Barrister’s Son Returns from the Dead, 1896

From the Cork Constitution, 5 March 1896:


To-day the Master of the Rolls had before him a case which brought to light a modern Enoch Arden. In 1866 William Henry Boyle, son of a well-known barrister, emigrated to America, leaving his young wife at home. Fortune did not smile on him, and he did not send for his wife. He ceased to write, and for many years his family had heard nothing of him, and at length assumed that he was dead. In this belief his wife married again, and she had a family. At last the wandering husband, who had been a travelling salesman, a shorthand clerk, and at other avocations at turn, found his way back to Dublin. His sister informed him of what had happened in his absence and that he was entitled to a share of his uncle’s estate, which, in 1887, was ordered to be put to his credit and remained in court still. Mr Boyle having established his identity, the Master of the Rolls made an order that he should get the money. His lordship recalled an incident that occurred in court when administering the estate of another supposed dead man. The argument of counsel was interrupted by a man in the gallery saying, “My lord, I am the deceased,” and it turned out that he was the man whose property, on the erroneous hypothesis that he was dead, as he had not been heard of for years, it was sought to distribute among his next-of-kin.”

‘Enoch Arden’ is a narrative poem published in 1864 by Alfred Lord Tennyson about a man who left his family to seek his fortune, only to be shipwrecked on a desert island. On his return home, he discovers his wife to be happily married to another man. He dies of a broken heart after loving her too much to spoil her new happiness.

The story has inspired a number of movies, including Marilyn Monroe’s last (unfinished) film ‘Something’s Got to Give,’ in which she played a female Enoch by the name of Ellen Wagstaff Arden, who returned from shipwreck on a desert island to find her husband remarried to Cyd Charisse. The film starts with a judicial application to have Ellen declared dead. The ending is for the imagination.

There was no shipwreck in the case of William Henry Boyle, and surely he could have managed a letter or two. Judges – though not, it seems, Porter MR – could be extremely censorious of husbands who returned to expose as unwitting bigamists wives whom they had previously deserted. They tended to be less so when the husbands returned to defeat Workmen’s Compensation Act claims made in respect of the death of the second husband. This happened in quite a few cases in England.

The reverse happened in Dublin in 1914, where the death the subject of the claim was that of the returned husband, killed after his return. Madden J adjourned the case, but remarked that he felt that the wife was entitled to make such a claim.

It seems that, when it came to choosing between his wife’s honour and a substantial legacy, Mr Boyle opted for the ignoble but financially remunerative alternative! Unless, of course, he intended to remedy his wrong by providing for her out of the legacy proceeds!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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