Death in the afternoon

Thomas Hartley Montgomery was the only policeman to be executed in the history of policing in Ireland.

He was hanged in Omagh Gaol on August 26, 1873. He paid the supreme penalty after two previous trials had proved to be inconclusive. The case had become something of a cause celebre in Irish legal history: the facts in the case have been well attested, but many legends have accrued over the years as living memory morphed into folklore.

Montgomery was a sub-Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary (the ‘Royal’ tag had been bestowed by Queen Victoria a year or so earlier in recognition of the part that the Irish police played in thwarting the Fenian conspiracy), when he murdered a bank teller at the Northern Bank in June of 1871. He was aged 31 at the time of the murder.


He must have been highly regarded by his superior officers in the force to have attained a senior rank at such an early age. He was, to all appearances, a successful officer, and a happily married man.

However, he had found himself in financial difficulties and in his desperation at his plight, resolved to rob the local bank on that fateful summer day in the quiet village. He had hacked the teller, one William Glass, and delivered the coup de grace by piercing the bank clerk, using a metal spike. The spike, set into a wooden block was used for filing documents. This item was standard part of office furniture in use until recent times and Montgomery used it to pierce his victim through the ear with such force that it penetrated the hapless teller’s brain.

Montgomery was later to claim that his victim was already dead before the file was used. This only served to make matters worse, as it came across as a gratuitous act of sadism.

Montgomery, as chief of police, then led the investigations into the robbery and murder. No one could have suspected that the local chief of police could have had any connection with such foul deeds. The value of the cash was put at around £1,100, a fortune in those days.

The Inspector put the money into a satchel and hid it near a riverbank at a place called Grange Wood on the Omagh side of the town. There it remained until a flood of the river carried banknotes downstream towards Newtownstewart. Police traced the banknotes to Montgomery’s cache and were able to connect him with it. The suspect was arrested and the first of his three trials began.

Eyewitnesses recalled having seen Montgomery leaving the bank premises within an hour or so after the victim’s estimated time of death. The defence claimed that there was nothing remarkable about that, given the fact that Glass, the teller, was a family friend.

The jury failed to agree and a second trial was ordered. The RIC, far from closing ranks to protect one of their own officers, were determined to protect the reputation of the force and to maintain public confidence in it. The second trial was also inconclusive and it was not until the third trial that a  conviction was secured.


Montgomery had claimed, in his defence, that his wife’s family had been undermining him by surreptitiously dosing his food and drink with what we would today call mind-altering substances and that these drugs had brought about a drastic change in his personality. These allegations made no impact upon the jury.

The execution took place on the morning of August 26, 1873. In the early hours of that day a fierce, unseasonable storm of wind and hailstones visited the town of Omagh. The local people took it as an omen. Ireland did not maintain a full time hangman, then or since, and the execution was conducted by one William Marwood, the Crown Executioner and officially designated number one executioner for the United Kingdom.

His last duty in Ireland was to hang four of The Invincibles, after the assassination of the two top British officials in the Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1882. Local legend has it that the hangman went straight to the Omagh GNR station after the job was done, got the railway bar to open and ordered a double brandy, to steady himself. He took a scientific approach to his doleful trade and pioneered the concept of the ‘long drop’.

The murder and the subsequent trials have provided the inspiration for various literary and theatrical works in the years that have followed. My first encounter with the saga was a radio play, broadcast about 1950. I was then living about 200 yards from the Omagh Gaol.

In 1980, the Newtownstewart publican, the late Brian McBride wrote and locally staged a very fine play about the Montgomery affair. On the last occasion when I spoke to him, he told me that he was revising the text so as to reduce the number of characters in his drama, so that the play might have a better chance of professional production. Sadly, the author died not long afterwards.

Benedict Kiely touches upon the last end of Montgomery in his short story, ‘The House in the Jail Square’. This is, of course, a work of fiction, but fiction well-grounded on fact. The protagonist is a young pupil at the Brothers’ School, then lodging with two spinster sisters in the Jail Square. Among the ruins “…. there lay the sharp fallen stone sharply lettered to do honour to justice: Thomas Henry (Sic) Montgomery was hanged here for the murder of William Glass….my imagination could not help rebuilding the confining walls, the cell, the scaffold, the trap, the hanging rope. The morning knell tolled.

Towards this corner the slow, heavy steps approached. The parson prayed the last prayer. The blindfolded body dropped like lead. The neck cracked. The helpless pioned feet swinging in a pendulum could have cut the air just where my head and shoulders were.” Montgomery’s last words were: “Is it a painful death?”

As was the tradition of the time, a ballad about Montgomery’s last night in Omagh Jail was published as a broadsheet. The opening stanza gives the flavour:

“Dark and dismal was the skies
And thunder storms prevail
These lines I write for my last night
I live in Omagh jail
Lonely here in silent prayer
In my dungeon cell
Dear wife to you I bid adieu
And all my friends farewell.”
The lines were, of course, not written by Montgomery, but the sentiments are genuine enough.

The bank closed its doors in 2012. The stool and counter used by William Glass are preserved in O’Kane’s public house in Drumquin. Contrary to popular belief Montgomery was not the last man to be hanged in Omagh jail. That distinction belongs to Peter Conway, hanged in 1880. His grave marking stone can be seen in the wall, just to the right of the front gate of the former Culmore School.

Court quips
In evidence the court heard that the proceedings had come about as a sequel to a disturbance which had occurred at the door of a public house in the locality. There had been claim and counter claim by the two factions involved. They had all been socialising inside the premises and a confrontation had broken out as they were leaving. Closed circuit television footage had shown that threatening gestures and offensive postures had been caught on camera. “Is this” said the RM, “What could be described as camaraderie?”

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