The Curious Death of Joseph Ulley

Joseph Ulley was a fifty three year old man who lived at Swinton in April 1895. Although fairly healthy for his age, he had suffered from periodic dizzy spells for the past 18 months or so and was being treated for these spells by a herbalist. However they did not stop him from working as a miner, although in recent years he had also traded as a bookmaker as well. His housekeeper for the last fourteen years was was a woman called Caroline Dunstan. On Tuesday 2 April he left the house around 6.30 pm with his two dogs, telling his housekeeper that he was taking them both for a walk.

As Joseph went along the canal side he was spotted by a man called Fred Stevens who was a journalist walking to Kilnhurst. He saw Joseph running with his dogs just after 6.30 pm. The man was about 300 yards in front of him, but the journalist saw nothing to be concerned about at that time. However as he got nearer, and saw the dogs were now alone, he rushed immediately to the spot. There he saw the man just out of reach in the water. Stevens called out to him and threw his stick into the water for him to catch, but the man made no effort to do so. Then to his horror he saw him sink out of sight. The journalist took off his overcoat, prior to jumping in to save the man, but he hesitated when he realised that the canal was around 12 feet deep at that point, and he could not swim.

So, after a moments hesitation, Stevens decided to get help instead. He rushed towards the Swinton lock shouting out that a man was in the water. A person working on the lock heard him and grabbing his boathook rushed to the scene. Meanwhile Stevens ran on into the Chemical Works there and again raised the alarm. Several workmen instantly dropped their tools and ran to the spot where the person from Swinton lock was standing. With the help of the boathook, they eventually managed to locate the body and pull it into the shore. Attempts were made to provide mouth to mouth resuscitation, but was evident that he was quite dead.

An inquest was held on the body of Joseph Ulley by the coroner Mr Dossey Wightman on Thursday 4 April at the Canal Tavern at Swinton. A jury had been assembled and they had been taken to see the body, which lay in an outhouse at the Tavern. When they returned back to the room where the inquest was being held, the first witness was called. She was the deceased man’s housekeeper named Caroline Dunstan. She told the jury that for the past year or so Joseph had suffered from nervous afflictions and dizziness. She described him leaving the house on the previous Tuesday night and taking the two dogs with him.

It appears that there had been rumours circulating Swinton that Ulley had been suffering several financial losses at bookmaking in recent weeks and the coroner questioned her about it. It had been said that that her employer had some monetary problems after the Lincoln Handicap race and she was asked if she knew anything about her employers losses. However she told the inquest that he had never discussed winning or losing money at any time with her. Several of the jury being local men, also said that they had heard the rumour of the deceased’s losses at the races.

Continuing with her evidence the witness said that the next thing she knew was that she was told that her employer had fallen into the canal. When asked by Mr Wightman if she could guess how the accident had happened, Caroline stated that she could only say that she suspected Joseph had experienced a dizzy spell and had fallen into the water as a result of that. Sergeant Lyttle was at the inquest and he was asked by the coroner if he had searched the body after it had been brought out of the water. The officer told him that he had and that he had found a gold watch and chain, a pocket knife and a sixpenny piece in the deceased man’s clothing.

He also told the inquest that since Ulley’s death he had also heard rumours that he had lost a significant amount of money at the Lincoln handicap races. The journalist, witness Frederick Stevens was the next to be heard and he said he lived at Mexborough. He stated that many people used the canal to walk besides with their dogs and so when he saw the man with the dogs, he never thought anything of it. Stevens told the coroner that he saw the man running rapidly with the two dogs beside him. For a while a hedge obscured his view, so when he looked again he saw the two dogs were now on their own.

The witness described seeing the man in the water and how he had run for help and raised the alarm at the Swinton lock and at the Chemical Works. Stevens estimated that it was only about five minutes between the body sinking and the men pulling it out of the water. At this point two of the jury, who were also Swinton men, also said that they were acquainted with the deceased man, who had complained to both of them that he had recently been suffering from dizzy spells. He said that he was under the care of a herbalist at Swinton, who was treating him for it.

The foreman of the jury, Mr J Jones suggested to the coroner that based on the evidence they had heard so far, he would not like to swear that Joseph had committed suicide. Mr Wightman therefore suggested that in such a case, the jury might bring in a verdict of the victim accidentally falling into the water, possibly following a dizzy attack. The jury talked together for a moment before returning a verdict that:

‘That the man was drowned on Tuesday 2 April 1895, but there was not sufficient evidence before the jury to prove how he got into the water.’

It is well known that jury’s and coroner’s always put the best interpretation on any cause of death, particularly in a case where the thoughts and feelings of the deceased were unknown. However the circumstances of Joseph Ulley losing money at the racetrack tends to cast suspicions in this case. Even those men who knew him personally could offer no solution. Had he taken his own life or was it just a tragic accident?

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