One of the most mysterious crimes in the history of the Isle of Man was the murder on December 20th, 1888 of a 45 year old spinster, Betsy Crowe.
Elizabeth Crowe, known to most people as Betsy, was a spinster who lived alone in a cottage on the slope of Barrule, above Ramsey Waterworks (remains of the cottage which is at the junction of the Old Douglas Road and the road from the Gooseneck, may still be seen there). Betsy had two cows and eked out a living by selling milk in Ramsey which she used to deliver each day.
It was when she was returning late at night to begin the lonely climb up through the Old Douglas Road, a wet and slippery track starting from the main road just above Ballure Bridge, that she met her death.
As she lived by herself there was no-one to report the fact that she was missing during the night and it was not until the following morning that the crime was discovered.
William Goldsmith, of the Promenade, a workman employed by Ramsey Town Commissioners, was going to work at the quarry on the side of the hill above Ballure and as he groped his way through the darkness shortly after 7am, he was horrified to come across the body of Betsy lying on her back, her clothes had been tucked in, and she was without her bonnet which was found about 14 yards away.
Goldsmith ran back into Ramsey and informed Police Inspector John Cannell who immediately went to the scene with Dr Gell.
As the local Coroner was away, the High-Bailiff of Douglas (Mr S Harris) conducted the inquest when it was opened on Friday afternoon. (Betsy had been murdered on the Thursday night and the body was found on Friday morning).
The jury was sworn in and assembled at the Court House and then proceeded to the Queen’s Hotel where the body had been taken. They were sworn in to investigate the circumstances of the death of Elizabeth Crowe, ‘living alone in the Rhowin intack, Maughold, in a cottage known as Dreemlang.’
The jury also went to the scene of the murder. The evidence when the inquest opened consisted of statements by Goldsmith, who made the discovery, and who estimated that Betsy’s cottage was about half a mile from the scene of the crime, and by James Corkill, another labourer, who met Goldsmith when he was running back into town.
Dr John Henry Gell, who was called, said that there had been 13 or 14 wounds on the head, a stone having been used as a bludgeon, and the body had been dragged along for some distance in a kneeling posture.
PC Caley who examined the spot, found the deceased’s milk can about 33 yards away and there had obviously been a struggle.
There was a sensational development when on the Saturday morning, John Henry Gelling who lived with his mother about 200 yards higher up than Betsy’s cottage, was arrested at his home.
The inquest had been adjourned and on the following Thursday Gelling was brought back from Castle Rushen where he had spent Christmas and it was reported in the Press that ‘in spite of pitiless rain falling at the time, a large crowd witnessed his arrival at Ramsey Railway Station.’
Meanwhile the inquest had resumed in the Court House and High-Bailiff Harris explained he had called together a jury of 14 instead of 11 to allow for any juryman being taken ill. And then he warned the jurors, ‘Let this inquiry be conducted as dispassionately as possible.’
The Coroner was interrupted in his preliminary talk by the entry of the prisoner Gelling, in the custody of Mr FE Keene, Gaoler of Castle Rushen and Warder Garrett.
Mr CB Nelson appeared for the police and Mr GA Ring, and Mr FM LaMothe indicated they were watching the proceedings on Gelling’s behalf. Mr JM Cruickshank appeared for William Edward Crowe and his brother (nephews of the deceased).
Dr. Gell was recalled and described a post mortem he had conducted with Dr Clucas. He also informed the Court that there were bruises which indicated that Betsy had used her arm in self defence.
There was a hush in Court as the doctor produced the base of a skull on which he demonstrated to the jury where the wounds had been caused – “sufficient wounds” he said, “to kill half a dozen people.”
At this stage one of the jurymen, Mr Twigg, was reported to the Coroner to be unwell but the Coroner declined to excuse him and the grim evidence went on.
PC Wm. Caley produced a Magistrates Book in which it was shown that on May 7th, 1887, Elizabeth Crowe had brought a case against John Henry Gelling and his mother for assault and battery and provoking language and it was dismissed with costs.
Jane Duffy, wife of Patrick Duffy, 6 Bark Lane, Ramsey, told how she paid Betsy 4d for some milk about 7.55 on the night of the tragedy and Betsy put the money into a piece of stocking which she took out of her bosom and then replaced.
Another witness, William Cain, Alexandra Refreshment Rooms, Market Place, said Betsy had left his house about 10.45pm after having supper with the servant. He had been out with his wife that evening.
When the Court adjourned and resumed after half an hour, the unfortunate Mr Twigg was not in his place and a messenger was sent for him but he arrived soon after and remained for the rest of the hearing that day.
In reply to the Coroner the witness Cain said Betsy was a woman of temperate habits who never touched ale or spirits.
The last person to see Betsy alive on that fateful night apart from the murderer was Robert Edward Corlett, of Port-e-Vullen, Maughold, who said he was in the Queen’s Hotel that Thursday evening and left at closing time – 11 o’clock or soon after. He was accompanied by another man, Tom Radcliffe. He said ‘good night’ to Betsy at the mouth of the Old Douglas Road.
The all-important timetable of happenings that night made evidence as to the whereabouts of Gelling, who was suspected, a vital factor.
An elderly man named William Skillicorn, living in Maughold St, deposed that Gelling had left his house just after 11 o’clock.
There was intense interest in this evidence and the Coroner had to warn the crowd not to lean or push against the barriers in Court and the precaution was taken of allowing Mrs Gelling and the prisoner’s young sister to sit alongside him in the dock as they were being crushed among the onlookers.
Mrs Skillicorn said it was 5 minutes to midnight when Gelling left the house and her 15 year old daughter, Ellen, corroborated.
There were questions as to whether the Skillicorn’s clock was slow or fast and also questions about a conversation in which there was talk of proceedings being taken by the victim concerning sheets lent to Mrs Gelling.
The 15 years old witness told about going to the Skating Rink in Ramsey on the night of the murder and afterwards going through Parliament Street described by counsel as “the fashionable promenade in the evening.” She said it might have been as late as 10.45pm when she saw Gelling at JR Kerruish’s grocer shop near the Court House. She later went home and found Gelling there.
Under cross-examination the young witness stuck to her resolve not to reveal the name of the young man she was with (not Gelling) when she stood at the end of the lane for half an hour saying goodnight and eventually she agreed to write the name on a piece of paper.
When the inquiry was resumed on the third day, the jurors were one less, Mr Twigg having sent in a medical certificate that he was not well enough to attend.
Another highly important witness at the inquiry was John Corlett, shoemaker, of 33 Bowring Road, who said he was in the house of Mrs Gelling and her son. Gelling came in about quarter to one and he heard Mrs Gelling blaming him for being so late. The only time after that when Gelling was out of the house again was when he went out for about two minutes to attend to the horses.
The witness said that he sat with Gelling over the fire talking until about 5.30 in the morning.
Asked the subject of their conversation, the witness said, “it was about Christmas beef and other things.”
This witness said he returned home by Kneale’s Road, not the old Douglas Road.
Another witness, John Dixon, spoke about quarrelling between the deceased and the Gellings. Eleanor Crowe, widow of Hugh Crowe, a brother of the deceased, also said there had been “jawing” between the parties and Betsy had said, “Them brutes down there have thumped and bruised me. They will take my life.”
John Skillicorn said that Betsy went in fear of her life from her neighbours and Mary Ann Cartwright said Betsy had stated there had been threats to burn her house down or knock her brains out.
The long proceedings dragged on and Gelling gave evidence that on the night of the crime he left the house to see Mr Chrystal, auctioneer, on business. This would be about 9pm. He went to Mr Chrystal’s house in Lezayre Road and he detailed to the Court his movements in town after this until the time he arrived at Skillicorn’s house in Maughold Street. He too said he left there about five minutes to midnight, he went up Maughold Street “up by ‘Kewey’ Kneale’s Road, up by the quarry” and did not go near the Old Douglas Road.
Asked his reason for not going by the Old Douglas Road, the scene of the crime, Gelling said it was too dirty and mucky and lonesome. After arriving home he talked about the Christmas show and other subjects until between 5 and 6 in the morning.
Questions were directed by the prosecution to Gelling concerning the washing of a stain on a coat found in his house and his explanation was that some toffee had melted in his pocket and the coat had been sponged on Thursday during the daytime.
But there was no evidence which really linked up Gelling with Betsy’s death and during the four hours he was in the witness box he was said to have conducted himself with the “greatest coolness.” He affixed his mark to the depositions.
On the fifth day of the hearing Mrs Gelling was called to give evidence in support of the time when her son arrived home that night.
The jury retired at 3.40pm and on their return at three minutes past five, they found that strong suspicion attached to Gelling and accordingly he was committed for trial and he was held in Castle Rushen until he appeared before Deemster Gill and a jury at Ramsey Court House on February 16th, 1889.
The Coroner told the Court that his record of the evidence which he had written ran to over 30,000 words.
Another feature which marked the inquiry was an allegation of contempt of Court against the Isle of Man Times who were said to have improperly made a plea for fair play for the prisoner.
Gelling was taken back to Castle Rushen by train and remained there until February 16th.
The Attorney-General then indicated he did not propose to call any witnesses and the prisoner was subsequently released.
In explaining the defendant’s position, the Deemster said he had been imprisoned under the committal of the High-Bailiff and the Coroner of Inquests on a charge of felony. The Attorney-General had abstained from laying any evidence before the jury, who had therefore found a verdict that there was no evidence on which to indict him.
“What I wish to make clear to you,” he said, “Is that today’s proceedings are in no way a trial, and the jury’s verdict today does not place you in any worse – or any better – position than you were in before you were arrested.
If you are innocent – and I am sure everyone hopes you are innocent – then there is no likelihood of you being in any further jeopardy. But if you are not innocent and if any evidence in the future is forthcoming, then the verdict of today will afford you no protection.”
The Press reported after the proceedings that “Gelling has not, as it was rumoured, any present intention of leaving the Island. He strongly protests his innocence and complains of the comment made by the public during his trial.”
A big crowd waited outside the Court House to see Gelling after his release but he did not leave until sometime later and he then slipped out quietly with his mother and celebrated the release by going into Crennell’s confectionery shop and buying some toffee. He spoke highly of the way he had been treated in Castle Rushen. But it was an ordeal which must have affected him and it was not until 35 years later that a confession of the crime was revealed.
This was in 1923 when Mr Thomas Christian, retired carter, of College Street, made a sworn statement before Mr TH Midwood, JP.
Mr Christian who was a Methodist local preacher connected for many years with the Strand Street Mission and was held in high respect (he was also a fluent Manx speaker) – made the following statement:
“At the time of the murder of Betsy Crowe, a man who was ill at the time informed me that he had murdered Betsy.
He said he was hard up for money and followed her up the Old Douglas Road with the object of getting her bag of money which he said he saw her taking out of her dress while in the house where she was delivering milk.
He told me he tried to get the money from her, but she resisted and began to shout. He then caught up a stone and struck her on the head and she fell down. He said he got frightened and ran down Ballure Glen to the shore and came home along the shore.
This is all I recollect of his statement made to me at the time when the proceedings in connection with the murder were taking place.
I informed the police but they made light of it. The man who made the confession to me died shortly after.
I desire to make this statement in the interests particularly of any persons whose names have been associated with the crime.
I am strongly of the opinion that the man who made this confession did so genuinely. He was in a very distressed condition of mind but was, in my judgment, sane and sensible and knew what he was talking about. He repeated the statements to me several times.”
(source: Ramsey Courier & Northern Advertiser, 2 May, 1958 courtesy of MNH/imuseum)