A bright harvest morning dawns on Rathfriland on the Hill on Friday 7 October 1887.
All is apparently at peace in the town and in the surrounding countryside. Most people are still abed but a man named Heslip, a saddler by trade – though he has a plot of land too – is up and about.
His mind is in turmoil. His thoughts dwell on those people in that grim house in Downpatrick who, until very recently had kept him incarcerated with other disturbed individuals – but now he is free.
He descends to the cellar of his home and retrieves a bill-hook which he sharpens assiduously. There is work to be done – very serious work indeed. Satisfying himself as to the keenness of the edge he ascends from the cellar and leaves the house, proceeding along the road leading north towards Ballyroney and out into the surrounding countryside where many farming people are taking advantage of the fine autumn weather to complete their work in the fields.
The first persons he meets are Thomas Brennon and John Herron who speak to Heslip as they pass. By his general demeanor and wild look, they judge that he was about to attack them and they turn rapidly away.
An old man named Samuel Henning is shortly afterwards found lying covered with terrible wounds and beyond hope of recovery. After slashing Henning, Heslip passes along the road until he meets an elderly woman named Nancy Mulholland.
A person who was in the vicinity at the time testifies to seeing a bill-hook rise and fall three times, and afterwards the remains of Mrs. Mulholland, mutilated in a shocking manner, are found lying in the roadway. In one of the fields adjoining the road a young woman named Maggie Spears, her father, and two young men are working with scythes.
Heslip enters the field and rushes at them. The men defend themselves with their scythes and the maniac retreats. He however immediately returns to the attack, and rushes upon the men with so much determination that the two young men are frightened and flee. The madman then strikes the young woman a blow with the billhook on the side of her head, killing her on the spot. He then attacks her father, and knocks him senseless: death will follow later.
Heslip then walks out of the field and meets a woman named Eliza Higgins whom he beats about the head until she becomes unconscious. Heslip walks to a lake, and stripping himself swims about.
He next proceeds in a state of nudity to the house of a woman a short distance off. Having remarked to the woman, ” What have I to do here ?” he rushes from the cottage and with the billhook kills a goat in a field near the house.
He next returns to the lake, attacking every one he meets. One old man provides himself with a weapon by tying an old bayonet to a pole, and confronts the murderer. He – Heslip – then flings himself into the lake, emerging again in a few minutes, and charges the crowd.
When the police arrive they find Heslip in the centre of the lake and the edges surrounded by excited people. The constables plunge into the lake, and after a terrible struggle secure Heslip and bring him to land.
When in the cell Heslip displays no realisation of the terrible crimes he has committed, and he says that he thought he was cutting off the heads of thistles.
He is at present back in Downpatrick Asylum.
He will not be released ever again.