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The Gravedigger – Dubliner Joseph Dwyer

In the Victorian world of the deadly and dastardly, Joseph Dwyer’s crime stood out…

Dublin of the mid-1850’s was a place of contrast. In the century beforehand, the city had developed a beautiful Georgian centre, fuelled by a booming economy and trade. The city’s finest buildings appeared around this time, as Dublin became the ‘second city’ of the Empire. Prestigious streets like Kildare Street and Dawson Street were home to aristocracy and wealthy merchants, with much of the development still recognisable today.

Dublin – College Street, College Green, House of Lords, late 19th century.

On the other side of the coin, rapid growth and Laissez-faire politics resulted in a growing problem with slums, which extended from the outskirts into the once fine Georgian mansions. Wealthy homeowners went the other way, towards affluent suburbs, giving Dublin the odd distinction of having once grand family houses becoming occupied by Dublin’s poorest. There were reports of as many as 104 people in one house. By the early 20th century, the city had the worst housing conditions in Ireland and the United Kingdom, if not all of Europe, and was termed ‘a disgrace to the United Kingdom’ in the House of Lords.

The slums of Dublin

For well to do Dubliner Joseph Dwyer, there was no doubt which side of the coin he was on. Dwyer was born into wealth and privilege, being well educated at All Hallows Seminary.  Ill health saw him leave his studies as well as a subsequent teaching job, with a suggestion he suffered with poor mental health which led to physical debilitation.  Joseph was known among friends and family for making wild announcements, claiming he had met the Pope and witnessed an assignation attempt on Napoleon the third. 

There was no questioning the strangeness of his character, yet nothing pointed to the presence of a ruthless, cold-blooded killer. 

Despite being out of work and his often-odd tendencies, Joseph lived a high life he could not afford in Dublin’s trendy scene. He was frequently to be found at all the best spots, sporting his finest regalia.  Personal appearance mattered to the showy Victorian, as did his personal standing.  After his employment ended his lavish lifestyle was initially financed by his father, but Mr Dwyer senior grew tired of his sons spending. He cut him off, to encourage the young man to stand on his own two feet.   He wanted to see his son find a way to support himself, which for Joseph initially meant the sacrifice of pawning valuables and items he held dear. 

German map of Dublin, 1888. A city expanding unplanned, creating the worst slums in Europe

His father could never have envisaged the path his son would choose in an effort to maintain his standing.  As the money grew thin and pawnable items diminished, Joseph Dwyer grew desperate. His stock of fine clothes diminished a source of despair for the dedicated follower of fashion. Faced with a choice of curtailing his lifestyle or following some other course, Joseph took an extraordinary action.     

One day in Dublin, a respectable looking man calling himself Mr Hanson walked into the respected Hyam’s tailors on Dame Street, where he placed a significant order for clothing.  He left a deposit and asked for the order to be delivered in his name to Commercial Hotel on Union Quay, the only strange detail in the encounter being his temporary lodgings.  Nothing about the transaction raised suspicion, and certainly nothing suggested criminal intent. 

When the tailored clothes were ready for delivery a clerk was dispatched, his orders to collect the remaining balance before handing them over the order to Mr Hanson.  He set off from Dublin’s Dame Street with no clue that murder was waiting for him around the bend.   

The uppers floors of the former Hyam’s Tailors hint at its former glory, its ground floor sadly defiled by Ireland’s poor planning laws.

The porter tasked with the delivery was William Mulholland, a stout lad diligent in his duties.  He headed for the hotel but was surprised to be stopped by the man claiming to be Mr Hanson.  Complaining of the lateness of the order, the customer grumbled loudly and asked the porter to follow him.  Mulholland was surprised to see the man lead him up a small laneway, away from the direction of the Commercial Hotel.  The agitated figure turned around to tell him he had payment in his office, and the porter should accompany him. 

Mulholland brushed it off as this Mr Hanson being a strange character, and he was certainly not wrong on that count.  If he knew the real identify and intentions of Joseph Dwyer, he would not have walked down the lane.

The unsuspecting porter followed Joseph down a dark passage and was surprised again, on this occasion as the odd customer stopped at a stable door.  Dwyer ushered him inside in his frustrated manner. Awkwardness overtook the porter who did not want to make a fuss.  This was a customer and elder, so despite the strangeness of the act he complied.  Mulholland stepped inside and was taken aback by the darkness in the space. 

He could hear Dwyer fumbling in his clothing. Presuming it was for matches, he offered to light a match, hoping to speed up the end of the encounter. ‘Certainly’, was the reply, but Joseph was not looking for a light in the darkness. 

A light in the darkness would reveal Joseph Dwyer’s crime

His hands finally found the pistol concealed in his pocket, and gripping it tightly in his sweaty palm, he withdrew it and shot the young porter square in the face.  At point blank range, away from Dublin’s bustle, he was shooting to kill. 

In the pitch dark and affected by nerves, Joseph Dwyer’s aim was off.  The bullet went clean through the porter’s nose, striking an inch from death.  A struggle ensued, Mulholland now active and aware he was fighting for his life.  He wrestled and out manoeuvred the frail Dwyer, getting fingers which clasped the gun between his teeth to he could bite down hard, inflicting a crippling injury.  Dropping the gun and in intense pain Dwyer screamed and jumped to his feet, bolting from the stable door.  Mulholland did likewise, bloody and beaten, devoid of a nose but running up the laneway at least with his life. 

The gravedigger revealed

The alarm was raised, and a Policeman arrived to inspect the scene of the attempted murder.  He lit a lamp to look for the gun as evidence, and turning its light to the stable’s dark corners, he uncovered far more than just the intended murder weapon.  He exposed a scene that led to Joseph’s notoriety and future moniker as the gravedigger. 

The dapper Dwyer had dug a shallow grave inside the stable, which stood waiting for its unsuspecting occupant.  The smell of freshly disturbed soil still lingered in the air of a wet Dublin evening.  Stone slabs, a shovel and a mound of earth all stood to the side accusingly, ready to forever hide the murder of an innocent man.  The implications could not be clearer.  Joseph Dwyer planned on selling some of the clothes to fund his extravagant lifestyle, or perhaps he was satisfied merely with his updated attire.  But whatever the intention for his haul of garments, he clearly thought the life of a humble porter was not worth the value of new clothes. 

It took the police a few days to ascertain that the person posing as Mr Hanson was in fact Joseph Dwyer.  Police called to his home where his shocked father helped to track him down, at a flat he shared with a partner.  The flat was raided and Dwyer could not hide the wound on his hand, inflicted by bite marks exactly as the Porter described. 

He stood trial and for many it was a clear case of insanity.  Members of his family, ex-teachers and friends testified to this fact, recalling his odd statements and actions that seemed to be escalating in previous months.  Culpability was established regardless, and Joseph Dwyer was convicted and sentenced to twenty years as a common criminal, the Judge saying it would have been life but for his youth. 

The London Herald carries the story – Wednesday 02nd January, 1861

He found himself among Spike Island’s convict population, where prison Chaplain Charles Gibson met him and immediately felt he must be insane.  This prompted Reverend Gibson to question if ‘irresponsible’ men like him should be sent to prison at all. 

They are either responsible, and therefore amenable to punishment, or they are not”,

He wondered if Dwyer was the latter and should have been declared ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’, a sentence seeing increased use as the 19th century progressed.  The Criminal Lunatics act of 1800 had laid out some conditions for the separate detention of such individuals, but Dwyer did not fit the mould. 

Gibson described his first sight of the attempted murderer while he worked a heavy earth moving truck with other inmates on Spike Island, carrying out upgrade work on the island and fort.  

“The first time I saw him was on Spike Island, yoked, with a number of other prisoners to a truck. He knit his eyebrows so wickedly at me that I could not avoid making the remark;

“That fellow would have no objection to bury me.”

Intrigued by the story of a boy from a well to do family committing such an act, the Priest questioned him when he got the opportunity.

“The last time I saw him was in the quarry of Spike Island. I called him. He approached with knitted brows. “What on earth” I said to him … “could have induced you to attempt to commit so terrible and extraordinary a crime?”

My words and manner had a magical effect on him. They exorcised the devil that was in him. His face lighted up – and it is a fair and handsome face – as he replied,

“I really cannot say sir, but I suppose I was not quite in my mind.”

Joseph Dwyer, attempted murderer and master of understatement spent thirteen years on Spike Island, at a time when the workload was high and the regime unrepentant.  He left with his life, which was more than he would have left poor porter William Mulholland. 

Depending on his disposition, Mulholland may have counted himself lucky to be alive with no nose, as that is far less that Joseph Dwyer intended.

Late 19th century map of Spike Island and its impressive fortress


For the complete story of the Victorian Prison on Spike Island – O’Donnobhain, B and McCarthy, Cal, Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets – Cork County Library – 2016. This author first encountered this character, and the majority of those associated with the Victorian Prison, in this seminal work.

Late attempted murder in Dublin. Saint James’s Chronicle. 01 January, 1861.

The late attempt to commit murder. Irish Times. 01st January, 1861.

Content from upcoming release. May be quoted with credit and link. Further reading available on topic in McCarthy's / O'Donnabhain's 'Too Beautiful for thieves and pickpockets', the authoritative work on the Spike Victorian prison.. Further references in upcoming release or contact me, I love to discuss the subject.