6th March 1944 was the date. A brutal murder on Earl Street, North Belfast was the talk of Sailortown. In an area that saw its fair share of rough and ready behaviour, this was something else. The main suspect was Private Wiley Harris Jr., an American soldier born on 12th June 1918 in Greenville, GA, U.S.A. His victim was a known pimp in the area.
On 6th March 1944, Private Wiley Harris Jr., a 26-year-old GI had been drinking in The Diamond Bar in North Queen Street. Harris was with the 626th Ordnance Ammunition Company based at Dromantine House, Poyntzpass, Co. Down. Like many GIs, he enjoyed the hospitality offered by the nightlife in Belfast. That evening, Harris had a 24-hour pass and had taken the train from his camp to the Northern Ireland capital.
Before visiting the bars of Belfast, Harris checked in to the American Red Cross Club on James Street, Belfast. This branch of the club was for black service personnel.
Fatal stabbing in Belfast
After 2200hrs, a known pimp, Harry Coogan approached him and offered the services of one of his girls. The north Belfast girl, Eileen Megaw, would fetch the sum of £1, which Harris paid in coins. Coogan escorted the pair to an air raid shelter on the nearby Earl Street. Coogan stood by the shelter doors keeping a look out for the police.
Wiley Harris Jr. entered the shelter and placed his overcoat on the floor. His statement from the General Court Martial trial went on to detail the events.
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.
Miss Megaw fled the scene dropping her payment. Harris stopped to pick up what he saw as his money. Harris had no reason to suspect Coogan or Megaw as his colleague Sergeant John W. London had availed of their offer only half an hour earlier.
Witness Mrs. Annie Murdock lived at 158 Earl Street. She told the hearing she had been at home listening to her wireless. Her sister-in-law called and told her to come outside to “see the carry on”.
Murder on Earl Street
She heard the men argue over money in Earl Street and Coogan using a racial slur against the American. The pimp claimed, the GI had threatened to stab the woman before striking Harris in the face.
In retaliation, the American pulled out a knife. Murdock reported the GI jumped on Coogan and stabbed him in the stomach, chest, and head. Harris left Coogan with sixteen stab wounds and ran off leaving the victim in a pool of blood.
Head Constable Armstrong and Sergeant Herron of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attended the scene. There was nothing they could do for Coogan by the time they arrived.
Private Harris returned to the American Red Cross Club to wash the blood from his uniform. Sergeant London and Private Fils of the U.S. Army both observed this. Fils had also been drinking in The Diamond Bar earlier in the evening with Harris.
Dr. James Crilly examined Coogan’s body at the Mater Hospital, Belfast. He detailed a lengthy medical statement describing the victim’s injuries. Crilly determined sixteen stab wounds, made by a sharp blade at least four inches long.
Wiley Harris on Trial
On 17th March 1944, Court Martial at Belfast’s Victoria Barracks found Private Wiley Harris Jr. guilty of the murder 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.
Harris had been questioned without legal representation at Dromantine House, Poyntzpass, Co. Down by Sergeant James O’Connor of the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division. He admitted everything.
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.
The Final Verdict
A manslaughter charge would see the Private jailed for between eight and fifteen years in an American State Penitentiary. The eventual verdict was murder, which carried a penalty of death in 1944.
The US 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.
Harris Jr. pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. He 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 executed. The famous British executioner Thomas Pierrepoint carried out the hanging at Shepton Mallet. His assistant on Friday 26th May 1944 was Alexander Riley.
In 1944, Earl Street ran between North Queen Street and Garmoyle Street alongside Gallagher’s Tobacco factory. Around the corner with North Queen Street, many buildings were in ruins from the Blitz of 1941. The entire area has since been redeveloped and now lies beneath the Cityside shopping complex on York Street.