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Sinning Saint who escaped gallows
Updated 1:30pm Friday 21st February 2014 in Sport
By Duncan Holley
On a Tuesday morning, October 23, 1906, an ex-Southampton footballer walked into Cumnock Police station in Ayrshire and, according to the Cumnock Chronicle, “quietly” informed the on-duty sergeant that he had “just cut his wife’s throat and he had called to give himself up”.
33-year-old John McCoy – who sometimes preferred to be known as Jack McKie – had played for Southampton St Marys during the 1896-97 season and by 1898 had met (and in 1899) married a Southampton girl, Mary Rose C. Byrne .
The marriage produced four sons; Alexander, born in Kent in 1900 (by then, his father was playing for Dartford), identical twins, Gerald and Terence, born in Southampton in 1902, and finally Adrian, who arrived two years later (November 23) while the family were living in 7 Anglesea Rd in Southampton.
(On Adrian’s birth certificate Rose’s occupation was “domestic housekeeper” while no father was listed. The three youngest boys were baptised in St Edmunds Catholic Church just off the Inner Avenue – John was a Catholic, according to Army records while Rose was C of E).
Due to the nature of John’s itinerant career as a professional footballer, the couple were often apart. The 1901 census, for instance, has Rose and Alex back in Southampton living with her brother Gerald and sister Louisa in 47 York St, St Marys, while John was in Fisherton Anger, in Wiltshire, turning out for Salisbury City.
John had been born in April 1873, at Dalry, in Ayrshire, and when aged 16 had, while working in a pit, been kicked in the forehead by a horse, an accident that 17 years later may have saved him from the gallows.
John enlisted in June 1893 at Leith Fort and then, in September the following year, he was posted to 15th Company, Royal Artillery, based at Fareham.
Like many young soldiers of the day, he got into quite a lot of trouble, with the bottle and the fairer sex being the problems. He was charged with being “drunk and disorderly” soon after his arrival, but not before he had spent 21 days in Gosport Hospital being treated for mild gonorrhoea.
He then was put on trial for misconduct, but then went AWOL, leading to a charge of desertion. He was sentenced to spend a year in military prison, but that was reduced to 26 days and then, not surprisingly, on the December 22, 1894, he was discharged.
However, there was one silver-lined cloud on the horizon. While with the Royal Artillery, John, a right-back, had represented them at football and had been good enough to win county honours.
The R.A. were then top dogs in local and amateur football circles and frequently played fixtures against teams from the Southampton area, particularly forging special links with Freemantle, to whom they often loaned players, which explains why, some nine months after leaving the Army in disgrace, John found himself on the books of the ‘Magpies’ and groundsman at their Shirley Ground. He also was given extra employment by a T.J. Dukes, a Freemantle builder.
Freemantle were then St Mary’s main rivals in the struggle to become Southampton’s premier football club.
John had an excellent season for the Magpies. Virtually ever-present, he particularly shone when the two clubs met in an English Cup fixture in October 1895.
His performance on the day was described in the Southampton Times as “quite brilliant” despite Freemantle being vanquished 5-1.
St Mary's were now going from strength to strength and the following season prised John away from the ailing Freemantle with an offer of a far-from-paltry £3 a week.
He duly made his first team bow v Chatham in the Southern League on September 19, 1896, and also played in six of the seven FA Cup ties that season, as Saints reached the second round proper, before going out to Newton Heath, as Manchester United were then known.
The McCoy family (minus one of the twins) taken in 1905. Alexander, the eldest, is on the left, while the baby on Mary’s knee is Adrian. It is thought the photograph was deliberately mutilated after a family row.
Life was looking up, and it is around this stage he met Mary (or Rose, as she was known), four years his junior who came from the same St Mary's district where the team were based.
Rose - the daughter of a John Byrne, a superintendent at the Ordnance Survey offices - was described at the trial some 10 years later as being “tall and graceful in her movements, quiet in her demeanour and nice looking”.
It was also observed at the trial, perhaps tellingly, that “the prevailing opinion is that she was socially of a much higher class than her husband”. Whatever the difference in social class, the pair duly married in Fulham, just down the road from one of John’s subsequent clubs, in 1899.
Apart from the birth of the four boys and the fact that John’s post-Southampton career took him to Fulham, Chatham, Cowes, Dartford and Salisbury, before ending up back at Freemantle, late in 1901, not much is known of how the partnership evolved, although reports after the murder said “the couple seem to have lived more or less unhappily for some time”.
That is until December 1905, when John, after an absence of 11 years, returned to Scotland, initially settling in Paisley with Rose and Adrian in tow (the twins were staying with his sisters in Dalry, while the eldest, Alex, remained in Southampton).
The following September, John found work in a pit close to his fathers, who duly invited John, his daughter-in-law and young grandson to move in with him.
The 57-year old Francis McCoy whose wife Jane (nee) McKinlay died in 1889, had lived in 243 Front Row, Cronberry, a small terraced two-bedroomed mining cottage for nearly 20 years, but, according to the Echo, father and daughter-in-law hit it off right from the start with Francis “esteeming her very highly” and that “she had all the qualities that a woman could have and was too high for his son”.
It was there, just six weeks later, in the front bedroom, just off the kitchen, where Rose had her throat cut while sleeping with Adrian, who was “lying within her left arm” with “his hair matted and his little nightdress bespattered with the life’s blood of his mother”.
There were no signs of a struggle, but, according to the case for the Crown during the trial, “the razor must have been applied at least twice, and with great violence”.
What had driven John McCoy to such a desperate act? Unfortunately, he chose not to take the stand during his trial, his defence team instead stating “that at the time when the accused is alleged to have committed the crime charged against him he was insane, and was subject to and acted under the influence of a maniacal paroxysm and sudden uncontrollable insane impulse which deprived him of his senses”.
The prisoner, as he was referred to, was sketched for the benefit of the Chronicle readers and was described as “a well set up man, with fair curly hair and a slight moustache”.
Indeed, the Southern Evening Echo – who were also reporting the story with great interest (see image below) - remembered him as being “a dashing defender, just over average height, lithe in build and with curly flaxen hair; he was the ‘beau ideal’ of a footballer”.
Speaking in court on his behalf were his two brothers, Terence and Francis, his maternal aunt Sarah McKinlay, and his father.
All of them spoke well of John and the affection he apparently had for his wife, but it seems since returning to Scotland he had started drinking heavily and such were his moods that even his own father was fearful of him when drunk.
Rose’s father-in-law, who slept in the cottage’s other bedroom, had risen and left for his work at the pit at 7am on the morning of the murder and testified that “he had spoken to the deceased before his departure, when she cried out to him, as she lay in bed, where some tobacco had been laid.”
According to the Chronicle, “it must have been shortly afterward that McCoy accomplished his fiendish work”.
One of the brothers also testified that, ever since that kick on the head, John had always been prone to rash behaviour - once sticking his hand into a fire on purpose and severely burning it, and another time, when drunk, jumping through the local constable’s front window, a misdemeanour for which he was duly fined.
A picture then of a tortured soul temporarily unbalanced by a massive sustained indulgence in alcohol, in the days leading up to the murder, a lack of any clear motive and the fact the case for the Crown did not produce sufficient medical evidence to “meet the special plea of the defence” was, just about, enough to spare John the hangman’s noose.
After just 20 minutes, the jury – following direction from the judge - returned with a verdict of culpable homicide and John McCoy, ex-Southampton and Hampshire County footballer was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.
The Echo reports the news on its strap line, just below the date.
Just a few days after her death, Rose (who according to the examining doctor was “poorly nourished” at the time of her murder) was buried in in St Patrick’s Church, midway between Cronberry and Auchinleck, with none of her family present at the service and no head stone. (It was reported at the time by the Cumnock Chronicle that, according to the neighbours, Rose “maintained great reticence as to her parentage and upbringing”).
Although she had only been in their midst a matter of weeks, the local women arranged a collection of £1 12s 8d to buy her “a beautiful wreath, which was placed with tender hands on the coffin”, but what now of her four boys? Only one, Adrian, had been present at the time of the killing and, thankfully, as we have seen, he had slept through the whole gruesome experience, despite being in the same bed.
As previously mentioned, the other three boys were at this time living with relatives, but it is known that, in October 1909, Adrian and the twins left for Pennsylvania for a new life, accompanied by four of John’s sisters and his aunt, while the eldest boy, Alexander, was left behind in Southampton to be raised by members of the Byrne family.
In 1911, he was living at 17 Silverdale Rd, with Mary’s brother, Gerald, and two of her sisters, Isabella and Louisa.
What then became of Alexander is uncertain. One family rumour is he went to Canada and raised a family, another has him losing his life “in the war” but he would have been too young for WW1 and too old for WW2.
Meanwhile, in the same 1911 census, John McCoy was listed as being in Peterhead prison and bizarrely states that he is married (had he forgotten he had murdered his wife, or had he got remarried and had there been another woman on the scene all the time?), but after that his trail goes factually cold, but, in family folklore, the flame flickers.
Adrian, now in the States, married and had two children, one of whom, Adrianne, is still alive in 2014, aged 74. She was not told of the murder until her father had passed away in 1971.
Is John McKie in this photo?
Her daughter, Lisa, has since conducted a lot of research and found a mystery photograph of her grandfather, Adrian, as a teenager (circa early 1920s). To his right is an unidentified man, aged around 50. No one knows who he is or where the photo was taken, but Adrian’s wife, Anna, (Lisa’s grandmother) once told her that John did try to visit his sons in the States, as he knew he was dying.
There is no hard evidence to suggest this did happen, but there is something about the face of the older man that is familiar. Could Adrian have forgiven his father’s dreadful crime and posed with him for this photograph? If anyone in Southampton knows anything about the Byrne family or what happened to Alexander, please e mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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