True crime: Did the right man hang for murder in 1933?

By Gordon Adair

Image source, Glasgow Museums
Image caption,
A newspaper report of Harold Courtney's trial for the murder of Minnie Reid

In the summer of 1932, little Nora Symington had scarlet fever.

Now in her 90s, her memory of that time remains crystal clear.

An ambulance was lurching along the Symingtons' Lane, taking Nora and her mother to hospital.

Nora recalls: "I sat up and looked out. And I said: 'Mummy, there are policemen ripping up the bushes.'

"Then the nurse said: 'Oh, haven't you heard? There's been a murder.'"

Nearly 90 years later, questions and rumours still surround the killing.

The victim, it would emerge, was a 23-year-old domestic servant called Minnie Reid. A post-mortem examination revealed she was about eight months pregnant.

Harold Courtney, also 23 and a lorry driver from Dungannon, was thought to be the father.

Image source, Larne Times
Image caption,
Minnie Reid's body was found by the Crowe children

He was engaged to another woman and quickly became the prime suspect.

He was arrested, tried twice and eventually found guilty. He was hanged in Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast in April 1933.

At least, that's what the official story says.

Minnie's body was found by Nora's young cousins. They were playing in the lane as the outbreak of scarlet fever meant they couldn't play inside.

About 25 years ago, when I was a young reporter in the Portadown Times, I met one of the children, by then quite an elderly man.

He suggested to me that there was more to this than met the eye.

But the relentless nature of day-to-day news meant it got pushed to the back of my mind for many years.

Much more recently, health problems led to a change of role for me within the BBC and provided the opportunity to revisit this story.

The result has been an unexpected, challenging, strange - perhaps even bizarre - investigation stretching from rural County Armagh in the 1930s to the melting pot of Melbourne, Australia, in the 1960s.

Image caption,
Gordon Adair's research stretched from rural County Armagh in the 1930s to Melbourne, Australia, in the 1960s

Along with my producer, Ophelia Byrne, I've gained access to 'secret' files which were to have stayed closed until 2034, 100 years after the Harold Courtney hanging.

We've consulted experts in subjects from pathology to handwriting, policing to capital punishment.

We've found eye witnesses - children at the time, now in their 90s - uncovered letters that seem to provide a telling insight into what was going on between Harold and Minnie, but yet were never introduced as evidence in the court case.

Other potential exhibits were literally buried.

I've been told of a witness to the execution who was effectively traumatised into his own grave, of mysterious visitors as recently as four or five years ago who travelled from Australia to see the spot where Minnie's body was found.

Of threats, of a bonfire of research notes and of the alleged power of secretive organisations in the fledgling Northern Ireland of the 1930s.

The result is a six-part series called Did The Right Man Hang?

It will kick off a new podcast slot from BBC Northern Ireland - Assume Nothing - where events, previously accepted as factual, are re-interrogated.

Reporting teams - as the name suggests - assume nothing as they dig out old records and try to create fresh leads to find out what really happened.

Did the Right Man Hang? begins on Radio Ulster at 12:00 GMT on Saturday, 14 November, and will be available on BBC Sounds from the same time.