Why John Power didn’t hang

The City of Waterford today ( © Nell Darby)

John Power was a respectable and respected man in his home community of Clonmoyle, County Waterford. He was a farmer, regarded as being ‘in a big way of business’, and a member of the Carrick-on-Suir district council. He was also a wife abuser, and on this day in 1900, he should have been hanged at Waterford Gaol, the punishment for murdering Mrs Power.

It was Bonfire Night, 5 November 1899, when he had killed his wife, and when her body was examined, it was found to have ‘evidence of shocking ill-usage’. John Power was said to have ‘had some drink’ prior to the murder; his wife had not.

Just month later, he was found guilty of murder at the Leinster Winter Assizes. His downfall was complete, it seemed: whereas he was once held in high esteem by his neighbours, he was now described as having committed a crime of ‘a most brutal character’.

The jury could barely believe the evidence before them regarding this scion of the community, and recommended him to mercy. The trial judge, Justice Johnson, did not share their feelings, and told the jury he could ‘hold out little hope that the sentence would be commuted.’

The case is interesting because of the relative lack of interest the British press showed towards it. Ireland was still part of Britain, still governed by Westminster (although since 1898, the Irish had had more control over local matters through their county councils). This was a British case in that respect, and the British provincial press tended to cover murder cases from around the British Isles in as much gory detail as possible.

Yet the coverage of this particular case was muted to the extreme. A couple of lines here and there – only one longer piece, published soon after the murder. The newsworthy part of the case was not the murder itself, or the longer-term treatment of a wife by her husband; it was the husband’s position as a district councillor that was worthy of coverage.

The case was interesting because it was not the working-classes who were involved: this was no labouring man beating his wife to death following one too many pints – it was longstanding domestic violence involving someone seen as above reproach by his friends and neighbours.

The victim herself was interesting only because of who her husband was; in only one of the articles I have found relating to the case was she even named. She was Nano Power, a woman so loved by her family that her ‘very old’ mother had kneeled down over her dead body as it lay in her home, to pray for her.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, her husband never underwent the ultimate punishment for her death, as he should have done on 8 January 1900. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 29 December 1899, in recognition of the ‘circumstances’ surrounding the offence with which he had been found guilty.

His solicitor, Joseph F Quirk, was said to have ‘exercised all the influence he possesses’ to get the death sentence commuted, and his ‘well-recognised reputation as an energetic and thoroughly reliable legal advocate’ with ‘influence’ was lauded in the press. He was said to have been ‘proud’ of his success in this particular case.

He had defended a man who had been heard to speak crossly to his wife on numerous occasions, because she ‘used not to do things he told her to do’. In the months prior to her death, she had appeared ‘frightened’ to her neighbours.

The 1901 census for Clonmoyle shows Nano and John Power’s children now living with their aunt and uncle.

He was a man who had spoken rudely to his wife in front of their 12 year old son, William; who had been so appalling to her that his two eldest children – William and his younger brother, Laurence, 10, – had run away into nearby fields so that they would not have to see their mother abused.

They had seen their mother try and run away from her husband, only to be caught and pulled back into the kitchen by him. The Power family servant, young Minnie Shanahan, had seen her master hit her mistress with his fist, and, loyal to Nano Power, had tried to save her by trying to stand between husband and wife.

Nano Power tried to defuse her husband’s anger by acting quiet and docile; she would remove herself from situations, sitting on the stairs, making herself occupy as small a space as possible. She was a regular attender of Mass; she acted peacemaker and homemaker, preparing meals and ensuring they were ready for her husband whenever he wanted them.

In return, her husband killed her, in view of their servant, who he then asked to perjure herself and deny she had seen anything, or else he would tell everyone in their neighbourhood that she was an informer ‘and all the neighbours would be down on me, and myself and my father and mother would be disgraced for ever’, as Minnie later bravely stated.

This was the man whose sentence was commuted, and whose solicitor was ‘proud’ of having helped this local farmer. At the Assizes, much was made of Minnie’s testimony, and how it conflicted with what she had said earlier at Nano Power’s inquest.

One can understand this young servant girl’s confusion, her desire to help her mistress – even in death – and how that contrasted with her fear of her master and of the other local bigwigs who, she said, had threatened her with gaol depending on what she said.

She had to admit that Nano had taken drink the day of her death; that whisky had been found in Nano’s room, and that Nano had been complaining of a pain in her back earlier (the insinuation being, perhaps, that she had died of natural causes – despite bruises being found on her body that were not there earlier in the day, and the postmortem concluding that she had a severe head wound, possibly inflicted by being kicked by a boot-wearing individual).

John Power had also drunk several glasses of alcohol, but it was Nano’s drinking that was judged. It was Nano’s character that the defence attempted to assassinate, despite the evidence that she had received a whole series of injuries, including bruised and broken ribs (five broken on each side), a broken arm, and her left lung pierced by one of the broken ribs.

She had bruising from her head down to her stomach. She had a ruptured liver and a torn spleen. She was thin, poorly nourished; but, crucially, there was no damage to her organs that indicated regular alcohol intake, and no alcohol at all was found in her stomach.

Yet. The defence still argued that she had not been murdered. She may have fallen down stairs (an argument that doctors refuted). John Power may have put his arms too tightly round her whilst trying to carry his drunken wife upstairs, thus accidentally breaking her ribs (another argument that was refuted).

The 1899 entry for John Power in the Irish Prison Registers 1790-1924 collection on Findmypast.

Power was convicted of murder, but the jury – drawn from his class and background – still sympathised. They preferred to believe that he had been married to a drunken woman, and his family had closed ranks, with his cousin backing John’s allegations of female drunkenness.

Even John Power’s earlier efforts to prevent there being an inquest into his wife’s death were seen as the result of a loving husband not wanting it to become publicly known that ‘his unfortunate wife was subjected to this lamentable vice’, rather than the efforts of an abusive, violent husband to escape punishment and the shame of seeing his position in society ruined.

One man who does seem to have been on Nano Power’s side was the judge at John Power’s trial. He poured scorn on the idea that Nano had fallen downstairs, stressed that their sons had seen their mother mistreated by their father, and ridiculed John Power’s assertions that there had been ‘peace and contentment’ in their house the night of the murder, and that Nano might have killed herself (by hitting herself in the head with his boot?).

He also stressed that Nano, aged 45 when she died, was ‘frail and ill-nourished’, that she was a ‘poor creature’ who had never even tried to act in self-defence towards her husband.

The judge saw John Power as a ‘wretched man’, who displayed ‘brutal and cowardly violence’ towards his wife. The jury, the defence solicitor, the Home Secretary, and the local community in County Waterford all appear to have either disagreed, or to have preferred to ignore what was before them.

And as a result, John Power didn’t hang.

Extract from the Waterford Registers & Records set on Findmypast, originally from Waterford City & County Council, detailing Nano Power’s death.

With thanks to Findmypast and The British Newspaper Archive, whose resources were used in researching this story.

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