by ehistoryadmin on November 14, 2014

Patrick McCafferty hanged for murder

James Durney

‘McCafferty’ a traditional song, originated as a street-ballad about Patrick McCafferty, a young Irish soldier executed in 1862 for the killing of two of his officers. It is a popular ballad and was recorded by The Dubliners. The song is sung to the melody of ‘The Croppy Boy.’ It was once believed that to sing the song in the British army was a chargeable offence.

When I was eighteen years of age,

Into the army I did engage.

I left my home with good intent,

To join the forty-second Regiment.


While I was posted on guard one day,

Some soldiers’ children came out to play;

From the officers’ quarters my captain came

And he ordered me to take their names


I took one name, instead of three –

On neglect of duty they then charged me.

I was confined to barracks with loss of pay

For doing my duty the opposite way


A loaded rifle I did prepare

For to shoot my captain in the barracks square

It was my captain I meant to kill

But I shot my colonel against my will.


At Liverpool Assizes my trial I stood

And I held my courage as best I could

Then the old judge said ‘Now, McCafferty,

Go prepare your soul for eternity.’


I had no father to take my part,

I had no loving mother to break her heart;

I had one friend, and a girl was she –

She’d lay down her life for McCafferty.


So come all you officers take advice from me:

And go treat your men with some decency

For it’s only lies and tyranny

That have made a murderer of McCafferty!

Patrick McCafferty was from Athy, County Kildare, and was reported to have been born in October 1842. Some English newspapers claimed McCafferty was a native of Preston; other sources said he was born in Carlow, while other reports said his birthplace was Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, or Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone. McCafferty is a northern Irish name – sometimes spelled McCaffrey – but on his own admission Patrick McCafferty said he was from Athy. He had a somewhat dissolute life, his father being, according to some newspaper stories, transported for a poaching offense, or a governor of Carlow Asylum – a search of available records found this to be untrue – who upon being cleared of charges of misconduct, took off alone for America. Patrick McCafferty was sent to England by his mother to stay with a friend, Mrs. Murphy, of Mossley, near Manchester, who had wet-nursed him as a baby. (His mother appears to have died young, too.) At the age of twelve, he started work in a local mill and worked in cotton mills at Mossley and Stalybridge. On 10 October 1860, at age eighteen, he took the Queen’s shilling and enlisted in the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry) – not the 42nd Regiment as mentioned in the ballad. After enlistment he was sent to Fulwood Barracks, Preston, to train with 11 Depot Battalion and then posted to 12 Company, the 32nd Regiment. McCafferty was described as being of fair complexion and short in stature – five-foot four inches. At times he was described as ‘sullen’ and appears to have failed to make any friends amongst his fellow soldiers. He was frequently in trouble for his dress and behaviour, and so fell foul of the depot adjutant, Captain John Hanham. He was confined to barracks several times for trivial matters and at one stage had all his hair shaved off as punishment.

John Hanham had purchased his captaincy and after being wounded during the Sikh Wars was posted as adjutant of the depot at Fulwood, where he appears to have been something of an unpleasant, overbearing disciplinarian. McCafferty seemed to have a problem with authority, probably due to the lack of a father figure, which is required for the maintenance of military discipline. On Friday 13 September 1861 McCafferty was on sentry duty near the officers’ quarters when the adjutant, Captain Hanham, came out to complain about the noise of some barrack children who were playing nearby. Capt. Hanham asked McCafferty, first, to remove them, and second, to find out their parents’ names. Hanham felt that McCafferty complied with his orders in a half-hearted way, and sent him to the guardroom where he remained until the next morning when he appeared before Colonel Hugh Crofton, the commanding officer (C.O.), another irascible disciplinarian. Col. Crofton asked McCafferty what he had to say in his defence and he replied, ‘I did my best, the children ran away, and I could only get the name of one of the parents.’ He was then sentenced to fourteen days’ confined to barracks (C.B.), with the further punishment of four hours extra pack drill per day, with his knapsack on his shoulders. A sergeant then brought him around to the other sentries, in order for them to know he was not to pass out through the gates. This was done to further disgrace McCafferty for neglect of duty and to remind the other sentries to do their job properly. He was then allowed to go back to his barrack room.

Later that day Capt. Hanham and Col. Crofton, were walking across the barracks square when McCafferty spotted them through an open doorway. McCafferty was collecting his musket to clean it for the first of many inspections due to take place later that day as part of his punishment. He loaded his musket, knelt at a window and deliberately aimed at both officers. The percussion cap in the first instance misfired; McCafferty replaced it with another cap and fired at a distance of 65 yards (59.4 m). Both officers were in fact hit, with the same shot, and mortally wounded. The bullet passed right through Col. Crofton’s lungs then through the left arm of Capt. Hanham and lodged in his spine. After firing the shot McCafferty quietly handed his weapon to a comrade and was led, unresisting, away to the punishment cell. Col. Crofton died at 10.15 p.m. on Sunday night, 15 September, while Capt. Hanham expired the following morning at 11.15 a.m.

McCafferty was handed over to the civil police for trial and lodged in Preston House of Correction (Kirkdale County Gaol). In the course of his interrogation he said, ‘I didn’t intend it for the colonel, but for the captain.  However, it dosen’t matter much.’ The Freeman’s Journal, lifting reports from the English newspapers, said,

The culprit, who during his short career sank deeper into vice than might be imagined from his years, for some time after his condemnation raggedly refused to receive the consolation of religion, and rejected the ministrations of Rev. Fr. Gibson, a Roman Catholic priest, to whose congregation he belonged. As, however, his brief span of life wore on he became conscious of his awful position, expressed contrition for his transgression, and bore the evidence of a penitent sinner. He gave an attentive and heartfelt consideration to the admonitions of his pastor, and took a keen interest in his eternal welfare. Perhaps one of the most striking of this change in his feelings was the warning voice which he raised to his former companions in vice, the letters published in to-days Crozier being the spontaneous expression of a repentant offender, and being dictated surely as a caution to his heedless comrades.

McCafferty’s trial was set for the Liverpool Assizes, where he appeared on 12 December 1861. He was dressed in the uniform of his regiment and looked the picture of an innocent youth. The line of defence, conducted by Charles Russell, later Lord Russell, of Killowen, was that since McCafferty had fired the shot without premeditation or malice aforethought, it was merely a case of manslaughter. The result, however, was a foregone conclusion and the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against McCafferty. The judge said, ‘It has been said that you had been smarting under provocation from what you considered unjust punishment, but no such complaint on your part can justify the acts of violence to which you resorted.’  

At the moment the foreman of the jury gave in the verdict to the coroner, a gloomy coincidence occurred. The notes of ‘The Dead March in Saul’ was heard in the court as the head of the cortege conveying the body of Col. Crofton from Fulwood Barracks to the railway station for conveyance to the family vault at Leamington had just then arrived opposite the House of Correction. The sentence of death by hanging was to be carried out on Saturday 11 January 1862, in front of Kirkdale Gaol, Liverpool.

A platform with a gallows was erected against the jail wall, close to the cell of the condemned man. On the night before his execution McCafferty slept soundly. He rose at 5 a.m. and from then until the arrival of Rev. H. Gibson and Fr. Lanns at 7 a.m. he was occupied in prayer. After receiving Holy Communion he had a ‘hearty’ breakfast around 8 a.m. He afterward requested to see the governor, Captain Gibbs, to who he thanked for his kindness and apologised for being morose during the early part of his confinement. McCafferty dictated two letters – one to his sergeant and another to a man he had lodged with in Stalybridge – to Fr. Gibson. He informed Fr. Gibson that he was from Athy, in Co. Kildare, and was not aware of any relatives or friends beyond those named and the Liverpool policeman who had visited him the day before. There was no girlfriend as mentioned in the ballad.

The two priests stayed with McCafferty until the under sheriff and other officials arrived with the executioner Calcraft around 11.45 a.m. A few minutes later the sombre procession left the jail and moved to the scaffold. The weather was exceedingly bad and for several hours previous the rain had poured down incessantly. Between 25,000-30,000 people had gathered for the public execution and all available vantage points were occupied. This is part of the account of the scene from the Liverpool Mercury:

Immediately after the clock had struck twelve, the wretched culprit, followed by Calcraft, walked, apparently firmly, upon the scaffold, while he was accompanied by Father Lanns, reciting prayers suitable to the occasion. A smile seemed to play upon his youthful countenance as he took a farewell look at this world. He was dressed in the prison garb, consisting of a grey jacket and trousers. His mild countenance and boyish appearance elicited the sympathy on the part of the immense crowd. As soon as Calcraft, who was dressed in a suit of good black, had produced the white cap, the priest took from his breast a small crucifix, which the wretched culprit kissed with much fervour. His lips were observed to move in prayer until the rope was adjusted round his neck. The priest then shook him by the hand, Calcraft also bade him farewell in a similar manner, and everything being arranged, the bolt was withdrawn, and the unfortunate young man was launched into eternity, having been kept standing at the trap a much longer time than usual. He seemed to suffer a good deal, his struggles being great. The last words he uttered were – ‘Blessed Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and soul. Jesus and Mary, have mercy on me!’ When the bolt was drawn, shrieks burst from many of the spectators, and several of the females left the ground weeping and wringing their hands, apparently suffering intense agony at the spectacle they had witnessed. Thus ended the mortal career of one of the youngest criminals that ever expiated his guilt upon the public scaffold. After hanging an hour on the scaffold the body was cut down, and in the course of the afternoon was interred within the precincts of the gaol. Calcraft completed his disgusting task amid yells, hisses, and fearful imprecations from the mob.

The sympathies of the crowd were with Patrick McCafferty, while Captain Hanham’s final departure was humiliating – locals in Preston turned their backs on his coffin. The coffin was then put on the wrong train and arrived late for the funeral, which had to be conducted by torchlight. As a final embarrassment there were not enough local volunteers to fire the sixty shots over the grave to which Hanham’s rank entitled him.

My thanks to Padraig Yeates for bringing this story to my attention. References: The Freeman’s Journal 12 January 1862; The Liverpool Mercury 13 January 1862; ‘McCafferty’ … the story of the song, Jim Blaney, History Ireland, Summer 1995.

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