Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: November 2017

The men who decided a desperate mother’s fate

I am used more to writing about Victorian crime than more modern offences, and as part of my writing, I’ve often read the work of others on infanticide, and the impact of illegitimacy on women – aside from the possibility of being regarded as ‘immoral’ for having had sex outside of marriage (unlike men), women had to worry about how they would cope economically: would they be able to provide for a child? Would they be able to find and keep a job, if their employers knew they were an unmarried mother? What help was there for them if they struggled?

In Victorian times, infanticide might be the answer, the last resort, although sympathy towards such women can be sometimes detected in the decision to find them guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of a child, rather than in the capital offence of infanticide; or in the increasingly common decision not to carry out the death penalty but to imprison these women instead.

Even well into the 20th century, it was not unheard of for the mother of an illegitimate child to try and kill her offspring; however, there was a more obvious sympathy towards the woman expressed by the courts, and greater time and effort made to understand why she had committed such a crime. In 1939, one case was heard in Rosyth, Fife,  that was duly reported in The Scotsman.

Although the individuals involved in the case were named in press reports at the time, I’m choosing not to here, as there is a possibility that the children involved are still alive today (although the original sources are listed at the end of this post).

The case centred around a young woman who was accused of having thrown or dropped her two-year-old daughter from a train in the Inverkeithing tunnel the previous autumn, with the aim of killing her. By some miracle, the child not only survived, but was said to have survived unharmed. The advocate in the case described it as ‘very exceptional, very difficult and very sad’.

The woman was actually married, but her husband was in the navy, and so she rarely got to see him as he was posted abroad. She had had a son by the husband while he was home; but she found it increasingly difficult to cope with a young child on her own.

She was a nervous woman who worried a lot, even about small things. She needed a bit of love and attention – and in 1936, she found it with another man, although apparently only for a brief spell. This caused her more worry, however, when she found out she was pregnant – not by her absent husband, but by this brief fling. In early 1937, she gave birth to her daughter.

The husband duly found out, but stayed with his wife; however, she felt that he had never completely forgiven her for her ‘fall’, and she could therefore not forgive herself, either. In November 1938, while her husband was again away, her son became ill; she was nursing him, looking after her daughter, getting very little sleep, and she was short of money.

She wrote to her husband asking for money, and he immediately sent her a pound. As she hadn’t acknowledged receipt of it, a week later, he wrote asking whether she had received the money – she gained the impression that he was cross with her for asking for financial help.

Already struggling, she became increasingly upset, the lack of sleep causing her to lose whatever equilibrium she had had. Yet she was seen by her neighbours and family as a good mother, always ensuring that her children were fell fed and clothed.

On the evening of the train incident, she had made both her children their tea, before taking her daughter out. They got on the local train; but then she made the sudden decision to throw her child out.

There was no attempt to portray the mother as insane; however, it was recognised that on the night of the train journey, she was struggling so much from a lack of sleep and emotional problems, that she hadn’t been fully responsible for her actions.

A doctor was called as witness, who described the mitigating factors: the birth of her daughter, the ‘feeling of shame’ about her affair and its result (as in Victorian times, the birth of an illegitimate child was often viewed by authority as ‘shameful’, and mothers were almost expected to feel shamed by their actions), and her worries about her husband’s views.

The mother had thought that the little girl was coming between her and her husband; that he thought less of her as a result of her human fallibility; she was short of money and living in straitened circumstances in ‘unpleasant conditions’; she was worried about her son’s illness, and about the ‘unkindness’ she thought she saw in her husband’s latest letter.

Her action was a spontaneous one, an impulse reaction to the thoughts going round her head. As soon as she had thrown the child, she seemed to regain awareness, desperately trying to ‘recover’ her daughter.

Although she pleaded guilty at the start of her trial, her fate was determined by a group of men, of a different status to her, with little personal knowledge of the circumstances under which she laboured.

The High Court of Justiciary (© Criminal Historian)

Different medical men differed in their opinions of her sanity; even the Lord Justice-Clerk and the advocate-depute, James Walker, disagreed over whether she was insane or sane, and whether she needed to be freed or made to undergo some kind of supervision – whether in an asylum or at home.

The advocate stated that ‘the case was left in a most unsatisfactory condition’. In the end, she was sentenced to three months in prison; however, after sentencing, the Lord Justice-Clerk added that ‘if the prison authorities thought that the woman’s case was one more suitable for hospital treatment than for ordinary prison treatment, they would have an entirely free hand to do what they thought right.’

And as for the little girl who was thrown out of the train, the court was told that she would be either adopted or looked after by her grandparents – she would not be returned to her mother.

So this was both a sympathetically heard case, but one that had no winners. The mother had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder, which should have led to a severe sentence – but she had only received three months, out of recognition for her ‘great mental distress’ at the time.

However, that sympathy did not extend to giving her the benefit of the doubt regarding the care of her daughter: she was to be removed from her parent, for good.

Sources:

The Scotsman, 18 January 1939, p.8; The Scotsman, 19 January 1939, p.14; Aberdeen Press & Journal, 19 January 1939, p.7. Images, unless otherwise stated, are from the Illustrated Police News (via British Newspaper Archive) and used for general illustrative purposes.

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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