On 6th March 1944, Private Wiley Harris Jr. entered the American Red Cross Club at 14 James Street South, Belfast. The 26-year-old from Greenville, Georgia, U.S.A. had 24 hours' leave from his unit and planned to spend it in the city. The James Street South branch of the club was for black personnel only. The U.S. Army at the time maintained units segregated on race.
Harris, born on 12th June 1918, was a black man serving in 626th Ordnance Ammunition Company based at Dromantine House, Poyntzpass, Co. Armagh. He had almost 7 years of service, having enlisted at Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S.A. on 21st May 1937.
Having arrived by train earlier in the day, Harris began drinking at the American Red Cross Club. Neither he nor his acquaintances could have foreseen the events that followed.
On leaving the club, Harris made for The Diamond Bar in North Queen Street in the city centre. There, he met with a fellow G.I., Sergeant John W. London. Also in the bar was a Private Robert Fils of the U.S. Army. As Harris continued to drink, London engaged in a hushed conversation with a local man before leaving the bar. On returning a short while later, London confided in Harris that he had met with a sex worker, in agreement with the man to whom he had spoken. That man was Henry “Harry” Coogan.
Coogan next approached Harris offering the same deal. When Coogan asked if the soldier wanted to meet a woman, Harris said yes. Coogan agreed on a price of £1. He then pointed across the bar to a young woman from north Belfast named Eileen Megaw and suggested the three go somewhere more private.
Harris and Megaw followed Coogan to a nearby empty public air raid shelter on Earl Street. Harris handed over the money in half-crown and two-shilling piece coins. Coogan volunteered to stand guard outside the shelter. He would alert the couple should any police officers approach. Private Wiley Harris Jr. unfurled his overcoat on the floor of the shelter.
Before I could do what I intended to do Coogan shouted the Police were coming. On going outside I could see no one about so I asked the girl to go to the shelter with me. She said no, so I asked for my money back but this was refused.
Some records suggest Eileen Megaw offered Harris the money but Coogan objected. Others suggest that Harris demanded the money from her. The trio exchanged words, the soldier pushed Megaw who ran, dropping her payment in the street. Harris stooped to pick up what he saw as his money. Coogan lunged at the American private. This area of the city, on the outskirts of Sailortown, was no stranger to commotion on the streets. Still, a crowd gathered to witness the ongoing disagreement. Harry Coogan shouted out to the onlookers:
This n***** is going to stab this woman but I’ll not let him.
Coogan threw a punch at Harris before a woman named Bridget Murdoch grabbed his arm. She briefly restrained him, urging him not to hurt the soldier. When Harris realised that Coogan not only meant to rob him but cause him harm, he retaliated, drawing a knife and stabbing the Belfast man. Incensed, he plunged the knife in fifteen times more.
Bridget Murdoch called to her sister-in-law Annie Murdoch, who lived at 158 earl Street. Annie was at home listening to the wireless when Bridget shouted for her to “see the carry on”.
Annie watched as Harris repeatedly stabbed Coogan in the stomach, chest, head, and neck. The American soldier then fled, leaving his victim in a pool of blood in the street. Coogan was dead and Harris was gone long before Head Constable Armstrong and Sergeant Herron of the R.U.C. arrived at the scene.
Private Wiley Harris Jr. returned to the American Red Cross Club on James Street South. This time, however, he began to wash the blood from his uniform. London and Fils, watched as Harris frantically scrubbed the bloody garments. Both men had been in the bar before Harris, Megaw, and Coogan had left together. In fact, London had already had sex that evening with Eileen Megaw. The American soldiers pieced together the night’s events.
So too did the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Wiley Harris Jr. was placed under arrest that night.
Across the city in the Mater Hospital, Dr. James Crilly examined Coogan’s body. He issued a lengthy medical statement describing the victim’s injuries. Crilly determined 16 stab wounds made by a sharp blade of at least 4 inches long. One wound appeared to have 2 stabs through it and so some reports indicate that Coogan sustained 17 stab wounds. Some of the blows were dealt with such force as to drive the knife into Coogan’s skull causing severe fractures.
These findings from Dr. James Crilly showed the ferocity of the attack and most likely led to a dismissal of Harris’ claims of self-defence.
On 17th March 1944, Court Martial at Belfast’s Victoria Barracks found Private Wiley Harris Jr. guilty of the murder of Henry “Harry” Coogan on Earl Street.
He did on March 6th, 1944, at Belfast, feloniously and with malice aforethought and with premeditation, kill one Henry Coogan, of Lepper Street in the New Lodge, by stabbing him in the chest, head and stomach with a sharp instrument.
Sergeant James O’Connor of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division had questioned Harris at his base at Dromantine House without any legal representation. Harris admitted to killing Coogan but continued to claim self-defence.
After the hearing, the court, the seven U.S. Army officers announced that their decision would be made at a later date. Their options were murder, manslaughter – as Harris had not set out to kill Coogan – or self-defence as the defendant claimed. A manslaughter charge would see the Private jailed for between eight and fifteen years in an American State Penitentiary. Harris was not the first member of the U.S. Army tried for the murder of a civilian in Northern Ireland. He was, however, the first non-white and the first sentenced to death.
Following the sentencing, something unusual happened. Throughout Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom, there was a call for clemency. Perhaps this was because many in Northern Ireland did not agree with the U.S. Army’s racial segregation. Perhaps it was because many saw Coogan as a pimp, thief, and criminal. Across Ulster, petitions were organised. The case brought together leaders from the main churches in Northern Ireland who called for Harris’ life to be spared. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, the Lord Bishop of Down, the Moderator of the General Assembly, and clergy from the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches united in their views on the matter. In London, Viscount Cranbourne, the leader of the House of Lords sent a personal telegram to President Roosevelt warning that the execution of Harris could damage Ango-American relations.
Several telegrams arrived on the desk of Brigadier-General Leroy P. Collins at Northern Ireland Base Station. Among them, one from Sir Crawford McCullagh, Lord Mayor of Belfast.
On behalf of the members of the corporation and citizens of Belfast, and in the view of the happy relations existing between American troops and citizens in our city, I earnestly appeal to you to show clemency towards the American soldier Pte. Wiley Harris, under sentence of death and that the extreme penalty may not be carried out.
Private Wiley Harris’ claims of self-defence and the nationwide appeals for clemency were to no avail. On 26th May 1944, Thomas Pierrepoint and his assistant Alexander Riley hanged the 26-year-old American at Shepton Mallet Prison, England.
The U.S. Public Relations Office in Belfast announced the execution in the local press:
Private Wiley Harris, condemned to death for the murder of a civilian, was hanged this morning.