Wednesday 18 September 2019

Allen Foster: 'The family feud that led to a midnight massacre'

The horrific Bodkin Murders saw an entire household slain over a lost inheritance

'His body and his uncle's were hung in chains at the place of execution to act as a warning to others.'
'His body and his uncle's were hung in chains at the place of execution to act as a warning to others.'

Allen Foster

I spent a great deal of time in the company of murderers - in dusty libraries reading accounts of their crimes in old newspapers and books - while researching remarkable murder cases from Irish history for my new book, Foster's Book of Irish Murder.

In my quest to find unusual murders from times past, I looked at many records to find cases that would make the cut for my collection. It was plain to see Ireland has had more than its fair share of strange murders in the past three centuries. It is no exaggeration to say the deadliest of all happened not this century or last, but more than 250 years ago.

The horrific Bodkin Murders - the shocking massacre of an entire household of 10 people, including a pregnant woman and a seven-year-old child - took place in 1741 at the Bodkin family's Carrowbawn House near Tuam, Co Galway. It would have been an appalling crime in any age.

The sheer brutality of the murders is still hard to fathom so many years later.

When 21-year-old John Bodkin was disinherited by his father and hated stepmother in favour of his younger half-brother Oliver, the news unhinged him and he was furious. Around this time his father confided to a friend, a nearby Justice of the Peace, Lord Athenry, that his son had threatened to murder him.

In desperation John decided his only choice was to kill his father, stepmother and stepbrother and found a willing conspirator in his uncle Dominick and former foster-father John Hogan. Hogan had also fostered John's half-brother. On September 18, 1741, they finalised their murderous plan and agreed it was safer to put all to the knife or sword rather than use unreliable and noisy firearms. The following night the three men made their way to Carrowbawn around midnight.

The guard dogs met them in the yard but knew the men and did not bark. Expecting to be stroked the dogs approached them, but instead had their throats cut. They entered the farm workers' quarters and cut the throats of the two men and two boys there as they slept. They silently entered the house and killed another servant and his wife as they slept. John murdered a visitor who was unlucky to be staying there on the wrong night.

John Hogan entered the main bedroom and quietly cut the throats of John Bodkin and his wife, who was heavily pregnant. He lost his nerve when it came to killing seven-year-old Oliver, who slept in the same room. As he approached his bed the child awoke and recognising his foster-father cried "Ah! Daddy, Daddy, sure you won't kill your little child". Hogan quieted Oliver and warned him not to stir or he would be killed. He smeared the boy with blood so the others would think he was dead. But Dominick entered the room and saw through the ruse and swore the boy must die. He furiously threatened to kill Hogan if he did not kill the boy.

Hogan had no choice but to cut Oliver's throat. He did it so violently that he cut off the boy's head and placed it on the body of his murdered father. Having savagely butchered every living person, the murderers fled the house of horrors. The awful murders were discovered the next day and a horrified crowd of locals gathered outside the house. John made his way to Carrowbawn and feigned grief over his father's corpse, but many were suspicious of him. Bloodstains, too, were visible on his clothes.

Lord Athenry arrived at the scene with haste on hearing of the dreadful murders. Remembering John had threatened to kill his father he immediately interrogated him. John's replies were so unconvincing Lord Athenry arrested him and sent him to Galway Jail under military escort. John confessed to the murders and gave the names of his accomplices, who had fled on hearing of his arrest. They were quickly tracked down and thrown into Galway Jail. Justice moved swiftly in times past and they did not have to wait long to face judgment.

On October 6, 1741, the three men were brought to Tuam for the Assizes, under heavy military escort. When faced with the charges of murder John Hogan pleaded guilty and admitted he had killed the Bodkin family, but had wanted to save his foster-child. Dominick also pleaded guilty, as did John Bodkin who had planned the murders. It took the jury 10 minutes to find them guilty and the judge sentenced them to hang the following day.

It was customary at that time to hang murderers as close as possible to the place where they committed the crime and the three were carted from Tuam to Carrowbawn next morning. There, close to the road, John Hogan was hanged first from a tree. Next followed Dominick. When it came to John Bodkin's turn he told the stunned crowd he had been inspired to commit the murders after seeing his own cousin and namesake kill his older brother Patrick to secure his inheritance and get away with it two years before.

The three youths had been sharing a bedroom when his cousin had suffocated his brother in the middle of the night with a pillow, while he witnessed the deed but pretended to still be asleep. As far as the rest of the household was concerned, Patrick had died in his sleep and no investigation took place.

Having made his speech, Bodkin was hanged. His body and his uncle's were hung in chains at the place of execution to act as a warning to others. Hogan's head was cut off and placed on a spike on top of the market house in Tuam.

His namesake John was at the execution, but fled on his horse after hearing his cousin's accusation. He was caught on October 22, 1741. After a brief trial he was found guilty and hanged the following day in Galway. He died making no confession - and was decapitated. His head was then taken to Tuam to be placed on public display.

Carrowbawn House was demolished in an effort to erase all trace of the terrible murders.


Allen Foster is the author of 'Foster's Book of Irish Murder', published by New Island Books

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