Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003
In the early 1930s, murder in mid-Ulster was a rare occurrence, and when in 1932 the body of a woman who worked in Portadown was found a few miles from the town it caused a sensation. My brother and I were pupils at Thomas Street Primary School, but we were aware of our parents' discussion with friends about the matter. It was something one tucked away with other memories of childhood.
Then, over a period, I came across two books, each one containing concise, well written chapters dealing with this murder. They were 'Behind The Garden Wall' by Steven Moore and 'Hung High And The Reasons Why' by Johnston J. Fitzgerald. These made me interested in the case and I spent an enjoyable time in the Library Headquarters in Armagh reading the 'Portadown News' account of the trial, written at a time when local papers gave very detailed reports. I found that behind the details of the case lay a fund of social history and later on a string of coincidences.
The story begins on a summer evening, July 28th 1932, at the home of David Collen in Stewart Avenue in Portadown. Minnie Reid, described later in newspaper reports as an attractive, good-looking, athletic girl, coming from the townland of Drain, had been in service, and after leaving a Mrs. Langland of Beaconsfield House in Dungannon she went to work with the Collens and was there only a month when she was killed, As she was 8 months pregnant she must have been desperate. Her job would have been of short duration, as soon she would have been an unmarried mother with a child,
After serving Mr. Collen an early supper, Minnie Reid told him that she was going out for the evening. She never returned. About a week after her body was found - her throat had been cut.
On Wednesday 3rd August a group of children playing in a lane at Derryane found her body covered with bracken. The body was moved to licensed premises at the Birches, where an inquest was conducted by the coroner, Mr. TD Gibson, a solicitor from Portadown. The case was handled for the R U C by District Inspector Anderson, Head Constable Gosnell and Head Constable Slack, a detective from CID.
On August 27th 'The Portadown News' announced that Harold Courtney had been charged with the murder. My recollection from childhood was that Courtney was tried, found guilty and executed, but that was not correct. There were two trials. Courtney appeared at the Winter Assizes in Downpatrick in December 1932 and the trial lasted several days. The case against him was based on his friendship with the girl, and letters found in her room after her death. The defence put forward the view that her death was suicide. The court was told that Courtney said to the police, "I never kept her company at any time... I never corresponded with her ...I did not know she was in service in Portadown". Courtney explained that his reason for lying to the police was that he was engaged to a young lady, a Miss Motun from Dunmurry, and he wanted to distance himself from Minnie.
After hearing all the evidence the jury disagreed on a verdict. It has been suggested that juries were reluctant to bring in a 'guilty' verdict as that would involve execution. This is borne out by the verdict handed down at the second trial which was 'guilty' but with a strong recommendation for mercy.
In March 1933 the second trial was commenced at Armagh and conducted by the Lord Chief Justice Rt. Hon Sir William Moore. It was recalled that at his first trial Courtney was said to have told the police that he never kept company with Minnie Reid, and never corresponded with her. But evidence showed this to be untrue. A letter from him was found under her pillow in Stewart Avenue and other witnesses testified to seeing Courtney and her together.
In his own way Harold Courtney was a man of many facets. He was a ladies' man; while he was engaged to be married in September, he asked another girl out. That he had a callous streak was shown by the fact that he showed a picture of his fiancée to Minnie and later said of the girl he was charged with killing, 'She was a fool all the days I knew her.'
The trial lasted several days, the jury being locked up for four nights. They brought in the verdict of 'guilty' but with a mercy recommendation.
The Lord Chief Justice, in passing sentence of death said he did not agree with the addendum. In his words 'It was a cold-blooded, callous murder.' A petition for reprieve was presented, but it was dismissed and the date for the execution was 7th April 1933 at Crumlin Road Prison. The execution place at Armagh Prison was being repaired, and so Crumlin Road Prison was the place chosen.
A murder touches the lives of many people. Who can measure the anguish of the Reid family on the death of a daughter and an unborn baby? And for the pain imposed on the Courtney family there must be some sympathy; they had to continue living in a small town where there was no hiding place.
The life of a Portadown solicitor must have been affected by this case. Mr Valentine Wilson was the Under-Sheriff for County Armagh and he was responsible for arranging the execution. Now in his office at 48 Church Street he had to contact the executioner Thomas Pierrepoint and make the arrangements. Thomas Pierrepoint agreed, and asked if he could bring his nephew as his assistant. This was Albert Pierrepoint, who in his lifetime carried out over 400 hangings, including the notorious war criminals of the Second World War.
The executioner's fee was £12, his assistant's £4. Mr Wilson's bill came to £29.14s. This included £5 for a car to take him to Belfast as there was a rail strike. The authorities declined to pay that extra amount.
Strangely enough, I came across a number of coincidences when looking into this case. After Mr Wilson's death, his wife and family moved into a house in Margretta Park in Portadown, where they stayed for 7 or 8 years. This is the very house where my wife and I have lived for over 40 years.
A few years ago, Mona and I were dining in a restaurant in Hillsborough when we got into conversation with three ladies at the next table. They were out for the day and told us they came from the Cushendun area. When we said we came from Portadown one of them said, 'Did you ever hear of the Minnie Reid murder?' We said we had and I added I was interested in it. She said "I was one of the children that found her body'. She said the children went home that evening and told their mother there was a lady 'sleeping in the lane'.
Next morning the mother went down and found the body and notified the police.
Then when I gave a talk to the Portadown Probus Club about this case, one of the members, all retired business and professional men, had an interesting tale to tell. Mr Lewis Bell (now deceased) was a teacher in Armagh and he was present at the last day of the trial and saw the judge don the black cap and pronounce the sentence.
Over a period of 3 to 4 years I had met a lady, who as a child had discovered the body of Minnie Reid in the first act of this murder story, then I had talked with a man who saw Harold Courtney being sentenced, and had learnt of the involvement of Mr Wilson, who as Under-Sheriff had been present at Crumlin Road Prison for the final act.
My thanks are due to Johnston Fitzgerald and Steven Moore; the chapters in their respective books had awakened my dormant interest in the case and provided useful background information.
As usual Shakespeare had something to say that seems apt in this case. 'For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ'. I know that for me the Minnie Reid murder was an interesting story.