Poff and Barrett: Global Search for Justice

Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, hanged on 23 January 1883 for the murder of Thomas Browne of Dromultan, Co Kerry, rest not.  Their Dying Declarations of innocence speak to us still, and from new documents acquired by the O’Donohoe Collection, it is shown that their protestations of innocence were uttered to their very last breaths.


Robert Harris, Governor of HM Prison, Tralee, in a letter to the Chairman of the Prisons Board shortly after their executions, wrote:


This statement was made by Poff verbally on being pinioned and repeated as nearly as possible by Barrett immediately after Poff.  I think it right to add that whenever I visited those prisoners, whether accompanied by the chief warder or any member of the visiting committee – they invariably declared their innocence of the murder of Thomas Browne.[1]


Harris had written to the prison board in response to its investigation into how Poff and Barrett had acquired writing materials to compose their Dying Declarations.  Harris informed the board that Poff had requested pen, ink and paper on 19th January to arrange some family affairs.  They had been given to Poff on 20th January, and on the 21st January, Mr Harris found that the assistant chaplain, Rev O’Riordan, had taken a portion of the paper to Barrett upon which the statements were made.


In a subsequent letter, Harris informed the board that he had only Barrett’s dying declaration, Poff’s was ‘probably taken by the person, whoever he was, that communicated it to the press.’[2]


Robert Harris’s letters reveal the behind-the-scenes efforts and considerable risks taken to convey the last words of the condemned men to the world.   The Harris documents, which number among a comprehensive collection of contemporary material, were donated to the Michael O’Donohoe Collection by Dorothy Dowgray, a descendant of the Poff family, who resides in New Zealand.


Dorothy Dowgray, who has donated her collection of Poff and Barrett material to the O’Donohoe Collection


Dorothy began researching the Poff and Barrett story in the 1990s when she read an account of the case by Patrick Lynch published in the Kerryman in the 1950s.  She contacted the National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, to enquire what papers and documents they held: these copies Dorothy has now deposited with the O’Donohoe archive.


The collection includes due process in the form of death warrant, removal of prisoners and application for discharge of two prisoners, together with signed memorials from residents of Kerry and a number of Unions including Castleisland, Listowel and Tralee.  Other official documents include the Inquisition of 23 January 1883 and an official letter of attendance at the execution with cause of death.


To His Excellency John Poyntz, Earl Spencer


In addition the collection includes material from the trial including a map of the crime scene drawn by Robert Denny, Civil Engineer, and statements from the Crown Brief in the case of The Queen v Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.


Of great interest is a 55 page report of the trial written by Judge Charles Robert Barry on 16 January 1883 for delivery to the Lord Lieutenant.  This was in response to the memorials submitted for the reprieve of Poff and Barrett.  In this report, Justice Barry remarked on Poff’s statement that Dunleavy ‘knew everything’ – ‘I confess this seemed to me the most doubt inspiring part of the Crown case.’


We also learn from this report that Fr Humphrey O’Riordan, chaplain of Tralee Prison, had written a ‘voluminous’ letter in defence of Poff and Barrett to Justice Barry who remarked, ‘Some of the statements in that letter being of matters entirely outside the evidence of the trial may possibly induce His Excellency to make some enquiries of the relevant officials of the district.’[3]


Collectively, the newly acquired material will greatly support the proposed application by the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project for the Presidential Pardons of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.  In this, Dorothy Dowgray is delighted to be able to help ‘from so far away.’  In a cover letter, she states, ‘the material belongs in Ireland.’


Dorothy, who lives in Auckland, is the daughter of Stephanie Petrie and Cliff Cullen, and grand-daughter of Stephen Petrie and Mary Butler.  She gives her genealogy thus:  Stephen Petrie was born in Timaru, New Zealand, in 1885 and christened Sylvester Timothy Poff.  Stephen Petrie/Sylvester Poff (my grandfather) was the 4th son and 7th child of James Poff (brother of the condemned Sylvester) and Johannah Brosnahan of Kerry, Ireland.


It is fair to say that descendants of the Poff and Barrett families around the world will be watching our progress with interest.


[1] IE MOD/C69.  Harris’s letter to the board was dated 27 January 1883.

[2] IE MOD/C69.  Harris’s communication was dated 9 February 1883.  James Barrett’s Dying Declaration is included in the collection material.

[3] IE MOD/C69.  The chaplain’s letter is not in the collection.  In a separate nine-page document, ‘Notes on letter of Revd H O’Riordan’ Judge Barry writes, ‘His Excellency having retained the Chaplain’s letter I have appended the letters (A-B etc) to the paragraphs from memory.  CRB.’