Martha Johnston minded her own business. Walking to her work as a domestic servant in Cookstown, County Tyrone, on NOVEMBER 2nd, 1922, she heard the cries of a girl. They came from a field at the roadside, and she thought she saw the girl being kicked by a man, but she couldn’t see the couple clearly.
Unperturbed, she walked on. A few minutes later she met Patrick Devlin, a roadsweeper, and mentioned what she had seen. He thought the couple were probably just a pair of tramps having a row. Even when he later went down the road bordering the field, heard the girl moaning, and saw William Rooney nearby, he did nothing about it. Half an hour passed before he returned to the field with his workmate Bill Nelson.
To their horror, the girl who lay in the grass was dead, her clothes disarranged, her face battered beyond recognition. Several hours passed before she was identified as 20-year-old Lily Johnston. And the person who recognised her from her clothes was her distraught Aunt Martha, who had witnessed the attack but walked on, unaware that the victim was her niece.
Lily had been attacked while on her way to work at a Cookstown mill, and thanks to Patrick Devlin the police had a suspect in William Rooney, a well-known local drunk aged about 35. Only the night before he had been arrested for drunkenness, but he had escaped from custody early that morning, and he was not found until the following night when he was rearrested and charged with murder.
An inquest jury returned a verdict that Rooney had kicked Lily Johnston to death, and by the time of his trial the police had another witness who had seen him in the field at the time of the crime.
Rooney pleaded not guilty, his defence counsel arguing that as a man on the run from the police barracks he would have done his best to stay out of sight; he would not promptly commit a murder within view of a public road. He had no connection with Lily, no motive for attacking her, and it was strange that if he were Lilys killer her aunt, who knew him, had not recognised him when she saw him in the field. Furthermore, Rooney had not left Cookstown after the killing and he had not acted like someone who had committed a murder. Only a few bloodstains had been found on his clothes, yet if Rooney had kicked Lily to death, the defence counsel concluded, all the water in Cookstown would not have cleaned his clothes and boots.
But Rooney had no alibi, as the judge pointed out, and the jury found him guilty. Still maintaining he was innocent, he was hanged at Derry Prison on February 8th, 1923.