Nora’s Grave – A True Story of Love & Death
In March 1890, one story captured the hearts of the Belfast public like no other. The deaths of a tragic couple in a murder-suicide pact on the lower slopes of the Cavehill.
“Yesterday afternoon a very painful sensation was created in Belfast by the announcement that there had been a very occurrence at the Cavehill, and that as a result of it two lives were lost, that of a young woman and her lover”Northern Whig 13th March 1890
Discovery of the Bodies
About 8:30 on the morning of 12th March 1890, a labourer named Frank Hyde, in the employment of a farmer Hugh Lowry, was working near the bottom of the hill. He was startled to hear 3 or 4 shots ring out over the still morning air. He saw smoke rising from a hollow in the field. Hyde ran in the direction of the noise towards Stoney Road, off the Cavehill Road.
As he approached Lowry’s Plantation, near the stone quarries, he saw a man’s body lying on the ground. On closer inspection he also saw the body of a young woman.
Hyde raced to the nearest house to raise the alarm with its occupant Henry Boyle. He described what he had discovered and the two men returned to the scene. Mr Boyle saw a revolver lying on the grass, which he picked up and secured. He then made his way to the barracks at Ligoniel and returned with Sergeant Farrell, another policeman and Dr Newett. Frank Hyde stayed at the location.
The Scene of the Tragedy
The couple were lying side by side. The young man’s head was resting on the woman’s chest. Both victims had gunshot wounds to the head. The girl had 3 bullet holes in her left temple, while the man had one.
The girl was dead, though her body was still warm. The young man, though unconscious was still breathing. He was immediately transported by a cart belonging to Robert Hyde, to Belfast Royal Hospital in Frederick Street. However, he passed away within a few minutes of being admitted.
The young woman’s body was covered over but kept in situ until around 6pm in the evening. It was guarded by two policemen Constable Gibson and Constable Watson. Eventually an order from Dr Mussen, Coroner for South Antrim, permitted the remains to be removed. The corpse was conveyed to a public house on Main Street in Ligoniel, owned by Mr O’Hare, to await an inquest.
Upon identification, the young man was named George Arthur aged 26. He lived at the family home 150 Nelson Street, in the docks area of the town. His father William, was a tailor.
George was a liked and respected clerk, who had been employed for nearly two and a half years by the firm of Messrs G & J Burns of 49 Queens Square. His pay was £1 a week.
Previously George had served his apprenticeship with the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company. Later he enrolled in the Army Medical Staff Corps, but was discharged due to infirmity. He was described as
“He was always of quiet mien and regular habits, and was never known to give way to violent bursts of temper. There is nothing at present to indicate that Arthurs was subject to depression or melancholy, and his friends are, therefore, at a loss to account for the rash deed”Belfast Telegraph 13th March 1890
The young woman was identified as Nora Tattersall. Nora came from Dublin and was also in her 20’s. She had spent a brief time in England but was now a general domestic servant in Belfast. For nearly two years she had worked in the home of Mr James and Mrs Christine Best at 3 Clarence Place.
However, she had recently mentioned that she found the work too heavy her. At the time there were three children in the house Arabella (6), James (4) and Ernest (1).
“They had always found her honest, attentive and hard-working, and her relations with the family were always of the most harmonious character”Belfast Newsletter 13th March 1890
The Inquest for George Arthur
George Arthur’s inquest was carried out late on Wednesday night in the hospital by the City Coroner, Dr Dill. The foreman of the jury was a Mr James McDermott. Here they were told of the events leading up to the tragedy.
Nora and George – Timeline to Death
On Tuesday George Arthur had asked his boss for the afternoon off. This was readily granted as George was known as a reliable and conscientious employee. It was also noted that he was popular with his work colleagues.
George returned to Nelson Street and had his lunch. He told his mother that he would not be home for dinner but would be there for supper. On leaving home he met his younger brother Ezekiel in York Street (George was one of 7 boys in the family). George told his brother that he was away to meet his sweetheart.
Although the family knew George was courting, they had yet to meet Nora. Mother and brother waited up for George’s return till midnight, but as he often worked late, they then went to bed.
Tuesday evenings were Nora’s night off. Mrs Best recalled seeing George waiting outside the house as usual. The couple had been dating for about 6 months. A parting comment from Nora, led Mrs Best to believe that the girl had business in Carrickfergus, possibly a new job opportunity.
Witnesses came forward to claim that they had seen George and Nora travel by train to Whiteabbey on the Northern Counties line at 7:30pm on Tuesday evening. The couple arrived back in Belfast around 9:30pm. At a local shop George bought some oranges which he passed to Nora.
The pair were again spotted at the corner of Donegall Street and York Street around 10pm that night when Nora appeared upset. George and Nora were never seen alive again.
Shortly afterwards a telegram from the Belfast General Post Office, arrived at the Clarence Street residence. It was from Nora bidding the Best family farewell.
The Testimony of Ezekiel Arthur
At the inquest George’s brother Ezekiel, who had made the formal identification, gave evidence that he had noticed nothing unusual in his brother’s manner or appearance the previous day. He stated repeatedly that he had never known George to have any dealings with firearms.
When the police broke the news of events, he was totally shocked as he had no idea of George’s intentions. Unfortunately, by the time he got to the hospital George was already in the morgue.
The Testimony of Frank Hyde
Francis (Frank) Hyde, of Ballaghagen, gave his testimony next, describing finding the bodies in the field. He recalled seeing Nora wearing a short blue jacket and a dark skirt. She had a pair of fur lined kid gloves and a straw hat soaked in blood lay near-by. Her dark hair was also matted with blood and there was a large blood stain on her top where George’s head lay. A coloured silk handkerchief covered her face and an open umbrella sheltered her head.
It is thought that George Arthur respectfully covered and positioned the body before shooting himself.
The Testimony of Sergeant John Farrell
Sergeant John Farrell confirmed that the gun found at the scene, a six-chambered revolver, was indeed the murder weapon. George had in his coat pocket a box of the same type of bullets – pinfire cartridges.
Also in George Arthur’s pocket were some letters. One was addressed to the Editor of the Evening Telegraph
“No one must ever blame dear Nora for what has occurred. It has not been her fault. We love each other, but circumstances have happened in the past which prevents our union, and by mutual agreement we have consented to die rather than to continue to live in this weary world. I am sorry to take her life, but, alas there is no alternative. God forgive me. Never was there such a good tender-hearted angel born in this world before”George Arthur’s Letter
George continues to bade farewell to his parents, brothers and sisters and pals Bob, Hugh and Johnny. He finally states that he is in his right mind and looks forward to meeting his sweetheart “on the opposite side of the River”.
His letter ends “God forgive me, and bless my own dear Nora. George”.
Also in the letter was a romantic poem and a quote from Byron.
“I cannot lose a world for thee,
But would not lose thee for a world”
The second letter was from Nora and dated some three months earlier, 11th December 1889. In it she states:
“It makes me so miserable to see you wasting your time coming down to see me when I know that I am anything but worthy of you. There is a great barrier which my feelings prevent me telling you either by word or letter, but someday perhaps you will know. Nora”Nora’s Letter
Also in George’s pocket was two locks of Nora’s dark hair.
The Inquest concluded at 11 o’clock.
“And so the jurors do say that the said George Arthur did commit suicide”
The Inquest For Nora Tattersall
On Thursday 13th March at Ligoniel, the Inquest was convened for Nora Tattersall.
Mr J O’Hare, the publican, acted as foreman of the jury. It was determined that Nora’s wounds could not have been self-inflicted but also there was no evidence that she had tried to resist. No other person was seen in the area at the time.
A letter found in the pocket of her skirt shows clearly that the couple had discussed and planned their deaths. It was written by George in his workplace and dated 11th March 1890
“….I am very happy in the knowledge that we will both die together”
However, while George Arthur’s family and history were ‘an open book’ the same could not be said for Nora.
It appears that she had been employed in the 1880’s in Portadown under the name of Nora Harte. She worked for about a year for Mr Joseph Douglas. When a letter arrived addressed to Nora Tattersall, she explained that her real name was Tattersall, but as she had been reared by her granny, she went by her grandmother’s surname Harte.
She was also employed by Mr William Crawford of Woodview Villa, Lurgan and subsequently by the Methodist minister the Rev Robert Jamison before coming to Belfast. None of these employers knew anything of her background.
Prelude to Tragedy
Next on the stand was Mr James Best, a linen trader, and Nora’s current employer. He claimed that
“She (Nora) was always an extremely nervous and highly excitable girl, but I saw nothing extraordinary at all in her conduct”.Mr James Best in Evidence
However, at George’s Inquest it was noted that Nora’s recent behaviour had been unusual
“There is no doubt that for the past month her conduct was observed, by those who came into contact with her, to be rather erratic”
Indeed, on the day of her death she was overheard saying to one of the children in her care, that she was going to be shot by her sweetheart, “but no notice was taken of the remark, which was merely considered part of her childish talk to the little one” 🙄
The telegram sent on Tuesday night was then produced and read in court
“Nora bids you good-bye. Look under the pillow. Don’t be too hard on her when you know”
Mr Best maintained he went to Nora’s room and found an inside-out envelope under the pillow addressed to his wife. Again, the contents of the note were read to the jury
“Mr Best, forgive me for what I have done but I cannot live any longer.Burn everything that belongs to me and don’t trouble tp look for me. I think you did not act just towards me but I will forgive you now. When you get this I will be no more” Telegram 10:24pm
Mr Best then stated that immediately on reading the missive he went straight to the police station and handed it over. When asked about the purported injustice, he said that his wife had had occasion recently to reprimand Nora about the quality of her work and had threatened her with dismissal. But that at no time had Mrs Best behaved unfairly towards the maid.
“Why she said Mrs Best was unjust I don’t know, because I think she was more than indulgent to her than to any other servant we ever had….”Testimony of Mr Best
The questioning continued, Mr Best was asked as to whether he suspected Nora was living under an assumed name, especially as she had arrived without papers or references. He replied that the thought had never occurred to him, but he did know that she had torn her name out of her Bible leaving just Nora.
The Inquest Verdict
The verdict passed on Nora’s death read:
“That George Arthur on Tuesday, the 12th day of March. In the year of Our Lord 1890, at Ballyaghagan, in the parish of Shankhill, in the County of Antrim, feloniously did kill and murder Nora Tattersall by firing three bullets into her left temple”From the Inquest Verdict
The Funeral of Nora and George
At 7:30pm on 13th March 1890 Nora’s remains were brought from Ligoniel to Mr Leonard Braithwaite’s funeral parlour in Talbot Street. Many local mill-workers gathered on Main Street Ligoniel to see the removal of the coffin.
At 10 o’clock the next morning the two coffins were placed side by side in a four horse-drawn hearse. Large crowds had assembled in Frederick Street and all along the route to the graveyard – York Street, Donegall Street, Clifton Street, Crumlin Road and then via Agnes Street and Northumberland Street to the Falls Road.
“At every point along the route crowds had assembled, and universal sorrow was expressed for the fate of the deceased couple”Belfast Evening Telegraph 14th March 1890
Leading the mournful procession were George’s father and brothers, followed by his friends who were ”very much affected”. Then there were Mr Andrew Gibson, Mr Evans and Mr Barr his employers and a group of clerks alongside whom he had worked. None of Nora’s family could be located.
On reaching the City Cemetery around 11:30am, further crowds had gathered. George was placed first into the open grave, followed by his sweetheart and flowers placed on top. (Grave Reference E268)
The Rev John Spence of the Mariners Episcopal Church, which the Arthur family attended, gave the eulogy at the graveside. (Grave Location Reference E268)
On 14th March 1890, George Arthur and Nora Tattersall were buried in the same grave at Belfast City Cemetery
“This may be said to be quite in keeping with the romantic manner in which their lives were sacrificed”Northern Whig 15th March 1890
The Mystery of Nora’s Background
A couple of days after the funeral an aunt of Nora’s was discovered in Midleton, County Cork. She knew nothing of the recent events.
Her niece was born Nora McCarthy, but her mother’s maiden name was Harte and her stepfather was Tattersall.
Subsequent investigations found that a Nora Harte from Cork had signed on to a Girls Training Home at 64 Lower Baggot Street in Dublin for £1 a week. Employment was found for this girl in Portadown.
Nora herself, seems to have told conflicting stories about her background. The fact that she was “passionately fond of light literature and romance” may have coloured some of her recollections.
To one family she said her father had been a constabulary inspector who had been killed, while to others she claimed never to have known her father. She also said that she had a brother in the Metropolitan Police Force stationed in Dublin, but this was disproved.
Nora had a sight defect in one eye, although it was not noticeable. In one explanation for this she said that while working in a servant’s hall she had thrown a potato at the butler and he had responded by hurling a fork at her, resulting in the injury. Another time she said that she had been working as a nurse, when a young doctor accidentally squirted the contents of a syringe in her eye.
While in Portadown, Nora told a fellow servant that she had worked for Dr Cross in Shandy Hall in Cork and had been friendly with the governess there. Dr Cross was infamous for murdering his wife as he was having a passionate affair with his children’s governess Miss Effie Skinner. Dr Cross was hung for his crime on 10th January 1888. No evidence was found for Nora’s claim.
Continuing Interest in the Deaths of Nora and George
The story of George and Nora continued to be a hot topic of conversation. People continued to visit the site of the killings and the grave of the unhappy couple.
“It is apparent that the absorbing interest taken in this terrible affair is not by any means on the wane. Yesterday a large number of people visited the scene of the dreadful love tragedy at the base of the Cave Hill, and also the grave in the City Cemetery where the remains of the lovers were interred”Belfast Evening Telegraph 17th March 1890
The newspapers reported being inundated with theories and speculations as to the ‘barrier’ that prevented the young couple being wed. One source claimed that Nora was wed to a sea-captain who was often away on long voyages. Another said they had proof that Nora was the wife of an elderly gentleman now living in London. None of these accounts proved trustworthy.
Nora and George – The Tragedy Remembered
Whatever the reasons for this tragedy, Nora and George have passed into Belfast lore. Even today, more than 100 years later, ‘Nora’s Grave’ is a well-known landmark on the slopes of the Cavehill.
“A secluded spot upon the Cave Hill was the scene yesterday morning of a tragedy which, for romantic interest and sadness, is unique in the history of the North of Ireland, and has certainly never been surpassed in the history of any other country”Belfast Newsletter Thursday 13th March 1890
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