Irish Barrister Beheaded on Banks of Bosphorus, c.1825

Aivazovsky, View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus,1856, via Wikimedia Commons

From the Irish Independent, 17 June 1909:


In the early years of the nineteenth century one of the most popular favourites in Dublin Society was a barrister named William Norcott, whose identity is discreetly veiled under the initial ’N—-‘ by several chroniclers of the period.  He was the life and soul of every party; his wit was keenly relished, and his satirical powers enjoyed by all but the victims whose peculiarities were so readily hit off.  As a punster, he was the equal of Lord Norbury, as a mimic unrivalled.  He was in great requests at all fashionable functions, and was supposed to possess considerable means.  He had splendid prospects at the Irish Bar, where his possibilities of practice were very great, if he cared to avail himself of his opportunities, and it was generally thought that his inability to trouble himself in this manner was due to his possession of large wealth.

Cruikshank, An Evening Party, via Wikipedia


His own bachelor entertainments were on a very magnificent scale, and he simply drove all competitors out of the field, until rumours of Norcott’s reckless gambling and doubtful methods of play became current.  That he was an inveterate card-player was common knowledge, but as most of his associates were tarred with the same brush, no special obloquy was attached to that charge.  But it was pretty broadly hinted that Norcott was in serious difficulties, that, in fact he was ‘without a sou’ and was obliged to resort to various shady expedients to continue the pace.  As soon as the fact of his being ‘broke’ became established, he speedily found himself shunned. As one who knew him declared ‘his best puns began to pass without notice, his mimicry excited no laughter, and his most high-flown compliments scarcely received a curtesy.’


He was, according to a contemporary, meditating suicide with one of his duelling pistols, when it occurred to him that one of his college companions, John Wilson Croker, had secured a high position at the Admiralty in London, and might be disposed to provide him with a distant sinecure in which he could continue to indulge his now irresistible passion for gambling.  Accordingly, he obtained a lucrative position in Malta, and left Dublin with the hope that when he had made or married a fortune he would return to the scene of his early triumphs to dazzle and delight once more the worshippers of wealth and success.

View of Malta Harbour, 1828, via Mutual Art


It was in or about 1815 when Norcott left Malta.  He had hardly landed when he recommenced his old life, playing cars for his stakes and spending freely.  The same rumours and suspicions which had enveloped him in Dublin soon began to gather round him in Malta, and finally even that station became too hot to hold him.  He was accused, rightly or wrongly, of various irregularities, and finally fled to Constantinople, where he joined the army of outcasts of all nationalities who congregated in the city on the Bosphorus.  In a comparatively short time he was reduced to absolute poverty, and was finally compelled to sell rhubarb and opium in the streets of Smyrna for a bare subsistence.

The cemetery where Dr Walsh met William Norcott, as depicted by Thomas Allom in an illustration accompanying a book later published by Walsh on Constantinople, via Antique Prints


Some years passed, and one evening the Rev Dr Robert Walsh, the chaplain to the British Embassy in Constantinople, chanced to visit one of the cemeteries of the city of the Golden Horn.  His attention was caught by the appearance of a man, evidently a European, who was dressed in a tattered white costume and wore a ragged turban.  Speaking in English, the stranger begged him for assistance, as he was absolutely destitute and serving.  He had hardly spoken when Dr Walsh, who was also a graduate of Trinity College, exclaimed ‘Gracious… can it be?’ when the unhappy outcast proceeded to say ‘Alas, it is too true, I am Mr Norcott, of the Irish Bar.


Norcott, in his desperate poverty, had formally abjured Christianity, and hoped to obtain some alleviation of his sufferings, which eventually led to his tragic end.  Some Englishmen having befriended him, he determined to return to Christianity and to escape from Turkey.  His purpose was discovered and he was pursued by the Sultan’s myrmidons.  Being captured a few miles away from the capital, he was instantly decapitated, and his body thrown into the Bosphorus.  Truly, times are changed.’


Officer of the Janissaries, by Thomas Charles Wageman, via Fine Art America

Poor Mr Norcott! The above may have been the last sight he ever saw.

Alas, the only other documentary trace of Mr Norcott lies in this 1810 advertisement for the sale of his law books, presumably placed before he left Dublin for Malta.

Times change indeed – the concept of ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ being still some way away even in 1909. Perhaps Mr Norcott’s life might now be viewed as a journey of self-discovery?

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