AFTER four decades of investigation, inquiry, theory and speculation

into the mystery at the coastal village of Whiteabbey, five miles north

of Belfast, only two things are certain. One is that Patricia Curran,

the 19-year-old daughter of a High Court judge, was murdered with 37

stab wounds on the night of November 12, 1952. The other is that a

Scottish serviceman, leading airman Iain Hay Gordon, was found guilty

but insane and sentenced to be detained during Her Majesty's Pleasure.

Many other questions remain unanswered. The trial itself, in March

1953 at Belfast Crown Court, is remarkable for the gaps it left

unexamined and uncontested, a confession that was uncorroborated, and

for key witnesses that were never called or were never cross-examined.

It might by now have drifted into the history of fascinating but

insoluble cases, but for the survival of two key figures.

Iain Hay Gordon is alive in Glasgow after working 31 years in the city

under an assumed name, protesting his innocence and fighting a new

campaign, supported by Glasgow Maryhill MP, Maria Fyfe, to clear his

name. Desmond Curran, the elder brother who found the body of Patricia,

is alive in South Africa, having worked there as a missionary for the

last 30 years. He sticks by the evidence he gave at the trial, and the

vital information he gave to police, which had a crucial bearing on

Gordon's arrest and conviction.

The last sentence of Gordon's alleged confession, obtained after three

days of intensive interrogation, contained the phrase, '' . . . if I am

spared, I shall redeem my past life.'' It is one of the few parts of the

confession that Gordon claims he actually wrote, and the supporters of

his campaign have maintained since the early 1950s that the rest was

obtained through extreme duress and put in his name by detectives.

Nevertheless, that one phrase presents a possible double irony. By

coincidence, both Gordon and Desmond Curran started radically new lives

eight years after the murder. In 1960, Gordon was quietly released from

Holywell Mental Hospital in County Antrim and put on a plane back to

Scotland. At the same time, Desmond Curran was being ordained as a

priest in Rome.

His conversion to Roman Catholicism must have come as a shock to his

staunchly presbyterian family. His father, Lord Justice Lancelot Curran,

had been a Unionist MP for the Carrick Division of County Antrim and

Attorney General for Northern Ireland before being appointed a High

Court judge in 1949. Following in his father's footsteps, Desmond Curran

took his law degree and started out in 1952 as a barrister.

The eminence of the Currans seemed to have an intimidatory effect on

the defence mounted at Gordon's trial, when his senior counsel, Mr H. R.

McVeigh, QC, made it a condition of taking on the case that he would not

be required to cross-examine any member of the Curran family. The

campaign mounted in 1958 for Gordon's release was rounded upon in the

Ulster Senate. Senator P. McGill referred to ''the unfortunate and

tragic position'' in which an esteemed family had been placed by the

publication of a most distressing case.

There are stages in the police investigation, the trial and the

subsequent political handling of the affair which suggest that this

''esteem'' towards the Currans was pervasive. Police never examined the

family home until two to three days after the discovery of the body,

recently obtained official Stormont memos have revealed. The conduct of

the family on the night of the discovery of the body escaped close

examination at the trial, but it is exactly at these moments in the

early hours of November 13, 1952, that the controversy begins.

It had been a drizzly Wednesday night. The unlit drive up to the

Curran mansion, Glen House, was shrouded by trees that made a dark

canopy. Wind rustled among leaves and bushes. Justice Curran would tell

the next day's Belfast Telegraph that he had been making telephone

calls. His daughter Patricia had not returned from Belfast. She had been

at Queen's University where she was in the first year of a social

sciences M.A. degree. At what precise time these telephone calls began

has never been established, but the trial would hear that the alarm

never went up until 1.30 am. when a family search party was organised in

the ten acres of the estate grounds. Desmond Curran testified he was

awoken and sent for a torch.

That serious concern was this late in prompting action might have

seemed odd. Patricia travelled by bus, and the last service from Belfast

arrived in the village of Whiteabbey at 11.20 pm. Stranger, perhaps, was

that one of Justice Curran's telephone calls was at 1.40 am to the

family solicitor, Malcolm Davison, four miles away in the village of

Greenisland. Another call was to his younger son, Michael, who was

summoned to come from Belfast. It is unclear at what stage in this

sequence a further call was made to local police. Justice Curran was

never called to testify at the trial.

The search produced an extraordinary convergence. The trial was told

that at precisely the moment that Desmond Curran reached the spot where

the body of his sister lay, in bushes off the quarter-mile of drive,

there arrived simultaneously Justice Curran on foot, family solicitor

Davison and his wife by car, and a police constable riding up on

bicycle. ''It was as if, at the same time,'' Davison testified in court,

''Mr Justice Curran and the constable entered from somewhere.''

What they saw was Desmond Curran raising the blood-stained body. At

the trial he testified that he thought he heard sounds of breathing. The

body was carried to Davison's car, but there was difficulty. The legs

were stiff. Undaunted by the certainty that rigor mortis indicates

death, or by the cardinal rule that bloodied bodies should be left for

the examination of pathologists and police, the High Court judge, his

barrister son and the family solicitor left the constable guarding the

spot while the body of Patricia was driven to the local doctor. He

pronounced her to have been killed by shotgun wounds, an unfortunate

mistake, given the 37 stab wounds. Amidst the tragedy there was a seam

of sinister farce. Patricia Curran was buried two days later. The

investigation was not getting off to the best of starts.

It can be imagined with what private thoughts County Inspector Albert

Kennedy told reporters that, since the body had ''been removed'', he

could not say whether there were any indications of struggle. It was not

until the February 14 early editions that police were able to correct

first reports of Patricia Curran having been shot in the chest and

abdomen. The 37 stab wounds were said to have been inflicted by a

stiletto-like weapon, a paper-knife or a lancet. But despite the

manifest confusion, police said from the outset that ''it had been

established'' that the girl died at 5.45pm on Wednesday, November 12.

This specific timing would become crucial in the case against Gordon.

His confession, obtained a full three months later, would confirm the

same time to the minute for his alleged murder of Patricia Curran. On

the day the body was discovered, it was a stubborn and remarkably

prescient accuracy on the part of the police, because it arbitrated

uncannily between two post mortem reports which estimated death, in the

first, at between 11 pm and midnight, and in the second, at around 5 pm.

That the investigation proceeded on the basis of a 5.45pm murder had a

simple logic. Patricia Curran, it emerged in earliest inquiries, was

last seen alive getting off the bus in Whiteabbey. It had reached the

village from Belfast just after 5.20 pm. She was last sighted as she

walked towards the gates of the drive to the family home of Glen House.

From the start, the investigation assumed that she had never reached the

house. However, no member of the Curran family could confirm this

positively, since their alibis established them as away from home in the

earlier part of the evening.

The lack of forensic or blood evidence was puzzling. Only three drops

of blood were found on leaves near where the multiply-stabbed body was

found. Patricia's watch had been broken, and the hands and winder were

never found. Neither would a murder weapon ever be produced before or

after the trial. The 37 wounds were widespread and indiscriminate, but

there were none on the hands and arms of the victim, and there were no

scratch marks on the legs. Her stockings were not laddered. There was no

evidence on the body of a sexual assault.

Early statements by Sir Richard Pym, Inspector General of the Royal

Ulster Constabulary, indicated considerable doubt over whether Patricia

had been murdered at the exact spot where her body was found. It was

''clear'' her body had been ''carried''. Her possessions, a yellow

beret, portfolio and handbag, had been found placed alongside. All these

details would prove important when it came to testing the validity of

Gordon's confession.

Iain Gordon was never an early suspect in the police investigation. A

political motive for the murder as an act of revenge against Justice

Curran was one of the first considered. In the next few days, appeals

were issued for information about a scar-faced man; then a man with

grass seeds in his hair. Police said they had not ruled out the

possibility the murderer was a woman. A description was given of a man

with an educated Northern Ireland accent. They wanted to trace the

driver of an Austin 10 who drove away from the village at speed. The

evident lack of direction did not help to suppress the ''wildest

rumours'' circulating Belfast and Whiteabbey, according to a report in

the Belfast Newsletter.

Scotland Yard were called in before the end of the first week.

Although Superintendent John Capstick was officially ''assisting'' the

RUC's investigation team under County Inspector Kennedy, it was clear to

many that he would take control. He was a murder specialist with a high

record of success. He arrived in Belfast with Detective-Sergeant Dennis

Hawkins, confident of cracking the case quickly. In this they would be


A measure of their desperation by early December was the flight to

Manchester by Capstick and Kennedy to interview a man in custody who had

confessed to murdering Patricia Curran. After 15 minutes of interviews,

the detectives admitted a ''wild goose chase'' and returned to Northern

Ireland. The same day there appeared the unconvincing report that

''police now believe they are on a 'definite line' in Whiteabbey.'' On

the last day of the year, Sir Richard Pym was offering a #1000 reward

for information leading to conviction.

On January 14, 1953, it was announced that Capstick and Hawkins would

be returning to London on Saturday, after two months on the case. A

total of 40,000 witnesses had been interviewed, and 9000 statements

taken. There was no indication if this was because they were suddenly

confident that the case would be cracked by the weekend, or if they were

being recalled because the trail had gone cold. A dramatic development

was about to unfold. The very next day Capstick and Hawkins completed

intensive interrogations to secure the confession that would convict


It must have been with relief that the inquiry seized on Iain Hay

Gordon. Stationed at the nearby RAF camp of Edenmore, he was 20 and due

to complete his national service in May. His duties at the camp were

clerical, and he was responsible for delivering and collecting camp mail

in the village of Whiteabbey. The son of a civil engineer father and a

schoolteacher mother, he had not excelled at school at Dollar Academy,

and he had done a year at Glasgow Tutorial College when he was called


He was described as a nervous type, awkward, sensitive and gullible. A

loner. A respectable middle distance runner, and a member of the

Hillfoots Athletics Club in his Dollar days, there was an account at the

trial of how he had been overcome by nerves and confusion while leading

a one-mile race, stopping dead to allow a commanding lead to be

overtaken. ''I was not street wise,'' Gordon says today.

At Edenmore camp, he was a perennial wind-up victim. Another story

which emerged at the trial was that he had once been persuaded it was

necessary to show L-plates on his bicycle. Subsequently, he fractured

his skull in an accident on the machine. He had no history of violence,

other than a black eye he had received in a scrap with another

serviceman. He was what RAF contemporaries of the early 1950s would

call, and did call, a ''clot''.

Gordon was unrepresented throughout the interrogations. He faced nine

detectives, but Capstick was running the show. ''I hated to use what

might well seem like ruthless methods,'' Capstick wrote years later of

the Gordon interrogation in an article for Empire News in 1958,

prompting questions over breach of confidentiality at Stormont. His

note, read out at the 1953 trial, records that ''masturbation, gross

indecency and sodomy'' were the subjects upon which Gordon was

questioned at length on the morning of his confession. This was the

third day of his interrogation. It had occupied a total of 19 hours,

according to Hawkins and Capstick at the trial. At least 25 hours,

Gordon claims today. They told him he was going to hell. Mentally

exhausted, he began to believe them.

Two things broke him. His alibi was destroyed the day before. Gordon

admitted, and still admits, he lied about an alibi, damaging his case

considerably. His explanation was, and is, that he had naively

interpreted an instruction at the camp for the men to sort themselves

out with alibis. His false alibi, Corporal Henry Connor, was also under

intense interrogations during which, he claimed in a later statement to

private investigators working for the campaign to release Gordon, that

he had been separately accused of the murder.

The second vulnerability was Gordon's sexual guilt. He admitted

frequenting prostitutes in Belfast. He had also had three homosexual

dalliances with a shady figure in the village called Wesley Courtenay. A

psychiatrist would later draw little significance from these

''transitional adolescent episodes.'' Gordon had at least one regular

girlfriend in Belfast. But it is clear that Capstick and his team

exploited Gordon's terrible fear of lurid details being revealed to his

mother. This was a crucial lever in extracting his confession. Capstick

told the trial under cross-examination, ''He [Gordon] was broken down on

masturbation.'' This moral pressure had come from details supplied by

informants. One was the Rev S. J. Wylie, Minister of the Presbyterian

Church at Whiteabbey, who for a while acted as a mentor and confidant

for Gordon, until the young serviceman was advised by chaplains to

refuse the minister's visits while he was awaiting trial in Crumlin Road

Prison, Belfast. Wylie is another curious figure in the mystery, now

dead after a sudden departure for Canada in 1959, leaving his wife for

another woman.

The other informant, as Capstick revealed years later in his Empire

News article, was Desmond Curran, the brother who had found the body of

Patricia. It was this disclosure that infuriated Stormont in 1958.

Nationalist MP Mr R. H. O'Connor described the article as containing

information from private ''conferences'' between Capstick and the Curran

family. This certainly begs more questions than it answers.

It must have surprised detectives when they first learned that Curran,

the eldest son of one of Whiteabbey's most distinguished families and a

barrister, was a personal friend of Iain Hay Gordon, the RAF clerk. They

had met on a number of occasions, at Glen House and in Belfast.

The story Gordon told Police, and still maintains today, is that

Desmond Curran first approached him after a service preached by Wylie at

the Presbyterian Church. He offered a left-handed shake and introduced

himself. Then he invited Gordon to lunch at Glen House. Gordon denies

any homosexual involvement with Desmond Curran, although he would later

confide to him the advances made by Courtenay. Both Gordon and Curran,

in a recent documentary made by BBC Northern Ireland, deny any knowledge

of an alleged homosexual ring operating in Whiteabbey at the time of the

murder. Gordon claims, and Curran confirms, that the primary motive was

to interest the serviceman in Moral Rearmament, a movement promoting

absolute private and public morality. Curran was a member.

Gordon was never recruited, but this would be the first of a series of

meetings, and through his association with Desmond the young airman

would be introduced to other members of the Curran family. Justice

Curran was ''austere, Victorian''. Mrs Curran seemed a little put out

that lunch arrangements had to accommodate an unannounced visitor.

Michael Curran, the younger brother, was surly, instructing Gordon to

help with washing up because there were no servants, and scolding him

after the almost inevitable breakage of a plate by the accident-prone

guest. Patricia Curran, according to Gordon, exhibited more social

graces than the rest of the family put together. ''She was the only

normal one there,'' he says today.

In the confession he gave to Capstick, witnessed by County Inspector

Kennedy, Gordon claims he met Patricia Curran after she had got off the

bus from Belfast at 5.20 pm on November 12. She asked him to accompany

her up the drive to Glen House because it was dark. He held her hand.

She did not object. He asked her for a kiss. She laid her handbag,

portfolio and yellow beret on the grass verge of the drive. They kissed.

Patricia asked to continue up the drive. Gordon could not stop kissing.

He touched her breast. She called him a ''beast''. He lost control. She

fell down sobbing. She appeared to have fainted because she went limp.

The rest was hazy. He remembered dragging her into the bushes. ''I was

confused at the time and believe I stabbed her once or twice with my

service knife. I had been carrying this in my trouser pocket. I am not

sure what kind of a knife it was.'' He was disturbed by hearing

footsteps or seeing a light. Then he crossed the main road and threw the

knife into Belfast Lough. He returned to Edenmore camp, arriving at his

billet at roughly 6.30 pm. He practised some typing for a trade

examination and went to bed.

Such was the confession. If the spot of typing was not a blase enough

way to finish up an evening's murdering, then Gordon's visit to the

cinema the next night to see Elizabeth Taylor in The Light Fantastic (as

he tells his father in a letter written on the Sunday after the murder)

is cool behaviour for a man with a proven nervous disposition. Today

Gordon maintains, as he has maintained for 42 years, that the confession

was false.

He claims that it was dictated by Capstick. There were changes to some

wordings when he was instructed to read it back to Capstick and Kennedy,

changes like ''went'' for ''proceeded'' because it sounded less

legalistic. It had been a series of hypothetical questions and answers.

''I did not see the trap I was falling into,'' says Gordon today. The

confession was the single most important piece of evidence against

Gordon at the trial. There was nothing else to connect him with the

crime, except an identification (at a parade three months later, and

after his photograph had appeared in newspapers when he was charged) by

a witness who said she had seen a pale-faced man leave the gates to the

drive of Glen House. This identification has been widely discredited.

The tentative and unspecific reference in the confession to the kind

of knife Gordon is alleged to have used is interesting, in that police

never did produce a murder weapon. A Belfast local historian and a

former RAF serviceman, Bobby Devlin, who has written on the case, points

out that there was no issue of service knives in the RAF after the end

of the Second World War. The only knives Gordon recalls having at

Edenmore were his canteen irons and a wooden paper knife for his

clerical duties. The latter, despite early reference to stiletto-like

wounds in pathology reports, would seem an unlikely implement for such a

sustained and violent attack on Patricia Curran, a strong and athletic

young woman. One of her fatal wounds had smashed a rib.

The reference in the confession to being disturbed ''by footsteps or

by a light'' is the detail which encouraged the prosecution to present

the time of the murder at exactly 5.45pm. An 11-year-old newspaper

delivery boy, George Chambers, testified that he heard strange noises in

the bushes as he returned down the drive with his new torch. This was

shortly before he heard the factory hooter go off at 5.45 pm. The

prosecution argued that what he heard was the sound of Patricia Curran

being dragged into the bushes by Gordon.

The Currans' mail box had been moved from Glen House to further down

the drive to accommodate postal and newspaper deliveries. It was

positioned less than 75 yards from the spot where the body was found. It

is odd that young George Chambers saw nothing of the couple allegedly

negotiating a kiss on the drive as he went up, or heard anything of

their argument and struggle. Every bit as strange is that his new torch

failed to pick out a bright yellow beret, a portfolio and a handbag

close by the spot where he heard alarming noises. According to the

confession, these articles were allegedly laid down by Patricia Curran

before her body was dragged off into the bushes. Chambers' testimony

would appear to cast more doubt on the confession than it supports the

prosecution case, but Gordon's defence failed to draw attention to the


A total of nine journeys were made past this spot before the body was

discovered at 2 am. After Chambers, there were eight opportunities for

someone to spot Patricia Curran's items on the verge, 11 inches from the

side of a drive wide enough for only a single vehicle. Nobody did, even

with the assistance of car headlights.

The catalogue of failed observation is curious. Justice Curran arrived

home from the Courts by taxi at 7.20 pm. His taxi driver returned down

the drive. Desmond Curran got back from the court library, where he had

been seen by witnesses, at 8.50 pm. Mrs Curran's movements were never

fully established, and like her husband she never testified, but she was

reported to have spent the evening playing bridge with the ubiquitous

Davisons, the family solicitor and his wife, before driving home up the

drive. Desmond Curran and Mrs Curran drove down the drive after 1. 30 am

when the alarm was first raised. Justice Curran walked down the drive

searching. Michael Curran arrived from Belfast after the body was found,

according to Justice Curran's statement to reporters on February 13.

More questions might have been answered had not Gordon's defence

opted, from the beginning, for a case resting on insufficient evidence

to convict, but if the accused was guilty he was ''insane in the legal

sense''. Medical evidence was presented at the week-long trial in March,

1953, of Gordon suffering hypoglycaemia and schizophrenia. He would be

prone to blackouts. Murder was still a hanging offence in 1953. Lord

Chief Justice MacDermott drew the jury's attention to the option of

''guilty but insane''. The jury took only two hours to return that


Mrs Brenda Gordon, the mother of the convicted man, spent over #3,600

(on a teacher's salary in the 1950s) in legal fees, medical specialist

fees and the hiring of a private detective, between the trial and 1957,

to try to prove Gordon's innocence and secure his release. He was held

in Holywell Mental Hospital, County Antrim, as a criminal lunatic, but

from a relatively early stage he was subject to surprisingly light

security. It became clear that the hospital authorities believed neither

in his insanity nor his guilt. A petition for his release was rejected

by Minister of Home Affairs, Mr W. W. B. Topping, in 1958. Official

reports on Gordon's sanity continued to cause embarrassment.

An investigation by Duncan Webb for The People in 1958 appeared to

have uncovered sensational evidence from Glen House, sold by the Currans

shortly after the murder. Webb took away floorboards from what had been

Patricia Curran's bedroom for analysis, but tests could not establish if

dark staining had been caused by human blood or varnish. There were

calls in the Ulster Senate for a ban on imported newspapers. In the

Commons, Home Affairs Minister Topping was asked for an inquiry into the

Gordon case by the Unionist MP for Windsor, Mr H. V. Kirk, to ''dispel

once and for all the gossip or otherwise which exists.''

The quiet release of Gordon in 1960, to the custody of his parents now

in Glasgow, did nothing to abate gossip, rumours and disquiet which

continue in Northern Ireland to this very day. It remains a cause

celebre there, yet it has only periodically attracted outside media

interest. James Fox wrote a major account for the Sunday Times magazine

in 1968. Ludovic Kennedy prepared a report, including an interview with

Gordon, for television in 1970, and it was revealed in the Commons that

the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Major Chichester-Clark, had written

in protest to the BBC. The programme was postponed, then dropped. It has

never been shown. Justice Curran died in 1984. His knighthood had been

received in 1964.

The controversy was revived this January with the showing in Northern

Ireland of a two-part BBC documentary for the Home Truths series, not

networked but offered to BBC Scotland. The two one-hour programmes,

produced and directed by Bruce Batten, revealed for the first time that

Desmond Curran had been among police suspects for the murder of his

sister before being eliminated from inquiries. Batten located him in the

black township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town, where he maintained his

belief that Gordon had carried out the murder. Curran and Gordon were

filmed together, in a reunion organised for the programmes. Curran based

his belief on Gordon's guilt on the Scotsman's confided admission that

he carried a knife to defend himself from persecution at Edenmore

because of his accent. Gordon says that no such admission was ever made

to Curran.

Iain Gordon worked for 31 years as a warehouseman with William Collins

the publishers in Bishopbriggs. His interview for the job was with the

company managing director, W. Hope Collins, a wartime intelligence

officer, and a condition was that he work under an assumed name, John

Gordon, and retain a silence about his criminal background. He retired a

few years ago without any blemishes to his career. ''John was maybe a

bit of a weird guy, a bit soft, sometimes obedient to a fault, but a

good worker,'' said Mr Willie Millar, personnel manager at Collins, who

was amazed to learn recently of Gordon's history.

But there had been problems of adjustment after the release. Gordon

faced three charges of indecent exposure in the 1960s in Glasgow. In

terms of the credibility of his campaign he accepts that these incidents

were a case of ''shooting myself in the foot''. Unmarried, he has formed

a close friendship with a woman in Glasgow.

Father Desmond Curran has an exemplary record working in the townships

of South Africa, where he is held in the highest affection and respect.

Syd Duvall, of the Cape Town Archdiocese, describes Father Curran as

''very pious, a temperance man, very serious about his work.'' He has

learned the very difficult language of Xhosa, with its contortions of

clicking sounds, and he leads a spartan existence, without a telephone.

For a year in Khayelitsha, he was living in a freight container without

electricity or running water, using a chemical toilet and calor gas for

lighting and fuel. He is known in the townships as Isibane (The Lamp).

Iain Gordon says: ''I have nothing to hide. The more people I tell

about all of this, the more it will snowball. This is the first time I

have been in charge of my own affairs, and I'm continuing a campaign

that my mother started. I'm determined to keep going for as long as it

takes to clear my name, until my dying day if necessary.''

Father Curran was contacted this week. Asked if he had seen the

documentary films sent from BBC Northern Ireland, he replied: ''Yes. But

I am not making any comment.'' Asked a further question, he hung up.