss Fulton could clearly hear whispering. It appeared he was taking advice on the issue. The crown contended the adviser could only be Montgomery.
Glass was seen closing the front door of the bank by a boy living opposite minutes later.
He was attacked with a handless bill-hook from behind soon after. Two pounds of lead had been smelted and poured into the socket for grip and ballast. A similar amount was delivered to Montgomery a fortnight earlier, from the shop of James McDowell. The wounds matched the weapon exactly. Montgomery’s uniform had no sign of blood on it when subsequently arrested.
There was none on Glass’s back either as he fell headlong against the door in a vain effort to escape. All the blood was on his front and on the floor where he fell. It explained its absence on the uniform.
Witnesses heard a heavy thump like a body falling and moaning as they stood outside on the street.
Montgomery then rifled the cash boxes of £1,600 (equivalent to £160,000 today) which he stuffed in his pockets, as well as the bill-hook, wrapped in newspaper. Residents living opposite the bank spotted him come to the front door, look up and down, go back inside, and emerge minutes later with a raincoat on his arm. He turned right towards the river Strule. It was 3.30pm; Harriet McDowell, observed the time on her clock. Further along the road, by the river, Montgomery was seen by Alexander Moone, at Grange Wood. He estimated it must have been 20 minutes to four as the children from the Model School had passed by on their way home.
Montgomery disappeared into a hollow for twenty minutes. It was in this area the money was later discovered with the bloody bill-hook wrapped in a torn copy of The Belfast Newsletter. The missing piece of the paper remained beside the body. He continued on towards the railway where he told a witness he was checking the security of the trains.
Workmen had gone on strike and orders had been issued to patrol the track.
By late evening, the County Magistrate, William Scott, had arrived at the crime scene and insisted Montgomery examine the body. He did so with steely composure and pronounced it suicide. Scott vehemently disagreed: “a foul and brutal murder”. Later Montgomery and another constable coffined Glass. Assistance was sought from other barracks. When Inspector Purcell arrived from Omagh at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, he was surprised to meet Montgomery on the road at Grange Wood. He claimed to be tired but was now going home. Four hours later he was seen there again. Suspicion was aroused.
Montgomery hadn’t notified the Inspector-General in Dublin. “It was as if an old woman had been discovered dead in bed,” the attorney-general said later. Another officer sent the official report on Friday morning. It stated that Montgomery was implicated in the murder investigation since he was last to leave the bank at 3.30 p.m. – which he did not deny. A motive soon emerged: money. Evidence of his duplicitous dealings with his subordinates was given. Montgomery was relieved of his duties and when the Co. Tyrone coroner adjudged the death murder, he was charged and lodged in Omagh gaol.
The defence presented no witnesses and Montgomery declined to testify. His QC, Mr McDonagh, presented the main facts in his most persuasive manner. It had succeeded in hanging two previous juries.
The main thrust was to attack the reliability of circumstantial evidence. McDonagh emphasised the lack of incriminatory evidence: money, the weapon, blood from the victim, none could be attached to his client.
A motive of concern over finances was a fragile ground to condemn. His uncle-in-law, Rev. Bradshaw, was wealthy and generous. A man of integrity, Thomas Montgomery deserved the reasonable doubt due.
The Attorney-General, in reply, proceeded to rip Montgomery’s carefully constructed persona to shreds. He had beggared his mother of her entire inheritance without a scruple and swindled his inferior officers. The weapon was prepared and weighted with lead he had purchased from James McDowell. What other reason had he in mind but murder?
The day was chosen with the greatest care. He refused to state his movements between 2.30 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. and lied about patrolling the railway; the trains he was meant to protect from strikers had long gone. Montgomery used it as cover to hide the money en route to redundant duties. Later, he lied to Inspector Purcell from Omagh. He never went home and was back again at Grange Wood at 6 a.m.. Throughout the prosecution address, Montgomery was cool as usual.
On Monday, Judge Barry meticulously steered the jury through the evidence. His charge underwrote the prosecution case emphasising the contradictions in Montgomery’s statement to the Constabulary. The refusal to account for his whereabouts for the hour from 2.30 p.m. had to be given serious consideration and he pointedly highlighted the witnesses’ unimpeachable evidence. The jury then retired. No one left the court. They returned after a mere fifteen minutes. The verdict was heard with breathless attention – “GUILTY!”.
The prisoner stepped forward to the barrier in the dock. He immediately admitted the crime to a stunned court. He was insane at the time of the murder and blamed Rev Bradshaw who had weakened his will with poison the previous year to force him into marriage.
The judge dismissed his pleas and urged him to use the short time left to reconcile himself to God. Then, donning the black cap, he pronounced the awful sentence – death, on 26 August.
Still displaying his cool demeanour Montgomery called Mr McDonagh, and smiling, thanked him for his efforts on his behalf. The condemned man was hooted and hissed at by crowds on his way back to the gaol.
His final days were troubled: he could hear the carpenters erecting his gallows nearby. Last letters arrived from his mother and wife, Mary. Neither visited. Montgomery wrote of his remorse to William Glass’s widowed mother. He begged her forgiveness but received no reply.
On the night before his execution a powerful thunder-storm shook the town but had cleared by 8 a.m., the time set for his hanging. Montgomery walked with a steady gait to the gallows while his clergyman recited the office of the dead.
He hesitated when he saw the trap-door and had to be assisted. His last words were for the executioner, “Is hanging painful?”
Shortly afterwards, the black flag was raised above the gaol. Inspector Thomas Hartley Montgomery, the only civil police officer on the island of Ireland to be convicted of murder, was dead.