Page last updated at 09:12 GMT, Saturday, 2 January 2010

Jewish American hung in Belfast remains in jail grounds

By Arthur Strain
BBC News

Crumlin road jail
Eddie Cullens was one of 17 men executed in Crumlin Road jail

When Eddie Cullens died in 1932 he was thousands of miles from home and convicted of a brutal killing.

He was one of the 17 men hanged in Crumlin jail for capital offences and had the distinction of being the only Jew and only American to suffer the ultimate judicial punishment in Northern Ireland.

The 28 year old went to the gallows protesting his innocence of the murder of a Achmet Musa, a Turkish circus worker in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, but to no avail.

His body lies in ground adjoining the wall at the former prison site, but his story does not end there.

Some years ago efforts were made by the Jewish community in Belfast to have the body exhumed and reburied in a Jewish cemetery.

At the time, there was the potential for all the bodies of the prisoners to be moved due to a proposed road being built through the site as part of a development masterplan.

That plan remains, and is still awaiting approval next year, but the case of Cullens has fallen below the radar.

Ronnie Appleton, former head of the Jewish community in Belfast, was one of those lobbying for the release of the body.

executuion cell in crumlin road
The execution cell where Cullens was hanged

He said that problems identifying which of the bodies was Cullens had made the task an impossible one.

"They were unsure which of the bodies was Eddie Cullens' and were unable to find any relatives, to possibly do an DNA test," he said.

"The Northern Ireland Office advertised in America for information on possible relatives, but it came to nothing."

Mr Appleton, a retired QC, said that there had been the possibility that Cullens was innocent.

"There was a lot of talk among the legal community that it was a very weak case," he said.

A rubber hat, a holster and one witness putting Cullens near the scene of the murder sealed his fate.

A blue and white rubber bathing hat found on Musa's body was identified as Cullens's by a girl he had picked up and a holster for a .25 revolver of the type which fired the fatal bullet was later found in his luggage.

A farmer also identified him as being the driver of a car asking for directions to Larne which he encountered on a lane at Seskin just outside the town, the night before the body was found.

Condemned cell in Crumlin Road jail
Eddie Cullens spent his final days in the condemned cell in the jail

Cullens, Musa and two other Turkish men, Assim Redvan and Zaro Agha, were involved in a syndicate involving the showing of Agha, an elderly man whom they billed as the world's oldest with the claimed age of 156 at travelling circuses.

They all met in New York and embarked on a European tour, which included England.

While Cullens was an American citizen he was born in Smyrna in western Turkey, but had left with his family as a young boy for the United States.

Cullens and Musa, who spoke no English, took rooms together and Cullens later borrowed a car from Redvan and went with Musa to Ireland.

They stayed at Ryan's Hotel on Donegall Quay in Belfast and on the day of Musa's death, Cullens said the doomed man and he went with Mr Ryan, the hotel owner, to see some dog racing, with Musa staying in the car outside Celtic Park. On their return he was gone.

This was denied by Mr Ryan, the court report stated, who said he last saw Musa with Cullens in the car at the Albert Memorial in the city and that he went to the dog racing without them.

The rest, as they say, is history. Cullens was arrested in London and a chambermaid at a hotel told police he had told her Musa had been sent back to Turkey "because he wanted to beat up the old man".


He denied murder, but a jury found him guilty and he was condemned to death, with the sentence carried out on 12 January 1932 after appeals for mercy and to introduce new evidence were denied.

A motive for the killing was never established, and the court reports at the time show that the prosecution did not suggest one.

The circumstantial evidence had been enough for the jury.

Rabbi Shacter who attended him on the day of his death said that Cullens had a wonderful soul that was as clean when he died as when he went into the world.

"He went to the scaffold with deep conviction that that his hands were clean and clear of the blood of this man," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Part of the sentence for an executed man at the jail was that they would be buried within its walls.

Only two bodies have been removed from the site, the first was that of IRA man Tom Williams, executed in 1942 for the murder of a policeman.

In 2000, the Royal Prerogative of Mercy was exercised to enable his removal and that act enabled the removal of all those interred within, should a relative wish to claim them for reburial.

The other was that of Michael Pratley, a republican hanged in 1924. He fatally wounded a man during a wages robbery in 1924 in what would nowadays be described as a 'freelance' operation.

The North Belfast Community Action Unit is responsible for the jail and maintains the old prison records.

They have no record of a search in America for his relatives and their last contact with the Belfast Jewish Association was in 2005.

Identifying which body is which at the back wall of the jail is not a simple task.

There are some initials carved on the wall where the bodies are interred, but mostly it is the date by which they can be roughly located.

In the case of Eddie Cullens there are two possible bodies, but without a means to positively identify which is the young American, and a relative to claim him, his stay at the jail will continue, for now.

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