“Josie You Have Poisoned Me!”

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Josie - Court Appearance (Irish News 3rd December 1907)
Josie – Court Appearance (Irish News 3rd December 1907)

Custody Court December 1907

On 2nd December 1907, Josephine McGrann, was brought before the Custody Court in Belfast on a charge of ‘wilful murder’.

“The unfortunate prisoner appeared to feel her position acutely and wept freely in the dock”

Irish News 3rd December 1907

Mrs McGrann was accused of killing her neighbour, Samuel Hodgens, by poisoning, on the previous Saturday night. The prisoner was remanded.

On Tuesday 3rd December at 12:30pm the Belfast Recorders Court convened. The case was heard before Mr Garrett Nagle R M with the City Coroner Dr James Graham. Mr D F Spiller appeared for the prosecution and Mr A A Macauley spoke for the defence.

The foreman of the all-male jury was Mr Edward Lee. However, as the trial unfolded the tragic circumstances surrounding the sad occurrence told a tale of poverty, illness and illiteracy. Much of the evidence was provided by Samuel’s 9-year-old daughter Catherine.

Josephine’s Family Background

Josephine Campbell had been born in Newry in the early 1880’s. Her father Edward was a stone mason and her mother was Sarah O’Neill. At some point the family moved to Belfast (date unknown).

On 17th July 1900, Josephine married Thomas McGrann in St Peter’s Church, in the Falls Road area of the town. Thomas was described as a labourer and Josephine, a ‘dealer’. A dealer was usually someone who sold second-hand clothes and was a common occupation in the poorer areas of the city.

With the exploitation of the local rivers for power supply, mills and factories sprang up in the district. In turn dense streets of small terraced houses were built for the influx of workers.

Cinnamond Street

By 1901 Thomas (26) and Josephine (20) were living at 15 Cinnamond Street which ran from Milford Street to Cullingtree Road. (The street is first mentioned in the street directories in 1861).

The house was a ‘two up, two down’ terraced house. The McGranns lived in the downstairs rooms and the upper floor was occupied by another married couple, John and Mary Ann Woods. This was a common arrangement in working-class districts of Belfast.

Cinnamond Street Belfast
Cinnamond Street Belfast

The census for 1901 shows that out of 37 homes on Cinnamond Street, 29 contained 2 or more families. Many families also took in boarders, despite the limited living space, to ‘make ends meet’. For example, the 8 McAree’s plus 1 lodger lived downstairs at No 7. They ranged in age from 56 to 5, sharing 2 small rooms. Upstairs resided Archibald McIntosh, his wife and 2 sons.

At No 31, 5 members of the McCrory family lived in the 2 downstairs rooms while 4 members of the Elliott/Devlin family occupied the 2 upper rooms.

Cinnamond Street was situated in the Pound Loney area of Belfast. The district was so named because it was the original site of the old animal pound.

“Pound Road was the approach to the Pound through Cripple Row from the Falls, and was an early populated district. The Pound and Dog Kennel were situated on the north side of Barrack Street. It is now occupied by houses”.

Thomas Giffikin, Belfast Fifty Years Ago, 1875
Location of Cinnamond Street
Location of Cinnamond Street

Living Conditions

These were all poor, working-class folk. Many were employed in the local mills as spinners, linen weavers, reelers and flax roughers. Others are listed as carters, blacksmiths, slaters and general labourers.

Many of the children too are recorded as machine boys, doffers and half-timers (meaning they spent half days in school and the other half in work).

It is also interesting to note that quite a number of residents on Cinnamond Street came from rural areas such as Counties Tyrone, Armagh, Cavan and Louth, as well as England and Scotland.

Neighbouring Family

Also living on Cinnamond Street in 1901 was Josephine’s older sister Susan. Susan had married Michael McClintock in 1894 and was residing on the upper level of No 21. Unfortunately, Michael died in January 1903 aged 29. On 1st July 1904 Susan married Edward Dalzell, a labourer from 158 Ross Street.

In 1907 Susan and her husband, were sharing a house on Cinnamond Street with Susan (and Josephine’s) sister Catherine and spouse Michael Brady.

The Death of Josephine’s Sister, Catherine

Catherine and Michael had married in St Peter’s on 1st September 1891. Catherine worked as a reeler in a mill. They had 4 children – Mary, Michael, Annie and Patrick. In 1907 Mary was 16, Michael 12 and Patrick 6. Annie had died on 6th April 1901 of tuberculosis, aged 3.

Sadly, on 29th November 1907 Catherine, in the Union Hospital, was to succumb to the same terrible disease. Her sister Josephine McGrann was with her when she passed.

Tuberculosis is a highly contagious air-borne disease that mainly affects the lungs. In overcrowded living conditions the virus can spread rapidly and fatally. With increased industrialisation leading to a rise in urban living, tuberculosis (also known as consumption or TB) became an epidemic throughout Ireland, reaching its peak in the early 20th century. Lack of sanitary facilities in the over-packed workers houses allowed tuberculosis to flourish. The working environment in hot, humid, poorly ventilated factories and mills also encouraged the spread of the disease.

“The linen industry in Belfast and its surrounding areas employed young females. In 1910, out of 75,000 linen textile workers in the linen industry five sixths were women. The female death rate in Ireland remained higher overall than males for much of this period”

Professor Greta Jones, Tuberculosis in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Belfast

For the poor, tuberculosis was a death sentence. It was only with the establishment of specialised hospitals, such as Foster Green’s Hospital for Consumption and Chest Diseases in 1897 (see link to post below : Foster Green – The ‘Industrious and Humble’ Philanthropist) and the Belfast Union Sanatorium in 1907 (see link to post The Abbey at Whiteabbey- Another Lost Mansion?] that tuberculosis began to be contained. However, fear of the illness continued well into the 1960’s. Anyone studying their local family history will be well aware of the devastating consequences of tuberculosis.

The Wake

As is traditional in Ireland, Catherine was brought home to be waked. This usually lasts two to three days until the body is taken to the church for the funeral service and burial. During this time family, friends, neighbours and sympathisers call at the family home to offer their condolences.

Callers bring food and drink to help out the bereaved family and hospitality is offered to the visitors. This often involves alcohol. In this case, widower Michael Brady had purchased 2 quarts and 3 pints of whiskey and 2 dozen bottles of stout.

Earlier in the day, a sanitary inspector had arrived at 15 Cinnamond Street. As Catherine had died from an infectious disease the house had to cleansed or ‘stove’. However, as Catherine was still being waked, a bottle of disinfectant was left on the premises with instructions on how it was to be used. The bottle was left in the back room upstairs. The official said she would call back on Monday. Josephine was not in the house at this time.

The Victim – Samuel Hodgens

The Hodgens family lived next door at no 13 Cinnamond Street. Samuel had been born in 1866 to Samuel Hodgens and Mary Hannan. He had served in the Boer War and was currently working as a labourer on the quays.

Samuel Hodgens - Boer War Image
Samuel Hodgens – Boer War Image

Samuel Alexander Hodgens and Mary Ellen Dowds had married in 1890. In 1907 they had 8 children living in the family home – Joseph, Margaret, Annie, Catherine, Mary, Ellen, Bridget and Samuel (2 others had died in infancy).

When Samuel, aged 40, returned from his day’s work, Mary Ellen encouraged him to attend the Brady wake.

The story of the ensuing tragedy was recounted in Court.

The Trial

Head-Constables Gerrity and Daly conducted the inquiry on behalf of the police authorities. Also present were Dr Bailie, Medical Superintendent and Alderman Dr King-Kerr, chairman of the Public Health committee.

Samuel’s Death

The account of what happened next was told by Samuel’s daughter Catherine Hodgens. She was considered too young to be ‘sworn in’ but the jury consented to listen to her evidence

Catherine was happy to accompany her daddy to the wake next door. As wakes were often almost social events there were a lot of people present. When they arrived, they were met by Josephine McGrann, sister of the deceased. The families were well-known to each other, in the way of close-knit working communities.

Josephine said she had a “treat” for Sam, and proceeded to pour a tumbler full of amber liquid from a bottle wrapped in brown paper. Samuel drank the liquid believing it to be whiskey and went downstairs. Here, Catherine recalled he cried out “Josie you have poisoned me; it is not whiskey but disinfectant!

Mrs McGrann was alarmed and said “I hope not Sam”. She got Hodgens a drink of whiskey and escorted him home. This was about 8pm.

Here Josephine explained to Mary Ellen, who was her close friend, what had happened. Mary Ellen administered a concoction of mustard and water and Samuel was copiously sick. Thankful that the disinfectant had been expelled from his system, Samuel retired to bed.

“After vomiting did he seem alright?

Yes, he said he was all right, and then went upstairs to bed. He said ‘Thank God I have got rid of it”

Testimony of Mary Ellen Hodgens

However, it was far from “all right”. An hour and a half later, Samuel Hodgens, breathing heavily, returned downstairs, He lay on the kitchen floor in obvious distress. Josphine McGrann, who had remained in Hodgens house, immediately ran to notify the local physician, Dr Aiken and the Catholic priest. She also alerted the police.

Head-Constable Daly and acting Sergeant McKee from Brickfield Barracks (there had originally been a brick field works nearby) arrived on the scene. Here they witnessed the victim “suffering great agony and in a complete state of collapse”.

At 12:15am Samuel Hodgens was transported to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he was attended to by Dr Boucher.

“Those in the house and neighbourhood were, needless to say, horrified by the occurrence, the man being quite evidently in a very serious state. He was removed with all possible despatch to the Royal Victoria Hospital, arriving there shortly after 1 o’clock, but despite all the efforts made to restore him, he expired shortly after admission”

Irish News, 2nd December 1907

The Circumstances Explained

As the case progressed the circumstances around the ‘mix-up’ became clearer.

The alcohol purchased by Michael Brady came in two flat quart bottles and three pint bottles. These unfortunately, were placed beside the bottle of disinfectant in the back room. The disinfectant was also contained in a flat quart bottle. This bottle was labelled with its contents but as Josephine wasn’t aware there was disinfectant on the premises and was also unable to read, it is sadly too understandable how the mistake occurred.

“….the man named Samuel Hodgens, a quay labourer, aged 40, residing in Cinnamond Street, who, as already fully reported, imbibed a quantity of poisonous disinfectant containing carbolic acid, in mistake for whiskey, at the wake of a neighbour on Sunday morning. The unfortunate man died in agony in the Royal Victoria Hospital some time afterwards”

Irish News, 4th December 1907

During the trial Mary Ellen, the widow, gave her evidence. Although deeply distressed she made frequent reference to the fact that her husband’s death had been an accident

“I have no blame for her, she did all she could”

Josie - Case reported Belfast Evening Telegraph 2nd December 1907
Josie – Case reported Belfast Evening Telegraph 2nd December 1907
Record of Death of Samuel Hodgens
Record of Death of Samuel Hodgens

The Verdict

The jury returned with a verdict of Death by Misadventure. They also requested that, in future, disinfectant should not be given out in containers similar to whiskey bottles.

The judge and coroner expressed their sympathies to the bereaved family. Samuel Hodgens was buried in the Poor Ground at Milltown Cemetery.

Josie - The Verdict (Irish News, 4th December 1907)
Josie – The Verdict (Irish News, 4th December 1907)

Impact of the Tragedy

The after-effects of Samuel Hodgen’s sudden demise cannot really be quantified. That Josephine McGrann was not blamed by her neighbours can be seen by the fact that she and her husband continued to live on Cinnamond Street.

For the Hodgens, another tragedy occurred just a few weeks later with the death of baby Samuel from diphtheria on 26th December 1907. He was the youngest child and only 1 year-old. It is interesting to note that the Hodgens had, by then, moved house, probably due to reduced financial circumstances, and were now living at 9 Baker Street with Mary Ellen’s brother Charles Dowds.

Another equally sad consequence was that with losing the bread-winner, Mary Ellen, was unable to feed her remaining 7 children. Sadly, she was forced to place 3 of her daughters into the Workhouse, Catherine was one of them. The effects of witnessing her father’s horrific death and then being uprooted from the family home to the harsh conditions of the Workhouse cannot be imagined.


The tragic case of Josephine McGrann and the death of Samuel is a sad reflection of the deep poverty and lack of education of its day. That poverty and lack of opportunities for education were unfortunately shared by too many at the time.

Linked Posts

Forster Green – The ‘Industrious and Humble’ Philanthropist

Forster Green - Robert M Young, Belfast and the Province of Ulster in 20th Century, 1909
Forster Green – “It is no exaggeration to say that Belfast sustains one of the heaviest bereavements that has ever befallen it…”

The Abbey at Whiteabbey – Another Lost Mansion?

The Abbey today
The Abbey at Whiteabbey has undergone several major transformations in its time but now lies derelict, another lost mansion.

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