Monday 25 March 2024

Portuguese Honeymoon Tragedy

In 1914 a newly married Portuguese couple's marriage ended in tragedy when the husband shot his wife dead on an ocean liner.  He was convicted of murder at Liverpool Assizes, but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. 

At the end of 1913 Alberto Coelho, a 32 year old confectioner Alberto Coelho married his wife Josephine in Oporto. The couple then boarded the Deseado, a Royal Mail steamer sailing from Liverpool to Rio, where Alberto had business interests. At first, they seemed as happy as any other newlyweds would be, but on 7th February, two days into the voyage, Alberto shot Josephine twice while she was sitting in the vessel's social hall. She slipped under the table and died instantly.

Coelho pictured in the Liverpool
 Evening Express 31/3/1914

Coelho, showed no resistance as he was placed in irons. As the killing had taken place in international waters on board a British-owned vessel, he was subject to the law of its home country. On arrival in Rio, he was handed to the British consul before being placed in a local prison to await the return journey. His wife was buried at a service attended by most of the crew. 

On 31st March the Deseado arrived back at Liverpool and Coelho, who spoke no English, was charged with murder. He replied through an interpreter that he had intended to take his own life. He was removed straight to the Police Court in Dale Street, where he was remanded in custody. He was described as a swarthy well-built man with dark hair, a heavy dark moustache and wearing respectable clothing. 

On 9th April Coelho was back at the police court for a committal hearing. It emerged that the ship's surgeon Dr Segar had refused to attend, and give evidence. This led to summons being issued. A cello player in the ship's band described how Coelho had been talking to his wife amicably, then left briefly and came back with the pistol before shooting her dead. When Dr Segar arrived at court five days later, he said death was instant and a bullet had struck Josephine in the heart. Coelho was committed to the Assizes, reserving his defence.

Just ten days after the committal, Coelho was brought up before Justice Bray at St George's Hall. When the charge was read to him by the Clerk of the Court, Sir Herbert Stephens, Coelho replied firmly in English "Not Guilty". The defence did not dispute the facts of the case, but argued that Coelho was insane at the time of the killing. They pointed to there being no apparent motive or any signs of a disagreement. Coelho's brother described that he had acted irrationally the previous year, often wandering aimlessly through the streets of Rio, saying that he was being followed by a large dog. 

Doctors from Walton Gaol told the court that Coelho had appeared rational during interviews and showed no signs of insanity. Although Coelho's counsel pleaded that he had delusions and was not responsible for his actions at the time of the killing, the jury took half an hour to find him guilty of murder.

After Justice Bray had passed the death sentence it was interpreted to Coelho. He replied that he was not guilty and that Josephne had planned on committing him to an asylum on arrival in Rio. He then held his head in his hands before being taken down to the cells.

The verdict was quickly seized upon by the Portuguese media, who appealed to the British Government to show magnanimity and grant a pardon as it had been a crime committed in a fit of passion. Prime Minister Bernardino Machado was petitioned by the League for the Defence of the Rights of Man to pursue this. Demands were also made for the recall of Portugal's consul in Rio, who had handed Coelho to his British counterpart. 

On 11th May an appeal was heard at the Court of Criminal Appeal. Coelho's lawyers argued that the verdict was unreasonable and that Justice Bray had misdirected the jury. They also submitted that Coelho had never been to England and had no knowledge of English laws. These arguments were dismissed and the appeal judges concluded that the defence had failed to prove insanity, therefore the conviction could not be quashed. 

Coelho's execution was scheduled for 14th May. He was due to be hanged alongside Joseph Spooner, who had killed his daughter and admitted his guilt from the beginning. However, due to the petitions still being considered by the Home Secretary, it was deferred. Spooner'sexecution went ahead as planned and later that day, Coelho was notified that his sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. By the end of that decade, he had been released and deported to Portugal.   

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