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The Fortune Men: A Novel Based on the Final Hanging in Cardiff Prison

by | Aug 30, 2021 | News

Mahmood Mattan’s wrongful conviction has inspired a novel longlisted for the Booker Prize by Somali-born author Nadifa Mohamed. In September 1952, the last man to be hanged at Cardiff went to the gallows.

Mahmood Mattan was wrongly found guilty for the murder of shopkeeper Lily Volpert in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. It was one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history and paved the way for the abolition of capital punishment in the UK. Now, a novel inspired by his story has been longlisted for the Booker Prize.

Mr Mattan was posthumously acquitted in 1998 – 46 years after he was executed – when it was found evidence had been largely fabricated and manipulated by police at the time.

Nadifa Mohamed said her motive for writing the semi-fictionalised The Fortune Men was to portray the real Mahmood Mattan.

Both born in what is now Somaliland, Mohamed’s father met Mahmood when the two emigrated to Hull. “They were both in the Merchant Navy, but their lives took very different directions. My father said Mahmood was just an ordinary guy, albeit a bit of a loner,” she said.

A merchant seaman, Mahmood Mattan married paper factory worker Laura Williams in 1946 after settling in Tiger Bay, and the pair had three children together. However, by 1950, the couple had separated and were co-parenting and living in the same street.

Mahmood was largely ostracised from the Somali community after being accused of stealing money from the Tiger Bay mosque, but when he was charged with murder they rallied around to pay for his legal defense. On the evening of 6 March 1952, moneylender Lily Volpert, 42, had just closed her outfitter’s shop and was preparing to have supper, when there was a knock on the door.

Her niece saw her talking to a man at the entrance, but nobody could identify him. A few minutes later she was found with her throat cut, and around £100 was missing from the till.

The last two customers in the shop, Mary Tolley and Margaret Bush, said they had not seen anyone matching Mahmood’s description loitering but, after pressurised questioning, Mary Tolley changed her story, only to change it back again at trial.

A search of Mahmood’s house produced no evidence, yet he was arrested on the strength of the testimony of a Harold Cover, who was known to have a history of violence.

The Booker committee will decide if The Fortune Men has been shortlisted in September, with the prize being awarded in November.

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