20 August 2005

Meet the real John Doe - by Joe Baker

Irelandclick.com

Joe Baker uncovers a Belfast hanging whose victim’s name resonates today

Police forces, emergency services, and morgues throughout the world are all familiar with the terminology John Doe (or the female version, Jane Doe). According to the English dictionary there is an entrance. John Doe has come to stand for and unidentified male and Jane Doe an unidentified female.

THE REAL JOHN DOE

In Belfast there was really a person called John Doe but he is more remembered for the way he met his untimely end rather than the way he lived his life. It was this which brought the man with such a unique surname to the attention of those whose job it is to chronicle the history of Belfast.
A weaver by trade, he was caught up in the trade disputes which beset working class Belfast at the turn of the nineteenth century. A mill owner named Francis Johnston was eventually targeted by arsonists who tried to burn him out of his Mill Street home. He had been a large manufacturer in the area. The actual weaving was done in the workers’ own homes in the area around Millfield and Brown Square.

BOYCOTT

The weavers had organised a boycott between themselves and had taken an oath neither to weave a web for him or portion of a web, nor permit others to work for him.
It was alleged that he had given out work at lower prices than other employers at the time and so the argument soon developed in intensity. The intimidation of Johnston began with threatening letters, then on August 24, 1815, an unsuccessful attempt was made to burn him out.

FIREBOMB

Johnston took precautions against the striking weavers and had all his windows barred and sheeted with iron. In February yet another unsuccessful attempt was made to burn him out.
The Johnston’s large household consisting of Johnston himself, his wife, eight children, two maids and one manservant miraculously escaped injury. A firebomb had been thrown into the house which exploded, while the weavers opened fire into the house. Johnston did his best to defend his family and home. After several minutes the firing abated and the weavers scattered. The Johnston family were lucky to escape with their lives.

ARRESTS

A town meeting the following day was held to discuss this outrage against the business community and a £2,000 reward was offered for the conviction of the offenders.
In today’s terms the reward would be equivalent to a quarter of a million pounds. Several men were subsequently arrested for the offence and were detained in Carrickfergus Gaol. One of them, James Dickson, was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment with 300 lashes. The other men were sentenced to be hanged on the September 18, 1816. Another man, William Gray turned ‘approver’ to save his own neck, and in return for his evidence was promised the reward.
On the first week of September the death sentence was duly carried out. Two married men with young families, John Doe and John Magill were brought along to Castle Place in Belfast. The exact location of the scaffold was at an open space opposite the Bank Buildings (Now occupied by Primark). Four clergymen were in attendance to the condemned men. The hangman was himself disguised by a crepe headmask. Large crowds, who thronged into Castle Place to witness this public execution, were held back by a platoon of soldiers. John Doe, who admitted that he was among the crowd which attacked the Johnston house, read aloud a passage from the New Testament professing his hope in his salvation and contrition for his offence.
Both men were left to hang before the crowd for around an hour before they were cut down. The bodies were placed in black cloth covered coffins with white mounting and were carried across the Long Bridge into County Down. They were subsequently buried in an unmarked grave in the Burial Ground at meeting House Green Knockbrachan, County Down. There is no existing evidence of what became of the Crown witness, William Gray or whether he got the £2,000 reward and no stone marks the grave of Doe or Magill who paid the ultimate price for their offence.

And so there we have it! Next time you hear the term John Doe remember that the name has a relative meaning in the annals of yesterday’s Belfast.



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