Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: November 2017

Peppermints on the beach: the murder of Mrs McLennan

A depiction of the discovery of Mrs McLennan’s body, from the Illustrated Police News (found in the British Newspaper Archive)

It was December 1914; the smell of war was well and truly in the air, as Britain had commenced its involvement in what would be a four year war that would initially be known as the Great War before, decades later, becoming World War 1.

But in the community of Cockenzie, on the east coast of Scotland, the war must have felt a world away. However, their own peace was to be shattered by the discovery of the body of a young, blonde woman one Thursday morning, found on nearby Seton Sands. Her throat had been cut, and she had been dead for several hours.

Initially, her identity was not known – the police had simply described her as in her early 20s, good-looking, and, rather strangely, ‘possibly a shop assistant’. She was found clothed, and in the pocket of her skirt was a ha’penny, and a small bag of peppermint sweets marked with the name of a confectioner in Edinburgh.

The East Lothian police sent three bloodhounds on the scent of the murderer for the following 48 hours, but nothing was found except for a blood-stained razor – presumably the murder weapon. Even the sweet bag turned out to be almost useless as a clue, as it was one of thousands in existence with the name of a major wholesale sweet manufacturer on it – a manufacturer that, it was said, supplied almost every shop on the Scottish east coast.

However, although the murderer could not be found, the woman herself was soon identified. She was Mrs McLennan, aged 23, and she had been married just two years. Her marriage was already over in all but name, however, and she and her husband had separated, each returning to their own parents’ house to live. Mrs McLennan had returned home with a child, born in May 1913.

Mrs McLennan now lived with her parents in Bangor Road, Leith, and had left there on the Wednesday evening – she had not been seen again, although her death was estimated to have not occurred until four o’clock the next morning.

Her mother said that her daughter had spent the early part of the evening looking frequently at the clock, as though she had an appointment, and at six o’clock had put her hat on and opened the door. Her mother asked her why she was ‘going out on a cold night like that’, but she didn’t give a reason.

She had already had a brush with a violent man, though; she had, in fact, met her husband a couple of years earlier when, as she was crossing the Leith park, she had been ‘insulted’ by a man. She had called for help, and it was William McLennan who ran to her rescue. The insulting man had then assaulted McLennan, as he tried to protect the young woman – then known as Miss Howie.

The result of the assault was that William asked her out, and they were soon married.

The Nottingham Journal’s headline got the story slightly wrong – or at least, had the potential to be misconstrued…

It was not until February 1915 that anyone appeared in court in relation to Mrs McLennan’s death – and it was her valiant rescuer of a few years previously: William McLennan appeared in the Edinburgh High Court, charged with the murder of his wife.

William, described as a ‘man of weak appearance’, pleaded guilty to culpable homicide, and the Crown accepted this plea. It was stated that William had been ‘mentally deficient’ since his childhood, and his faculties had been further impaired by an accident shortly after marrying, and due to his ‘unhappy home circumstances’ with his wife. He was also severely epileptic, and had spent periods incarcerated in a lunatic asylum due to this, which had not helped his mental state.

He had arranged to go for a walk with his estranged wife on that Wednesday evening in December 1914, and at some point the following morning, he took a razor to her throat and killed her in what the court heard was a motiveless attack.

Although society had failed to treat him humanely for his epilepsy, his alleged mental deficiencies were treated more sympathetically. He received a relatively lenient sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for killing the girl he had rescued from another attacker in Leith park. Her rescuer had become her murderer.

NOTE: Sadly, although perhaps not unexpectedly, the press coverage of this murder failed to name the murder victim, apart from referring to her as Mrs McLennan – it was her marital status that was seen as important, not her own identity. However, a search on ScotlandsPeople would suggest that her name prior to marriage was Jemima Dawson Howie – a girl of this name married William McLennan in the Leith South district in 1912 (ref 692/2 312), which would match the information that WAS provided in the newspapers. The birth of Jemima Dawson Howie was registered in 1892 in Leith South (ref 692/2 213), which would again make her around the right age to have been the murder victim in this case.

Rogues Gallery – Faces of Crime

Highly recommended this month is the free exhibition Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime, 1870-1917, which is at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh until 1 December.

The centre of the small, but perfectly formed, exhibition is five photograph albums that survived from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, detailing some of the many Scottish criminals who were photographed after committing offences. Alongside these are historical trial records from the NRS.

Individuals whose stories are covered in the exhibition include Eugene Chantrelle, the French-born teacher who poisoned his wife Elizabeth in Edinburgh in 1878, and who is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Mr Hyde, as well as lesser-known characters such as Margaret Reid, a servant convicted of theft and fraud in 1899, and thief George Anderson, who worked as a miner and watchmaker but who was convicted in 1901, at the age of 36.

More details can be found here; visit the exhibition Monday to Friday, 9.30am until 4.30pm, at the NRS, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh. There is also a great-sounding series of talks arranged to tie-in with the exhibition, and details of these can be found online here.

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