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In the summer of 1869 the story of the Pied Piper cast a long shadow over Europe. From August until October newspapers in Ireland, England and across Europe were reporting an epidemic of child snatching. They warned parents to keep their children close – as they might be stolen away to be sold into slavery or far, far worse. Paranoia reigned and many of the stories were unfounded but on Findmypast you can find one of the real child catchers at the heart of that summer’s madness.

On August 17, the Liverpool Daily Post announced that a British man called Henry Jencken had been attacked by a murderous mob in Spain, who thought he was part of a gang who were believed to steal children, boil them down and use their fat to grease telegraph lines. The newspaper noted that, while it was unlikely there was a local gang employed in greasing the lines of communication in such a gruesome manner, the problem of child stealing was a real one with instances in Belgium as well as much closer to home.

Less than a week later the story broke that 13 children had gone missing in Cork. On August 24 the Dublin Evening Mail reported a story they attributed to the Cork Examiner. The “parents of the working classes around the city” they said, were in a panic about the disappearances over the past fortnight. “So numerous are the cases stated to have occurred that an extensive system of kidnapping seems the only possible explanation.” Two little girls had gone missing from Mayfield, the paper said, as well as another five from Blackpool, two from Lady’s Well, Fair Lane and Evergreen.

A couple of weeks later an even darker story came out of neighbouring Kerry. On September 11, The Penny Illustrated Paper, quoting the Cork Examiner, told the story of famer John McCarthy who had seen his 5-year-old child grabbed through the window by an unseen assailant. By the time the father reached the window the child was dropped but he saw three men running away. His wife persuaded him not to give chase, unarmed and half dressed as he was, but when he went to look outside he saw footprints under the window – they were not the rough iron studded boots he and his neighbours wore, but the smooth shoes of the better off.

Over the weeks that followed the people of Cork and Kerry were on high alert, convinced that a gang were at work stealing children but gradually the panic died down. On October 1 1869, the Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier reported that a woman named Ellen Cleary had been arrested on the charge of stealing a child. The paper took the opportunity to explain that the earlier stories of more than a dozen children going missing were a major exaggeration. Most of the 13 missing children had returned home on their own although one little boy was found drowned. The only children who could not be found were the two little girls from Mayfield and it was these children that Ellen Cleary had stolen.

According to the same paper’s coverage of the trial the following week, the girls, 11-year-old Mary O’Brien and her 5-year-old sister had gone out on July 16th to sell some books at the Barracks. Mary told the court that they had met some other girls there and gone into the city of Cork. She said that her little sister was too tired to walk the long journey home so they stayed two nights with a cockle woman they met on the way. After a couple of nights they started back home but they encountered Ellen Cleary near the workhouse. Mary said that Ellen Cleary had threatened to kill her little sister if she refused to go with her. She forced the children to go begging with her around the county and used to beat them. The policeman who recognised the two missing girls and arrested Ellen Cleary told the court that the two children were in a deplorable condition and the younger one was not expected to live.

Ellen Cleary was sentenced to five years hard labour – a major sentence given the standards of the time. She can be found in Findmypast’s prison record collection – she is described as a charwoman from Carrigaline and only 4 foot 9 1/2 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair.

Even though Ellen Cleary was behind bars and the earlier panic had been exaggerated the Southern Reporter was still full of stories of missing children. On October 18th they devoted an entire column to the coverage of various cases in the London papers including an editorial from the famous Pall Mall Gazette which said “that the practice prevails to a great extent there can, we fear be little doubt. For what purposes are these children stolen? Some, doubtless for the sake of their clothes; others to be trained as beggars, and for purposes only to be surmised by those who are aware of the foul stream of vice which runs below the surface of society…”

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