[Narratives from Criminal Trials Contents]
M. DUMAS makes his Count of Monte Christo comment sarcastically on the vulgar criminal poisoner, who, with the marks of excitement visible on his countenance, goes to the nearest chemist to buy arsenic for destroying imaginary rats, mixes in the victim’s food enough of the poison to slay a host, and is at once betrayed by the burning spasms, and the perceptible metallic earth profusely distributed through the unfinished food and the contents of the stomach.
One of the most observable things in the history of crime is the slowness with which it adopts, when it adopts at all, the aids of advancing science. While the efforts that do good to man kind are ever triumphing in new lights, wickedness lurks in old barbaric darkness. It is surely one of the most cheering tokens of a superior wisdom in the guidance of the universe, that science can control its powers for good ends, and that the intellectual capacities of men are the servants and not the masters of the moral. All our great discoveries, from printing down to the electric telegraph, have aided in the detection rather than the accomplishment of crime, and every new surrender of physical difficulties to scientific skill, gives the supporters of order and morality new checks on licentiousness and vice.
Yet well-meaning people, who have seen with admiring joy the order and beauty of creation in inanimate objects, have been loth to follow it into these deeper and more sublime recesses. Thus pious heads have vibrated at every invention or discovery increasing the command of man over the physical world, as if it also increased the command of evil over good. At one time it appears that crime is to flee before justice on the wings of steam – at another it is proclaimed that forgery and fraudulent imitation of every kind can be pursued on a bountiful scale without the possibility of detection. This world would be, indeed, a darker abiding place than it is, if every scientific discovery were only to strengthen the destructive powers of a race of Brinvilliers and Borgias. Science, when it rises in the midst of a state of society where the other elements of civilisation keep pace with its progress, rarely lends itself to crime; and in the midst of its brightest achievements we generally find the darker crimes perpetrated with the narrow knowledge, and the clumsy materials that have been inherited from distant ages of ignorance and ruffianism.1
It is gratifying to curiosity, as it is important in experimental ethics, to examine individual instances in sufficiently extensive groups, that we may see whether any such general view is founded on truth. With this object, the more prominent cases of poisoning which have occurred in Scotland are now brought in their main features rapidly before the reader, and it is believed that he will not find them give countenance to the view that the skill of the poisoner increases in the same ratio as that of the scientific benefactor of his species.
In the earlier trials, witchcraft and poisoning are mixed together. The sages of the law took their rules rather from classical poetry than from any knowledge which their meagre scientific acquirements placed at their command. The agencies which, without external violence, extinguished life, could not be separated from those which were believed by the ignorant to accomplish in the same inscrutable manner the traditionary exploits which we now treat as supernatural. Thus the poisoner was the direct representative of the Roman veneficus, whose philtres are equally efficacious in extinguishing life, in raising the spectres of the departed, in transforming men into brutes, and in absorbing the agricultural riches of a neighbour’s field.
“Has herbas, atq; hæc Ponto mihi lecta venena
Ipse dedit Mœris; nascuntur plurima Ponto.
His ego sæpe lupum fieri et se condere sylvis
Mœrin, sæpe animas imis excire sepulchris,
Atque satas aliò vidi traducere messes.”
One of the earliest cases of this character – that of the Lady Glammis – is extremely tantalising, from its imperfect details, and the glimpses they afford into a mysterious and inexplicable history. She was subjected to the revolting punishment of being publicly burned at the stake for attempts against the life of King James V. At an earlier period we find traces of an attempt to bring her to trial for the “intoxication of her husband” – a charge which, according to the modern meaning of words, and without further explanation, would only seem criminal in the eyes of a jury of total abstainers. But a darker colouring is given to the affair by other documents, which refer to her having put him to death through the same means (per intoxicationem);2 and the accusation, doubtless, referred to the use of philtres, poisonous drugs, or incantations. She was never brought to trial for this offence; and the form in which the few faint allusions to it are recorded is very singular. It is in the levying of penalties on persons who had failed to come forward as jurymen on her trial. They were men of standing and substance, and their evasion of the trial, when coupled with what afterwards occurred, would seem to point at the monarch’s determination to sacrifice this lady having been baffled by a desire among her fellow-subjects to protect her from the royal vengeance. These proceedings occurred in the year 1532. It was in 1537 that she was charged with the more formidable offence of an attempt on the life of the king. The chronicles of the day allude to the means by which she was to perpetrate the murder – sometimes as witchcraft – sometimes as poison. The criminal charge against her, which is recorded in the briefest possible form, is simply that she had “conspired and imagined the destruction of the most noble person of our most serene lord the king by poison.” But, coupled with this, there is another charge which is supposed to reveal the secret of her fate; it is for giving aid and succour to Archibald Earl of Angus and his brother, George Douglas, in their rebellion. The Lady Glammis was a sister of Angus, and appears to have inherited the high spirit of her race. The house of Douglas, after its most desperate wrestle with the power of the crown, had fallen, to all appearance irretrievably. There was little generosity or even compassion in those days for humbled enemies; and the slightest footing left to the subdued foe might only give him the means of future vengeance. When it was a merit in the court menials to refuse a cup of water to the fallen chief, he was, however, tended with bountiful affection by his sister, the Lady Glammis. This is believed to be the secret of her tragic fate, and of the narrow information on the specific acts of which she was charged.3 Sir Thomas Clifford, the English ambassador, in a letter in which he strangely misspells the title of the great earl, says: “The Lady Glammis, sister to th’ Earle of Anguysh, was brint in Edinburgh for treason laid to her charge against the king’s person – as I can perceive without any substantial ground or proof of matter.”4
Some historians speak in a tone almost chivalrous of the fate of this unfortunate lady. The historian of the family of Drummond says: “She was accused by suspected witnesses, if not false, that she and her son and some others had gone about to take away King James the Fifth his life by witchcraft. Whereupon she was burnt upon the Castlehill of Edinburgh with great commiseration of the people, in regard of her noble blood and singular beauty, she being in the prime of her age, and suffering with a masculine courage – all men conceiving that the king’s hatred to her brothers had brought her to that end.”5 Similar and more full are the notices of old Hume of Godscroft, whose history of the house of Douglas was penned with the devotion of a family bard or Celtic senachie:
“The king’s anger still continued against them in such sort, that nine years after, in 1537, he was contented that Jane Douglas, Lady Glammis, who was Angus’s sister, should be accused by false witnesses, condemned, and execute. The point of her accusation was, that she and her husband, Archibald Campbell then, and her son, and an old priest, had gone about to make away the king by witchcraft. Their servants were tried and racked, but confessed nothing. Her accuser, John Lyon, a servant of her first husband, when he saw how they were liked to be used, and that the house of Glammis would be ruined, repenting of what he had done, confessed to the king that he had wronged them – but it did no good.”
The author of a large clumsy folio volume, called the History of Scotland, by David Scott, of the Inner Temple – a work generally voted by the few who have turned over its pages as rather unreadable – tells us that Lady Glammis “was the most celebrated beauty in the nation. She was of a middle stature, not too fat; her face of an oval form with full eyes; her complexion extremely fair and beautiful, with a majestic mien;” and as Mr. Scott is bent on making her a heroine of the Scuderi school, he enumerates some further qualities of the kind commonly called perfections, and gives her speech as delivered at the bar of the court by which she was condemned, with many other particular events for which he had no authority.
It must be mentioned as in some measure weighing against the theory of the Lady Glammis being fictitiously accused, that a certain Alexander Makke, or Mack, was tried for having prepared and sold the poison. His punishment was a curious one: to have his ears cut off, and to be banished to the county of Aberdeen; there to remain for the remainder of his life, which was to be forfeited if he entered any other part of Scotland.6
One might be inclined to ask what crime the inhabitants of the northern county had committed that they should be judicially burdened with a concocter of poisons. The punishment, however, might be considered lenient; a statute of the reign of James II. emphatically provided that any person importing poison, “through the whilk any Christian man or woman may take bodily harm,” “shall tyne and forfeit to the king, life, lands, and goods.” This law induces Sir George Mackenzie seriously to consider whether poison destined for a Jew or Pagan, or for an excommunicated person, comes within the act.7
After some uninteresting and briefly recorded cases, the next remarkable trial for poisoning is that of another titled woman – the Lady Fowlis – who was indicted on the 22nd July, 1590, for witchcraft, incantation, sorcery, and poisoning. The accusations against her, if true, are a history of terrible criminality and superstition. She was the second wife of the Lord Fowlis, and one of the victims against whom she directed her machinations was his eldest son by his former marriage, and the heir to the family estate. The other object of her murderous attempts was Marjery Campbell, the wife of her brother Ross of Balnagowan. Her object in this instance was, it appears, to bring about a marriage between her brother and her step-daughter, the sister of the other victim; but the ultimate effects which she had in view are far from being distinct.
The lady’s chief familiar and agent in this diabolical business was a certain Marjery McAllester, alias Loskie Loncart, denounced in the indictment as “a notorious witch.” A portion of their operations, which they seem to have carried on with a perseverance worthy of a better and more productive cause, was the making of “pictures” or images of their victims in clay and butter. Loskie Loncart was the artist on the occasion, and it would be interesting could we know how far the accomplishments which gave her a reputation for supernatural powers extended to the fine arts. The lady and her colleague occupied themselves in discharging elf arrows, or the little flint arrow-heads, which have been dug up in numbers throughout Scotland, at these figures.8 One instance is mentioned where the Lady Fowlis stood by when Loskie Loncart discharged the elf arrow eight times at the picture, flagrantly missing it at every shot. They had provided, it appears, “three-quarters of fine linen cloth for the pictures, if they had been hit by the elf arrow-head, and the linen to be bound about the said pictures, and the pictures so have been eirded (or earthed) under the brigend of the stank of Fowlis;” a species of shrouding and burial which was to follow the symbolical extermination.9
The charges of preparing and administering poison, mixed up with these attempts to wield the powers of darkness, are numerous and rather confused. The lady is said to have made a stoup full of poisoned new ale in the barn of Drymmen, assisted by Loskie Loncart, who appears to have been prepared to undertake anything that had malice and wickedness for its end, whether by natural or supernatural means – and another familiar named Christian Ross. The poison, says the indictment, “was kept in the kiln of the said town of Drymmen for the space of three nights, and the said Christian Ross, Loskie Loncart, and thou, convened the third day again thereafter in the said kiln, where thou commanded Loskie Loncart to make a pig10 full of ranker poison that would destroy shortly the foresaid persons – at whose command the said Loskie Loncart made the said poison and put it in a pig and sent it to thee.”
Then comes another charge, attended by curious incidents: “Also thou art accused for assisting and giving council in company with the said Christian Ross and Loskie Loncart, in sending of a pig of poison with the nurse to Angus Leith’s house, where the young Laird of Fowlis was for the time, of deliberate mind to have poisoned him therewith – whilk thou had in keeping, and the said nurse bringing the said pig from thee, it fell in the way under silence of night, and broke the pig, and she tasting the same, immediately after departed (that is, died) of the said poison – and the same was devised for poisoning of the young Laird of Fowlis, which the said Christian confessed judicially, being accused as said is, and was convicted of the same. And for the more witnessing the place where the said pig broke, the grass that grew upon the same was so high by the nature of other grass, that neither cow, ox, nor sheep ever previt thereof yet – whilk is manifest and notorious to the whole country of Ross, whilk thou can nought deny.”
The staple excuse of poisoning rats seems to have been well known even at that early day. “Thou art accused,” says another branch of the indictment, “of giving of eight shillings money to William McGillivirie-dam to pass to Elgin, for buying rattoun poison – who wared [disbursed] thereof but sixteen pennies; and brayed the said poison, and put it in ane piece leather, and delivered it to thee in June, seventy-seven years within the stank of Fowlis – Catharine Ross, daughter to Sir David Ross, of Balnagowan, being in council thereof – and to the more verification thou delivered to him with the said eight shillings, four ells linen cloth for his labours; whilk he confessed, being accused judicially, and was convict by an assize, and burnt for the same, as the haill country knows.”
It is impossible to convey to the reader a notion of the preposterous quaintness of such charges, without quoting the terms of the documents in which they are set forth; and their peculiar character is necessarily in a great measure sacrificed by the modernising of the spelling. Besides the several familiars who have been already mentioned, the lady dealt with the Egyptians or Gipsies, ever possessed years covered of a dark reputation as accomplished poisoners. Other accomplices were, like the man with the long quaint name who bought the rat-poison, convicted and burned. The lady herself was, however, acquitted; and, from the long series of by the numerous charges against her, it would seem that there must have been difficulty in bringing to trial one who had so large a circle of influential relations.
The mysterious charge against the master of Orkney, for attempts on the life of his brother, the earl, is another amalgamation of witchcraft and poisoning. It is referred to in the chapter on witchcraft trials as one of the unhappy examples of confession under torture. As in Lady Fowlis’s case, the subordinate instruments were executed, after being duly tortured; the master was acquitted, and the denials, which were of no avail to them, appear to have operated strongly in his vindication. The indictment is extremely vague – apparently it had been made so intentionally, to give room for acquittal.
In a case of mixed poisoning and witchcraft which occurred in 1607, no moral distinction appears to have been made between the administration of potions destined to kill and potions destined to cure. The adoption of means held to involve unlawful and supernatural agency, was held to be the moral offence, not affected by the ultimate temporal result. Thus Bartie Paterson, tasker in Newbottle, is accused “of the crime of sorcery and witchcraft, in abusing of the people with charms and divers sorts of inchantments, and ministering, under the form of medicine, or poisonable drinks. For curing of James Brown, in Turndykes, of an unknown disease, by ministering to him of drinks, rubbing him with salves made of divers green herbs, and causing him to pass home to his own house, and at his own bedside to sit down on his knees three several nights, and every night, thrice nine times, to ask his health of all living wights above and under the earth, in the name of Jesus. And thereafter ordained the said James to take nine pickles of wheat, nine pickles of salt, and nine pieces of rowen tree, and to wear them continually upon him for his health, committing thereby manifest sorcery and witchcraft. Item, for abusing the people with a certain water, brought by him forth of the loch called the Dhu Loch, beside Drumlanrig, and curing of his own bairn with the said loch water, by washing of the said bairn at every neuk (corner) thereof thrice; and casting in of the bairn’s sark in the said loch, and leaving of the sark behind him, affirming that if any should come forth of the loch at that time, the patient would convalesce, and if nathing appeared to him, the patient would die;”11 and so on in the same strain.
If Bartie Paterson performed these operations at the present day, the humblest peasantry of Drumlanrig would think him as innocent as he was preposterous. But what makes such a charge typical of ignorance frightful and chaotic among the people, whose most learned men entertained such charges, is the entire overlooking of the ultimate object and its effects, good or bad, on human beings. The murder of John Miller and Elizabeth Robertson with poisonable drinks, seems to have been put in the same category of crime as the curing James Brown of an unknown disease, and the attempt by the wizard to restore his own child’s health with the waters of the Dhu Loch. Paterson was sentenced to be “worried,” or strangled, at a stake, and burned.
The next case is an instance of unquestionable crime perpetrated by several members of a very worshipful family, for the basest motives. In 1613, Robert Erskine and his three sisters, Helen, Isobel, and Agnes, were brought to trial for the murder of their nephew, the young Laird of Dun. This miserable family were the direct descendants and representatives of that John Erskine of Dun, one of the leaders of the Reformation, whose zeal, piety, and private worth, acquired for him a veneration not far behind that paid to Knox and Wishart. He died at a good old age, twenty-two years before these sad events, but his descendants seem not to have been men of long life, for it would appear that the two generations of them intervened between the patriarch and the murderers. The attempt was made against two boys, the Laird of Dun and his brother, for the end of the principal perpetrator would not have been served by the death of one. His sisters, the aunts of the two children, seem to have urged him on with a vehemence not less horrible, that they had not apparently the same mercenary motive. The ladies were charged with “having proponed to one David Blewhouse that if he would undertake to get a witch, that by some sinistrous means would undertake to take away the lives of the said two boys that were betwixt the said Robert and the living of Dun, that the said David should receive for his reward a possession for his lifetime on the lands of Dun, and five hundred merks of silver.”12
Blewhouse, however, was not induced to serve their purpose. It is then stated that the ladies crossed the Cairn of Mont – a pass of the Grampians near which the upper portion of Angus touches the Highlands – and having entered the wilder country to the north, forgathered at the Muir-alehouse with one suited for their purpose – a certain Janet Irving, “a witch and abuser of the people.” From her they received the poisonous herbs; and it is stated that, on seeing them, Robert Erskine having doubts of their sufficiency for their murderous purpose, crossed the Mont himself, and held a consultation with the sorceress. The herbs were steeped for a long time in ale. Robert, it seems, still had doubts of their efficacy, and questioned whether the mixture had not better be thrown away. But the sisters thought it would be a pity not to give it a trial, and so setting off to Montrose, they managed to get the boys to partake of the liquid. The clumsiness of such an act, in which two boys were to partake of a nauseous drink, which was immediately to produce sickness and destroy life, is one of the most singular features of the affair – but it was not always considered fatal to the criminal in that age for his crime to be suspected or known – punishment was by no means a necessary sequence. The children are described as being speedily seized with spasms and violent vomiting. The eldest turned black and dwined away, “in great dolour and pain,” and before his death, said in his agony, “Wo is me that I ever had right of succession to any lands or living; for if I had been born some poor cotter’s son, I had nought been so demeaned – nor such wicked practices had been plotted against me for my lands.” One is reminded of Prince Arthur speaking to Hubert, “Is it my fault that I was Jeffrey’s son.”
Since the accession of James to the throne of England, the law had become somewhat stronger than of old, and these conspirators were convicted and executed, with the exception of one of the ladies, who, being “more penitent and less guilty” than the other two, was banished.
Before passing from these grotesque scenes, in which the supernatural was so rife an agent, to the vulgar poisonings of the present day, one or two peculiar cases require attention.
The nearest instance in Scotland to the deliberate and leisurely poisonings of the French romances, will probably be found in the trial of George Clerk and John Ramsay for the murder of John Anderson in 1676. A disease then raged in Edinburgh, bearing a close resemblance to the Asiatic cholera in its general features. Like the pestilence of later times, it lay under the suspicion of being contagious, and those who were smitten were presently deserted by all whose affection was not stronger than their fear. It was the isolation likely to surround an old bachelor, when reported to be smitten with the prevalent epidemic, that tempted the accused to commit their offence. The perpetrators were Anderson’s servants, and the only persons who lived in his house. He appears to have been a person of eccentric and rather dissipated habits, for it was said that the murderers imagined their evil deed from a practice which they had fallen into of drugging their master’s liquor, that, like the Spartan slaves, he might furnish sport to them.
The accused obtained the aid of an apothecary’s assistant, who furnished them with drugs capable of producing the usual symptoms of the prevailing epidemic. Anderson consulted a medical man, to whom the case presented nothing but what was too common. He prescribed for his patient, and, as if it had been an instance of the disease brought on by no artificial means, the medicines had the usual mitigating effect. The contest between the two antagonist drugs going against the conspirators, they settled the question in their own favour for the time, by the application of opiates. They then got possession of the house keys, which Anderson seems to have at other times safely guarded; and, rifling his chests, robbed him of a large gold chain and many other precious articles.
They appear to have compounded with their consciences, not directly to poison the old man, but to inflict him with disease, and take precautions against his recovery. He seemed likely, however, to escape; his friends visited him, and his spirits rose. In a short time he would discover the knavery that had been practised on him, and it was necessary that the conspirators should adopt energetic measures. They had recourse to their friend, the apothecary’s assistant; and this time it was a direct application for poison. He too, however, had a conscience, and he would not furnish them with immediate poison, but would give them drugs, the judicious use of which would deprive the victim of life within a month; he recommended them to avoid poison, as the body would swell and betray the foul play. The drug which he furnished, called powder of jalap, appears to have been more rapidly efficacious than it had been intended to be. Anderson was getting so well, that on Saturday night his medical attendant said he would consider it unnecessary to visit him on Sunday. The old man rose on Sunday “more like himself,” to use a national expression, than he had been for some time. Probably these alarming symptoms of restoration were a spur to the conspirators to hasten their work, for they dosed his medicine so effectually, that he died on Monday morning at ten o’clock. While he lay in his agony they rifled his remaining repositories, which seem to have contained a considerable sum of money; and it was not till he was too near the jaws of death to make any revelation that they called in the neighbours. The conspirators were convicted and hanged, and the apothecary’s assistant, who served their guilty purpose, was banished for life.
Yet this treacherous crime is far outstripped in deep guilt by the tissue of atrocities with which Nichol Mushet was charged in 1720. The reader will probably be familiar with the name, from the mysterious allusions to it in “The Heart of Midlothian,” and particularly from the wild scenes which take place round the cairn, raised to mark the concluding tragedy of a series of horrors so revolting in their nature as to forbid their being fully narrated. Mushet sold to his fellow-criminal, Campbell, the honour of his wife, agreeing to use all his endeavours to make the bargain good. Finding their treacherous attempts baffled, they resolved, rather in revenge, it would seem, than in fulfilment of their purpose, to blast her character. Accordingly, they drugged the poor victim with opium, and caused a scene to be enacted and witnessed that cannot be described. Mushet raised an action of divorce against his wife; but his solicitor, hinting that the grounds on which it rested were suspicious, and might lead to an awkward exposure, he endeavoured to strengthen his case by the testimony of false witnesses. The conspirators failing in this project, as well as in a succession of schemes for secretly poisoning the woman or knocking her on the head, devised a plan of strangely complicated villany, for producing murder through means substantially natural and incidental. They persuaded a physician that it was necessary to submit their victim to a mercurial salivation, and they recommended him to administer the empyric powerfully, as she was a person of singularly strong constitution. To make the prescriptions efficacious as a poison, we are told in the indictment, that “when the said Margaret was under this course, which lasted about a month, he (Campbell), or at least the said Nichol and their accomplices, did from time to time drink brandy or other strong liquors with the said Margaret, plainly in order to destroy her.”13 Of such a circuitous mode of poisoning it would be difficult to convince a jury, especially when, as in this instance, the murder is not accomplished, and the victim lives. The husband, however, settled all difficulties by cutting her throat, so as nearly to sever the head from the body, at the lonely spot still known as Mushet’s Cairn.
In the year 1765, the public feeling throughout Scotland was disturbed by a tragedy which, in its general features, closely resembled the French case of Madame Lafarge. The crime, as we shall see, was of the same character. The early rumours of the Scottish case called forth pamphlets and other symptoms of excitement, which bore fully as great a proportion to the torrent of public declamation which bore Marie Lafarge to the bar, as the excitability of the Scottish people bears to that of the French. The cases were similar, too, in the principles of deliberate judicial proof being lost in the general indignation and vituperation.
In a secluded mountain region among the braes of Angus, called Glen Isla, there lived a middle-aged gentleman, Thomas Ogelvie, the proprietor of a small-estate, who suffered much from bad health. He formed a matrimonial alliance which created considerable astonishment among the friends of both the parties. His wife, Catherine Nairn, was young – not quite nineteen years of age. She held, as the daughter of a house of considerable local distinction,14 a far higher social rank than Ogelvie, whose position, though he was a landed proprietor, was but that of the yeoman. She was gay to volatility, as her subsequent conduct, apart from the question of her criminality, abundantly showed. Such was she who chose, without compulsion or the pressure of circumstances, to devote herself to the companionship and care of an invalid well advanced in life, and living in the solitudes of Glen Isla.
The bride had scarcely taken up her abode in her new home, when a brother of her husband, many years younger, a military officer, returned from India, and joined their circle at Eastmiln. Whatever influence this event produced must have worked very rapidly, for the marriage took place in the month of January, and the old man was dead on the 6th of June in the same year.
The young officer and his sister-in-law were charged with, and whether justly or not, were convicted of a criminal intrigue with each other. The evidence of neutral and fair persons showed & degree of indecent familiarity between them, such as people in the same rank, at the present day, would deem incomprehensible, since it is the very last course of conduct which a couple entertaining criminal intentions would so flagrantly show. The position of the principal witness, however, who bore actual testimony to the criminality, seems to show that, among certain circles of the Scottish country gentry of that day, there was as much vice as we know that there was coarseness and indecency.15 This witness, named Anne Clark, was a relative of the Eastmiln family. She was received into the household after the marriage as a sort of humble dependent. But the accused offered to prove that she had previously resided in a brothel in Edinburgh, and had been the mistress of Eastmiln’s younger brother.
Some letters by Catherine Nairn to her alleged paramour were produced in evidence of the intrigue. They were not very conclusive, but a specimen of them may be considered curious:
“I was sorrie I missed you this day. I sat at the water-side a long time this fornoon. I thought you would have comed up here; if you had as much mind of me as I have of you, you would have comed up, tho’ you had but stayed out by, as there is no use of that – there is more rooms in the house than one. God knows the heart that I have this day, and instead of being better it’s worse, and not in my power to help it. You are not minding the thing that I said to you or you went out here, and what I wrote for. Meat I have not tasted since yesterday dinner, nor won’t or you come here; though I should never eat any, it lies at your door. Your brother would give anything you would come – for God’s sake, come.”
In another letter she says, “As for that you write me about anybody clattering any noncens, you need not be afraid of that about anything, for I am determined not to mind anything.” And in a third, speaking of some express to be sent to Edinburgh, she says, “Till you heare the consequences thereof, I think you better not trust any writer, which you shall hear the moment the express comes back. As I see you mean nothing but what is genteel, you may expect nothing else at my hand.” If the letters be literatim preserved in the printed copies of the trial, they show more command over spelling and grammar than was common to the female gentry of the period.
Whether justly or not, the laird’s jealousy was roused, and he refused to permit his brother to be any longer a sojourner in his house. He was overheard reproaching his wife, and using an expression not very explicit, “that she and the lieutenant were as common as the bell that rings on Sabbath.” The account he gave of the matter to a friend was, “that he had forbid his brother, the captain, the house, on account of suspicions; and he said that his wife was too much taken up in doing things for his brother, the captain, and not for himself; and that, at the same time, he mentioned some differences he had with his brother concerning money-matters.” The wife expressed fierce indignation at the dismissal of the brother-in-law, but it might have been called up as readily by the scandalous suspicions which it excited as by the loss of her paramour. Some of the witnesses said she openly threatened that her husband should have a dose, and her mother-in-law – a very aged woman – said she believed Catherine would stick at nothing, and warned the husband of his danger.
In this state of matters, one morning, after having had some tea, the laird was suddenly seized with spasms and other evil symptoms, which accumulated until he was released from his agony by death, in a few hours. He exclaimed about sensations of burning and thirst – drank much water, and vomited painfully. He “complained of a burning at his heart, as he called it; and complained bitterly of pains in the brauns of his legs, and said they would rend; and desired the witness to bind them up for him, which the witness (Anne Clark) accordingly did. That there was a severe heaving at his breast and strong caw, and he cried, to keep open the windows to give him breath. That he was constantly in motion, moving his head, his legs, and his arms. That she observed in the afternoon he did not speak plain, which she supposed was owing to his tongue having swelled – but she did not see his tongue. That about an hour, or an hour and a half before his death, he had an intermission of the vomiting; but that, at length, he was again attacked with a most severe press of vomiting, after which he fell back upon the witness, who was sitting behind him in the bed supporting him, and expired.”
That he had been poisoned by his wife, was a conclusion immediately adopted by those connexions who were not her friends. That we may judge in a general way how far the evidence was conclusive, let us follow the circumstances attested by the witnesses from the beginning.
James Carnegie, a surgeon in Brechin, remembered to have received an invitation from Lieutenant Ogelvie, with whom he was acquainted, to meet him at a tavern. This was on some day near the end of May – it was on the 23rd of May that the lieutenant was forbidden his brother’s house, and on the 6th of June that the death took place. The surgeon found Ogelvie engaged with two friends – Lieutenant Campbell of his own regiment, and Mr. Dickson. He took the surgeon aside, “and told him that he was troubled with gripes, and wanted to buy some laudanum from him, and at the same time told him he wanted to buy some arsenic, in order to destroy some dogs which spoiled the game.” The surgeon was not sure if he could supply the articles wanted – he would see when he returned to his surgery. When he did so, “he found he had some of both, and put up a small phial-glass of laudanum, and betwixt half an ounce and an ounce of arsenic, both which he delivered next day to the lieutenant, after the witness had dined with him and Lieutenant Campbell next day in Smith’s. That Lieutenant Ogelvie took him into another room away from Lieutenant Campbell, when he was to receive the laudanum and the arsenic, and then the witness delivered them to him. That the price of both was a shilling. That the arsenic was pulverised, and Lieutenant Ogelvie having asked how to prepare it, the witness gave him directions. He had sold of the same arsenic formerly to people for poisoning of rats, and heard that it had the desired effect. He has been accustomed, when he sold arsenic, to take receipts from low people who bought it, but never from gentlemen; and as the witness knew Lieutenant Ogelvie, and had a good opinion of him, he did not ask a receipt from him, although, when the lieutenant spoke about it first, the witness said to him, ‘We used to take a receipt for arsenic;’16 that the lieutenant answered, ‘See first if you have it,’ adding at the same time, ‘very good.’ ” It might be inferred from this, that he hinted to the lieutenant his desire to possess an acknowledgment for the arsenic, but did not press his request on a gentleman and an acquaintance. The report of this surgeon’s further examination is curious, since it shows how extremely uncertain and empirical any decision on the use of poison must have been at that time. He said he “got his arsenic from a druggist in Dundee – but how long ago he cannot say, there being a small demand for arsenic at any time.” When the surgeon was cross-questioned by Mr. Crosby – the prototype of Scott’s Pleydell – he said he wrapt the arsenic up in the form of a pennyworth of snuff, but “he cannot take upon him to say, from looking at arsenic, whether it be arsenic or not – nor can he say from the taste, for he never tasted it; but that he bought this as arsenic – had the name marked upon it, upon the package – and heard from those he sold it to that it had killed rats.”
One of the chief circumstances bearing against Lieutenant Ogelvie, was his uneasiness about this purchase. It is pretty well known that, in Scotland, the most powerful instrument for detecting crime is the declaration of the accused, solemnly recorded before a magistrate, immediately after his apprehension, and retained, that at the trial it may be compared with the evidence of the witnesses, and the whole history of the transactions as they are one by one developed. The declaration of a guilty man is almost sure to betray him by palpable inconsistencies; and knowing offenders deem it their wisest policy to close their lips – a policy accompanied by the minor inconvenience of substituting a general suspicion for specific evidence of guilt. But it is sometimes supposed that the inferences from the declaration and the evidence, as compared together, are too strictly interpreted, and that the accused is held as concealing or denying the circumstances of the crime, when he is only keeping out of view unfortunate appearances which he fears may be against him. A believer in Lieutenant Ogelvie’s innocence would put such an interpretation on his statement, in his declaration, “that within these two weeks he was at the town of Brechin, and in company with James Carnegie, surgeon of that place, but that he received from him no laudanum, or any other medicine whatever.” No allusion is made to the arsenic. When Ogelvie was apprehended, a certain Patrick Dickson was employed by him to go to the surgeon, “and talk to him that he might not be imposed on by anybody.” He “went and conversed with Mr. Carnegie, who informed him that he had sold the prisoner some laudanum and some arsenic, for both which he received a shilling; and the witness returned to Forfar, and communicated to the prisoner what Mr. Carnegie had said – upon which the prisoner seemed to be under some concern, and seemed desirous to speak with Mr. Carnegie, without either confessing or denying that he had bought the arsenic, for he had only acknowledged buying the laudanum on the Saturday before.” And now he was anxious to have an alteration made on his declaration; but this could not be – he might make additions, but for what was recorded litera scripta manet.
Such being the state of the case as to the purchase of the poison, let us see how its destination and use are supposed to be traced.
A certain Andrew Stewart, a village tradesman, had casually mentioned to the lieutenant that he had occasion to visit Eastmiln on the following day. He stated, that “before he went off, Lieutenant Ogelvie delivered to the witness a small phial-glass, containing something liquid, which he said was laudanum; and also a small paper packet, which he said contained salts; and that the morning of the day preceding, the witness saw the lieutenant working among some salts – at least, which appeared to the witness to be salts – which were in a chest belonging to the lieutenant. That the phial-glass was round, and knows that there was another phial-glass in his own house, which was square. That he is positive, as he has already deposed, that one-phial glass was delivered to him by the lieutenant, and cannot say with certainty that two might not have been delivered to him by the lieutenant, but rather thinks he got only one; and that, at the time when the above particulars were delivered to him, the lieutenant desired him to deliver them privately into Mrs. Ogelvie’s own hand. That he did not see the packet made up, nor did he open it to see what it contained. That in the foresaid packet there was a letter directed for Mrs. Ogelvie, of Eastmiln, which letter was sealed both with wax and a wafer; and that round the packet there was a loose paper of directions in what manner the laudanum was to be used. That when he came to Eastmiln, on the Wednesday afternoon, he was carried into a room where old Lady Eastmiln17 was; and that within a short time thereafter, Mrs. Ogelvie, the prisoner, and Miss Clark, came into the room. That, at the desire of Mrs. Ogelvie, he followed her into the Easter room, where Mrs. Ogelvie having asked him if he had brought any word to her from the lieutenant, he delivered to her the several particulars above mentioned, which the witness saw her immediately put into a drawer in the room. That he did not see her read the letter at that time, but that she put the whole together into the drawer. That soon thereafter Miss Clark asked the witness what he had brought with him from the lieutenant to Mrs. Ogelvie, or if he had brought anything with him? He at first said he had brought nothing, but upon Miss Clark’s pressing him with great earnestness, he at last informed her of the particulars he had brought. That, upon this, Miss Clark said that she was afraid Mrs. Ogelvie might poison her husband. That thereafter Miss Clark, in presence of the witness and the old lady, desired Eastmiln not to take anything out of his wife’s hand except at the table; to which he answered that he would not. That the old lady joined with Miss Clark in desiring Eastmiln to take nothing out of his wife’s hand, but that the witness was at that time very much displeased with both, as he then had no suspicion that Mrs. Ogelvie had any design against the life of her husband.”
The account which the female prisoner gave of the matter in her declaration had a simple and satisfactory complexion: – “That Andrew Stewart, besides the letter, brought her two doses of salts, and a small phial-glass with a little laudanum; and that the letter was but a quarter of a sheet of paper, containing, mostly, directions about the salts, and how much of the laudanum to take; but whether the letter was open or sealed she does not remember. That before Patrick Ogelvie left his brother’s house, she asked him, any time he was in Alyth, to buy for her and send to Eastmiln two doses of salts and a little laudanum, as she slept very ill.” If there was any truth in this account, it was certainly more like the transaction of a homely brother and sister-in-law, than of criminal paramours.
The Miss Clark, whose suspicions were awakened, is the same of whom some account is already given. One of the strange mysteries of the case is, that this woman appears to have made up her mind, even before the arrival of Stewart and his package, that Mrs. Ogelvie was determined to poison her husband. She vented her suspicions to Stewart and to the old lady, and according to her own account, she set off to consult the parish clergyman in the emergency, but did not succeed in finding him. Having now seen the evidence that the poison reached Eastmiln, let us see what light is thrown on the method in which it was used.
On the day when the package had arrived, there had been high words between Eastmiln and his wife, and their subject was an extremely awkward one. She was occupied in making cambric ruffles for the lieutenant. She let it be understood that the material had been left behind by the dismissed brother-in-law; but a chapman or pedlar had just been dunning the laird himself for payment of an account for it, and thus it appeared that Catherine was incurring debts in her husband’s name to decorate her paramour. The laird went forth sulky, spent the day with his tenants on the other side of the hill, and, returning in the evening in no better humour, went to bed without supping.
Next morning, breakfast was ready “between eight and nine – a little sooner than ordinary.” This was to accommodate Mr. Stewart, who stayed all night, and desired to depart early in the day. Mr. Stewart saw Catherine Nairn pour out a bowl of tea, and walk from the room with it, saying, that she was to give it to her husband, who was in bed. As she went up-stairs with the bowl, a servant had occasion to follow her. According to the evidence as reported, “she followed her mistress up-stairs, wanting some beef out of the beef-stand, and saw her go into a closet adjoining her master’s room. That the witness followed her into the closet, demanding the beef; but that her mistress bade her go down stairs, as she was not ready yet – and she was always wanting something; and that Mrs. Ogelvie appeared to be in a passion at her. That her master was at that time in bed, and that when the witness was in the closet, she saw Mrs. Ogelvie stirring about the tea, with her face to the door; but that she did not see her mistress, when in the closet, put anything into the tea.”
Soon afterwards, the rest of the family sitting at breakfast, Mrs. Ogelvie made the remark that the laird and Elizabeth Sturrock was well off, having got the first of the tea. Anne Clark states that she was startled and alarmed by this announcement, and she appears to have expected what followed. Elizabeth Sturrock stated that Catherine Nairn came to her, and saying the laird had got his breakfast, desired that she would say she had got breakfast too, though she had not. The laird had gone out to the stable, and he was seen immediately afterwards, by Stewart, approaching the house under palpable symptoms of internal agony. His wife was the first who announced at the breakfast-table that the laird was very ill. According to Anne Clark, she spoke with levity, and, seeing her weeping, said, “Are you daft?” Then followed the poor man’s agony and death, as it has been already described. He did not, however, depart without leaving on the evidence the impression of what occurred to himself. A servant brought him some water in the same bowl from which he had drunk the tea; but he bade it be carried out of sight, exclaiming, “Damn that bowl, for I have got my death in it already.” He said, in the hearing of another servant, that “he was poisoned – and that woman had done it.” A neighbour called during his agony, and asking him what he believed to ail him, was answered, “I am gone, James, with no less than rank poison.”
No surgeon saw him before he expired. There was much confused testimony, as there generally is on such occasions, as to what the several persons present proposed, or hinted about medical advice. As to that Catherine herself, it was stated by Stewart that “he proposed to Mrs. Ogelvie that a surgeon should be called to his assistance, to which she would not agree, stating that he would be better;” and, upon the witness renewing this proposal, she stated that she would not for any money that a surgeon should be called, as the consequence of this would be to give her a bad name from what Miss Clark had said of her. She at length, however, consented to a messenger being sent to a neighbouring surgeon; but he arrived too late. There was little adduced in exculpation to meet this evidence, such as it was. It was proved that the deceased was often subject to bad health; and he had, on an occasion recently before his death, complained of internal pain, and had gone to a neighbour to get heated chaff applied to the pit of the stomach for its relief.
Let us now see what occurred after the death. According to Anne Clark, whose evidence is always suspicious, Lieutenant Ogelvie, when charged with sending the poison to Mrs. Ogelvie, observed hastily, “that he did not think she could have had the heart to use it;” but Stewart stated that, on his advising him to make his escape, the lieutenant said, “that God and his own conscience knew that he was innocent.” The surgeon who had been sent for – but who did not arrive until two hours after the death – in his evidence, said, that immediately on his arrival “he was carried up by a servant to Mrs. Ogelvie’s, the prisoner’s room, where she was sitting; and she appeared to be in great grief and concern for her husband’s death, and desired the witness, that whatever he might think he discovered to be the cause of her husband’s death, that he would conceal it from the world. There was nobody else present with the witness and the prisoner at that time. Upon going to the room where the corpse lay, and afterwards going out of the house, he met with Mr. Ogelvie, the prisoner, who went up with him to the room where the corpse lay, and appeared to be in great grief and concern for his brother.” When the opening of the body was subsequently spoken of, neither of the prisoners seemed to oppose it. The youngest brother of the deceased laird, Alexander Ogelvie, gave orders for stopping the funeral until the body was medically inspected; and the servant, Elizabeth Sturrock, who told this to Mrs. Ogelvie, declared that she showed great agitation, “weeping and crying, and wringing her hands and tearing herself.” The servant, who, it will be remembered, is the same who was said by the prisoner to have taken tea at the same time as her husband, made this further statement:
“After Mrs. Ogelvie heard the sheriff of Forfar was coming to examine them at Eastmiln, Mrs. Ogelvie desired the witness to say to the sheriff that the witness had seen Mrs. Ogelvie mix up the bowl of tea which she, Mrs. Ogelvie, had given her husband the morning of the day on which he died; and that the witness had drunk some of it before Eastmiln tasted it; and that she likewise drank off what Eastmiln left of it. She likewise particularly desired the witness to say that the witness was in the closet with her, Mrs. Ogelvie, when she mixed up the bowl of tea; and that she, Mrs. Ogelvie, gave her husband some short-bread with it; that Mrs. Ogelvie told the witness, that if the witness would say as thus directed, she would stand by the witness that no harm should happen to her; that the witness should go with her wherever she went, and that while she, Mrs. Ogelvie, had a halfpenny she should have half of it. That Mrs. Ogelvie spoke to the witness in this manner several times; that Lieutenant Ogelvie was present upon these occasions, heard what Mrs. Ogelvie desired the witness to say, and he himself desired the witness to say as Mrs. Ogelvie directed her.”
The unhappy woman’s judicial declaration corresponded with this story. She stated that she had taken the tea straight from the parlour to her husband’s bedroom, and that Elizabeth Sturrock drank from the bowl the remainder of the tea which Ogelvie had left. The nature of a judicial declaration has been already mentioned, and the policy often adopted, of a prisoner refusing to answer, has been alluded to. Mrs. Ogelvie, after having emitted a brief declaration, consistent with itself, but not, as we have seen, consistent with the evidence of the witnesses, being asked if there was anything in the declaration which she desired to correct or alter, “she refused to answer this or any other question put to her, being so advised by her friends and counsel.” Accordingly, the questions follow in a string, without answers, thus:
“In what drawer, and in what room of the house, did she put the medicines and letter which were delivered to her by Andrew Stewart, the day before her husband’s death?
“Did she read the letter? What were the contents? Has she the letter? or how has she disposed of it?
“By whose advice did she order the above medicines to be sent to her?
“What was her ailment? Did she mention such ailment to any in the family?” &c.
She obeyed the injunction of neutrality so strictly, that she not only remained dumb, but would not sign, after the usual form, her refusal to answer the questions. The lieutenant, after having committed himself in his first declaration, followed the same negative advice in all but its last and gratuitously pertinacious feature, declining to answer questions on a second examination, but readily adhibiting his signature to the refusal.
The only element that remains is the highly important one of the symptoms and morbid appearances of the body, and the extent to which they received a satisfactory investigation. The medical man who was called in, and came too late to minister to the sufferer, appears to have taken no notice of any morbid characteristics, though he was in the room with the body. He was required, some time afterwards – it is carelessly called five or six days – along with other medical men, to inspect the body. “He observed the nails and a part of the breast discoloured, and his tongue swelled beyond its natural size, and cleaving to the roof of his mouth.” He and another surgeon spoke of these symptoms as indicative of poison, but they spoke vaguely, as men who drew their conclusion, not from specific symptoms, but the general aspect of the whole affair. The scientific witness who gave the fullest account of the state of the body, was Doctor John Ogelvie, physician in Forfar. He said:
“That upon his arrival, Alexander Ogelvie, the defunct’s brother, desired the deponent to go and inspect the corpse, which were18 then lying in an outhouse; that he found the corpse in its grave-clothes and in a coffin; and, having inspected the body, he observed that the face, the arms, and several other parts of the body, were black and livid, and that the nails were remarkably black; and as to the tongue, it was locked fast by the jaws, so that he could only observe a small part of it which projected beyond the teeth, which part, being the top of the tongue, he observed to be white and rough, and of a very unusual appearance. That the breast was white, and the lips pretty much of a natural colour. That from the appearance above described he could draw no conclusion as to the cause of the defunct’s death, as almost all these appearances might have arisen from the putrid state the body was then in; and that the only thing that appeared extraordinary to him was the appearance of the tongue above described. That he had some inclinations to have opened the body; and if the two surgeons who he had heard had left Eastmiln that morning had been there, he believes he might have done so; but as they were gone, and the witness, in his own opinion, thought the body too much putrified to be opened with safety to the operator; and as he was likewise of opinion, that in such a state of putrefaction no certain signs could have been discovered of the cause of the death by opening the body, the witness declined to do it.”
Probably he was right in believing that the scientific acquirements of the Forfarshire practitioners of that age might have failed to ascertain the presence of arsenic, evidently pointed at by the whole tenor of the proceedings as the cause of death. But any one acquainted with the rigid method of conducting such inquiries at the present day, cannot fail to observe how lamentably this inquiry is deficient in the main clement of evidence as to poisoning – the existence in the body either of the poisonous deposit, or of symptoms that put be yond a doubt that it has been there – in short, the evidence that death was brought about by poison. Nay, a slight enlargement of the evidence in this case only served to attenuate it. An Edinburgh physician was adduced, who had witnessed an undoubted case of death from swallowing arsenic, and he gave an account of the vital symptoms of the case, which coincided with the account of Ogelvie’s death, stating at the same time that “he could discover nothing externally upon the body different from the appearances after a natural death.”
In the case of Madame Lafarge, the French jurists were much blamed by our own, because there was no security that the parts analysed for the discovery of poison had been duly protected from the possibility of being tampered with, by being immediately sealed up under official inspection, and opened for the experimenters by persons who could pronounce the seals unviolated. There was thus a gap in the chain of evidence connecting the existence of the poison with the body. But in the case of the Ogelvies there was no evidence even of the existence of the poison. Not only was it not proved that poison existed or had existed in the body, but it was never proved that any poison, other than a little laudanum, which was not the kind pointed at, had ever entered the man’s house. In all charges of this nature the main substantial fact, to which all others are secondary, is, that the death has been caused by poison. It is not necessary that its presence should be actually detected – it may be shown that it has existed though it exist no longer, and it may be proved, by immediate examination of the remaining contents of a drinking-vessel, of otherwise, that poison was actually consumed by the deceased. Having separately and as an independent fact proved the death by poison, we have a safe position whence, from the conduct and motives of parties, we may alight on those who have committed the crime.
In this instance, however, the process was the reverse. It was inferred from the conduct of the wife and the brother that they intended to administer poison, and the circumstances of the death were found to adjust themselves with the anticipated conclusion. Certainly, at the present day, no bench would charge a jury to convict on such a proof. The jury, by a majority, according to Scottish practice, found both the prisoners guilty. If this case, the particulars of which have been so fully preserved on account of the contemporary local interest which it created, stands as a reproach on the jurisprudential science of Scotland in the eighteenth century, a companion may be found to it in the trial of Captain Donellan, in England, who fifteen years later was convicted of poisoning Sir Theodosius Boughton, on evidence which had a like flagrant defect.19
If we had these defective proceedings arraigned before one who had lived through them into the stricter practice of the present day, and was effectively conversant with both, we would probably find him justifying and lauding the one, without utterly condemning the other. He would, perhaps, congratulate us on those vast accomplishments of natural science which have placed the means of accurate judgment in our hands, while palliating the imperfect operations of those who, in the necessity of their position, were bound to come to practical conclusions. It would be said that murder must not walk about triumphant because justice cannot take a perfect aim – the bolt must be hurled though it possibly may hit the wrong mark. And this is but a further illustration of the view already suggested, that in the progress of science the beneficent and protecting influences far outstrip the deceptive and the destructive. While the poisoner is ignorant and clumsy as ever, the detecter is lord of scientific light.
The male convict was condemned to death and executed – the female was still destined to make some sensation in the world. The accounts of the day say that Ogelvie behaved at his execution “with decency and resignation,” until after he was turned off, when a horrid incident occurred – the noose slipped, and he fell to the ground. Half strangled, wounded, and probably little conscious of his position, he struggled with the men who dragged him up the ladder. His dying speech, while it does not seem to have been devised as a pleading for mercy, has not the brazen effrontery of the hardy criminal seeking to stultify his judges. He maintained his innocence, saying he desired to employ the few hours he had to live in the way most conducive to his eternal happiness; he continued, “And though my years be few, and my sins many, yet I hope, through God’s grace and the interposition of my blessed Redeemer, that the gates of heaven will not be shut upon me, in whatever view I, as a criminal, may be looked upon by the generality of mankind. And I hope those who best know me will do me justice when I am gone. As to the crime I am accused of, the trial itself will show the propensity of the witnesses, where civility and, possibly, folly are explained into actual guilt, and which, possibly, had the greater effect in making them believed; and of both crimes, for which I am now doomed to suffer, I declare my innocence, and that no persuasion could ever have made me condescend to them.”
The female prisoner pleaded pregnancy in arrest of judgment, and for some time distracted the Court of Justiciary by inquiries of a most perplexing character. From the rank and influence of her connexions, there was a general popular belief that she would not be punished. So far as the trial went, it was seen that she was abandoned as a victim. The current against her could not be met. It was observed, and maintained by her counsel, that the jury had grown indecently impatient, and would not listen to the evidence in exculpation. It was afterwards suspected, not without some reason, that her friends had made up their minds to reserve any effort for her protection to a totally different arena from the Court of Justiciary. The Edinburgh prison – the famed Heart of Midlothian – was at that time renowned for nothing more than its singular unretentiveness, especially in the case of prisoners with powerful connexions. Accordingly, it would not have been with much astonishment that, on the 16th of March, 1766, the citizens of Edinburgh learned that the interesting convict had made her escape the day before, – had it not been that nine days previously she was delivered of a girl. The Court of Justiciary were to have met on the 17th, for the purpose of passing on her sentence of death. It is stated, in the Gentleman’s Magazine for April, that “she was indulged on account of her weakness with the quiet and privacy which the nature of her illness required. She desired, however, that her room door might be left open for the benefit of the air, and being left alone for the night, she took occasion to dress herself in man’s apparel, and walking out into the court, and mixing with the strangers who were going out, passed unnoticed by the keepers.” Her absence was not discovered, or at least avowedly made known, until two o’clock next day, and that being Sunday, would afford abundant excuse for a lax pursuit. On Monday the magistrates of Edinburgh offered a reward of 100l. for her apprehension, proclaiming their reasons for suspecting that she had started in a post-chaise, on Saturday night, by Berwick to England, “and had on when she went away an officer’s habit and a hat slouched in the cocks, with a cockade in it. She is about twenty-two years of age, middle-sized, and strong made – has a high nose, black eyebrows, and of a pale complexion.” A proclamation, subsequently issued by the secretary of state, offering a further reward of 100l., sets forth that –
“A search was immediately made through the city, and a messenger despatched to endeavour to trace, and, if possible, overtake her on the London road. But all the intelligence he could get was, that a young gentleman, very thin and sickly, muffled up in a great coat, and attended by a servant, had passed through Hadington on Saturday, at midnight, and had pushed on with four horses, day and night, from stage to stage, towards London.”20
In the Gentleman’s Magazine for April, it is said, “she seems to have been well seconded, for certain information was received at Mr. Fielding’s office that she was at Dover on the Wednesday following, in the dress of an officer, endeavouring to procure a passage for France, which probably she has since obtained.” And in the ensuing month’s publication it is said, that “Mrs. Ogelvie, not having an opportunity to set off for France, returned from Dover to London, took a hackney coach at Billingsgate, got on board a Gravesend boat with a gentleman to accompany her, agreed with a tilt-boat there to take them over to France for eight guineas, and a guinea a day for waiting for them four days, in order to bring them back – which tilt-boat landed them at Calais, but is since returned without them.” The agreement for waiting and bringing them back was of course intended to lull suspicion in the boatman.
The subsequent history of this heroine of a tragic romance is entirely traditionary. It is said that she made a distinguished marriage abroad, and lived a happy and contented life. But this is a kind of tradition common to great criminals who have escaped. Even that monster, the Abbé de Ganges, who aided his brother in the murder of his wife, by a series of unmatched cruelties, was traditionally said to have afterwards acquired a lovely and devoted wife of high race.
Instances might be mentioned of a scepticism on the part of juries, in charges of poisoning, as remarkable as their readiness to be convinced in the instance of the Ogelvies. In 1795, Anne Inglis was tried for the murder of Patrick Pirie, in the parish of Alva, in Banffshire. Pirie had given her reason to presume that she would become his wife, but the swain proved false, and paid his addresses in another quarter. Anne Inglis was the servant of Pirie, but this did not render their union an improbable event, as both belonged to the crofter or small farmer class. On hearing of the intended wedding, she had been heard to say that “there would be a burial before there was a bridal.” One day, after having taken a draught of ale from the hand of Anne Inglis, Pirie was immediately seized with violent vomiting, and acute burning pains. He lingered in agony for nine days, and as death approached, spoke of the draught he had received as the cause of his death. The body was opened, but no poison was found. There was much inflammation, and the inner coat of the stomach was corroded. The medical men had been asked, apparently when they were conducting the inquiry, whether these appearances might have been caused by any destructive agent not perceptible, and they stated that it might have been caused by sulphate of copper, or blue vitriol, the traces of which might have been removed by the medicines which the man had imbibed. Dove-tailing accurately with this view, on searching a chest belonging to Anne Inglis, a paper parcel containing sulphate of copper was found. Anne stated that she used it as a remedy for toothache, but it did not appear that she was suffering from that disorder. Some one had seen her with tea-cups in her possession, the edges of which were smeared with a bluish powder, and she desired that nothing might be said about it.21 We have only the leading outline of the evidence on this trial. It would indicate a proof far more conclusive than that on which the Ogelvies were convicted, yet Anne Inglis was acquitted.
About thirty years afterwards, there occurred at the same circuit a trial, the result of which had a tendency, for a brief period, to shake the public confidence in the capacity of juries to deal with the niceties of poison-evidence. John Lovie, a farmer near Fraserburgh, was tried for the murder of Margaret Mackessar, his servant, by poison. Margaret was pregnant, and it was not disputed that the paternity of her offspring was correctly attributed to Lovie. He had in vain attempted some of those means of tampering with the existence of the unborn, which seem, by a wise provision for the preservation of the race, to be only effective when they expose the life of the mother to eminent peril. His efforts in this direction were, however, of the clumsiest kind, and were only sufficient to subject the poor woman to gastric derangements. At length she was seized with all the horrible symptoms which indicate the operation of arsenic, and died in a few hours. A large quantity of arsenic was found in the stomach and intestines.
The circumstances which connected Lovie with the administering of the poison were these. He had got into the practice of talking with a farm-labourer, whom he employed, on the subject of poisons, as they worked together. He was in the habit of asking what would produce this and that effect – how much jalap would be a medicinal dose, and how much more would kill; what amount of landanum would occasion only sleep, and what would produce death. His questions showed a mind as stupidly ignorant as it was depraved and cruel. One of the questions especially noticeable was about the name of “a white kind of poisonous stuff” – to which his companion answered, that he supposed he meant arsenic. He had one day, in a druggist’s shop in the neighbouring town of Fraserburgh, bought an ounce of jalap. He remarked that it was “a good dose.” The youth who sold it to him asked if it was “for a beast or for a body;” and being told it was for a human being, he said it would be enough to kill one. Lovie then said he would divide it in two. Continuing the conversation, he asked what “was best for rats,” and was told arsenic. Was there anything else? Yes – nux vomica; but it was not quite so effective.
Lovie returned to the same shop a few days afterwards, and said he must have the arsenic, as he was much troubled with rats. It was about five days after this that Margaret Mackessar, after having done her morning work in her usual health, was attacked with the fatal symptoms, immediately after taking breakfast. Lovie was in the fields at work. The farm-servant was told by Lovie’s mother of the attack, and when he mentioned it to Lovie, the man observed that he reddened – a trifling matter in comparison with the other evidence. There was some conversation equally immaterial, in which Lovie, who had been at home, and had heard the sounds of her agony, though he had not seen her, remarked, that if she did not soon recover she would not be “lang to the fore,” or long in existence. A far more telling circumstance was, that the poor woman’s mother passed him, in the course of his work, three times within speaking distance, but he neither told her of her daughter’s state, nor would he permit the servant to tell her. No medical man was sent for until the last struggle approached, and he did not arrive until after death. The friends and neighbours talked of opening the woman’s body, but Lovie artfully persuaded her immediate relations to object to a measure which, in the state in which she had been, would tend to blast her character.
The body was buried, and, doubtless, Lovie now breathed freely, but not for a long time. The suspicious character of the affair had spread so far that a judicial investigation was necessary; and the grave had scarcely closed when the rumour passed that it was to be re-opened. His uneasiness was very perceptible. In his deep ignorance he knew nothing of the scientific objects of the disinterment, and asked if the body would be found swollen if the woman had died of poison. As has been already explained, the stomach and intestines were saturated with arsenic. To account for poison having been in the house, Lovie said that he had procured some stuff to rub into his cattle, and that having used it in a saucer, he threw the portion which remained in the saucer on a certain dunghill. The dunghill was analysed, but the presence of arsenic, or any other peculiar chemical substance, could not be detected; and it was pretty well proved that the cattle had no disease requiring such a remedy.
A more conclusive case has seldom been presented to a jury, but the public were startled by a verdict of “not proven.”22 This was less surprising to persons present during the trial, than to those who merely read the evidence. Mr. Cockburn made at that trial one of his greatest efforts of persuasive oratory, and delivered an oration which, in seductiveness to such a tribunal as he addressed, has probably never been excelled. It is the established rule, right or wrong, that so long as he uses no trickery in the development of the evidence, the prisoner’s counsel may treat – nay, is bound to treat – that evidence in any manner which he thinks will afford the accused the best chance of escape. Mr. Cockburn did not, in this case, trespass a shadow beyond the established rule. He saw that he had to deal with a stupid jury, and with consummate skill he lowered the tone of his persuasions to hit their stupid minds. He made them view the whole arrangement of circumstances connecting the administration of the poison with Lovie, as a flimsy fabric of legal ingenuity, artificially constructed to make up for what was absolutely necessary before a man could be convicted and executed for such a crime – that he should be seen to have given the woman that which caused her death.
It was remarked, with concern, that an acquittal in almost similar circumstances had occurred but a few months before, in the same year (1827). The antecedents were alike, down even to the tampering with the existence of an unborn babe; but the enemy was not the seducer himself, but his mother. The arsenic was purchased with the same declared object – the slaughter of rats. The damnatory evidence was, however, slightly shaken by two elements – the one that rats had been known in the premises, the other that the victim was subject to low spirits on account of her degraded condition, and spoke of suicide.
Such acquittals seemed dangerously to adjust themselves to the peculiar notions which the uncultivated mind forms of poisoning. It seems to them a mode of murder – if its operation really be counted murder in their eyes – divested of many of the terrors, natural or supernatural, which hover over bloodshed. Poisoners of the uneducated class have been observed to evince mild and temperate characters, little given to acts of violence, ferocity, or cruelty in other and more tangible shapes. They preserve a stolid calmness after the deed, undisturbed by those external reflections of a guilty conscience, which, in dreams or fancied apparitions, haunt him who has recollections of the death-struggle, the gaping wound, and the tell-tale stains of blood.23 What the perpetrator does in poisoning is a simple, calm, and serene act of seeming innocence; what follows seems the working of nature, and is but a fac-simile of many common forms in which she divorces the spirit from the clay. In the eyes of rude, uncultivated minds, these external differences cover nearly all the space that they are capable of seeing between guilt and innocence.
The recklessness often shown by the uneducated poisoner implies a corresponding consciousness of security, as if the danger of detection were as limited as his own sense of guilt. In the case of Hay, tried at the Western Circuit in 1780, where the antecedents were like those of Lovie’s case, it was proved that he had gone to the house of his victim, and cast arsenic into the meal which was in preparation for the family, and into the store from which future meals were to be supplied. The mother of the family died next morning, her husband a few days afterwards, and the intended victim escaped. The deed was no longer veiled in the darkness of unscientific days, for the poison was discovered by the illustrious chemist, Black.24
One of the very small number of executions which, within the past fifteen years, have occurred in Edinburgh, was that of a woman who had poisoned her husband. The cause of the death was abundantly evident, and as to its connecting links with the accused, it appeared that, after one of their numerous brawls, she rushed forth, her face swollen and blackened with recent blows, and bought the arsenic that was to avenge them. In explaining her object to the dispensing chemist, she gave the usual story of the house being infested with rats – and to such a pitch of audacity had they gone, that in their gambols they tossed down a lump of wood from the roof, which had hit her on the head and blackened her eye, – she was determined to kill the rat who had done that. The woman’s face had, throughout the trial, a character of hard and stupid obduracy. Its strong impassiveness was for once unbent at this part of the evidence, and the lips dissolved into a grim smile, as if the arid intellect within had some slight appreciation of a joke.
An instance of the strange recklessness of common poisoners occurred in 1829, when John Stewart and Catherine Wright were convicted of murder and robbery committed in a Clyde steam-boat. In the public cabin they had drugged a passenger with laudanum dropped in the liquor they enticed him to drink, and they picked his pockets when he was insensible or dead. Stewart seemed to consider this an ingenious device which nobody would ever detect, and among the companions who might consider it a fair enough speculation, he talked of it openly by a technical term of his own invention as “giving the doctor.” It would be difficult to imagine circumstances better calculated for imminent detection than those in which this murder was perpetrated. The public were alarmed by the crime being repeated nearly in the same form four years afterwards in a public-house in Glasgow, by a man named Byres and his wife. When the fatal consequences became apparent, the witnesses remembered that they had seen a dark substance at the bottom of the glass into which the prisoner’s wife had poured the porter of which the victim drank. It is from instances such as these, that well-meaning people dread an exterminating series of murders from the invention of chloroform and other anaesthetics – but while they are in the hands of such clumsy operators, the number of executions will be a palpable measure of the corresponding injury and danger to society.
Among the natural concomitants of these peculiarities which we have seen attending poison murders is this, that the crime, unlike others of equally deep atrocity, sometimes breaks out in pastoral or other primitive rural districts, where, without any previous contaminating influence, the iniquity rises suddenly up like some great tropical plant in the midst of innocence and simplicity.25 Some of the instances which have been already mentioned were of this character, leaving behind them the stains of the blackest crime in the midst of habits and ideas not contaminated by even the secondary offences of more densely peopled and advanced districts. But more remarkable in this view than any of the instances already mentioned, was a tragedy that occurred in 1821, in the secluded parish of the Keig, in Aberdeenshire. There lived in a neighbouring parish a certain George Thom, a substantial small farmer of undoubted respectability, who had passed beyond his sixtieth year with an unblemished reputation. His wife, whose name was Mitchell, had two brothers and two sisters residing at the farm of Burnside. Her family had succeeded to some property by the death of a relation. It had been divided among them, and Mrs. Thom had received her fifth share; but her husband cast avaricious eyes on the other four. As the simplest means of acquiring them, he resolved to poison the whole family, and the operation seems to have occurred to him as a clever and original idea, which no one else would be likely to alight upon, and which did not involve the slightest risk of discovery.
Accordingly, one day he paid them a visit. It was unexpected – for he seems not to have been a man of social disposition – and he had not gone near his connexions since he had married their sister, though he was a frequent visitor before that event. He was hospitably received, and all supped together heartily and in sound health. Before going to rest, he expressed a desire – for which there was no accounting – to sleep in the kitchen. As it seems, however, to have been much opposed, he gave it up. He slept as he had usually done when visiting the Mitchells of old, but he rose at an early hour in the morning – it was Sunday – saying that he wished to get clear through that part of the country before the people were on their way to church.
Very early in the morning, one of the brothers, who slept in the kitchen, heard some person in motion there. He slept in one of the beds shut close in with wooden doors, which the peasantry of the north of Scotland consider the perfection of warmth and comfort. He was too lazy to open the doors to see who the intruder might be, but satisfied himself that he was occupied close to the press. Thom was, at that time, mixing a quantity of arsenic with the salt, preserved in a box for general family use. One of the sisters proceeding to her household duties, entered the kitchen before he had left it, but after he had finished his work. She observed that he was shaking out of his pocket some crumbs of bread and cheese, which were covered with a white powder.
Thom set off, and at the first stage eat a hearty breakfast. He seems afterwards to have thought, that such an indication of health might be considered inconsistent with the state of matters he had left behind him; and he said to a person he met ere he reached his home, that he must have taken something that disagreed with him; if he had not obtained relief by putting a feather down his throat, and producing the effect of an emetic by the titulation, he verily believed he would have died.
The breakfast at Burnside was made of milk porridge. James Mitchell, one of the brothers, took little of it, feeling that it had “a sweet, sickening taste.” The other brother and the sisters eat heartily, without observing any peculiarity in their food. We quote from an accurate abridgment of the evidence: “Before James got himself dressed he fell sick, and continued to get worse. He, however, set out for church, but on the way felt so ill, that he stopped awhile on the road to consider whether or not he should go in. When in the church, he felt himself ‘turning blind.’ After having eat at the Lord’s table,26 he came out of the church, and found, in the churchyard, his brother William, who said that he was very sick. William then went into the church and James returned home, having vomited severely by the way. When he reached the house, he felt all the lower parts of his body burning within; he now found that both his sisters were unwell, and had been vomiting. William now came back from the church and complained of great pain – there was a swelling in his breast rising to his throat, and his eyes were affected. Helen Mitchell stated that, on the Monday, she scarcely felt the ground below her, her feet being benumbed; she had a burning pain at her heart, with a great thirst: her left eye also was painful in the eyelid; and in this state she remained the whole week, and had not, at the time of the trial, recovered the full use of her limbs. Mary Mitchell stated that she had no feeling in her legs from her knees to her feet. On the third day, James Mitchell lost the faculty of his left arm, and felt his feet powerless. William Mitchell, who, as has been seen, had eat heartily of the potage, continued to grow worse and worse; and his eyes, which on the Sunday were painfully affected, almost lost their sight, the white of them becoming red. He entirely lost the power of his arms, and died on the Sunday following.” James Mitchell, who slept with him, described his death in a very simple and affecting manner: “He rose to look for a drink, returned to his bed, but did not speak to witness; lay down on his bed; stretched himself and gave a terrible groan, then lay quiet. Witness jogged him, but he did not speak; again jogged him, but received no answer: he then put his arm over him and found him in a cold, deep sweat. Witness then rose and went to his sisters, and told them that he thought ‘William was gaen to wear awa out amo them.’ [Here the witness was much affected, and shed tears.] All of them came to the bed; he could not speak, but he was not quite dead; he was moving, but that was all, and he died immediately after.”27
This was the only immediate victim of Thom’s comprehensive scheme – the other brother and the two sisters lived, with shattered constitutions, to give testimony at the trial. They early suspected the foul play of which they had been the victims; but for the respectability of their family, they desired the matter to be hushed up. When, however, Thom and his wife came to the funeral – the former in brazen effrontery, the latter in unconscious innocence – manifestations of feeling could not be avoided. The neighbours had said they would not attend the funeral if Thom were there. He had not been invited, and when he appeared, was desired to depart. One of the sisters bade Mrs. Thom look at the body; she did so, but her husband would not accompany her. His wife very unconsciously said to him, “Nelly says my brother was poisoned.” He remarked, that it was possible – he might have got it from toads or puddocks (frogs) in the burn.
Thom remained stolidly indifferent during the trial, and when a verdict of guilty was brought in, he brushed his hat with his hand like one who was at ease in his mind, and said to some counsel near him, “Gentlemen, I am as innocent as any of you sitting there.” He maintained this form until the hope of pardon was past. He then, according to the practice of a large class of criminals, became pious, after a confident fashion, as one secure that the dregs of life, spent in hypocritical professions, would outweigh in his favour the life-long adaptation of his corrupted heart to the perpetration of the darkest villany. That his professions were self-deceptive, was shown by a little incident. Under the shadow of his religious exercises, he slipped a note into the band of a son by his first marriage, begging to be furnished with poison, that he might pass to the great account with an additional crime on his soul.
He made a confession which showed that, though substantially correct, there had been one false element in the conclusion derived from the evidence. It was believed that he had mixed the poison with the meal – in reality, he had put it in the salt. He seemed to have thought that it would thus operate in doses so small, and therefore so gradually, that its deadly progress might seem the effect of natural disease. He said, what is in conformity with the remarks already made, that after depositing the poison, he scarcely felt that he had committed any crime. It required the panoply of justice, and the prospect of the gibbet, to arouse his dormant, moral perceptions to a sense that, in the simple act of de positing that white powder, he had actually broken “into the bloody house of life,” and outraged the most supreme law of God and man.
One fortunate feature to be remembered in considering poison as an instrument of death is, that it is not the ready weapon of the irascible passions; it is the means of deliberate, if not calm assassination. It is not always at hand, and the most reckless will use some caution, productive of delay and possible penitence, in procuring it. Even after the snare is set, the intending murderer may repent and avert the calamity. A remarkable case, however, occurred of the momentary and impulsive use of one of the corrosive poisons; and, – as it has often been seen in momentary crimes, which leave no track of perpetration, – the murderer was more likely to have escaped detection than, if the deed bad been cautiously planned.
In 1830, there lived, in Aberdeen, a butcher and his wife named Humphrey. They were intemperate, keeping low company, and ever quarrelling. They used to recriminate murderous intentions against each other, as people of their rank, when quarrelsome and dissipated, often do. The man used to say to his wife that she would some day face Marshall-street for him – the gibbet stood opposite to Marshall-street – and the prophecy fell true. Once, when in her fury, she brandished a razor – he bared his neck and said, “There, do it now, for you will do it some time.” One evening, Humphrey returning home in a sullen, drunken fit, took umbrage at some visitors in the house, and kicked and struck his wife. She was heard to say, “Lord God! if anybody would give him poison, and keep my hand clear of it.” He was on that night especially unreasonable and capricious, demanding, after midnight, a supper of beefsteak to be brought to his bed, to which he had staggered. He fell asleep before the dish was ready. It was his custom, like most drunken slumberers, to sleep with his mouth open. His wife, smarting with pain and fury, seeing him lie thus, filled a wine-glass from a phial of sulphuric acid which stood near, and poured it down his throat.
The tortured man raised a frightful hubbub. He lived next day in great agony, and was visited by the neighbours. He said, “Oh! woman, woman, you have tried to do this often, and you have done it now.” Such exclamations would have passed among the ordinary recriminations of this ill-conditioned couple, and the form of the man’s death would not have been considered remarkable in an inveterate dram-drinker, but an incident, extremely trifling, at once pointed to the nature of the crime. A neighbour woman sat with her child on her knee in an adjoining room, by a table on which stood some empty drinking glasses. The child was playing with them, when suddenly it uttered a scream, and Aung down a glass which it had just put to its mouth. The mother put her tongue to the glass and tasted the burning acid.
Such incidents are called the dispensations of Providence for the discovery of murder. It is no irreverence to hold rather that a foreseeing Providence has made men for their self-protection acutely sensitive in noticing the minutest trifles where the life of a fellow-being is concerned. The incident, which would have been a trifle instantly forgotten had there not been death in the house, swelled into ominous and portentous importance. A phial, in which there had been a considerable quantity of sulphuric acid, was found nearly empty. To complete the circle of evidence, the vest of a gown, worn by the murderess, was found concealed. It was speckled with the corrosions of the acid which the poor man had instantaneously spurted out ere she had ceased bending over him. There were like corrosive marks on the bed-clothes around. “I discovered,” said Professor Trail, in his Medical Jurisprudence, “six tenths of a grain of per-sulphuric acid in two small spots on a blanket, seven weeks after the crime.” The woman was convicted and executed.
1 It is curious, that in the only great crime lately known to be committed by a man of noted scientific attainments, the murder of Dr. Parkman by Professor Webster, the chemical adept, instead of drawing on the resources of his science, perpetrated his crime with the rude brutality of a savage.
2 Pitcairn’s Trials, i., 158, 189. The same expression is used in some subsequent trials for poisoning, so briefly reported as to afford no materials for special notice.
3 That the criminal prosecution of Lady Glammis was only part of a general project for crushing the house of Douglas, has been inferred from the contemporary condemnation and execution of the Master of Forbes, who was married to a sister of Douglas and the Lady Glammis, on charges equally mysterious and unsatisfactory, and similarly doubted by contemporary historians. He was charged with two separate offences – a design to shoot the king with a culverin as he passed through Aberdeen to hold a justice air, and an attempt to destroy or betray part of the Scottish army assembled at Jedburgh – a charge which the record of the indictment leaves in a very ambiguous state. The suspicious features in the affair were, that save from the fact of the master being executed for their perpetration, the historians of the period had no information of treasons either in the north or south; and that the chief informer was banished from the country.
4 Pitcairn, i., 198.
5 Pitcairn, i., p.194.
6 Et erit bannitus extra omnes partes Scotiæ prœter vicecomitatum de Aberdene; et ibidem manebit omnibus diebus vitæ suæ; et quod exibit dictum vicecomitatum sub pena mortis. – Pitcairn, i., 203.
7 It is an indication of the mysterious importance attached to everything connected with the operation of poison, while so slight a scientific control could be exercised over its influence, that in 1601, an important trial before the High Court of Justiciary, in which the king took a personal interest, related to no more formidable achievement than the slaughter of a couple of fowls. Thomas Bellie, burgess of Brechin, and his son, were accused of “having and keeping of poison, mixing the same with daich or dough, and casting down thereof in Janet Clerk’s yard, in Brechin, for the destruction of fowls; by the which poison they destroyed to the said Janet two hens.” The accused were banished from the kingdom for life.
8 A notice of these elf arrows will be found in the witchcraft trials in this collection, vol. i., p. 282.
9 This method of symbolical destruction of life or corporal functions is very ancient. Ovid says:
– “Simulacraque cerea figit
Et miserum tenues in jecur urget acus.”
“Num mea Thessalico languent devota veneno
Corpora? Num misero carmen et herba nocent?
Sagave Phoenicea defixit nomina cera
Et medium tenues in jecur egit acus.”
10 Pig, an earthenware vessel.
11 Pitcairn, ii., 535.
12 Pitcairn, iii., 262.
13 Maclaurin’s Arguments and Decisions, p. 740.
14 It may be worth mentioning, that the present is not the only charge of poisoning which appears to have been connected with this family. In a series of documents in the Advocates’ Library, there is a “Copy of the process and of the witnesses’ depositions, taken before the sheriff of Edinburgh, in a precognition, Captain Nairn against Mrs. Spence.” The name of the estate, to which it is not necessary to draw attention, shows that the captain was a relation of Catherine Nairn or Ogelvie. The charge is, that Mrs. Spence connived with his wife to poison him, and it is made in very odd terms: “She hath engaged or promised, by poison or other ways, to take away my life, and therefore I crave warrant for apprehending and imprisoning her, in order to be tried for the above riot.” The examination is a strange tissue of incoherencies. A witness had overheard the wife and the accomplice in conversation, saying that the captain was not worthy to live – that there were some oils prepared for him, and that, if the lady would give “a ninepence more, she would let her see the virtue of these oils, which would cut off Captain Nairn.” The witness says that Mrs. Spence was one day much fatigued, “having been in the fields seeking for roots, whereof she took one out of her pocket, which looked like a crumindish or hemloc root.” She sat on Heriot’s bridge concocting her poisons, not venturing to do so in a house. Among the other heterogeneous contents of these papers, we find the intended victim coming among the plotters in masquerade, as “a Flemish captain,” and there hearing his wife called “a dear angel of light,” and himself “a murdering ruffian rascal, who was guilty of all kinds of sin, and was not worthy to live.”
15 There are people old enough to remember a strange coarseness of conversation and manners pervading the Scottish gentry. The indulgence in this humour in mixed society came in later times to be a sort of privilege of rank and birth – the courtesies and elegances of life required only to be resorted to by those whose position was questionable. Something of the same kind has been noticed in anti-revolutionary France.
16 This precaution, which the Brechin apothecary appears to have adopted in theory rather than in practice, is substantially that which has been adopted by the legislature.
17 It was the practice in Scotland to call the laird simply by the name of his estate, e.g. Eastmiln, and as it was necessary to distinguish the wife from the husband, gallantry awarded to the former the flattering prefix of “lady.” So would the humble helpmate of the owner of a couple of hundred acres of bog and stone be denominated.
18 There are two words which it is an inveterate practice in Scotland to treat as plural – corpse and broth, or soup. The Scotticism, however, does not pervade, as will be seen, the whole of Mr. Ogelvie’s deposition.
19 Some English contemporary critics, however, made severe remarks on the case of the Ogelvies. In the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. xxxv., p. 524, there is a string of paragraphs, each beginning, “It is strange that,” and enumerating the anomalies of the case – particularly the publicity of the indecent familiarity in which, if the witnesses were to be believed, the prisoners had indulged. This has been already alluded to. A document professing to be the opinion of English counsel condemnatory of the proceedings, was published in some of the Edinburgh newspapers – their editors were brought before the Court of Justiciary and censured.
20 Scott’s May, 1766, pp. 165-6.
21 The Black Calendar of Aberdeen, p. 176.
22 This middle finding is peculiar to Scotland. Some have held it to be a valuable institution, as leaving a stigma of suspicion where there is not sufficient evidence to convict – a stigma which never leaves its object if he is guilty, and is easily removable if any event should occur enabling him to explain suspicious facts and make his innocence apparent. On the other hand, this form has been objected to as a too accessible resting-place for jurors unwilling to incur the responsibility of finding guilty, and unable to reconcile their consciences to a finding of not guilty.
23 As, for instance, that wholesale German poisoner, the Frau Zwanziger, whose adventures are related by Feuerbach.
24 A little incident of this case is curious itself, though disconnected with the present subject. In Lockhart’s Life of Scott, there is a well-known anecdote, attributed to Lord Braxfield, one of the Scottish judges. There was a certain laird among the judge’s friends, with whom he used to engage in protracted and hard-fought games at chess. That laird having been tried and convicted for forgery, Braxfield, after condemning him to death, added, “And now, Donald, I think I have check-mated you at last.” The late venerable Lord Justice General, Mr. Hope, who possessed in an eminent degree the quality of standing by his friends, published a letter in Blackwood’s Magazine, for November, 1844, saying, “More unfeeling and brutal conduct it is hardly possible to imagine. The moment I heard the story, I contradicted it, as, from my personal knowledge of Lord Braxfield, I knew it could not be true. Lord Braxfield was certainly not a polished man in his manners, and now-a-days especially would be thought a coarse man. But he was a kind-hearted man, and a warm and steady friend, intimately acquainted with all my family, and much esteemed by them all. I was under great obligations to him for the countenance he showed me when I came to the bar just sixty years ago, and therefore I was resolved to probe the matter to the bottom.” The result of the investigation was, that Lord Braxfield had not presided at any trial for forgery except one at Stirling,” and then the culprit, instead of being a friend, or even a common acquaintance of Lord Braxfield, was a miserable shopkeeper in the town of Falkirk, whose very name it is hardly possible he could ever have heard till he read it in the indictment. Therefore I think I have effectually cleared his character from the ineffable infamy of such brutality.” There may be possibly an opinion that this great judge’s character has more serious stains to be cleared away than a savage joke. The present writer, however, has reason to believe that the expression about check-mating, on which the anecdote was founded, was used by Lord Kames at the trial of Hay. When the scientific analysis of the poison came out in confirmation of the previous unscientific evidence, his lordship said, “That’s check-mate;” and if he meant it to be jocular, he is supposed to have had in view his contests with the prisoner’s counsel. The author received this account from the son of a person who was officially present at the trial; and looking at dates and names in contemporary publications, he found them to correspond so completely with the story as orally delivered, that there was no reason to doubt its accuracy in this little detail.
25 The author of an article on chemistry in the Edinburgh Review for July, 1851, says, in reference to the measure then before parliament on the sale of arsenic: “The introduction of a bill by Lord Carlisle for this purpose, and its subsequent passage in the present session of parliament, has recalled to our mind a state of things which existed in Normandy a few years ago, the cause and cure for which may suggest the adoption of other measures of prevention among ourselves also, in addition to the legislative measures already passed into a law. In Normandy, it had long been the practice, as it still is in some of our southerly English counties, to use white arsenic for the steeping of seed-corn, with a view to the destruction of insects and fungi – as the midge, smut, rust, &c. – by which grain crops are frequently very much injured. This abundance of arsenic among the people, and their familiarity with its use, brought every season before the courts, from the rural districts, a yearly crop of poison cases, in which arsenic had been employed for the destruction of human life. With a view to provide a remedy, it was at first remitted to the Departmental Society of Agriculture, to inquire whether this use of arsenic was indispensable, and whether in the chaulage du blé other substances of a less dangerous character might not replace it both effectually and economically. The experiments made by direction of the society enabled them to report that arsenic might be dispensed with, and that less deadly substances were as cheap and efficacious. A law was passed in consequence, forbidding the use of arsenic in the preparation (pickling) of seed-corn, and the annual group of poisoning trials disappeared. If, as we believe, it is chiefly in those parts of England where arsenic has been so employed for agricultural purposes, that our home poisonings with it have also been most frequent, the abandonment or prohibition of it in the farm might not only remove in some cases the means and direct temptation to crime, but might in others take away also a source of evil suggestions which afterwards lead to the purchase of poison for otherwise unthought-of ends.
‘How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Makes ill deeds done!’ ”
26 The table at which the elements are dispensed is so called in Scotland – it was the Sacrament Sunday, or half-yearly periodical time for Communion.
27 Black Calendar of Aberdeen, p. 235.