Student’s BBC platform to explore 19th century murder

BBC One’s Murder, Mystery and My Family

Published on 03 April 2019

PhD student Patrick Low, who researches 18th and 19th-century executions in the North East, appeared on the latest episode of BBC One’s Murder, Mystery and My Family on Thursday 4th April at 9.15 am.

The episode featured the execution of Michael Gilligan, hanged alongside William McHugh and Elizabeth Pearson at Durham Prison in 1875. Patrick meets the family, talks about the execution and gives details about the prisoners' final moments. 

Patrick is a Culture Beacon-funded PhD student at the University of Sunderland, his thesis is entitled: 'Capital Punishment in the North East of England 1800-1878 and Post-Mortem Punishment 1752-1878.’

Patrick, from Newcastle, explained: “The production team got in touch as I had been writing a lot about my research on my blog and was aware of the case.

“They wanted to specifically show someone related to the person executed and what happened with the crime eventually, so I was covering the execution itself and trying to fill them in on how that happened and what an execution was like at that time.

“My research ends in 1878, and Michael Gilligan was one of the last cases I was covering, and was held privately, as the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 moved executions to behind the prison wall. I met Michael’s family, which was a unique experience as you rarely get to meet people directly related to the subject you are researching.”

In the programme leading barristers Jeremy Dein and Sasha Wass re-examine the violent attack on Irish Catholic John Kilcran by a rival gang in a case of revenge, murder and secret societies.

The father-of-four was brutally attacked in a Darlington street by a gang of men in Darlington, on Easter Sunday 1875.  An unknown weapon struck his head and John was carried home and eventually died from his injuries, but not before he could name the culprit who he believed launched the fatal blow, fellow Irish immigrant Michael Gilligan.

Despite vehemently professing his innocence, Gilligan was executed in Durham jail, leaving behind wife Elizabeth and two young children. Now, four generations on, Geoff Gilligan and his cousin Debbie are on a quest to clear the family name.

Whilst Debbie and Geoff attempt to add detail and colour to the life and character of their elusive ancestor, Jeremy and Sasha delve into the archives to review the evidence and search for new information regarding issues of motive, alibi and tainted witnesses.

They consider whether this could have been a case of mistaken identity and the possibility that the wrong man hanged for this murder, with the barristers attempting to find enough new information to persuade a judge that Gilligan’s conviction was unsafe?

About Patrick Low

Patrick’s interest in 19th-century executions in the North East, began when he first studied his BA History and Politics degree at Sheffield University, and became interested in 18th century crime and punishment.

His career took him on an entirely different path, working in television production with various independent production companies.

However, the opportunity to reignite his interest came when scholarship funding became available at the University of Sunderland to study a PhD.

Patrick began his research in 2014, under the supervision of Professor Peter Rushton, Professor of Historical Sociology, who has also co-authored a book on 18th century crime and punishment: Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law. The Problem of Law Enforcement in North East England 1718-1800. 

During his studies he has also worked on the University of Leicester and Wellcome Trust’s Harnessing of the Power of the Criminal Corpse project and was responsible for designing and building the projects’ website.

In 2015 he won the 'People's Choice' Award for the North East 3 minute thesis competition. He also writes a blog, and guest blogs for the Tyne and Wear Archives, Newcastle. His research interests include death, burial, the newspapers and punishment.

Patrick is due to graduate this year and has signed a book contract with Dr Clare Sandford-Couch and Helen Rutherford of Northumberland. It is an edited collection on 19th century execution culture. The book will be published as part of this series (https://www.routledge.com/Routledge-SOLON-Explorations-in-Crime-and-Criminal-Justice-Histories/book-series/HCCJ) due for publication in 2020. Alongside his research, he also continues his own work in production for television, online and corporate outlets.

He said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Sunderland and am grateful for all the support Peter and the team have given me.

“Alongside the book next year, I would also like to incorporate my filming work with my research involving the stories of execution in the region.”

For more information go to https://www.hellow.co/