Killing the Changeling (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part One

After visiting Michael Cleary in his cottage and questioning him again about Bridget's disappearance, Constable Egan then questioned Bridget's father, Patrick Boland, who had been living with them.   Patrick was extremely distraught and said nothing more than, "My daughter will come back home, my daughter will come back home."    Though local police were reluctant to investigate crimes linked to fairy lore (which tended to stir up the traditional country folk), Constable Egan decided to take his investigation further.

Searching the Cleary cottage while Michael was away, Egan found a half-burned nightdress and a vial of unidentified liquid.   Deciding that he now had enough evidence to take to his superiors, Egan informed District Inspector Alfred Wansbrough that he suspected "foul play" in Bridget Cleary's disappearance.    Wansbrough had enough experience with similar crimes and, being an English appointee, welcomed the opportunity to investigate a crime that would put the Irish people in a bad light. 

While the police search for Bridget Cleary was still going on,  investigators also began questioning Michael Cleary and family members more closely.   After being stonewalled by family members and neighbours, police finally got lucky and spoke with William Simpson and his wife, Mary.    Despite being Protestant and thus out of place in the largely Catholic community, the Simpsons had been on friendly terms with the Clearys.  Both Simpsons admitted visiting Bridget on the night before she allegedly ran off.    In a deposition, William Simpson reported seeing Bridget subjected to a "fairy trial" which largely involved her being restrained on her bed while her husband forced her to swallow some special herbs believed to prove her changeling status.     He also reported his disgust at seeing the trial but denied seeing anything else that might provide a clue to her fate. 

With Simpson's statement to guide them, the investigators then turned to a neighbour, Johanna Burke, who had cared for Bridget at the time of her disappearance.  Though  denying seeing anything wrong at first, she eventually confessed to witnessing Bridget being subjected to a fairy trial in which Michael Cleary poured urine on her and conducted an exorcism to prove her identity.    Along with Michael Cleary, she implicated John Dunne and several other family members.   Based on the evidence they had, police arrested Michael Cleary and all the men who were at the fairy trial.  They also arrested Johanna Burke to force her to testify against the others.

Along with the other men arrested, police also charged Denis Ganey, a local "fairy doctor" who had provided the herbs and other ritual cure used in Bridget's fairy trial.   Though Ganey had not been present at the trial, William Simpson's statement indicated that the fairy doctor was involved to some extent.  The investigation into Bridget Cleary's disappearance had a vested political element and the prosecutors hoped to focus a spotlight on popular Irish superstitions and how strong they were in the Irish countryside.

Not surprisingly, the case generated considerable publicity with Nationalist and Conservative newspapers each reporting the story from their own particular viewpoint.   Police were also searching the entire area for Bridget's body since they no longer believed she would be found alive.  On the following day, March 22,  police found evidence of disturbed soil on a spot just 1,300 yards away from the cottage.   After digging, they found a narrow grave containing a body wrapped in a blanket with a bag drawn over the head.    The dead female had horrible burns across her back and lower abdomen although the head and face were completely intact.  While the facial features were "much distorted", it was definitely the body of Bridget Cleary.   The blanket in which the body had been wrapped matched another blanket found in the Cleary cottage. 

The coroner's inquest was held March 23 and the jurors were given full evidence including viewing the body.   Since the face was intact, the jurors could see that it was Bridget Cleary's body  (many of the people present had known her all her life).  The examining physicians presented their own conclusions that she had died of "shock, due to burns" and that she had either died while being burned or very shortly afterward.   No other signs of violence were found on the body except for some signs suggesting that she had been restrained.    The jury's verdict was that Bridget had died of burns but could not confirm how the burns had occurred. 

That a woman had apparently been burned to death and police arresting eleven people , including a well-known fairy doctor, made the story international news.   Though cases of suspected changelings being burned had occurred in the past, the circumstances of Bridget Cleary's death focused a spotlight on Irish traditional practices as it never had before.   When the Nationalist ran the story on March 23, the first printing sold out immediately and editors ordered a second edition which sold out as well.    The London Times reported the story as a "shocking occurrence, recalling the barbarities practiced in the Middle Ages upon prisoners charged with witchcraft."    As expected, the case quickly became political with English newspapers harping on Irish barbarity and superstition. Many of the newspapers incorrectly declared Bridget Cleary's death to be a case of "witch burning" with no attempt at explaining Irish folklore.   Even court documents would label it "the Tipperary Witchcraft Case" and English newspapers used the phrase as well.     In reaction to the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the case, local authorities imposed a news blackout which the newspapers largely respected. 

Then came the bizarre problem of burying Bridget's body.  With her husband and most of her family in jail, there was nobody to claim the body and grant it an honourable burial.   Since the Church denied the sacraments to anyone suspected of practicing fairycraft, no priest was willing to take charge either.    The police solved the problem by arranging a simple wood coffin and discreetly burying Bridget's body in a local cemetery.    They were careful to bury Bridget in unconsecrated ground, not far from where her mother was buried.  No marker was placed on her grave, just an upturned stone.

This left authorities with another problem:  prosecuting the ones they believed responsible for Bridget's murder.   The case continued to generate international headlines and Irish "heathen practices" were under the spotlight as they never had been before.     Chief Inspector Wansbrough publicly released all details relating to Bridget Cleary's exorcism that he gathered from questioning the defendants in the case.   Based on what was learned, Bridget had fallen ill on March 6 and her illness grew steadily worse over the next three days.  Though they had sent for a medical doctor to tend her,  it took another five days for him to arrive and he dismissed her symptoms as being a mild case of bronchitis.    With no relief available from modern medicine, Michael Cleary and his family members turned to fairy lore and the belief that the real Bridget Cleary had been replaced by a changeling. 

According to Irish fairy lore, once someone had been abducted by fairies,  family members had only nine days to retrieve him or her from the fairies.  Otherwise, that person would be lost forver.   Since Bridget was believed to have been abducted on March 6, that meant that Micheal had little time remaining to get her back.   With only two days remaining to him, Michael purchased a remedy from a local fairy doctor.   This remedy, known as the Seven Sisters cure was considered a "kill or cure" measure, only to be used in extreme cases.   When the priests refused to help him, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  

What then followed, based on the testimony provided by Joanna Burke and others, was a long vigil while Michael Cleary and others forced Bridget to swallow the Kill or Cure herbs provided by the fairy doctor.   Since Bridget refused to take the herbs insisting they were "too bitter", the men basically tried forcing the liquid down her throat.   When she was unable to swallow any more (even when threatened with a red-hot poker),  Michael and the others consulted Denis Ganey, the most legendary of the local fairy doctors.  It was Ganey who provided the "nine-in-one" cure to the distraught husband though he never saw Bridget himself. 

Then came the bizarre scene which William Simpson witnessed with John Dunne, and several of Joanna Burke's brothers gathered around Bridget's bead forcing Ganey's cure down her throat.   At the same time, Michael Cleary was invoking the Trinity to force the changeling to reveal herself (the task that he wanted one of the priests to perform).    When she refused to respond correctly, he then threw urine on her face and chest (urine was regarded as a purifying agent).    It was an exhausting ritual that took many hours.     When all this failed, the men took the next step and held her over an open fire to force the changeling's cooperation. 

At first the men simply threatened her with the fire but eventually pushed her into the fireplace and demanded that she prove her identity.    Though Bridget managed to convince the other men that she was "cured", her husband was not so easily convinced.   After leaving them both to attend the funeral of Michael's father (he had decided that subjecting his wife to a fairy trial was more important than attending himself), Michael was left alone with Bridget for the first time in days.   According to fairy lore, a departing fairy was supposed to escape up a chimney and he had seen no sign of that with Bridget.    On Friday morning he summoned Father Ryan to the cottage to give a mass and presumably drive the changeling out once and for all. 

The mass would prove controversial due to later allegations that Bridget spat out the communion wafer (which the priest denied).   Johanna Burke and others would swear that Bridget spat out the wafer which, in their eyes, proved that she was a changeling.   After the priest left and the men who had conducted the fairy trial continued to argue but Micheal Cleary grew increasingly desperate since the nine days were almost up.  

To be continued







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