Twenty-five years of living a double life came to an end as Major Henri le Caron took to the stand of the Parnell Commission in 1889.
Le Caron, the Frenchman and prominent American member of Clan na Gael with an Irish mother, was no more. In his stead stood Thomas Beach, the British spy who had revealed Fenian plots in the US to the British for a quarter of a century.
Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the leading constitutional nationalist in Ireland, had his links to violent groups called into question by a series of articles published by The Times of London. The series claimed that he had knowledge of the Phoenix Park murders carried out in Dublin in 1882 and that he had links with the more aggressive republican groups, the Fenians and Clan na Gael.
Clan na Gael (CnaG) was an offshoot of the Fenian movement, a secret revolutionary group dedicated to removing British rule in Ireland by violent means, if necessary. They were particularly popular with the Irish in the US and Irish Americans and by the late 1880s it boasted a membership of 40,000.
Parnell denied having knowledge of violent republicanism and a parliamentary commission was established to investigate.
On the morning of February 5, 1889 the trial focused on Parnell’s links to extreme republicanism in the US. Subpoenaed by the Times to appear and give evidence, le Caron was forced to come clean of his tell-tale ways.
Born Thomas Beach in Colchester, England in 1841, the adventurous man made his way to Paris aged 18 and worked with Arthur and Company, an English banking house that handled American business.
Excited by the prospect of fighting in the American Civil War, Beach traveled to the US, changed his name to Henri le Caron and gave his nationality as French. He served in the Civil War in Virginia.
In 1865, le Caron came into contact with Fenianism for the first time through a companion in arms named O’Neill. Upon learning of the Fenian plot to invade Canada, le Caron mentioned the plan to his father in a letter home. The letter would begin a chain of conversation which would end with the British Home Secretary contacting le Caron to find out more.
Le Caron’s career as a spy began. His stature rose and he found himself a prominent member in Irish American organizations. He leaked information to the British which then allowed them to take control of the Canadian invasion in 1870. He informed on the “Dynamite War,” a plan in which young Irish Americans traveled to England to plant bombs in important sites. His evidence also formed the basis for The Times series on Parnell.
Testifying against Parnell, le Caron claimed that, on the number of times he had met with him, Parnell was fully aware of Clan na Gael’s plans to use violence to win Irish independence.
Parnell was eventually cleared of all charges, but le Caron’s revelation sent shock waves of suspicion through Clan na Gael and the Fenians in the US.
Rumours began to circulate that le Caron had named four other CnaG members as spies during the trial, among them a man named Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin.
This rumor was to become the basis for Cronin's high-profile murder and subsequent trial. Dr Cronin's body was pulled from a sewer in Chicago. He had been brutally killed with an icepick.
Cronin, born in Buttevant, Co. Cork, was another prominent member of Clan na Gael. He disapproved of the “Dynamite War,” which was run by Alexander Sullivan. The bombing campaign was organized in America at a time when many CnaG members were frustrated at the lack of progress made by their sister organization in Ireland, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
The “Dynamite War” was not successful, as bombs failed to explode and, more often than not, killed only the men who planted them if they did. Cronin’s disapproval of Sullivan’s tactics, mixed with the failure of the plan, set off a feud that would come to a head in 1888 when Cronin accused Sullivan of embezzling $100,000 of CnaG funds for his own personal use.
Despite being cleared of the charges, it is believed that it was Sullivan who began the rumor that le Caron named Cronin as a spy.
Cronin had long been suspicious of le Caron, who was very close to Sullivan. Despite the lack of any evidence to suggest that such a claim was even made by le Caron or that Cronin was in fact a spy, the rumor quickly came to be regarded as fact. By spring 1889, Cronin knew that his life was in danger. Nobody suspected of being a spy would last long within the ranks of Clan na Gael.
The owner of two medical practices, Cronin was called to an emergency in an isolated house on May 4, 1889 where his involvement in Clan na Gael came to a nasty end.
Through the revelation of his lies and deception, le Caron became the cause of further suspicion and deception and yet lived to tell his own tale in the book “Twenty-five Years in the Secret Service.” Due to the Fenian threats on his life, he resided in London after the trial under police protection. He died of appendicitis in 1894.
The full story is explored in a new book by Gillian O’Brien, "Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago" (University of Chicago Press), launched in Ireland today. O’Brien lectures in history at Liverpool John Mores University.
H/T: The Irish Times
* Originally published in 2015.