Sunday, November 28, 2021

John Wilson - A Faded Mugshot

Taken on the 8th January 1880, probably in HM General Prison, Perth, the photograph of John Wilson that appears in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen is extremely faded. With the help of modern photo-editing, I have managed to manipulate the image so that you can just about make out his features, originally captured by the camera over 140 years ago. 

To compensate for the poor quality of the photograph, the details regarding John Wilson's 'distinguishing marks' that are written alongside are unusually comprehensive and provide a vivid description of his features:

"Bald. Cut mark on head. Scar under right eye, mole left cheek. Lost 4 teeth. Large scar on each side of neck. Cupped both breasts and each side of small of back, hairy chest, cut right wrist. Rupture right side, scar on left groin and inside each thigh, moles on back. Dull hearing".  

The reference to cup marks on his chest and the small of his back suggests that he may have suffered physical trauma in childhood, with the various other scars further indicate that he led a somewhat eventful life.

Wilson was a habit and repute thief. The reason why he was in prison when his photograph was taken is revealed by a short report in the Aberdeen Journal of the 29th April 1874, 

"John Wilson was charged with theft, on 6th March last, of two shirts, a handkerchief, razor, two scarfs, a leather belt, and a quantity of writing paper and envelopes, from the house of James Farquhar, Richmond Lane, Huntly. The panel is habit and repute, and has been three times convicted before a Sheriff and Jury, viz., once at Inverness and twice at Aberdeen. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Lord Deas to Seven Years' Penal Servitude".  

The Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen shows that Wilson stayed at 7 Justice Lane when he was released on 10th February 1880 (see image below). He remained at this address, which is located just off the Castlegate, until at least November of that year. Although we cannot be 100% certain as to what happened to him after this date, there is a John Wilson of precisely the right age who appears as an inmate of the Old Machar Poorhouse on the 1881 census. If this is indeed "our John", which seems likely, then he was born in Aberdeen in around 1828 and was formerly a linen weaver to trade.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Margaret Isabella Reid - "The Buchan Heiress"

An unwelcome feature of modern life is the telephone cold-call, with the person at the other end of the line often spinning a credible yarn in an attempt to extract personal or bank details from the unsuspecting recipient. Of course, fraud is nothing new, but it does require a particular confidence, skill and sheer brass neck to be able to pull it off in-person, in the way that Margaret Isabella Reid did.

Margaret's nickname was "The Buchan Heiress", a nod to her preferred tactic of pretending to be from a well-to-do or well-connected background as a way of gaining the confidence of those that she intended to defraud.

Evidence from the newspapers of the time suggests that her career of criminal trickery lasted from 1888 through to at least 1904. Many of the contemporary newspaper reports remark on her beauty and stylish dress-sense, being written with a degree of both fascination and respect for her utterly brazen behaviour. For example, The Aberdeen Evening Express of 10th December 1888 compared her to the notorious Victorian con-woman, "Mrs. Gordon Baillie", reporting that, 

"An extraordinary series of impudent frauds, displaying courage and cunning of no ordinary kind, was brought to light in Aberdeen Police Court today. The perpetrator is a rather good looking and demure damsel of twenty-four who is known by the name of Margaret Reid, and follows the humble occupation of domestic servant. Her residence is rather indefinite, being entered in the police books as Loch Street, with no number. For one who, from the fact that she never came under the surveillance of the police before, may be said to have been trying her 'prentice hand at the dangerous game of fraud, her modus operandi of victimising innocent people is clever, if not brilliant. Margaret depended wholly on her own resources. As a wholesale prevaricator, one who can manufacture a plausible story at a minute's notice, her talent is of the highest order".

Possibly working on the principle that if you are going to tell a lie then you may as well make it a whopper, Margaret even had the audacity on this occasion to claim that over the past five years she had been a servant to one William Ewart Gladstone, sometime Prime Minister, and had travelled to Inverurie as she was on holiday. However, in the face of the overwhelming evidence against her in court she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to sixty days in prison.

As the following passage from The Aberdeen Journal of 28th November 1896 illustrates, her notoriety spread throughout the country,

"The lady well known as "the Buchan heiress" is reported by the police as having started operations in Edinburgh and the west of Scotland. Her modus operandi is to dress very fashionably, and to take lodgings by pretending that she is about to be employed as a lady's maid in some well-known citizen's house; and after thus getting into the confidence of the landlady, to tell how she has fallen heir to a fortune in Aberdeen. She then suggests that should the landlady at any time require money, all that has to be done is to let her know. In one instance in Edinburgh a landlady said she was very anxious to purchase the house she occupied, and if "the Buchan heiress" would be good enough to advance her £40 or so she would be more than grateful. To do this the "heiress" at once agreed, but, before communicating with the lawyers in Aberdeen, she would like if the landlady would just lend her £5 in order to get a few things before till once the cheque arrived. The landlady in question did not, however, at once agree to this course, and, on consulting her husband, they decided to postpone giving the advance for a few days, and made such inquiries at the house at the house the "heiress" had said she was to be employed as showed that there was no truth in that part of the story. Their suspicion thus being aroused, they communicated with the police, and, being shown a photograph, they at once identified the "heiress". Meanwhile the "heiress" had decamped. She is "wanted" at Coatbridge on similar charges. In various places in Scotland within the last few years she has been convicted of similar offences, and has undergone terms of imprisonment. The police have issued warning to the public against her operations".

 Such was the fascination with Margaret Reid that at least two newspapers published engraving-style pictures of her during 1898, a time when she was making a nuisance of herself in the Perth and Dunkeld areas.

Engraving of Margaret Reid published in The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 9th February 1898

Engraving of Margaret Reid published in the Edinburgh Evening News, 31st January 1898

Publication of such images was rather unusual and undoubtedly reflects the public interest in the character of the Buchan Heiress and what might have driven a woman to commit such audacious crimes. Comparing the likeness of the newspaper images to the photographs at the top and bottom of the page, it would appear that The Dundee Evening Telegraph had access to the better artist.

In 1899, when she was found guilty at Edinburgh Sheriff Court of "victimising a widow" in Musselburgh, The Aberdeen Journal states that Margaret had ten previous convictions. By 1904 she had at least two more from courts in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The reports of these cases provide a little more by way of background information on Margaret: The Aberdeen Journal of 22nd February 1902 recounted that, 

"Lucy Gill, better known as Margaret Isabella Reid, the "Buchan heiress", who several years ago carried on a long series of swindles in different towns in the country, appeared yesterday in Justiciary Buildings, Jails Square, Glasgow, charged with several frauds committed in Glasgow and neighbourhood. The accused was quietly dressed in black, and pleaded guilty to all charges. Mr. C.B. Thomson, on her behalf, stated that her father was a man of means and used to be gas inspector at Invergordon. When the accused came from Brighton at the beginning of the year, after a term of imprisonment, she was compelled by sheer necessity to commit the crimes".

Margaret had evidently fallen on hard times in 1902, but come 1904 she is described as being "in service in Hawick as a nurse". 


Thursday, September 16, 2021

George Anderson - "He had a pedlar's certificate and went about the streets carrying shoelaces..."

Newspaper reports between 1902 and 1904 suggest that George Anderson was of no fixed abode and was well known to the police in Aberdeen. As with John Cormack, the subject of the previous blog, George's main transgression was the general whiff of shiftiness that emanated from him. As The Aberdeen Daily Journal of Tuesday 25th November 1902 reported, 

"George Anderson, labourer, from the police cells, being a reputed thief, adhered to a former plea of not guilty to having, on the 12th, 16th and 21st November, been found in a washing-house in Greyfriars Buildings, Gallowgate, with intent to commit theft. Detective Smith deponed that accused had been convicted on 27th May 1901, of the theft of a hat and jacket, and on 8th March 1902, of articles of underclothing. He had a pedlar's certificate, and went about the street carrying shoelaces. Some men were in the habit of making a pretence of selling shoelaces, while in reality they were looking about for an opportunity of committing theft. Detective Innes corroborated. Constable John Fyvie said that he saw accused in a wash-house in a back passage of an entry in Greyfriars Buildings. When accused saw witness he endeavoured to make his escape by a window. Several witnesses said they had seen accused hanging about the close during the daytime. The magistrate sent Anderson to prison for seven days".

Almost two years later, on 20th September 1904, George appears in the court report of The Aberdeen Daily Journal once again,

"Before Sheriff Begg and a jury, in the Aberdeen Courthouse yesterday, a young man named George Anderson, vagrant, was tried on a charge of having on the 6th August, in the shop at 11 Palmerston Road, Aberdeen, occupied by Alfred Sutton, grocer, pulled open a money drawer or till in the counter of the shop, and put his hand into the till with intent to steal. Accused pleaded not guilty, and Mr. Charles Diack, solicitor, appeared on his behalf.

The first witness called was Mrs. Sutton, who stated that on the date in question she was keeping the shop in the absence of her husband. She was in the back room, and on looking round saw the accused leaning over the counter. He had the till out, and there was 3s 6d in it at the time. She heard the jingling of the money. She ran past him and shut the front door, and accused him of having his hand in the till, but he denied it, saying - "Not me missus; not me". He opened the door and ran out and witness ran after him. She held onto him, and was assisted by Charles Farman, trawl fisherman, until the arrival of the police. The accused had been drinking.

The  Sheriff said unfortunately for accused, there were a great many previous convictions against him...His lordship did not think he could do less than impose a sentence of six months' imprisonment, and accused had better not come back again, because if he went on in his career of crime he would certainly land in the High Court and get a sentence of penal servitude".

Friday, September 3, 2021

John Cormack - "A Wick Man's Suspicious Habits"

If The Aberdeen Journal of the 30th November 1899 is to be believed, John Cormack was arrested and imprisoned for little more than acting in a shifty manner at Aberdeen railway station. Under the headline "A Wick Man's Suspicious Habits", the newspaper reported that,

"Yesterday, in Aberdeen Police Court, before Baillie Lyon, John Cormack (46), carpenter, a native of Wick, was charged with having, on the 27th, 28th and 29th inst., frequented the railway station with intent to commit felony. Accused denied the charge. From the evidence led, it appears accused, who had only been recently liberated from prison, went about idle, and made no effort to get work. At the railway station on the dates mentioned he was seen mixing among the passengers in a suspicious manner, and whenever he observed the city police detectives he made off. Accused stated to the magistrate that he had a wife and five children in Wick, and that he did not commit and had no intention of committing any evil. The Baillie sent Cormack to prison for 60 days".

Subsequent newspaper reports suggest that John Cormack had something of a reputation in the city and that the police had good reason to view his shiftiness with suspicion. Under the title, "A Lounger Sent to Prison", The Aberdeen Weekly Journal of the 29th August 1900 reported that, 

"Yesterday, before Sheriff Burnet, in Aberdeen Sheriff Court, John Cormack, a ship carpenter to trade, but of no fixed residence - a person well-known to the police, with a number of previous convictions for theft against his name - was charged with having, at the dwelling house at 14 Castle Terrace, Aberdeen, pretended to Mrs. Muldoon, wife of a private watchman, that he had just arrived from Wick by steamer, and had got work with John Lewis and Son, and, by this means, induced her to give him board and lodgings from the 26th to the 30th July, to the value of 7s 6d, for which he did not pay, and for which he had no intention of paying. He was also charged with having loitered about the Reclaimed Ground at the Inches, and the Green with the intention to commit felony"

Later on in the proceedings, three policemen are asked to comment on John Cormack's personality: what follows is something of a character assassination, 

"Detectives Gibb and Dey and Inspector Goodall had known Cormack for years, and stated that the man simply lived by his wits. He hardly ever worked, and when he did occasionally venture to take off his coat, he had to be dismissed for stealing. When not in prison, Cormack lounges about public places, such as the Free Library, the Fish Market, and the Green, or in the vicinity of any show that might visit the town. On one occasion he was detected in the reading-room of the Free Library with a considerable amount of plundered articles which he had transferred from other people's pockets to his own. He had been seen to pay particular attention to the pockets of ladies marketing at the Green, and when Sanger's Circus was in Aberdeen the detectives noticed that he was invariably to be found where the crowd was thickest".

Cormack was once again sentenced to 60 days in prison with hard labour. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Halford Percy Mills - The Paddington Swindler

Halford Mills was arrested at Newtonhill railway station on Friday the 16th March 1900. Originally from London, his accent may well have aroused suspicion when he claimed to be a native of Shetland. The Aberdeen Journal of Monday 19th March 1900 reported his apprehension as follows,

"Constable Murray of the Kincardineshire Police, stationed at Portlethen, received a complaint on Thursday last from a salmon fisher at Findon to the effect that a "gentleman" representing himself as an engineer and a native of Shetland desired board and lodgings as he had a week to spare before his ship sailed to carry him home. He got the lodgings but abruptly disappeared on the 14th and did not pay his bill. The constable instituted enquiries in the course of which he landed at Newtonhill Railway Station on Friday evening, a few minutes before the departure of the last train for the south. While waiting, he observed a man, who answered the description of the party he was in search of, making inquiry of the railway officials regarding a train to take him to Dundee. The constable, after some questioning, took him into custody and conveyed him to Stonehaven, where he gave the name of Halford Percy Mills, 21 years of age, and stated that he was a native of London". 

If having the audacity to impersonate a Shetlander wasn't bad enough, it transpires from the newspaper report that Halford was also wanted for a string of other offences, 

"...he is at present wanted by the Aberdeen police for an extensive fraud committed in October last, and also in England by the Hants and Birkenhead police for fraud and felony. He is likewise believed to be identical with a board and lodgings imposter and thief at present wanted by the Forfar, Dundee, Perth and Coatbridge police. Mills was taken to Aberdeen on Saturday by the Aberdeen police. He is wanted in the city in connection with a charge of fraud by obtaining a suit of clothes under false pretences".

Unfortunately it has not been possible to trace where or when Halford was tried for his crimes. However, given his unusual first name, it was possible to locate him on the 1891 and 1881 census returns when he was aged 13 and 3 respectively. In 1891 he had five siblings, while both census returns show that the family was living at 31 Cambridge Place in Paddington. His father, also named Halford and originally from Smarden in Kent, was an undertaker, while his mother was originally from Barking, East London.

Detail of map showing Cambridge Place, Paddington, London
OS London 1:1,056 - Sheet VI.89
Published 1895
Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Friday, August 20, 2021

George Martin - "An Attempt to Wreck a Train"

George Martin was a labourer, of no fixed abode, who claimed to be from the Dumfries area. The Aberdeen Press & Journal described his crime under the headline of "A Silly Prank", although it was a prank that could have had serious consequences. The newspaper of the 28th September 1904 reported that on Sunday 19th September,

"...he was on his way to Elgin to work when he met another labourer from London who was also on his way north to work. The man whom the accused met had a bottle of whisky on him, and both drank the contents. The London man suggested that they should put planks on the railway [between Oyne and Pitcaple], in order to wreck a train, and between them they managed to put two planks on the metals. Accused's statement was that afterwards he fell asleep by the side of the railway, where he lay until he was awakened by the noise of a passing goods train. Accused subsequently came to Aberdeen and reported what he had done and gave himself up. Accused was 24 years of age and had never been in trouble before".

Depending on your point of view, you could say that George was either incredibly honest or incredibly stupid. The driver of the train had apparently not even noticed that the engine had harmlessly pushed the obstructions off the track and, had George made himself scarce, he would almost certainly have escaped with little more than his whisky-induced hangover. His partner in crime from London was never traced, while George's actions and honesty perplexed the sheriff who ordered that George be medically examined before sentence was passed.

The examination came to the conclusion that while there was undoubtedly "a certain amount of mental weakness" observable in George, he was not insane and was consequently sentenced to two months' imprisonment.

Monday, August 16, 2021

James Morren - "He said he did not know what was being done when the crime was committed"

James Morren was one of four men convicted in January 1901 in connection with the theft of £54. 4s. 3d., from the offices of Adam & Company, 42 Regent Quay, Aberdeen. He was represented in court by his solicitor, Mr. Donald Sinclair, who made strenuous efforts to downplay James's role in the affair, saying that by keeping a look out for the police, he had only played a "minor part" in the theft and because he was young and from a respectable family, he should therefore be treated with leniency. The Sheriff, however, was having none of it. As The Aberdeen Journal of the 23rd January 1901 reported, 

"Mr Thomas Maclennan, Depute Procurator Fiscal, said that the accused had kept his eye on the police while the others had committed the theft. Mr Maclennan again recounted the circumstances of the theft stating that one of the men pretended to be drunk, and, going to the edge of the quay, drew away the old watchman's attention while two of the thieves broke into the office, and Morren kept his eye on the police. Morren afterwards left town, and was only apprehended on the 19th December. He denied the crime until four days ago, when his agent intimated that he would plead guilty. The other men who shared in the crime were Tindall, who got eight months; Mann who got six months; and Mackenzie, who acted as decoy, and who got 30 days' imprisonment. The sheriff saw no reason to differentiate between Morren's case and that of the others. He would therefore have to go to prison for six months".

James Morren was incarcerated in Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen, appearing as a prisoner there on the 1901 census. James's occupation is given as an "able seaman", with his birthplace being Aberdeen. Although it has not been possible to locate him on the 1911 census, he does appear as an eight year old on the 1891 census, living with his parents and six siblings, who were aged between three and eighteen, on Princes Street, Aberdeen. His father and mother, William and Margaret, were both forty-two, with William's occupation given as a stone cutter. 

The Princes Street area where James Morren lived as a child in the 1890s
Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
Ordnance Survey - Aberdeenshire LXXV.11 (Aberdeen) Revised: 1899 to 1900, Publication date: 1902

John Wilson - A Faded Mugshot

Taken on the 8th January 1880, probably in HM General Prison, Perth, t he photograph of John Wilson that appears in the Register of Returned...