“One of the ghastliest and most curious crimes”: The Murder of Dr Cronin – 4 May 1889


Today is the 130th anniversary of the murder of Dr Patrick Cronin. On 4 May 1889 an anxious young man ran in a doctor’s surgery in north Chicago. He was agitated and desperate for help. A man had been seriously injured and needed immediate attention. The doctor packed his medical case, hopped into a waiting carriage and was never seen alive again.
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The Year they Cancelled St Patrick’s Day

I wrote this a while ago for History News Network and Time.com:

The Year They Cancelled St. Patrick’s Day

Gillian O’Brien is a senior lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University and the author of “Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago” (Chicago, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @gillianmobrien or her personal blog: gillianmobrien@wordpress.com

Related Link HNN Hot Topic:  St. Patrick’s Day 


Today Saint Patrick’s Day is a broadly inclusive festival associated with fun, frivolity and, in Chicago, turning the river green.  Chicago’s first Saint Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1843 when the city was a mere six years old and the population about 8,000. By 1890, Chicago’s population had swollen to over one million and 17 percent of the city (or almost 180,000 people) were either Irish-born or had one parent born in Ireland.
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Talks & Travels


Taking the slow and very scenic road from Doagh Famine Village to Fort Dunree, Donegal

I’ve been busy visiting Dark Tourism sites, teaching and talking about convents & nuns at conferences so haven’t had time to blog recently…but I’ve seen lots of great sites in Sligo, Donegal, Derry & Tyrone and I will get round to writing something about them soon.  I’m back on the road again in a couple of weeks so if anyone has suggestions for Dark Tourism places in Tipperary, Westmeath, Kilkenny & Limerick do let me know either here or via twitter (@gillianmobrien) or instagram (gillianmobrien) or email (g.p.obrien@ljmu.ac.uk). Continue reading

Dark Tourism, Dime Museums, Statues – Memory & Commemoration

I had a hectic few days in Dublin last week where I helped launch an exhibition, spoke at the Royal Society of Antiquaries, spent a day in a convent archive, heard three fascinating papers at the National Museum of Ireland, saw three exhibitions and had a really nice chat with Neil Delamere about Dark Tourism on Neil’s Sunday Best on TodayFM

We did a very quick (and very partial) world tour of Dark Tourism sites, but mostly focused on sites in Ireland. My interest in Dark Tourism has grown out of a number of separate projects that have allowed me to look at Dark Tourism from several angles. My involvement in the development of sites such as Spike Island has has strong impact on developing my interest in Dark Tourism but so too has my research for books and articles on nineteenth-century America. One aspect of Gilded Age America that fascinated me was the growth of Dime Museums which were often complete with Chambers of Horror. Continue reading

A talk in Dublin, 25 January


Next Thursday evening (25th Jan) I’ll be talking about Spies, Informers, Invasions, Murder and Graverobbing at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 63 Merrion Square, Dublin. The talk begins at 7.30pm and it’s open to the public. Continue reading

‘Prince of Spies’ – Lecture, 25 October, Liverpool

Prince of Spies

On Wednesday 25 October I’ll be giving a talk about Henri Le Caron in Room 1.27, John Foster Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

The story of Henri le Caron is a story of deception, international espionage, betrayal, patriotism and murder. As an Englishman masquerading as a Frenchman, he pledged his loyalty to an Irish Republic while also serving the British Crown. He plotted invasions of Canada and helped launch a ‘dynamite war’ on Britain, all while diligently reporting his own activities to his handler, Robert Anderson, in London.

From 1868 until 1889 le Caron was a window on the secret operations of radical Irish America, where violent republicanism and constitutional nationalism often existed side by side. Le Caron organised (and simultaneously thwarted) two invasions of Canada in the 1870s, he helped foil bomb plots intended to destroy key targets in London (including the Houses of Parliament, Scotland Yard and several Tube stations). He also targeted parliamentarians and met with Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, on a number of occasions. Indeed it was le Caron who was responsible for exposing the connections between Parnell, the constitutional nationalist, and the men devoted to using violence to secure an Irish republic.

This paper will examine transnational links between Scotland Yard and its spies in the United States and Canada. It will consider why Irish American radicals were considered such a threat to British security and will assess the key roles that Henri le Caron and Robert Anderson played in undermining the plans of secret revolutionary societies such as the Fenians and Clan na Gael.

‘Infernal Machines’ in London

Infernal Machine

The rudimentary bombs used in the 1880s ‘Dynamite War’ were known as ‘infernal machines’. This one is held in the crime museum in London and was found at the scene of the Scotland Yard bombing, May 1884

As a historian working primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries I don’t expect my daily newspapers to regularly publish articles that directly reflect my research. Recently, depressingly, this has begun to happen. A few weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Dynamite War’ of the 1880s and how members of the Fenians and Clan na Gael were being disingenuous when they claimed that setting off bombs in public places was never intended to harm innocent bystanders. This was in response to claims made by Michael Hayes (who was actively involved in the IRA in the 1970s) that the those behind the IRA’s Birmingham bombing in 1974 had never intended to kill anyone.

Yesterday, I read in The Guardian that terrorist incompetence is saving lives. It’s an article prompted by the explosion on a train at Parson’s Green station. And it’s certainly true that there would be a lot more fatalities had would-be bombers been more competent. The article makes references to Chris Morris’ Four Lions film – a comedy about incompetent terrorists.

It’s not just recently that those attempting to launch politically motivated attacks have been foiled by their own incompetence. In the late 1860s and early 1870s the Fenians planned three invasions of Canada from the United States. All three failed because of poor planning, lack of support, lack of arms and ammunition and lack of secrecy. There were some concessions to secrecy in planning with invisible ink and a cipher used by some. However the code was a ridiculously simplistic system in which letters were substituted for the one that came after it alphabetically. ‘Ireland’ became ‘Jsfmboe’, ‘England’ was ‘Fohmboe’ and ‘Revolutionary’ became ‘Sfwpmoujposbsz’. Invisible ink was made from a “weak solution of yellow prussaite of potash” on “rough unglazed paper” with a “quill pen.” The written word would later be revealed by dipping the letter in “a solution of copperas”. Intercepted letters were quickly and easily deciphered.

In August 1884 William Mackey Lomasney, his brother-in-law Peter Mahon and John Fleming sailed to England. They planned to take part in the ‘Dynamite War’ which was a war against British control of Ireland, largely waged by Irish republicans based in the United States. The ‘Dynamite War’ targeted many locations in London – Scotland Yard, London Bridge, Tube stations, the offices of The Times, left-luggage rooms of train stations, Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, the Carlton Club and the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Lomasney’s mission was to blow up London Bridge.

Lomasney, was in many ways the archetypal Irish republican hero. He was born into an Irish republican family in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841. His grandfather had reputedly been a United Irishman who was killed during the failed rebellion of 1798 and Lomasney joined the Fenians as a young man, later becoming a member of the Clan. After serving in the Union Army Lomasney went to Ireland where he was promptly arrested, imprisoned and banished from Britain and Ireland. After a brief spell back in the United States he returned to Ireland in 1867 where he quickly gained fame and notoriety for a series of dramatic and successful raids on coastguard stations and police barracks. He was captured in Cork in February 1868, tried and sentenced to twelve years’ penal servitude. He was released in 1871 and settled in Detroit.

Yet it was not long before he found himself once again involved in Irish republican activity. He joined Clan na Gael and was strongly in favor of Parnell, believing he was “eminently deserving of our support, and that he means to go as far as we do in pushing the business”, but he was unwilling to entirely forgo the prospect of using force against the British if it might bring success. By late 1880 he began to experiment with dynamite. though, as he told John Devoy, “I scarcely think there will be need for what I am preparing for, but it is best to be ready, and none will be better pleased than myself if there never happens to be use for what I am preparing.”  Yet, despite his reservations, when Alexander Sullivan, the leader of Clan na Gael, embarked on the ‘Dynamite War’ Lomasney chose to follow. He claimed that his aim was to “strike terror into the British ruling class” without “hurting a hair on an ordinary Englishman’s head.”


On the night of December 13, close to 6pm, Lomasney, Mahon and Fleming boarded a small boat, rowed out to London Bridge, attached a bomb to iron gratings and lit the fuse. As the men prepared to row away, the bomb exploded prematurely, blowing the men “to atoms”, destroying the boat and shattering windows, but leaving London Bridge largely undamaged. Lomasney and his associates hadn’t hurt “a hair on an ordinary Englishman’s head”, but only because they had failed in their mission. Had the bomb exploded as had been intended there is a very strong chance that many would have been killed or injured.


A reflection on the Dynamite War


This was prompted by Fintan O’Toole’s article ‘Fake Birmingham apology is part of IRA’s twisting of history’. O’Toole’s article was partly in response to an interview Michael Hayes had given the BBC. Hayes, an active member of the IRA, was involved in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974, claimed in the BBC interview that the IRA ‘had no intention of hurting anybody’ This seems disingenuous. As O’Toole points out

‘The first obvious question is: if the IRA had no intention of hurting anybody, what did it intend to do that night? The only other possible goal would be simply to destroy the two pubs. The logical time to do this would be in the dark of night, when the buildings were empty. Instead, the bombers chose a Thursday night – pay night in working-class communities in the 1970s. (Some of the dead could be identified only by the names on their pay packets.) They chose a time, 8.17pm, when the pubs were certain to be packed.’

Hayes claims that the bombers tried to give enough warning so the pubs could be evacuated but one of the payphones they tried was broken, the other was occupied. It defies belief that men who were prepared to blow innocent people up were too polite to use their influence to ensure that phone-call finished in a timely fashion.

Hayes’ excuses reminded me of discussions the surrounded Clan na Gael’s dynamite campaign of the 1880s and of research I’ve been doing which examines both the Dynamite War and American reaction to it. Between 1881 and 1885 Irish American republicans carried out a series of bombings in Britain. The first batch in 1881 and early 1883 were part of the skirmishing campaign, the second, between October 1883 and January 1885 became known as the Dynamite War. Both campaigns were carried out by members of the Fenians and its successor organisation, Clan na Gael. Continue reading


The paperback version of Blood Runs Green will be officially out in the US tomorrow, though my spies in Chicago tell me that it’s already available in shops there. My friend Ellen sent me this photo of it in the wonderful 57th Street Books in Hyde Park.


The book will be available in Ireland and the UK from 23rd May.

A timely review of the book by Peter D. O’Neill is published in Irish Studies ReviewO’Neill concludes that ‘Blood Runs Green offers a fascinating account of time and place for both academic and general readers alike: well written and paced, it sheds valuable light on a key moment in Irish American history that has until now remained mostly overlooked’.

The recent newsletter from the Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame recently published an account of a lecture I gave for the Center back in September. It seems appropriate to include it here to mark the publication of the paperback. Continue reading

“A Diabolical Murder” Clan na Gael, Chicago & the Murder of Dr Cronin – article for ‘History Ireland’

Last summer I wrote a piece for History Ireland about the murder of Dr Cronin. Below is the article reproduced from theHistory Ireland website.

‘A diabolical murder’: Clan na Gael, Chicago and the murder of Dr Cronin

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Volume 23

Judge 15 June 1889In 1882 an Irish doctor, Patrick Henry Cronin, arrived to take up his new position at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Cronin quickly established himself as an active member of the Irish community in the city. He was a prominent member of a number of charitable societies, regularly sang in the Catholic Cathedral on State Street and, most important of all, was an active member of Clan na Gael. The Clan was a secret Irish republican society founded in New York in 1867. Like its predecessor, the Fenians, the Clan was dedicated to winning Irish independence from Britain through the use of force. Cronin was keen to rise through the ranks and his ambition quickly brought him into conflict with local Clan leader Alexander Sullivan. Sullivan was a controversial figure, inspiring great loyalty and great hatred, and by 1881 he had become the undisputed leader of the Chicago Irish and one of the most influential leaders of radical Irish America. Sullivan was the leading member of ‘the Triangle’, a triumvirate that controlled Clan na Gael. Throughout the 1880s Chicago was the centre of all Clan activity, and Sullivan’s influence was enormous.

Cronin expelled from Clan na Gael

Top: Dr Patrick Henry Cronin. (Chicago History Museum)

As part of the Dynamite Campaign of the mid-1880s a fund was established by the Clan to look after the families of the dead and jailed dynamiters. Cronin, however, suspected that some of the money had been siphoned off by Alexander Sullivan, and after some investigation he concluded that Sullivan had stolen $100,000 of Clan funds. Cronin’s attempts to get Sullivan to account for the missing money failed, and in 1885, disillusioned and desperate, he decided to make public his allegations. Sullivan took immediate action. He accused Cronin of treason, ordered an internal Clan trial and assembled a panel of five men to try him. Two of those appointed to the panel were Henri le Caron, a Frenchman who had been involved in the failed Fenian invasions of Canada in the late 1860s, and Daniel Coughlin, an associate of Sullivan’s and a senior detective in the Chicago police. The trial was brief; Cronin was found guilty and expelled from Clan na Gael in the spring of 1885.

Cronin’s expulsion split the Clan. Nowhere was the division more obvious than in Chicago, where many members of Clan na Gael sided with Cronin. The public acrimony damaged the reputation of the Irish in America and for three years attempts were made to reconcile the two wings of the Clan. Finally, at a convention in Buffalo, New York, in June 1888, representatives of Clan na Gael agreed to hear Cronin’s evidence against Sullivan and the other Triangle members. A six-man committee was proposed, with three men representing each side of the dispute (Cronin sat on the prosecution side, le Caron on the defence). The Triangle was found ‘not guilty’ by a vote of four to two. Cronin was furious, and determined to prove Sullivan’s guilt. Ten months later he was dead.

‘Henri le Caron’ revealed as a spy

Above: Alexander Sullivan.

After the 1888 convention Cronin returned to Chicago, while Henri le Caron headed for London. At the time London was in the midst of a sensational judicial inquiry—the ‘Parnell Commission’. Charles Stewart Parnell had been the subject of a series of controversial articles, published by The Times, entitled ‘Parnellism and Crime’. These articles implicated Parnell in the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders, and accused him of close links with secret revolutionary groups such as the Fenians and Clan na Gael. Parnell denied all charges and a parliamentary commission was established to investigate the newspaper’s claims. The proceedings ran for fourteen months, and in February 1889 a key witness gave sensational evidence. Taking the stand, le Caron revealed that he was not a Frenchman dedicated to the cause of Irish freedom but an Englishman called Thomas Beach who had been a spy for the British government for 25 years.

Le Caron claimed to have met Parnell a number of times and was adamant that Parnell knew of Clan na Gael’s plan to use violence to achieve Irish freedom. It was le Caron’s information that had formed the basis of several of the articles in The Times, and his reports that had been responsible for the capture of many of the men sent on bombing missions to Britain as part of the campaign. Thanks to his senior position in Sullivan’s Chicago camp, le Caron had an intimate knowledge of the workings of Clan na Gael and had furnished Scotland Yard with all the information they required.

Cronin now suspect

 ‘How Dr Cronin was found’. (National Police Gazette)

The revelation that Henri le Caron was a British spy sent shock waves through Irish America. Le Caron had intimated that there was more than one spy at work in Clan na Gael and, in Chicago, attention immediately focused on Patrick Cronin, Sullivan’s bête noir. The uneasy truce that had been engineered at the Buffalo Convention looked increasingly precarious. Cronin told friends that he believed that his life was in danger. Nevertheless, in April 1889 Cronin struck a peculiar deal with a Patrick O’Sullivan, an iceman with a factory in Lake View (a northern suburb of Chicago). Despite living several miles from the icehouse, Cronin agreed to attend any employee of O’Sullivan’s who was injured in return for a regular stipend.

On 4 May an anxious young man summoned Cronin from his surgery. An accident had taken place at O’Sullivan’s icehouse and a man had been seriously wounded. Cronin packed his medical case and leapt into the waiting buggy. When he failed to return home, his landlords and friends, Theo and Cordelia Conklin, reported him missing. At first, however, the police investigation was characterised by apathy. Daniel Coughlin, a detective assigned to the case, reflected the feelings of many officers when he announced to reporters: ‘Boys, I give up … I’ve searched high and low until I’m exhausted and I can get nowhere. But this you may be sure of, there isn’t a shred of evidence that Cronin was murdered.’

Cronin’s friends pointed to the fact that several patrolmen had reported the erratic passage of a horse and cart carrying a large trunk through the streets of Chicago late on the evening of Cronin’s disappearance. The following day the discovery of a blood-stained trunk containing tufts of human hair in a ditch gave substance to the view that Cronin had not disappeared voluntarily. But other rumours persisted. The press claimed that he had run away: to Canada, to escape prosecution for performing an abortion; to New York, to escape the consequences of an ill-advised affair; or to London, where, like le Caron before him, he would be revealed as a British spy.

Putrid smell

All speculation ended on 22 May when employees of the Board of Public Works were dispatched to investigate the source of a putrid smell coming from a sewer in Lake View. Peering through the bars of the sewer, the workers saw the swollen body of a naked man. A bloody towel was draped around the corpse’s neck and he had been stripped of all belongings, with the exception of an Agnus Dei medallion, a Catholic sacramental believed to safeguard the wearer against harm. It was immediately assumed that the body was Cronin’s, and within hours the Conklins identified his body in the morgue of Lake View police station.

Two days after the discovery of Cronin’s body the police found the scene of his murder. The Carlsons, Swedish immigrants, owned a cottage in Lake View that they rented out. On 20 March a ‘Frank Williams’ had rented the cottage but in May he vacated it without notice. On entering the empty cottage, the Carlsons discovered rooms stained with blood and scattered with broken furniture. Meanwhile, the police investigation was finally gathering pace. Patrick Dinan owned a livery stable very close to East Chicago Avenue police station. The stable was regularly used by police officers and detectives, and on the night Cronin was killed Dinan had rented a horse and buggy to a man called ‘Smith’, sent by Detective Daniel Coughlin (the detective assigned to the case and a Clan member who had expelled Cronin in 1885). The horse and buggy matched the newspaper descriptions of the ones that had taken Cronin from his surgery, and Dinan reported this to the chief of police, George W. Hubbard. On 27 May Detective Coughlin was arrested and charged with the murder of Dr Cronin. The iceman, Patrick O’Sullivan, was also taken into custody.
As the police investigation continued, growing evidence led officers to the conclusion that Cronin’s murder was the result of a conspiracy hatched in Camp 20 of Clan na Gael, Alexander Sullivan’s camp. It became apparent that Patrick O’Sullivan, the iceman, was closely linked with Martin Burke (the ‘Frank Williams’ who had rented the Carlson cottage). Further revelations implicated John Beggs, the senior guardian of Camp 20, and a number of others associated with both Sullivan and Camp 20. On 11 June Alexander Sullivan was arrested, but with little more than rumour to detain him he was released after one night. On 16 June a key suspect was traced to Winnipeg. Martin Burke was discovered at Winnipeg railway station, travelling under an alias, with tickets for a boat bound for Liverpool. After lengthy extradition proceedings, Burke was returned to Chicago on 5 August. In all, the Chicago police identified nine men whom they believed were involved in the conspiracy to murder Cronin, but several of those suspected were never arrested and charged.

 Jury selection

By the time the Illinois state attorney was ready to bring Coughlin, Beggs, Burke and O’Sullivan to trial, however, it was almost impossible to select a jury. Almost everyone in Chicago had already made up their minds about the case. From May to December 1889, thousands of newspaper reports and editorials had been dedicated to the Cronin murder. Every twist and turn of the investigation was closely scrutinised by a press and public who were fascinated and horrified in equal measure. The newspaper coverage was sufficient to convince many Chicagoans that Coughlin and his cohorts were guilty. Between August and October, 1,115 men were interviewed as potential jurors (at the time the largest and longest jury selection process in US history) before twelve were eventually sworn in on 22 October. The trial opened the following day. Such was the interest in it that 5,000 members of the public attempted to gain admission to a courtroom that could accommodate just 200.

The trial lasted for seven weeks, and every twist and turn was pored over and dissected by an enthralled city. Newspapers delighted in providing minute details about the lives of the accused, the jury and the legal teams. As the days wore on, Clan na Gael slowly unravelled, as unedifying details of the inner workings of an idealistic but corrupt movement were exposed to public scrutiny. By the conclusion of the trial few in Chicago were prepared openly to defend the cause of Irish republicanism.

The jury began its deliberations on 12 December. Outside the divided Irish American community, popular opinion held that the accused were guilty and should hang. It became apparent on the morning of 16 December that a verdict was imminent, and a huge, silent crowd waited outside the court in a fine rain. Coughlin, O’Sullivan and Burke were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Beggs was acquitted. Supporters of Sullivan rushed to embrace the verdict, claiming that since Beggs, the leader of Camp 20 and therefore the leader of the alleged conspiracy, had been found innocent, this was proof that there had been no conspiracy and that Cronin had been murdered by individuals acting on their own behalf. Such subtleties were lost on the general public, who remained convinced that Cronin was an innocent man murdered because he exposed corruption within Irish America.

In late January 1890 the three prisoners were dispatched to serve their terms in Joliet prison. From prison Daniel Coughlin waged a strong campaign to be granted a retrial, and in 1893 the Illinois Supreme Court agreed. Burke and O’Sullivan had died of tuberculosis in 1892, so Coughlin was the only man to enter the dock, where he was cleared of all charges and released. There is little doubt that the jury was bribed.

 Above: Martin Burke, Detective Daniel Coughlin and iceman Patrick O’Sullivan started life sentences in January 1890 for the murder of Dr Cronin. Burke and O’Sullivan died in custody two years later of tuberculosis; Coughlin was granted a retrial in 1893 and, amid rumours of a bribed jury, was cleared of all charges and released. (Chicago History Museum


Gillian O’Brien is Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University.

Read More: Dynamite Campaign
More than a crime story

Further reading

S. Kenna, War in the shadows: the Irish American Fenians who bombed Victorian Britain (Dublin, 2013).
G. O’Brien, Blood runs green: the murder that transfixed Gilded Age Chicago (Chicago, 2015).
N. Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish nationalism and political violence in the wider world, 1867–1900 (Cambridge, 2012).