Throughout the history of Belfast there have been many harrowing crimes, but the killing of a child still remains the most sickening crime of them all, the following story was one of the cruelest that took place in Ballymacarrett.
Our story begins when on a fine August morning in 1897 when Mrs Isabella Dyer was sitting at the front of her home at 118 Dee Street, she was waiting for her husband to return home of the nightshift at the near by shipyards. She noticed a very frightened young boy coming up the street and as he approached her door she noticed that he was very worried and ragged looking. She took the boy in and give him some breakfast and then washed and cleaned him up. It was while she was doing this she discovered that he had run away from home and was sleeping rough in the Victoria Park. She also noticed that the lad had a large number of bruises on his arms and body.
The Father finds his Son.
Unknown to the young boy his father was out looking for him and someone told him where the boy was and he went to Mrs Dyers house looking to collect his son Robert Dugan. When Phillip Dugan arrived to collect his son young Robert clung on to Isabella Dyer’s dress in fear. She asked the Father not to beat the boy, but the Father said his son needed to be chastised for running away from home as he had done the same thing three or four times previous to this. Little did Isabella know that the following day this young boy Robert Dugan would be found dead and would be lying in the city mortuary.
Robert Dugan found Dead.
On the night of August 16th 1897 two Policemen and the Police Doctor where dispatched to Dugan’s home at Dugan’s request. When the Police arrived at the house on Evelyn Avenue in the Bloomfield Area they were admitted by Mr Dugan. They were then taken into the kitchen of the house where the body of a boy was stretched out on a sofa opposite the fireplace. Mrs. Agnes Dugan was also in the room and a police sergeant cautioned both of them and Phillip Dugan made the following statement.
“The boy left at 8pm on Friday. I cant tell you why he left as he was in the habit of running away, when he returned at 6pm he took a mug of tea and would eat nothing he said he got a meal. His mouth was twisted and he complained of being sore. I undressed him and bathed him. About 9p.m. he lay down on the sofa with his clothing on. I went to Dr Browns at 10p.m. He was not dead before I left but I returned at 10.30pm and found him dead.”
Both Phillip Dugan and his wife were arrested, as it was obvious that the boy had been murdered on the premises, and an examination of the body and a search of the house showed this had happened.
Many people gave evidence as to the unsavoury character of the Dugan’s. Some children told of how Mrs Dugan had beaten the boy while he was out playing on the old Ritchie’s Fields. He had been sent a message and had run away but when Mrs Dugan caught him she trailed young Robert home by the ankles and proceeded to swing him against the ground as punishment. Another witness was William Clark of Clara Street who told the police that while working in the Dugan’s house he had noticed one morning that the boy had two black eyes and his face was cut. On another occasion he saw Phillip Dugan punch the boy on the back of the head and then kick him. He then took Robert upstairs and beat him with a belt. The neighbour informed the police that he asked Dugan to stop beating the boy but was ignored. Many other people told similar stories of the punishment inflicted on the child, and indeed one woman told that she heard Mrs Dugan say that she was only the boys step Mother but how she wished that he was dead.
The Doctors Report.
Dr Brown reported the following comments on the state of the boy when he examined the body. That the back of the boys hips were covered in bruises some of which were inflicted some days before hand, the back was covered in bruises and in his opinion “it would have taken 50 blows or more” to cause such injuries, between the legs and on the feet were the most severe injuries. The post mortem results showed that there were semi-circular wounds to the head, believed to have been caused by the buckle of a belt. The cause of death was by a an effusion of blood to the brain, and it was believed that this was caused by heavy punches to the child’s head. Other evidence produced by the police included samples of blood found on the walls of the bathroom and also on the kitchen floor.
Returned For Trial.
Phillip Dugan and his wife Agnes were both returned for trial at the Ulster Winter Assizes in December 1897 at the courthouse on the Crumlin Road. The only defence they could put up was that the boy received his wounds when he had run away from home. It took the jury one hour to find Philip Dugan guilty of manslaughter.
The judge closed the proceedings saying “Well Phillip Dugan I believe the jury were very lenient in their view of this the most horrific of crimes. It is necessary for me, in the vindication of the law and in vindication of justice to inflict on you a very severe penalty. The sentence and judgment of this court is that you be kept in penal servitude for a period of 20 years”.
Agnes Dougan was cleared of murder but was later charged with aiding and abetting her husband. She was never again seen in the district of Bloomfield.
Phillip Dugan was taken down through the tunnel under the Crumlin Road and into the Belfast Prison to serve his sentence.