Friday, January 29, 2021

Criminal Portraits - A Closer Look @ Granite Noir, 21st February


We are delighted that Criminal Portraits will be making an appearance at the Granite Noir crime writing festival on Sunday 21st February.  Our webinar will take a closer look at the lives and times of a number of the convicts that have featured in the blog. The event is free, although donations are welcome, and can be booked through this link.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Neil McPherson - A Prisoner at Perth, Pentonville and Peterhead


Neil McPherson was born on the 5th January, 1858, on Millbank Lane, off George Street, in Aberdeen. He was the son of Neil McPherson, a butcher, and Elizabeth McPherson (née Kennedy) who were both originally from Perth. Indeed, by the time of the 1861 census, with Neil jnr. aged 3 and his siblings Alexander and Jane aged 8 and 5 respectively, the family were living at an address on Guard Vennel, just off the High Street in Perth. Neil's father's occupation was noted as a "saw miller".

Neil McPherson snr. evidently died at some point prior to the next census in 1871 when the family are to be found living at 35 Brown Street, Dundee. Neil McPherson jnr. was then aged 13 with his occupation noted as a "mill worker". His mother, Elizabeth, was recorded as a widow with her occupation given as a "factory worker".

Come the 1881 census, which was conducted on 3rd April, Neil McPherson was an inmate at Pentonville Prison, London. Under the headline of "The Upperkirkgate Housebreaking Case", the Aberdeen Evening Express of 1st February 1881 provides the reason as to how he ended up there:

"In the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh yesterday, Neil McPherson, from the prison of Aberdeen, was charged with theft by housebreaking, in so far as on the 2nd or 3rd September 1880, he did wickedly and feloniously, break into and enter the shop or premises in or near Upperkirkgate of Aberdeen, then and now or lately occupied by Benjamin Duffus, watchmaker or jeweller mounting upon a wooden frame and raising the lower sash of one of the windows situated at the back of the said shop or premises and entering thereby, and did steal 9 or thereby silver English lever watches, 2 ladies' gold English lever watches, 8 or thereby gold Geneva watches, 44 or thereby silver Geneva watches, 18 or thereby gold albert chains....", etc.

The list of items stolen is comically long and ends, 

"The prisoner was also charged with being a habit and repute thief". 

Neil McPherson denied even being in Aberdeen on the night of the crime, although witnesses testified that he had in fact stayed at the Crown Inn on Shore Brae on the day that the crime was committed. This, coupled with the fact that he pawned a chain in Perth which was part of the haul was enough to convince the jury of his guilt. He was sentenced to five years' penal servitude.

At that time, all male convicts sentenced to penal servitude in Scotland were usually detained during their probation period at the General Prison in Perth and were subsequently removed to the public works prisons in England to undertake a period of labour. When Neil McPherson was sentenced on the 31st January 1881 there was significant pressure on space at Perth due in part to the closure of many local prisons across Scotland. It would appear that he spent little time at Perth before being transferred to Pentonville at a point prior to the 3rd April, the date when the 1881 census was conducted. 

An isometric drawing of Pentonville prison, from an 1844 report by Joshua Jebb, Royal Engineers

Following his stretch inside Pentonville, Neil McPherson would have entered the final phase of his sentence and would have been released on license, an early form of the current parole system. It was at this stage that he returned to Scotland, probably in 1885 or 1886.  However, it didn't take too long before he was back in court: the Dundee Courier of the 2nd May 1888 reports that he was tried at the Circuit Court of Justiciary in Dundee on the 1st May 1888 for the "daring burglary" of a safe and its contents which included £20 and several documents. In his summing up, the judge, Lord MacLaren expressed his disappointment that Neil McPherson had only recently completed a period of penal servitude. On this occasion he was sentenced to seven years.

Peterhead Prison opened in 1888 and it is there that Neil McPherson is to be found as an inmate on the 1891 census. He remained there until his discharge on 23rd September 1893 when he moved to Aberdeen and his details were recorded in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see image below). He lived at a number of addresses in the city between 1893 and 1895 including 68 Broad Street, 128 Chapel Street, 2 Cuparstone Lane and Kepplestone Cottages in Rubislaw.



Monday, January 18, 2021

Catherine Anderson - Tried Twice for Child Murder - Part 2

At the end of part one of this blog, Catherine Anderson had been found guilty of the culpable homicide of her infant daughter on the 26th June 1883. A brief notice in the Aberdeen Evening Express recorded that she was transferred to HM General Prison, Perth, on the morning of 4th July 1883 to begin a five year stretch.

Catherine served just over three years of this sentence. A report of her second trial in 1890 mentions that she had been released from prison in October 1886. Following correspondence with a descendant of Catherine who contacted me after the publication of the previous blog post, I now know that Catherine had another daughter, Helen, on 1st September 1888. Helen's birth certificate records that she was illegitimate, with Catherine's occupation given as a "bleachfield worker". The place of birth was noted as Catherine's parent's address of 16 Rosebank Place, Aberdeen, which they had moved to from their previous address on the Hardgate at some point in the mid 1880s. From my correspondence with Catherine's descendant, I understand that Helen was cared for and grew up with a relative of the family.

Catherine's parents were still living at 16 Rosebank Place at the time of the 1891 census. As for Catherine,  she was recorded as an inmate at HM General Prison, Perth, when the census was conducted on the 5th April 1891. Her occupation was given as that of a "millworker jute spinner". How did she end up back inside? The Aberdeen Journal of the 22nd January 1890 reported the case:

“The first case called was that of alleged murder or concealment of pregnancy in which an Aberdeen millworker was concerned. The charge was that “Catherine Anderson, prisoner in the prison of Aberdeen, having between the 26th and 31st October 1889, in the house in Stevenson Street, Aberdeen, then occupied by you, been delivered of a female child, you did then and there either press the mouth and throat of your said child and did murder her; or, otherwise, time and place above libelled, you were delivered of a child now dead or amissing, and you did conceal your pregnancy and did not call for or use assistance at the birth, contrary to the Act 49 George III., cap.14 and you have been previously convicted of a crime inferring personal violence” 

Lord McLaren – Catherine Anderson, you are accused of murder, or alternatively with concealment of pregnancy. Are you guilty or not guilty? 

Prisoner – Guilty of culpable homicide 

Mr J.C. Wilson, counsel for the prisoner, said he should like to say a few words on behalf of the prisoner at the bar. As his Lordship was aware, she had had a somewhat bad career, and was released from her last period of confinement in October 1886. She was then cast off by her parents, and in consequence found it exceedingly difficult to get any work or get any situation and was very often reduced to the sorest straits. Some months before the birth of this child she was engaged as an outworker at Pitfodels, but owing to her condition had to leave her work. Her neighbours at the time of the birth of the child all bore testimony that she was in a state almost of starvation, and then detectives who searched the house said that they found no food in the house at all, that the bed clothing and the clothing of the accused was of the most meagre and scantiest description. It also appeared that the father of the child, when he came to be informed of the of the condition of the prisoner, deserted her. Indeed in the most wretched circumstances – without food, without clothing, and without the means of procuring them, and altogether alone and in her misery, her child was born, and this child unfortunately met its death. He urged his Lordship to take these circumstances into consideration in passing sentence… 

…Lord McLaren then passed sentence. Catherine Anderson, he said, it is unfortunately true that you have been previously convicted and sentenced on a charge precisely similar to the one which is now brought against you and to which you have pleaded…I am afraid, considering your previous history that there is very little use in attempting to offer you advice or to express hopes of amendment. I can consider the circumstances of your case with all that has been so forcibly and feelingly stated by your counsel, and giving all weight to these considerations, the least sentence that I can pass upon you is that which you have already experienced. The sentence of the Court is that you suffer penal servitude for five years” .

The description of Catherine's living conditions at the address on Stevenson Street, located in the Denburn area of Aberdeen, make it clear that she was below the bread-line and conveys just how precarious life could be at the time for a single woman without a support network.

The apparent rift with her parents mentioned in the newspaper report must have been at least partially bridged by the time that Catherine was released from prison in 1893 after serving roughly three-and-a-half year of her sentence. The Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see image below) records the address at which she was living immediately after her discharge as 16 Rosebank Place, her parent's house.

Identification of Catherine on the 1901 census has not been possible with any degree of certainty. She does, however, appear on the 1911 census, aged 45, single and occupying a room at 88 Maberley Street, Aberdeen, with her occupation listed as a "charwoman".

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Catherine Anderson - Tried Twice for Child Murder - Part 1


The case of Catherine Anderson is an incredibly poignant one which shines a light on the treatment of women by the late nineteenth century criminal justice system. Her crimes were reported in significant detail by the newspapers of the time which has made it possible to construct a vivid picture of her life from the contemporary reports and other sources. Rather than compress everything into one blog post, her story is divided into two parts, the first of which focusses on her early life up to her first conviction in 1883.

The image of Catherine at the top of this page is the first mugshot in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen to feature an innovation where a mirror, placed at an angle of 45⁰, has been used to show the person's profile and to assist with identification. Her hands are also placed on her chest to ensure any distinguishing marks would be captured by the camera.

The photograph was taken at HM General Prison, Perth, on the 7th April 1893, just over a month before Catherine's discharge on license on 22nd May that year. She had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment on 21st January 1890 for the culpable homicide of her infant daughter. This was in fact the second time she had been incarcerated for such a crime - as already mentioned, her first conviction occurred in 1883.

A native of Aberdeen, Catherine was born in 1865 and grew up at 102 Hardgate. She appears there on the 1871 census aged 6, along with her father, James L. Anderson, an "engine smith", her mother, Ann Anderson, and her sister, Margaret, aged 4. Almost exactly ten years later, on 8th March 1881 at the age of 16, Catherine gave birth to a son named Samuel at her parent's house. Samuel's birth certificate records that he was illegitimate and that the father was a Samuel Montgomery. Both he and Catherine are described as "linen bleachfield workers" on the certificate. While we can't be absolutely certain, additional research on the 1881 census suggests that Samuel snr. was an Irish immigrant boarding at an address in the Rubislaw area of the city and described on the census as a "cloth worker". It is evident from subsequent census returns that Samuel jnr. grew up with and was cared for by Catherine's parents. Indeed, while he is named as "Samuel Montgomery" on the birth certificate, the child evidently took the family surname of Anderson and is noted as such on the census returns.

That Catherine's parents had to care for her son was a situation that arose out of necessity rather than choice: two years after the birth of Samuel, Catherine had given birth for a second time on the 5th or 6th April 1883. She appeared in court on 26th June that year charged with the murder of her baby. The newspaper report in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal of 30th June carried a detailed report of the proceedings, including a description of Catherine:

"The prisoner took her seat in the dock a few minutes before 12 o'clock. She is a girl of 18, of medium height, of rather stout build, with full broad face, and rather prominent cheek bones. Her complexion is rather pale and, as she took her place at the bar, she appeared to manifest considerable anxiety, and glanced nervously around. She was respectably attired in a black dress, a black jacket hanging over her left arm, a white straw hat with some flowers, and a neat scarf around her neck".

Catherine's anxiety is understandable: given the nature of the crime for which she was on trial, the already intimidating nature of the courtroom must have been further compounded for her by the fact that the jury was all-male. Catherine's mother who was also "much affected" according to the newspaper report, gave evidence:

"...the prisoner is my daughter. She is 18 past on the 14th January. She has all her life been with me. She was latterly working in a bleachfield. She had a child on the 8th March 1881, when she lived with me. Sometime before I removed into 100 Hardgate, I thought my daughter was with child again, and I spoke to her about it. She said she would get someone to keep it. The other child, a boy, was living with me at the time. He is two years past in March. When I removed on the 29th March I thought her time was near, but I did not speak to her at the time. Three months before that time I engaged a doctor and a midwife. The midwife is Mrs. Stewart, Dee Street. My daughter knew that I had a doctor and midwife engaged, though I did not tell her".

Catherine's mother describes the domestic events at the house during the evening of the 5th/6th April including having to leave the house at around 10:00pm to run an errand. On returning a little later, she met Catherine who was leaving the house to visit the water closet to the rear of the property. After half-an-hour or so, Catherine's mother went out to look for her but Catherine only returned to the house at 1:00am. On asking where she had been Catherine replied that she had been at the house of a friend called Maggie Gray. The report goes on,

"She [Catherine] went and washed her hands and arms in a basin...She then took off her boots and sat down at the kitchen fire. She afterwards went into her own bedroom. I then heard some moaning coming from the bedroom. I thought she was in labour and went into the room. I was satisfied that the child had been born and I asked Catherine where it was. She replied that the child was at the bleachfield. The latter is about a mile from the house. I asked her where the child was born and she said at the back of the water closet door...I asked her why she had not brought it into the house and she said it was dead before she could lift it. Once or twice I proposed to send for a doctor, but she would not allow me. She pleaded with me not to send. Catherine remained in bed on Thursday and sat up in her bed on Friday...On Monday night I remember my husband reading an account in the papers about the finding of a body on the seashore at Torry, and a description of the articles about it. Catherine got into a state and said "That's it"".

The trial went on to hear that Catherine left Aberdeen for Dundee, where she had friends, soon after this revelation and that the next time her mother saw her was when she was in the custody of the police. Catherine's mother also testified that she recognised the pieces of cloth in which the child's body had been wrapped when it was discovered on the shore at Torry together with the knitted boots that it was wearing, as being from her house.

Dr. Garden of Golden Square, who carried out the autopsy, provided evidence to the court that the body was that of a female child who had been alive at birth but who had subsequently died of a head injury. There is significant debate in court about exactly how and when the baby had died, although no definite conclusion is arrived at.

Catherine entered the courtroom charged with murder, but at the end of her trial, and partly because of the uncertainty regarding the manner of the child's death, she is sentenced to five years' imprisonment for the lesser crime of culpable homicide. In his summing-up the presiding judge, Lord Deas, said:

"You were in your father's and mother's house kindly treated and they were willing to provide you with what was necessary. It was not the least surprising in these circumstances that you are indicted on the charge of murder. But luckily for you that is not the verdict...You are treated very leniently and humanely from beginning to end, and on that footing I shall limit your sentence to the shortest possible period in my power, and that is five years".

A small notice in the Aberdeen Evening Express of 4th July 1883 records that Catherine was transferred to HM General Prison, Perth, that morning.

The next part of this blog will look at the circumstances around how Catherine ended up back inside Perth prison for a second time, appearing there as an inmate on the 1891 census. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Mary Stewart - Employed at one of the Herring Curing Yards at Footdee


A very Happy New Year to all readers of Criminal Portraits - I hope you had a relaxing Christmas and many thanks for your continued interest in this blog.

Our first "ne'er do well" of 2021 is Mary Stewart who appears on the 1881 census as an inmate at HM General Prison, Perth. The photograph of her shown at the top of this page would have been taken there, probably at a date just prior to her release on 3rd December 1881. The census reveals that she was born in Aberdeen and it was to her hometown that she returned on her discharge. The Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see the image at the foot of this page) shows that she stayed at 16 East North Street with a Mrs. Bissett immediately following her liberation, and from March to July 1882 she was a resident at 10 Sugar House Lane.

In company with many of the other individuals who have featured in this blog, Mary Stewart was an habitual criminal who, by the time of her incarceration in Perth Prison in April 1877, had notched up an impressive tally of previous convictions. The Aberdeen Press & Journal of 11th April 1877 reported her trial before the Circuit Court as follows:

"Mary Stewart was charged with the theft, on 6th October 1876, of a pair of trousers, from the shop of Robert Barclay, pawnbroker, West North Street, Aberdeen, and with six previous convictions of theft. Prisoner pleaded guilty. Mr. Baxter, who appeared for her, stated that she had already been six months in jail and that she pleaded guilty to having stolen one pair of trousers. His Lordship said he had been told that prisoner had pleaded guilty to a charge of theft, and that she had had only taken one pair of trousers, but he supposed that had been all that there was to take. She had been previously convicted of theft six times, and he supposed that the public would understand that the sentence passed upon prisoners for theft was not so much for the sake of the articles stolen, as on account of previous convictions and whether the party was capable of being reformed...His Lordship then sentenced the prisoner to seven years' penal servitude".

Two things are particularly striking about this report: firstly, that Mary Stewart had already been held in prison for a full six months prior to her trial. Secondly, the severity of the seven year sentence which was handed down to her for simply stealing a pair of trousers, something which the judge justified by the requirement for habitual crime to be seen to be dealt with harshly, which was typical at that time. Incidentally, the papers for the trial which are held at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh show that at the time of her arrest Mary was living at an address on the Gallowgate.

As things transpired, Mary served approximately four-and-a-half years of this sentence, being discharged from prison in December 1881 at which point she returned to Aberdeen. While living at the addresses on East North Street and Sugar House Lane she managed to stay out of trouble until July 1882. During this time we also know from a report of the proceedings of the Police Court in the Aberdeen Evening Express of 22nd July 1882 that she was in work:

"A woman named Mary Stewart, employed at one of the herring-curing yards at Footdee, was today examined before Baillie Ross, in the Aberdeen Police Court, on three separate charges of stealing carpenters' tools from shops in the city during the present week. After emitting a declaration she was committed to prison, pending further investigation. Mary is a well known character to the police, having been no less than seven times convicted".

For these thefts Mary appeared before the Circuit Court once again in September 1882. She was convicted for an eighth time and sentenced to another seven years' penal servitude.


Thomas Jackson or Johnston - A Theft at Braemar Followed by Escape From Forfar

According to The Weekly News  of Saturday November 21st 1885, Thomas Jackson (alias Johnston) was a joiner by trade who came originally from...