Bridget Cleary lived with her husband Michael Cleary and her father Patrick Boland in a labourer’s cottage in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary, Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Michael was a cooper, a man who made barrels and similar items. Bridget was well liked by all her neighbours.
On March 22nd, 1895, Bridget’s body was found buried in a dyke. Her spleen was ruptured, her tongue was lacerated, and her body was so badly burned that her lower spine was exposed and internal organs were protruding out of a hole in her abdomen.[i]
But how did such a gruesome murder come to pass? Why would anyone murder an innocent cooper’s wife? Oddly enough, the murderer didn’t think the woman he was killing was Bridget Cleary. But this wasn’t a typical case of mistaken identity.
It was a common belief in Ireland that fairies would kidnap people, often children, and leave a fairy, or changeling, identical in appearance to the human in their place. The legend was often used to explain illness or erratic behaviour. It was so well known that it even inspired W.B. Yeats to publish a poem about fairy possession in 1889. However, most people didn’t take the belief as far as Michael Cleary.
The week before Bridget’s body was found, she had been sick with the flu. During her illness, her husband, encouraged by some cousins and neighbours, had become obsessed with the idea that she was a changeling or a witch. According to their neighbour, William Simpson, Michael and the cousins forcibly administered a herbal remedy to her, provided by a so-called “fairy doctor”. They even tortured her by holding her over the kitchen grate and burning her leg, while they asked “Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?”[ii]
The next day, while they were eating around the fire, Bridget said to Johanna, “your mother used to go with the fairies and that’s why you think I am going with them.”[iii] Michael started interrogating her, holding a lighted stick near her face, and threatened to burn her if she didn’t answer. Eventually, he got so angry that he threw lamp oil on her and she caught fire. Johanna wanted to leave and get the police, but the key was in Michael’s trouser pocket and he said nobody could leave until he got his wife back. Bridget was crying out, but Michael silenced her, saying, “Hold your tongue. It is not Bridget I am burning; you will soon see the witch going up the chimney.”[iv]
It wasn’t long before Bridget was dead. Early in the morning, Michael took one of the cousins to help him bury the body.
On the following Sunday, Michael went to church, impatient to confess. The priest said he wasn’t fit to do so, because he was “tearing his hair and behaving like a madman.”[v] When the priest asked one of the neighbours involved why he was acting so strangely, he was told that Michael had burned his wife to death. Michael Cleary was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years in prison.[vi]
The trial garnered a lot of attention, both from the press, with sensational headlines such as “Superstition in Ireland”[vii] and “The Witch-Burning Horror,”[viii] and from the public, who gathered in crowds to jeer at the prisoners travelling between the prison and the trial. The perpetrators’ firm belief in the supernatural and the unusual nature of the crime shocked their contemporaries, and remains remarkable today.