Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Murdoch Grant - "The Fatal Stabbing Case at Wick"


Murdoch Grant was charged with murder at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh on Monday 28th June 1886. He was born and brought up near Olrig, a few miles from Thurso in Caithness. His father, also named Murdoch, was a tailor, and the family home was a property named Fenars Houses where Murdoch jnr. is to be found on the 1871 census aged just 3. At that point in time he had an older brother, Alexander and a younger sister, Isabella. The family evidently had enough money to employ a domestic servant, Jamesina Sutherland, who was from Longhope in Orkney. By the time of the 1881 census, Murdoch has two more siblings, James and Robert. 

The case was reported the length and breadth of the country. Murdoch would have been very familiar with his local newspaper, The John O'Groat Journal, which reported proceedings under the headline "The Fatal Stabbing Case At Wick":

"Murdoch Grant...was charged with the crime of murder in so far as on the 25th of May last, while on board the smack "Isabel" of Wick in Pulteney Harbour, Wick, he wickedly attacked Benjamin Williamson, sometime known as Benjamin Sinclair, a cooper, and stabbed him in the neck with the result that Sinclair was mortally injured and died. The prisoner pleaded guilty to the alternative charge of culpable homicide. The Crown Counsel accepted this plea, and Mr. Wilson for the prisoner said he believed the reasons which had justified the Crown in accepting that plea were, firstly, that there was an entire absence of motive; secondly that the accused was under strong provocation at the time when the deed was done, although that provocation was not on the part of the poor lad who was killed; and thirdly, that at the time of the occurrence, the accused was in a state of intoxication, and having a weak brain, was in a state of complete unconsciousness of the act, and was in that respect not responsible for it".

  Caithness-shire Sheet XXV (includes: Wick) Date revised: 1905, Publication date: 1907
Reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

The report goes on to describe how Murdoch was drunk on board the vessel so the master had detained him against his will. On being released he flew into a rage which is when the stabbing occurred. Further details about Murdoch and his family background are revealed in a later passage within the report:

"It did appear, and counsel thought this material to the case, that the accused belonged to a family naturally weak-minded, a brother of his being an imbecile. It was also the case, although the accused's conduct was generally sober and quiet, and he was well known in Wick, that when he took drink he was apt to get exceptionally excited; that on this occasion he was completely dazed and quite unconscious of what had taken place; and that when he became conscious of what had happened, his grief was deep and genuine. Several certificates were read testifying to the general sobriety and good character of the prisoner, who had been in the naval reserve...Grant was sentenced to ten year's penal servitude. In passing sentence, Lord MacLaren said that if the case had gone to trial, the charge would have been murder, and Grant would be justly condemned to death. In consideration, however, of his youth, the briefest term of punishment was given". 

I was hoping to be able to find Murdoch as an inmate, most probably at the General Prison at Perth, on the 1891 census. Frustratingly, however, he has proved elusive. However, from the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see below), we do know that when he was discharged on licence in February 1894 he lived at a number of addresses in Aberdeen including 91a Chapel Street and 61 and 65 Rosemount Viaduct. A brief note in the register records that he appeared before the Police Court in Fraserburgh on the 31st October 1895 when he was convicted of theft, although this does not appear to have been reported in the local newspapers. The final address listed is 40 Skene Row where he was living in July 1896. After that date, he proves elusive once more.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

John Audsley - "A Serious Charge Against A Late Sergeant of the Montrose Volunteers"


John Audsley's story is an intriguing one. For the majority of his life he seems to have been a respectable, hard working and even upstanding member of his community in Montrose where he was a member of the golf club and even a sergeant in the Montrose Volunteers. However, in 1883 he lost his wife which appears to have precipitated a number of desperate and rash decisions which ultimately saw him incarcerated in Peterhead Prison: his mugshot that you can see at the top of this page was taken on the 21st December 1893. 

Born in the "Old Town" district of Keith in 1835, his father, Joseph, was a "wool miller". Come the 1861 census and John is to be found lodging at an address on Ramsay Street in Montrose where his occupation is given as a "railway porter". Around eighteen months after the census, on 5th November 1862, John marries a domestic servant by the name of Margaret Clark at Ferry Street in Montrose. On the marriage certificate John's occupation is given as a "wood yard labourer".

It doesn't appear that John and Margaret had any children: on the 1871 and 1881 census returns the couple are noted as living at 14 Ferry Street and then at 20 India Street, Montrose. By the time of the 1891 census, John is widowed and a prisoner in Peterhead Prison which had then been open for around two years. 

The story of how he started on the path that led to prison is revealed in a report carried by the Dundee Courier of the 23rd June 1885 under the headline "An Old Man Yielding to Temptation", 

"John Audsley was charged with the crime of falsehood, fraud, and wilful imposition, and also of forgery and uttering".

According to the report, John had ordered a number of mahogany chairs, cabinets and other furniture from three cabinet makers in Montrose and asked for them to be delivered to Dundee where, he said, they were to be a wedding gift for his niece "who had kept house for him for some time". However, far from being a gift, John had instructed the furniture to be sold at auction in Dundee and he subsequently pocketed the proceeds. The defence makes much of John's previous good character, but he was still sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

Further evidence of John's fall from grace is next to be found in the Aberdeen Free Press of the 1st June 1888, 

"John Audsley, labourer, Montrose, was charged with having, on the term day, broken open three lock-fast trunks in the men's sleeping apartment on the farm of Ulaw in the parish of Ellon, occupied by Peter Craib, and attempted to steal therefrom. He pleaded not guilty but was was convicted on evidence".

For this crime John was sentenced to 60 days' imprisonment. His next conviction in April 1890 carried a much more severe sentence of five years' penal servitude and is the one that sees him incarcerated at Peterhead. The Dundee Advertiser carried a report of the charges against John under the title, "A Serious Charge Against a Late Sergeant of the Montrose Volunteers", 

"John Grant Audsley, a native of Keith, who resided for many years in Montrose, and has recently been living in Huntly, emitted a declaration before Sheriff Brown at Aberdeen on Saturday, on a charge of having, in the men's sleeping apartment at the farm of Muirton of Barra, in the parish of Bourtie, broken open three lock-fast trunks and stolen £3 1s.; and also of having broken open another lock-fast trunk with intent to steal. Audsley was well known in Montrose where he was a sergeant of the volunteers. He was some years ago convicted of fraudulently obtaining furniture from dealers there and having it disposed of in Dundee". 

John served just under four years of the sentence in Peterhead before being released on license on the 2nd February 1894. His entry in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see below) reveals that over the following fourteen months he stayed at various addresses in the city including 204 George Street, 14 Castle Terrace, 41 Blackfriars Street and 86 Gerrard Street. 

Come the 1901 census, John, then aged 66, was lodging at 7 Black's Buildings near Woolmanhill, his occupation listed as a "labourer in store". John died from heart failure at the Oldmill Poorhouse in Aberdeen on the 26th November 1907.

Many thanks to Dr. Dee Hoole (University of Aberdeen) for the following additional information: 

Following his death at the Oldmill Poorhouse, John's body was not claimed by any relatives and was sent to the funoratory in Henderson's Court adjacent to Marischal College. Subsequently, on 29th November 1907 his body was lawfully sent to the medical school at Marischal College and dissected by the anatomist Dr Robert Reid. He was interred (probably in the poor area at Nellfield cemetery) on 10th July 1908. By that date,  John's remains had been kept, worked on and used as teaching material by the medical school for over seven months.

Friday, February 5, 2021

John Proctor - A Criminal Record Stretching From Belhelvie to Dover

John Proctor was a Belhelvie lad, or "loon", as they say in the north east of Scotland. The parish of Belhelvie is situated less than ten miles north of Aberdeen and it was at the farm of Dykenook that John was born on the 15th August 1868. His father was a farm servant, also called John, while his mother was Elizabeth Proctor (née Emslie).

Come the 1881 census, John is to be found working as a farm servant, aged 13, on his uncle William's farm of Hillbrae, just a few miles away from his birthplace, in the parish of Udny. The farm was 165 acres in total, 150 of which was noted as arable. 

Reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland
Ordnance Survey sheet LVI, Aberdeenshire, includes Belhelvie, Foveran, New Machar, Udny
Survey date 1866, publication date 1870

John evidently knew his way around a farm from a young age. Indeed, it was for the crime of cattle stealing that he ended up in the newly opened Peterhead Prison in 1889. He was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh on the 30th August that year, with the Aberdeen Evening Express containing a brief report of the trial as follows:

"John Proctor (22) was to-day sentenced at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh to five years' penal servitude for having stolen, on the 15th inst., four cattle from a grass field in the parish of Belhelvie, occupied by Mr. Sheriffs, Kannahar".

A report of John's arrest in The Scotsman two weeks prior to his trial reveals that he had driven the cattle into Aberdeen and had tried to "dispose of them at Mr. Duncan's mart" after giving a fictitious story about their ownership. Another interesting nugget of information in the report is that, 

"Proctor only came from Dublin on Saturday last after having obtained his discharge from the army on account of ill health"

John served just over four years of his five year sentence: he appears as an inmate of Peterhead Prison on the 1891 census, which is where his mugshot was taken on the 4th September 1893. The Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see image at the foot of this page) records that he was discharged from prison just over a month later, on the 6th October. 

For a short while he lived at 204 George Street, Aberdeen, where his landlady was a Mrs. Adams. However, after his release he failed to report to the police. The next note in the register, dated July 1894, states that he was "apprehended at Dover on charges of theft" and subsequently tried at the Dover Quarter Sessions. The Dover Express of 3rd August 1894 carried a report of the trial under the headline, "The Robbery at the Castle", which reveals that John had not only been a servant in the army to a Lieutenant Davies, but that he was also using a pseudonym:

"James Reed, otherwise James [sic] Proctor was indicted with feloniously stealing one gold watch and chain, with a charm attached, one silver cigarette case, one oxidized watch guard, two pairs of scissors, one silk scarf, one metal box etc...The prisoner pleaded guilty...Lieutenant Davies said that the prisoner entered the army in the February of this year under the name of James Reed. He had been his servant for a fortnight previous to the robbery. His character in the army had been exemplary. They, of course, knew nothing of the prisoner's previous career...An officer who attended from Scotland proved the previous convictions...The Recorder ordered the prisoner to be kept in hard labour for 15 calendar months on each charge, the sentences to run concurrently".

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...