From the Jail to the Battlefield by Edmund Leamy

Early in the year 1743 a post-chaise, making for Dublin, was stopped on the road near Castleknock by two highwaymen, one of whom held the horses’ heads, while the other, with pistol in hand, opened the coach door, and addressed its single occupant with the brief command: “Your money or your life.”

The occupant of the carriage, Mr. Vesey, deeming prudence the better part of valour, handed out his money-bags containing several hundred pounds and his watch, and was then allowed to proceed to his destination. He at once acquainted the authorities; a vigorous search was set on foot, and in a few days two brothers named Silvester and William Keogh, who lived in the little village of Rathcoole, and who had a very bad reputation were arrested. One of these, William, was identified by Mr. Vesey as the man who had opened the door of the carriage and had robbed him of his money and his watch. He was unable to identify the other, who was, therefore, discharged from custody. William Keogh was put on his trial, and on the evidence of Mr. Vesey, convicted, and after sentence of death had been passed, was confined in old Kilmainham Jail, where the sentence was to be carried out.

A few days after the trial Mr. Vesey, who held a commission in the army, was ordered off for foreign service. He attained the rank of captain, and his regiment formed part of the English column that had so nearly made the field of Fontenoy “a Waterloo.” And when, before the impetuous onset of the Irish Brigade that almost invincible column broke, scattered, and fled, Captain Vesey lay with “his back to the field and his feet to the foe.” Two balls had pierced him and a clubbed musket, wielded by a fierce Irish exile’s arm, had reduced him to insensibility. But he was not dead. Louis, when he saw that the field was won, gave orders that the English wounded should be cared for as tenderly as his own soldiers, and Captain Vesey was carried from the field to the hospital at Lille by an Irish soldier, of the regiment of Berwick, of the name of Vaughan, who displayed towards him the greatest solicitude. Captain Vesey received the utmost attention from the officers of the Irish Brigade at Lille, who, now that he was wounded and a prisoner in their hands, remembered only that he was their countryman. He soon became convalescent, and able to join the officers at mess. One evening when in the rooms of the Count de St. Woolstan, the conversation having turned on the incidents of the battle, an officer remarked that Captain Vesey in all probability owed his life to the private who had carried him off from the field when to all appearance he was dead. Captain Vesey eagerly asked for the soldier’s name, and said it was strange that he had never looked to him for any recompense. Count de Woolstan undertook to find the soldier, and a few evenings later the latter presented himself at the count’s quarters and was shown into the presence of Captain Vesey. The captain could hardly believe his eyes, but if they did not deceive him, there before him stood William Keogh, whom he had believed to be lying in a felon’s grave in Kilmainham. He was about to call him by his true name, when it occurred to him that the recognition might be injurious to the man to whom he felt he was indebted for his life. He rose and thanked William Vaughan warmly for his kindness, and offered him twenty gold pieces, but the soldier refused to take it. He was greatly agitated as he answered:

“No, Captain Vesey, I will never touch a penny of your money again.”

“It would appear you have met before,” remarked the count.

“We have,” said Keogh, “but Captain Vesey does not know all. I will tell you.”

But the count said he had no wish to become acquainted with the confidence that was not intended for him. That he knew Vaughan only as a good soldier and desired to know no more.

“And I pledge you my honour,” said the captain, grasping Keogh by the hand, “I shall never allude to you except as the man to whom I owe my life.”

Keogh pressed the captain’s hand warmly in his, and then, with the tears starting to his eyes, he saluted the officers and left the room.

A few months afterwards an exchange of prisoners was effected, and when Captain Vesey was taking farewell of the gallant count, the latter informed him that he had promoted Vaughan to the rank of sergeant. Vaughan—or Keogh as we know him—asked for and was given the opportunity of saying good-bye to the captain, and he took a grateful farewell.

Years passed, and Captain Vesey had fought in India and America, when returning to Europe the fortune of war again made him a prisoner in the hands of the French when the Duc de Richelieu captured Minorca. And for the second time, Captain, or as he now was, Colonel Vesey, met with Count de Woolstan. Naturally enough they talked of former days, and the colonel made inquiries concerning Vaughan, and he learned that shortly after he (the colonel) had left Lille. Vaughan’s brother had arrived from Ireland, joined Berwick’s regiment and was killed at the battle of Raucoux. In that battle William was severely wounded and incapacitated for further service, and he had become an inmate of the Hotel des Invalides.

Colonel Vesey, on being allowed to go on parole to Paris, sought out the old sergeant whose escape from the gallows had often been the cause of curious but unsatisfactory conjecture. Keogh was delighted to see him, and, seated in one of the arbours in the garden of the Invalides, he told him the story of his escape.

“They are all dead and gone now,” said he, “who assisted in it, and there is no longer need for secrecy. No one can be hurt by the disclosure.”

His story was briefly this: When he and his brother had taken the money they put it into a canvas bag and hid it in a deep pool in the river Liffey below the Salmon Leap. There was a heavy weight attached to it to keep it down, but it could be easily removed by a drag. When lying in his condemned cell Keogh noticed that the jailer, who paid but little attention to the other prisoners awaiting execution, was particularly attentive to him, and one day the jailer entered the cell, and carefully closing the door sat down on the stool, and asked him if he could do anything for him. Keogh replied that the only thing he could do was to get him off being hanged. After a pause the jailer asked:

“Have you the money?”

“Every penny of it is safe,” was the reply. “And there is fifteen hundred pounds for a true friend.”

The bait was tempting, and the jailer confessed he was in need of money. If he could get that amount, he undertook to allow Keogh’s brother, Sylvester, to pass through his rooms, bring with him a rope ladder, the key being left in the cell, and so the prisoner could escape at midnight. But William would not hear of his brother being brought into the plot, and suggested as an alternative that he, William, should get sick of jail fever, then a very common and often fatal disease; that he should appear to die of it, and be sent out in a coffin.

The jailer caught at the suggestion, but said there must be a real corpse, for there would have to be an inquest; and, he added, that in that case there would only be a thousand pounds for himself as the remaining five hundred should be divided amongst necessary accomplices on whom he could rely.

Accordingly Keogh feigned illness, and made himself really sick by the use of drugs with which the jailer supplied him. The prisoners in the cells at either side of him were removed, to be away from the contagion of the jail fever, from which Keogh was supposed to be suffering. At length he was reported dead, and the night of his supposed death the jailer introduced into his cell a corpse which had been dug up out of the hospital fields. This was placed in Keogh’s bed and the latter was let out on the high road. The inquest was held and verdict found, the jury not taking the trouble to view the corpse, deterred from so doing by fear of infection, and the brother Sylvester, the better to keep up the deception, attended the funeral. William Keogh married a laundress in Paris and died about the year 1769, having by his gallant conduct atoned for the crime of his youth, and he had the happiness of knowing that he had not only obtained the forgiveness, but had also earned the gratitude of the man he had wronged.