A brutal stabbing in 1810, which led to a Portuguese sailor being hanged near Carrickfergus, became a sensation of the time. His name was Antonio de Silva, a sailor on board an American ship in Belfast harbour. He allegedly stabbed to death a ship’s carpenter called Robert Morrison, near Prince’s Street, and was subsequently tried and convicted of the crime. The place of execution was a mile outside Carrickfergus, and the apparatus used for the execution consisted of three tall columns, with a cross-beam, to which the rope was attached. They were familiarly known as the ‘Three Sisters’, and stood directly on the foreshore.
Public hangings were as much a spectator sport as a demonstration of justice in action, and such a large crowd attended De Silva’s execution, that it took an hour to make the short journey to the place of dispatch.
Robert Morrison is buried in Clifton Street Cemetery and his headstone bears the following inscription:
Erected by the shipwrights of — in memory of Robert Morrison, shipwright, who was assassinated by a Portuguese sailor, 22nd of April 1810 aged 23 years Array’d in hope that fatal morn arose He knew no guilt and therefore felt no dread He little dream’t that ere the evening’s close He should be numbered with the silent dead Ye mourning friends suppress your cries Who like the early blessed flower he fell, If Truth and Virtue shall to Heaven arise There with his God, the youth is going to dwell.
The Belfast News Letter covered the inquest into the death of Robert Morrison, and offered, quite literally, a blow-by-blow account of his death.
It appeared in evidence, that the Portuguese had a dispute with some person or persons unknown, and retiring to the ship, which lies at the Quay, had armed himself with a dagger, with which he sallied out to be revenged upon the person with whom he had previously quarrelled: with this weapon he first attacked a man of the name of Campbell, but finding this was not the man he wanted, he relinquished him, and afterwards met with the deceased in company with two other persons, at the door of a public house; one or two other Portuguese were in company, and an assault was commenced by them upon the deceased and his companions, one of whom received two or three stabs with the same weapon, and also a severe blow on the head with a stick. Just at this moment the deceased received the fatal blow, which entered a little below his left breast, and almost instantly expired. The other two Portuguese are also in custody, and were with the principal culprit, committed to Carrickfergus Jail. They have both given evidence before the Coroner against Silva who, it appears certain, was the actual murderer. It is not positively ascertained whether the deceased or any of his companions were any of the persons with whom the Portuguese had previously quarrelled, nor what was the occasion of the dispute. The verdict of the Jury was, “That the deceased came by his death in consequence of a stab he received in the left breast in a scuffle with Joseph Mores, Anthony Silva and Joaquin Ferrenadare.
Come along on our Deatth, Tradegy and Betrayal tours of Clifton Street Cemetery (28th-31st at 3pm, meeting at Clifton House) to explore the darker side of the cemetery’s history and those who lie buried there.