Irish hawker Michael McCabe got a shock when he knocked on the door of Water Royd House, Mirfield, Leeds. It was opened just a fraction by another Irishman, tall and good-looking.

“Would you like to buy anything off my cart?” McCabe began. There was a curt “No,” and the door was closed, but not before McCabe had seen blood all over the floor, and heard muffled groans coming from within.

Unbeknown to him, he had come face to face with a triple-killer. Inside the house lay the bodies of James Wraith, 77, the owner, his wife Ann, and their servant Caroline Ellis, 21. Aware of the anti-Irish sentiment that existed at that time, in 1847, and fearing he might be accused, McCabe decided not to report what he had seen and instead went to a pub.

Half an hour later James Wraith’s great-nephew called at the house and found the three bodies lying in pools of blood and gore. James Wraith’s skull was broken in many places, his lower jaw fractured and his throat cut from ear to ear. Ann Wraith’s skull was similarly broken, her right eye gouged out and her throat was cut.

The servant Caroline’s skull was open in several places, her brains and teeth were scattered all over the floor and her throat had also been cut.

Intriguingly, McCabe had vaguely recognised the man who opened the door. He was a fellow-Irish tinker named Patrick Reid. But McCabe kept quiet. When he let slip later that he had been to the murder house and “seen and heard certain things,” he was arrested.

As a result of what he then told police, Reid was also arrested. Although friends of the Wraith family testified that Reid had been previously involved in an altercation with old James Wraith, the police continued to suspect that McCabe and Reid had acted together, and both were charged at York Assizes on July 19th, 1847, with the murder of James Wraith. But baffled by contradictory evidence, confused about the omission of the other two murders from the charge, and unable to decide who had done what, the jury failed to agree.

The two men were re-tried at York in December, but this time, to add further confusion to this much-bungled case, the indictment only mentioned the murder of Caroline Ellis. And this time Reid and McCabe were both found guilty and sentenced to death.

Then came one of those extraordinary incidents that usually occur only in Hollywood films. Immediately after the sentence the judge was told that Reid had made a full confession, exonerating McCabe completely. And Reid’s defence counsel, who had been trying to lay all the blame on McCabe, had that written confession in his pocket throughout the trial.

Patrick Reid, whose death cell in the old debtors’ prison at York was the same as that occupied by Dick Turpin in his last few days before he was executed, was hanged on Saturday, January 8th, 1848, before a crowd of thousands. The unfortunate Michael McCabe was not released, but transported for life. The trial judge, it appeared, thought that McCabe had participated in the murders “to some extent,” although there was no evidence to support that contention.

McCabe eventually returned from Australia to live in Huddersfield, where he died around 1880.