Court papers and a striking crime scene map reveal how an everyday argument between neighbours culminated in a terrifying explosion and the arrest of a wounded war veteran for the murder of three people.
NRS project cataloguers working on records of the Military Pensions Appeal Tribunal recently discovered the case of a former soldier who had requested that his wife receive his military pension, despite a terrible crime he had committed.
Intrigued, they followed the trail of records to this meticulously-drawn crime scene map and details of a shocking crime committed with the weapons of World War I.
The map was to be used as evidence in the murder trial of Glasgow man James O’Hara, a 49-year-old unemployed miner and former soldier, who used a hand grenade to kill three of his neighbours on 9 September 1916.
It’s a particularly good example of how a chance find in the NRS archives can open up new avenues for exploration, and how sources taken from different file sets in our collections can be combined to bring the past into focus.
The case papers show that witnesses were agreed on events leading up to the explosion.
Minnie Fraser, the accused’s niece, told police that her neighbours had been involved in a noisy and aggressive argument in the back court of 122 Sister Street, Calton, particularly her neighbour Margaret Haig.
“I heard the deceased Mrs Haig…in the back court. She was using bad language and challenging me, Mrs O’Hara, Mrs. Stevenson and Mrs. Kerr out to fight. I heard her rattling money in her pocket and saying she had as much as would pay a fine”.
In his flat nearby James O’Hara, a veteran of recent trench warfare in France, overheard the argument.
O’Hara had shipped out with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and was later invalided back to Scotland after he sustained a head injury – in some accounts, a bullet grazed his head and according to others, there was a bullet permanently lodged in his skull.
After returning to Glasgow, he had worked briefly as a miner and begun to regularly drink heavily. He had been drinking in a nearby pub on the day of the argument.
Some of the witnesses state that O’Hara had argued with Mrs Haig and then returned to his flat, where he retrieved a hand grenade he had brought back to Scotland from the front.
The Crown alleged that O’Hara then opened the door of his flat, removed the pin from the grenade and tossed it downstairs into the back court where his neighbours were arguing.
As a local newspaper records: ”…For a time, the wildest excitement prevailed”.
Minnie Fraser described hearing an explosion and seeing two injured men – one of whom was her father Thomas Fraser, O’Hara’s brother-in-law, although she didn’t recognise him at the time.
”I heard a loud explosion in the back court… I saw the form of a man lying on our stair at the foot but I did not know then who it was. On getting to the stair foot I saw another man lying in the court and it then occurred to me that they had been injured by the explosion”.
The ensuing explosion shattered windows, damaged buildings, left eight people with shrapnel wounds and killed or fatally injured three people. Thomas Fraser died at the scene and 10-year-old Catherine Horne died soon after, while Margaret Haig died two days later.
Ambulances soon arrived to tend to the wounded and carry them to the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. O’Hara himself was swiftly apprehended by police.
That night, O’Hara was examined by a doctor at Duke Street Prison, who found him agitated and easily confused.
“He talked in an incoherent and rambling manner about his illness after being wounded and also related the events of the afternoon prior to the Bomb Accident. He told me that he had no recollection of anything that happened between the time when he was in a public house in the Calton and the time when he found himself in the prison cell… His daughter spontaneously described his conduct and references to the noises which he hears in his head.”
O’Hara was soon charged with murder and he appeared in court at Glasgow the following month.
At O’Hara’s Pleading Diet on 7 October 1916, his lawyer entered a special defence that O’Hara had been insane at the time of his offence. This plea was accepted by the Crown and he was detained in the Lunatic Department of Perth Asylum at His Majesty’s Pleasure – i.e. indefinitely.
O’Hara was a prolific writer of letters during his detention, regularly petitioning prison authorities for improvements in his conditions and privileges.
In 1921, he submitted an appeal to the Military Pensions Appeals Tribunal, claiming that his insanity had been caused by the head injury he sustained in the war and requesting that his wife should receive his pension, despite the crime he had committed.
Records associated with O’Hara’s appeal state that he reported hearing bells ringing in ears; that he was often confused and subject to erratic impulses, and that he suffered from delusions of persecution. In medical reports, doctors diagnosed his alcohol use as one source of his insanity.
The Tribunal took a dim view of his appeal however and refused to grant his pension.
In 1926 and 1927, O’Hara’s case was supported by the socialist campaigner and MP James Maxton, who sent several letters including this one to the Secretary of State for Scotland, after being contacted by O’Hara’s son.
O’Hara was detained for 16 years and in 1932, he was released to live with his son, returning to the family home on Orr Street only yards from the scene of his crime. While O’Hara had been a prisoner, the old family home on Sister Street had been demolished as part of a huge slum-clearance programme and Orr Street had been built on the site.
You can view a detailed scan of the crime scene map for the Sister Street explosion at ScotlandsPeople, our ancestry research service. Registration is required but the map (NRS Ref: RHP140139) is free to view using our Maps & Plans feature.
These case papers and many thousands more like them can be viewed in the Historical Search Room at General Register House. See the NRS website for guidance on how to order and view our records.
The records of the Military Pensions Appeals Tribunal are currently closed for cataloguing before they are again opened to the public. You can find out more about them here.
You can find out more about NRS records from World War I here.