To Fake a Death, 1861

Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl, via the Tate.

From the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, 25 May 1861:


Some years ago, in Dublin, a husband and wife, it appears, took it into their heads to possess themselves of £500 which had been left as a legacy to the wife, under the condition that she should receive the interest during her life, and be at liberty to bequeath the principal to any friend at her death. Being anxious, it appears to obtain the principal, it was arranged that she should make her will and die, and accordingly did so, and acted the character of a deceased woman. The wake was held, the coffin procured, and the funeral procession proceeded, with ‘measured step and slow,’ in Glasnevin Cemetery, where the coffin with the supposed body, was interred. The parties who managed the entire matter had a will drawn up before the pretended death, and after the burial it was opened, and the money was drawn by the husband, to whom it was left by his wife.

The pretended death took place in 1859, but recently it was discovered that the deceased was alive and well, and that the coffin at Glasnevin had never contained a dead body. A young man, a solicitor’s clerk it seems, drew out the will, and made all the arrangements for the funeral, even to the buying of the coffin. The circumstances having come to light, and the dead to life, the police authorities of Dublin have taken the case up, and warrants were issued for the arrestment of those concerned in the fraud. The solicitor’s clerk left Dublin, but was pursued to Belfast by a detective officer, and on the latter arriving at this town, Inspector Mcllroy and Assistant Inspector Paterson proceeded on the search for the accused, and succeeded in arresting him on Friday evening, a few hours after the Dublin officer had arrived. It appears the prisoner had only been in town two days at the time. He has been forwarded to Dublin to take his trial. it is expected that there will be further extraordinary disclosures in relation to the case, and that some very respectable persons will be implicated in it.”

The Fictitious Burial case, as it was known, came up again in June 1861, when respectable-looking solicitor’s clerk Henry William Devereux aged ‘about 32’ and the even more respectable Dublin citizen Charles Higgins, of Haddington Terrace, were put on trial for conspiracy to obtain money from the Court of Chancery, by fraudulent means.

According to Serjeant Sullivan, for the prosecution, stating the case, Mr Higgins’ wife Maria had to her credit a sum of five hundred pounds in the English Court of Chancery, in which she had a life interest, but which could not be obtained until her demise. Devereux ordered a coffin for her, on which there was a plate with her name inscribed, stating that she had departed that life in the fifty-ninth year of her age; the coffin was filled with bags of sand, was waked in a house in Bishop-street, and conveyed with all pomp and ceremonial to Glasnevin Cemetery, where it was interred.  A will was drawn up by Devereux, alleged to have been executed by the deceased lady, and upon sworn affidavits deposing her death, administration was granted by the Court of Probate.

Witnesses to the above included Mr. Eugene Sweeny, of Camden Street, coffin maker, who supplied the coffin, the price of which was never paid, Anne O’Loughlin, who provided sand for the coffin to whom Mr Higgins allegedly said that he had got a very clever attorney, named Devereux, who would get him all his wife’s money, and James Mc Kenna, who drove the coffin to Glasnevin in a hearse led by four horses with black plumes, again without receiving any fee for it.

The Superintendent of Glasnevin Cemetery gave evidence as to the ‘burial’ of Mrs Higgins and the subsequent exhumation of the coffin, which was found to contain a quantity of clay and sand.

Jane Clinton, of Haddington Terrace, said that she had rented the drawing room of her house to Mr and Mrs Higgins, who had joined her for tea and cake on Christmas Day 1858.  Mr. Clinton’s brother, George Young, a member of the constabulary force, deposed that he had likewise spent the Christmas of 1858 in the company of the couple, Mrs Higgins being hale and well despite her apparent death having occurred the previous August.

Luke Fox, acting inspector of the G Division, deposed to being present at the opening of the grave and coffin, and produced the coffin plate, inscribed ‘Mrs. Maria Higgins, aged 54 years, died 29th July 1858.’  Inspector Fox stated that when he arrested Devereux in Belfast, on the 10th May last, he said, when arrested, that he had been drawn into the matter by Higgins, and only got 14 pounds for the transaction, that it was necessary it should be done, as, if it were not done, he (Devereux) should have had to go to the poorhouse.

John Adye Curran, for Devereux, said that his client had drawn up the will but that was all. There was no evidence he knew Mrs. Higgins was alive, and he had been drawn into the whole transaction and misled by Mr Higgins and others.

In response to Mr. Curran, Charles Higgins addressed the court and said he was worried that the learned counsel by his remarks had sought to saddle himself with the fraud, to the exclusion of others who were the real perpetrators. He stated that the fraud was committed by Devereux, and by other parties interested, who had drawn him in to it.  He proceeded to name several persons but was interrupted by Mr. Justice Hayes, who said he thought it right to caution all present that they should pay no attention to statements made against the character of parties who had no opportunity of vindicating themselves.

The prisoners were convicted of obtaining money under false pretenses and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Mrs Higgins herself escaped prosecution, possibly because she was thought to have been under the undue influence of her husband; it was generally accepted that she must have known about the scheme.

An interesting side-note to the case was some reference in evidence to ‘the Yellow Doctor,’ otherwise Dr Thorn, an American, who had been living at Mr Price’s house in Aungier Street, Dublin, and who had been present at the fake wake close by.   Thorn had also signed the Death Certificate for Mrs Higgins; however, by the time of the 1861 trial, he was stated to be dead himself.  The ‘yellow’ reference appears to relate to Thorn’s skin colour; he was also described as ‘black’ in some of the news reports.  

It would be interesting to know more about this African-American physician practising in mid-19th century Dublin!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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