In the autumn of 1864, the local police force brought a most unusual case before the magistracy of the Crown Court in Carrick-on-Suir. A local woman, Mary Doheny was charged with fraudulently obtaining goods from policeman Constable James Reeves and his wife. But why did this case above all of the numerous other trails capture so much public and media attention at the time? It was the fact that Mary Doheny claimed that she possessed the powers of witchcraft! Referred to as the “Carrick witch” in news reports at the time, Mary was accused of illegally extracting goods from the Reeves couple as well as six other respectable and sound-minded local people by duping them into thinking that she could communicate with the otherworld! The case dominated news columns in both Irish and UK newspapers, causing a large media frenzy. On the days of her trial the courthouse was “thronged to suffocation” as local people clamoured to see with their own eyes this ordinary woman who had become a local celebrity.
Most publications painted a less than sympathetic picture of the defendant and her background. The Dublin Evening Mail mercilessly remarked that Mary would have been burned at the stake had she lived in the “meerie olden times”, ( little would the journalist know of the infamous event that was to occur just over 30 years later in Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel of the burning to death of Tipperary woman Bridget Cleary by her husband and family who believed she had been stolen and replaced with a changeling). As was common at the time journalists paid special attention to the physical appearance of the defendant with Mary being described as an affluent woman of about 40 with an “intelligent” and “cunning face”, “cunning” being a popular term used to describe people who were believed to practice folk or “low” magic. The papers claimed that Mary profited from her involvement in the “black arts” by selling folk magic potions to romantic and foolish girls and netting “respectable sums (of money) from farmers’ wives with whom things were not going altogether too smoothly.”. However, the Tipperary Press was more sympathetic in its description of this woman who found herself in the docks, noting that she was a mother of young children and a wife to an unemployed blind man: “She wore around her a red shawl, and had in her hands, an infant, only a few months old…the police were about to shove her into the grated enclosure as quickly as possible as if they were afraid she was going to slip through their fingers and vanish from their sight. But no; there she stood facing the crowd, just like an ordinary mortal in a similar predicament.”
The court was told that Mrs. Doheny’s relationship with the Reeves family began when she was enlisted by Mrs. Reeves to tend to her 7-year-old son William who suffered from epileptic fits. Although Mary failed to cure William and he subsequently died, after the child’s child she strangely won the confidence of the Reeves family. She became a frequent visitor to the Reeves household, eating and drinking and “bewitching Mrs Reeves, who before until the latter had been a fine handsome looking woman, now looked pale and emaciated, with peculiarly looking lustrous but sunken eyes, plainly indicating the infatuation that she was under and in which her husband also shared.” After Mary had inveigled her way into the Reeves family, she predicted that the Reeves would soon grow rich due to the generosity of some of their deceased loved ones and friends who had now re-entered the world of the living! The guileless Constable Reeves was completely duped by Mary’s deceptive scheme. Mary led the hapless man to believe that a companion of his, Sir James Power, who had been deceased for over a decade wanted to bestow him some landed property. Mary backed up her spurious claim by producing letters in which Sir Power laid out his promise to the Constable in writing. The court heard that during the course of the police investigation into this case a chest containing these letters were subsequently discovered and a local woman, Eileen Walsh came forward to admit that Mary had paid her to forge these letters.
The court were flabbergasted to hear that Mary went on to convince the Reeves family that some of their deceased friends and family had been “restored to life” and were eager to be reacquainted with them. The Constable attested to seeing in the flesh his father-in-law, sister-in-law and his recently deceased son, William during meetings arranged by Mary! It was later revealed in court these departed persons were in fact Mary’s husband and a number of other accomplices who managed to fool Mary’s unfortunate victims by donning themselves in sheets and shrouds. In order to completely hoodwink her victims, Mary arranged for these clandestine meetings to take place after dark in remote locations, (Reeves mentions Knockroe passage tomb, Ballydine moat and an unoccupied house near the Railway bridge). Constable Reeves did remark in court that his father-in-law did seem to have grown since he last saw him just before his passing, but so wrapped up in the spell of the bewitching Mary was he it did not arouse any suspicion in him!
Knockroe Passage Tomb
Mary obtained food, clothing and tobacco from the Reeves family on the pretence that she would take them to their resurrected family and friends who needed sustenance now that they were living and breathing individuals again. The culinary tastes of the resurrected seem to be very high as on one occasion eggs were returned to Mrs. Reeves as they apparently had not agreed with her son William and on another occasion, potatoes were sent back to Mrs. Reeves by another picky relative as they were not to their liking! To pay for these supplies, Constable Reeves landed himself into a considerable amount of debt but the promise of property and money convinced him to continue to borrow heavily in order to meet the high demands of his loved ones. Reeve’s colleague, sub constable Hayes also came under Mary’s spell and resigned from his job after Mary convinced him that he would soon be bestowed landed estates in Carrick. Alarmed by the number of people that had come under the influence of Mary. the local priest Rev Power convened a meeting of the local population and warned them of the dangers of allowing strangers into their homes and families.
Despite the clear duplicity of this woman Reeves and Hayes never lost faith in her. Enchanted under her spell, they stood up in court and swore under oath that Mary truly was an honest woman who held the supernatural powers to communicate with those from the otherworld. They refused to believe that she was a deceitful woman who had inveigled her way into their families and pockets and had used the goods that they had intended for their deceased loved ones for her own advantage. However, the substantive evidence laid out by Mr. Bolton of the prosecting team of Mary’s fraudulent activity conclusively invalidated their testimonies. The jury, which at that time was an exclusively male domain, gave a guilty verdict. Mary’s impassioned plea to the magistrate to pity her and to “think of my poor blind man and my two poor children” fell on deaf ears. Denounced for being a “terrible woman” and “dangerous imposter” the court sentenced Mary to 12 months of hard labour and imprisonment in Clonmel Gaol. Even as she was being led out of the docks her victims continued to show support for the “Carrick witch”: Constable Reeves grasped Mary’s hand and appealed to the magistrates: “Sir, if you had seen as much as I have, you would be of the same opinion.” But it was too late: this woman had been proved to have bewitched a town through trickery rather than witchery and would now have to serve her time.
UPDATE: Trawling through the newspaper archives Mary Doheny’s name pops up again in 1866, when at this point in her life Mary is now an inmate in the local Workhouse. It appears from the article that Mary’s incarceration in Clonmel Gaol was extended from one to two years for reasons unknown. Mary’s application to the Board of Guardians to be discharged from the workhouse with the view of gaining employment was granted. Mary’s departure from the Workhouse was timely – at this point of time, there were 568 inmates in the crowded workhouse and the devastating cholera epidemic of 1866 was yet to hit Ireland. Perhaps the “Carrick witch” had a premonition?
Three years later, Mary finds herself in the witness box again, but this time as the prosecutor in the case. Mary has re-entered the courthouse in Carrick-on-Suir (which is sure to have brought back unwelcome memories of her own trial) to bring a case of assault against a retired soldier. The court hears that Mary seems to have kept true to her word to the Board of Guardians, as she describes herself at being an “industrious” woman who earns her living through gathering watercress and keeping lodgers in her residence on New Street. The full details of the case (which you can read below) reveal a new aspect to this mysterious woman’s character. Granted, a couple of years earlier Mary did commit a major act of fraud and exploited the goodwill of a number of local people but Mary now appears to have reformed herself into a woman who has the bravery to defend herself and another woman from male domestic abuse.