The murderers of the Colleen Bawn
Illustration: The Murder of The Colleen Bawn
John Scanlan was born to an eminent family in Ireland, and after serving his king as a lieutenant, was discharged on half-pay following the defeat of the Corsican usurper. Sullivan had been a soldier under him, and, having been also discharged, he accompanied Scanlan in the capacity of a servant. He was a native of Limerick, and, though not more than thirty-two years of age, was much older than his master, who had not attained twenty-five.
Young Scanlan, on his way to Limerick, where he proposed residing, stopped for some time in Dublin, where he found an opportunity of ingratiating himself into the favour of a thoughtless but lovely girl of fifteen years of age, the niece of a Mr Connery, a rope-maker.
The gentlemanly appearance and polished address of Scanlan, when aided by his protestations of love and tenderness, flattered the vanity of the poor girl; but still she would not listen to him on any but honourable terms. She acknowledged her partiality and charged him, if he was sincere, to make her his wife. To this proposal he affected to consent, after some conditions had been agreed on: these were that she was to keep her marriage a secret from her uncle, lest his friends should hear of it -- an event which he seemed to regard as pregnant with ruin to him.
The foolish girl consented to all he chose to enjoin, and in an evil hour quitted the roof of her kind uncle, carrying off with her one hundred pounds in notes and twelve guineas in gold. He pretended to act honourably, and carried her before an excommunicated priest, who joined their hands in wedlock. Scanlan resorted to this man, thinking the ceremony, when performed by him, not obligatory; but in this he was mistaken, for he soon after learned that, according to the laws of Ireland, a marriage so celebrated is valid.
The fugitive lovers quitted Dublin and took up their abode in the romantic village of Glin, situated on the banks of the river Shannon, on the Limerick side. Scarcely, however, had the honeymoon passed over their heads, when it appears Scanlan formed the dreadful resolution of getting rid of his wife. Her beauty, her love, her innocence, appealed to him in vain; he persisted in his resolution and too fatally carried it into effect.
It appears he was prompted to the dreadful deed by avarice and ambition: his sister, who had been married to a nobleman in the county of Limerick, apprised him of a match she was forming for him with an heiress of wealth and beauty, and requested his acquiescence. Knowing that he could not avail himself of the proposed advantage while his wife (for she was legally his wife) was alive, he determined that she should not long remain an obstacle to his advancement to rank and opulence.
Sullivan was his confidant throughout the whole affair, and to him was entrusted the execution of his atrocious plan. Scanlan had purchased a pleasure boat, in which they used to take excursions on the Shannon. Of this amusement his wife was very fond, and it was during one of these moments of recreation, while she should be impressed with the beauty of the scenery, that the monsters resolved to rob her of that life which bloomed so exquisitely on her youthful and animated cheek.
One evening in the July of 1819, Scanlan affected to be called from home on business, but desired his wife to make Sullivan amuse her for an hour on the river in the boat. With this request she complied; and Sullivan, by his master's directions, got ready to execute their horrid purpose. Having provided a club to knock out her brains and a rope and stone to tie to the body to sink it, he proceeded down the river. This man was treated by his master and mistress with great familiarity, so that he was not obliged to keep that distance so necessary to good order, but used every freedom consistent with respect. When the boat had drifted to a secluded inlet, Sullivan prepared to execute his purpose: he raised the club in a menacing position and was about to strike, when the lovely creature, thinking he only intended to frighten her, gave him a smile of such innocent sweetness and simplicity that the assassin was disarmed. He dropped the instrument of destruction, conducted his mistress home and told his unfeeling master that he had not strength to execute his commands.
The horrid resolution was postponed, but not abandoned. A few evenings after, Scanlan, accompanied by his wife and Sullivan, went out in the boat as usual; but the unfortunate woman was never seen alive after. Scanlan returned to his lodgings, and said that for misbehaving he had shipped Ellen on board some vessel, the captain of which had taken her under his protection. This story was disbelieved, and a few days discovered their guilt; the corpse of the murdered Ellen was washed ashore, mutilated in a most shocking manner. The legs were broken in several places, one arm had been knocked off entirely, and a rope was tied round her neck. Her skull was fractured in a thousand pieces, her eyes knocked out of her head and nearly all her teeth forced from her mouth.
Horrid and deformed as was her once-lovely person, still it was instantly recognized, when the murderers endeavoured to fly from justice. Of their guilt there could be no doubt. They were seen together in the boat; Sullivan had sold the murdered girl's clothes, and he and his master had quarrelled about some money, in which quarrel Scanlan had been accused of the murder.
Sullivan escaped for twelve months the pursuit of justice; but Scanlan was almost immediately apprehended, though he had resolved never to be taken alive. The following August, he was tried at the assizes; and, being found guilty, Baron Smith, to his immortal honour, ordered him for almost instant execution, lest the powerful interest of his family should procure a respite if he left him even the period usually allowed to criminals convicted of a murder. The time allotted Scanlan to live was too short to admit a messenger going to Dublin and back again, and consequently he was executed, to the satisfaction of all lovers of justice.
Twelve months after, his guilty servant met a similar fate. Before his execution, he made a full confession, from which the above particulars are partly taken. Such was the powerful influence of Scanlan's family that, though they could not avert his fate, they succeeded in keeping it a secret from a large portion of the community, for they had influence enough to prevent an insertion of his case in all the Limerick newspapers; and consequently it remained unknown, except in the immediate neighbourhood of the transaction.
The trial of Sullivan, however, revealed his own and his master's guilt and proved that, in this country, neither wealth nor power can turn aside the sword of justice or make the criminal less abhorrent, though he should have great and wealthy friends.
The circumstances of this case, we are persuaded, furnished the author of the Tales of Irish Life with the idea of 'The Poor Man's Daughter'.