1915: The Murder of William Quinn – Tried, Tried and Tried Again!
Have Your Say!
In the early 20th century, the residents of the little County Down town of Newtownards were stunned when a brutal murder occurred in their midst. The shocking arrest and subsequent trials divided opinion. The mystery remains unsolved to this day!
Why not read the story behind this remarkable case and vote below on how you think the case should have ended?
The attack on William Quinn
In the early hours of Sunday 14th February 1915, the battered body of William Quinn, aged 23, was discovered in the porch of his home, Flush Hall in Newtownards. The young man lived here with his stepfather Samuel Heron, Heron’s wife Bessie and family. Though suffering from head wounds and barely conscious, he was able to relate that he had been attacked from behind as he approached the gates to the house the previous night. He did not see his assailant and the attacker never spoke.
The Herons bathed and dressed the wounds as best they could. Willie was given a drink of warm milk with some spirits added and put to bed.
Sometime later, around 9am, Samuel cycled into Newtownards and called on the local doctor. Dr David Jamison visited Flush Hall and attended to the patient. Quinn had sustained a wound on his left temple about two and a half inches long, as well as ragged cuts above his left ear and to the back of his head. His left eye was black and swollen nearly closed. The doctor thoroughly cleansed the wounds and stitched the gash on Willie’s forehead.
The following morning, Dr J M Warnock, saw the Quinn lad and checked on his condition. However, the young man’s injuries were more serious than first thought and by Monday afternoon, William Quinn was dead.
One of the saddest aspects of the case, was that William Quinn was due to get married just a few days later on Thursday 18th February. His fiancée was Miss Minnie Lavery of Shore Road, Newtownards. William had just signed the rental agreement for their first married home together at 34 John Street Lane in the town.
“The peaceful, law-abiding people of this town, who we are pleased to say constitute almost the entire community, were horribly shocked when the news leaked out that William Quinn had, when in the vigour of young life and on the threshold of manhood and when he was anticipating a happy married union, was prematurely sent to discover the secret of the Great Unknown”Newtownards Chronicle 20th February 1915
William Quinn was born on 10th December 1890 to James Quinn and Agnes Margaret Jane Gaw. The family lived on Kilmorey Street in Newry. James was a clerk for the railway company.
When William was about 10, his father passed away from a brain tumour on 6th January 1901. Agnes and her son moved in with her widowed brother John Gaw and his 15-year-old daughter at 4 Basin Walk, Newry. John was a tailor.
A year later, on 15th January 1902, Agnes married widower Samuel Heron at the First Presbyterian Church in Newtownards.
At the time Samuel was assistant manager in the Ulster Print Works. He had three young children from his first marriage to Lizzie Scott – John , Jane  and Samuel . The family resided at 25 Victoria Ave in the town. This was a prestigious area for up-and-coming young professionals.
Samuel Heron was born in Greenwell Street in Newtownards on 30th March 1870. He was one of 9 sons born to John and Ellen Heron [nee McCormack]. In 1892 John is recorded as a grocer and in 1901 a potato dealer. Samuel grew up and went to school in Newtownards, and would have been well-known in the town. On 21st December 1892 Samuel married his first wife Elizabeth Moore Scott at Ballygrainey Presbyterian Church in Bangor, County Down. They had 3 children. Lizzie died on 28th December 1900 from tuberculosis. Her youngest child Samuel was just a baby.
Some of Samuel’s brothers were also businessmen in Newtownards – John was a grocer, David a fruiterer and confectioner, Alexander a dealer and Andrew was a publican. So, the Herons were an influential and respected family in the commercial life of the town.
Unfortunately, Agnes died on 24th September 1906, a few hours after giving birth to a baby boy. The infant survived for just 6 hours.
William continued to live with his stepfather and step-siblings, and trained to be a clerk.
On 3rd October 1911, Samuel Heron married for the third time at Ballygowan Presbyterian Church. His new bride was Isabella Taylor, known as Bessie. Subsequently, baby James was born on 19th January 1912 and Alice Marion on 5th December 1913. Samuel was now manager of the Ulster Print Works and the Herons were living at Flush Hall. This was a substantial 2-storey residence on the outskirts of Newtownards.
Reaction to the murder
‘Willie Quinn’ was described as an easy-going and friendly young man, well-known and liked in the neighbourhood. He worked in the Ulster Print Works and earned £1 a week.
“The popularity of the deceased young man in social circles made him a pronounced favourite everywhere he went and he possessed a fine sweet bass voice and was gifted with a humorous vein in his vocal efforts, his services were frequently sought wherever vocal entertainment was to be given”
No-one seemed able to understand why Willie had been attacked. It was only sometime later that Samuel discovered that William’s watchchain was broken and his silver watch was missing. The watch was a distinctive one and of great sentimental value to his stepson as it had belonged to his grandfather.
Also, two one-pound notes were missing from his wallet. Robbery by some opportunistic vagrant seemed the obvious answer.
The inquest into the death opened at 10am on Tuesday 15th February in Flush Hall.
The jury, with Mr James Mairs as foreman, listened to the medical evidence presented by Dr S Wallace, coroner for the Northern Division of Down. It was his expert opinion that a blow to the back of the head had resulted in a brain haemorrhage that caused Quinn’s death.
On the 17th the jury brought back a verdict “that some person or persons unknown did wilfully and of malice aforethought murder William Quinn”
The Funeral of William Quinn
The following day the funeral for young William Quinn took place. Sadly, this was supposed to be his wedding day.
William was to be buried in Newry, the town from which his birth family originated and where he still had family. It was also where he and his bride had planned to spend their honeymoon.
Crowds gathered along the Scrabo Road from Flush Hall. Many of the onlookers were visibly upset and in tears. The cortege walked along Mill Street, through Frederick Street and up Church Street. The coffin was carried as far as the Belfast Road railway bridge, then the procession stopped to allow mourners to complete the long journey by car.
However, at this point a shocking development occurred. Head Constable Maclaine stepped forward, approached Samuel Heron and formally charged him with the murder of his stepson.
“Needless to say, this incident, dramatic in its nature, caused a great sensation, and soon the news of the arrest of the deceased’s stepfather spread like wild-fire throughout the town….”Newtownards Chronicle 20th February 1915
Samuel Heron appears to have remained exceptionally calm. He shook hands with friends and family and accompanied the police saying “I won’t hesitate. I am coming back with you. I expected this”
The funeral party continued on to Newry arriving at 4pm. The service was conducted in St Patrick’s Church by the Rev William Moore. William Quinn was laid to rest in Newry Churchyard.
Samuel Heron Investigation
Samuel Heron was brought to the Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks in Newtownards. A special court of Petty Sessions was convened at 6pm in front of resident magistrate Mr Walter G Duff.
Heron was remanded on the capital charge of murder. He was transported to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast. If he was found guilty at trial then he would suffer the death penalty.
The Magisterial Investigation
On Friday 26th February a Magisterial Investigation commenced in the Bar Room of Newtownards Courthouse. The defendant was brought from Belfast by train accompanied by an armed guard. The events of the night in question were closely investigated and witnesses examined.
The Night of the Attack
The victim, William Quinn, had been out with some pals Henry Aicken and Joe McClure. The lads had been to the Masonic Hall in James Street and later to Mr Wallace’s public house on Regent Street. William had drunk a bottle of ale and a bottle of stout, but was not inebriated.
William bade good-night to his friend Henry at Kerlin’s Corner at around 11:30pm and proceeded to walk to Flush Hall. The journey would have taken between 20-30 minutes.
Events at Flush Hall
Mrs Bessie Heron, as the person who discovered William the following morning testified that she had been woken around midnight on 13th-14th February.
At first, she wasn’t sure what had disturbed her but later she thought she had heard dogs “quarrelling” and went to waken her husband. The sleeping arrangements at Flush Hall were a little unusual – Bessie slept with the younger children, Samuel slept with his son Samuel junior, William had his own room. Presumably Samuel needed an undisturbed night’s rest so Bessie slept with James (4) and Alice (2).
However, on entering the bedroom Samuel was not present. She woke his son and the two went to look for him. As they lit the gaslight on the stairs about 12:30am Samuel entered the house via the front door. He was wearing his trousers, an overcoat and a hat but was still in his slippers. He explained that he hadn’t been sleeping properly since he was suffering from neuralgia and on hearing the noise of dogs went to frighten them away. The three then retired to their beds.
A few hours later, between 4am-5am, Bessie heard the front door bell ring, she waited and when it chimed again went downstairs to investigate. In the porch she found a bloodied and bruised William. He explained that he had been attacked at the gate to the garden path and passed out. Waking sometime later and bitterly cold he had dragged himself to the door. At this point Bessie called for her husband.
The police confirmed that a pool of blood on the ground near the gates confirmed this to be the scene of the attack. Some false teeth and a glove belonging to William were also recovered here.
Evidence of the the Dunn Sisters
Three sisters Nellie, Mary and Grace Dunn had also been to Newtownards that Saturday night. They lived at nearby Flush Hall Cottage. The girls arrived home at 10:40pm. While their mother went to bed, the sisters remained in the kitchen to ‘do their hair’. At midnight they were startled to hear a loud cry which they thought came from the avenue of the Heron’s residence. They believed the cry to be human, Grace ran and barred the door.
Mitchel Gray Evidence
A lamplighter employed by Newtownards Urban Council, named Mitchel Gray, gave evidence that he could not light the lamp at the entrance to Flush Hall as it was defective. Obviously, this would have been advantageous to any attacker adding to the element of surprise and hiding his identity. The lamp had been working the previous night.
The Evidence of William John McBride
However, it was the evidence of Mr William John McBride that was to throw definite suspicion on Samuel Heron.
McBride worked as a finisher in the Ulster Print Works and was married to Heron’s niece Elizabeth. The families also were close due to their interest in pigeons. On Wednesday, the day before the funeral and arrest he had received a message to visit Heron at Flush Hall. According to his testimony, McBride said that Samuel told him “If anything happens to me sell the pigeons” and give the money to “the missus”.
He also told him to look below the tank in the Mill chimney and gave him £1 but told him not to use it in the town but wait till he was next in Belfast. It was claimed that one of the pound notes in possession of William Quinn was stamped with a number. The £1 given to McBride by Heron had a number ‘96’ stamped on it in copying ink.
It is interesting to note that on the Thursday of the arrest, the accused’s bother James Heron, asked McBride for the note and swopped it for silver coins. However, McBride (in a fit of conscience?) asked for the note back and handed it into Constable James Clarke.
The pair then entered the kitchen where Samuel became concerned in the cleaning of a beetle. (A ‘beetle’ is a large mallet, usually with a wooden or rubber head). He washed the tool and then asked McBride to clean it with sandpaper. He also asked could he swop it for a similar one belonging to McBride, but William John said his was a different kind. McBride recalled “I said to him [Heron] – ‘If you have any suspicion of the thing, why don’t you burn it?’ He replied ‘No they [the police] might have seen this thing, and ask me for it’”
On being questioned by the police, McBride related the conversation.
The officers searched under the tank in the Mill and found part of a silver watch. The rest of the timepiece was discovered under floorboards in Samuel Heron’s office.
Robert Stouppe, a jeweller of High Street in Newtownards, definitely identified the watch as the one he had repaired for William Quinn the previous year.
The beetle was sent for examination to a leading expert, Dr Bronte. He was able to confirm minute traces of human blood.
Heron’s trousers were also forensically inspected and showed traces of human blood. However, this could have been transfer from when he helped the lad to bed.
Samuel Heron was remanded for trial.
The question still remained; what possible motive could Heron have that would make him commit such a heinous act?
In court several local merchants appeared and testified that Samuel Heron was in a lot of debt. These included Thomas Drake the family grocer and William H Simms, a draper. Samuel had unpaid accounts and loans throughout the neighbourhood.
Heron owed about £1,500 to £1,600 and that “he was in a tight place about money”. At the same time Samuel Heron’s yearly wages had been reduced from £300 to £200 due “to the war”.
Report of the attack withheld from the police.
One of the outstanding questions levied at Heron, was why had he not reported the attack to the police. His first reply was that he “didn’t want to disturb them on a Sunday”. Subsequently, after the doctor’s visit he thought his stepsons injuries did not warrant involving the constabulary even though there had also been a robbery.
William Quinn’s Inheritance
In 1906, when William Quinn’s mother Agnes died, Heron became the trustee of William’s inheritance. This consisted of 5 houses in Mary Street and 4 in Chapel Street, Newry. The annual rental of these properties was £30-£40. Samuel received the first cheque on 2nd October 1906, and although William was over 21, Samuel was still the beneficiary of the income. William, it was reported, had asked his stepfather for a ‘settlement’ on his marriage to which Samuel had said “certainly”. Was Samuel worried about losing the rental money when he was already in financial difficulties?
However, it was argued that as Samuel housed, fed and educated William he was entitled to this money. Although the rents would almost certainly pass to Quinn on his marriage, Heron had never opposed the marriage.
It was noted that, with William’s death, it would not be Samuel Heron who benefitted financially but William’s aunts in Newry.
William Quinn and Samuel Heron – A cordial relationship
William Quinn and his stepfather Samuel Heron, had a cordial relationship. William had been part of the family since he was a young boy. No one ever came forward to claim otherwise.
However, at the time of William’s murder, Samuel was grieving for his eldest son John. Aged 21 John, had died 3 months earlier at Flush Hall from tuberculosis. William Quinn was present at his death bed. Is it possible Samuel could have resented his stepson so much that he calculated his murder?
Also, as the Crown pointed out it was not necessary for the prosecution to prove a motive for the crime.
The First Trial
In July 1915 the case against Samuel Heron commenced at Downpatrick Courthouse before the Right Honourable Mr Justice Dodds. Dr M Wylie appeared on behalf of the crown and Mr T W Brown [instructed by Messrs Shean & Dickson] for the accused.
The police and expert witnesses testified and Quinn’s friends and family reiterated their accounts.
The jury were sequestered for the duration of the trial. However, when it came to issuing a verdict, the jurors reported that they could not come to a decision on the guilt or innocence of the prisoner.
This was only a temporary reprieve for Samuel Heron as the judge ordered him to be further remanded until the Ulster Winter Assizes when the case would be heard by a different jury.
The Second Trial
Samuel’s next appearance in court was on 7th December 1915 in Belfast. Samuel appeared before the Right Honourable Justice Kenny. As was the norm at the time all the jurors were male businessmen. The jury again listened to the evidence presented.
The trial was a source of great excitement and even entertainment for the locals. Large crowds surged around the courthouse all day, patiently waiting for news.
A smaller number did gain admittance to the interior Court Chamber. When the judge and counsel adjourned, spectators feared losing their ‘ring-side’ seats. So, teas and pastries were provided in the public gallery for the enthralled onlookers!
The defence argued that the main ‘evidence’ against Samuel Heron was the purported conversation relayed by Mr William John McBride, a man who bore ‘malice’ against the defendant. Although the grounds for this ‘malice’ was not explained.
The jury retired to consider their verdict at 12:35pm. When they approached the judge at 2:56pm it was to report that they too could not agree on a verdict.
The Third Trial
Samuel Heron’s final trial took place in Downpatrick on 10th March 1916. Over a year from his initial arrest. He appeared before Mr Justice Boyd. The Crown Solicitors were Attorney-General, the Right Honourable John Gordon K C, MP, Mr George Hill Smith K C and Mr James Williamson K C.
Defence was again conducted by Mr Thomas W Brown.
Once again, the jurors examined the evidence. They deliberated for one hour and 10 minutes, and once again came to no conclusion!
Such a situation was extremely unusual in Irish courtroom history!
A legal ruling took place that as three juries had failed to convict the prisoner he should be acquitted. It is said that Samuel Heron emigrated to Brisbane, Australia the following year. He died there in 1939.
Vote below. What verdict would you have supported?
The unsolved nature of the murder of Willie Quinn has intrigued local historians ever since. The inability of three separate juries to come to any conclusion is in itself a mystery!
What do you think? Remember a man’s life depended on your decision!
A Supernatural Court Case
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