Friday, May 21, 2021

William MacDonald - "Daftie" and the Theft at Tarland

Along with the amazing collection of mugshots that form the basis of this blog, Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives is fortunate to hold several hundred "wanted" posters as part of the historical records of Grampian Police. That these posters survive at all is remarkable: the useful life of such items was limited and they were usually destroyed once the crime was solved or the missing property found. The survival of this particular collection is thanks mainly to the staff employed at the police stations in Dufftown and Elgin. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they evidently hoarded the posters that were sent to them from police forces throughout Britain. The collection even includes a poster published in 1910 by the Metropolitan Police offering a reward for information about the notorious murderer, Dr. Crippen.

As you might expect, many of the wanted posters relate to crimes that took place in the north east of Scotland, but only one of them has a corresponding mugshot in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen, something which was brought to my attention by my eagle-eyed colleague, Katy Kavanagh who also provided some of the background research relating to William McDonald, alias Strachan, alias Ramsay, alias Gordon...and who also rejoiced in the nickname "Daftie".
It is this nickname, together with his somewhat 'glaikit' expression, that originally brought the poster to our attention. It relates to a crime that William MacDonald had committed in Tarland in December 1891. His stock-in-trade was picking pockets with his list of crimes, some of which are listed on the poster, stretching back to 1859 when he was sentenced to 12 months in prison by the Justiciary Court in Inverness for offences committed at the market in Elgin. The following year, he was sentenced to 6 years penal servitude for a similar offence, and in 1867 he was sentenced to 10 years, with his arrest being reported in the Aberdeen Press & Journal of the 15th May 1867:

"Two notorious pickpockets, David Sutherland, alias "Headie" and William MacDonald, alias "Daftie", are in custody here. The former was captured plying his vocation along with his accomplice in a market in the parish of Bourtie, and the latter was picked up last night by the city police in the vicinity of the police office. A third associate who was seen doing business in Longside market, was also, we understand, captured in Ellon yesterday, and will be lodged in prison on a similar charge with that of the other two above-named. Farmers would do well to look strictly after their pockets at markets just now". 

In February 1879, MacDonald appears before the High Court in Edinburgh on another pickpocketing charge. On this occasion the crime had a more sinister aspect to it as the victim was described in The Scotsman of the 25th February as being "drugged" before being relieved of a silver watch, a gold chain, a locket and £5 15s. in cash.

Whether the intoxicant was alcohol or something stronger is not clear, although ensuring that those he robbed were not in full command of their faculties was a tactic that "Daftie" also used in subsequent crimes. Despite his claim to be "as innocent as the child unborn of stealing the watch", the High Court sentenced him to 7 years' penal servitude, after which he was to be subject to an additional 7 years police supervision. According to the precognition for the trial (which is held at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh), MacDonald was 35 years of age. He gave his address as Haddington Place, Edinburgh, and his birthplace as King's Cross, London. Intriguingly, and unusually, his occupation is also noted as a "photographer", although no one by his name (or aliases) appears as such in the Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory for 1878-79.

On the 7th December 1891 when MacDonald was arrested for the theft in Tarland to which the "wanted" poster relates, he described himself as a "travelling hawker, and hailing from Glasgow" which adds further confusion to his likely background. He was tried at the High Court in Aberdeen on the 21st January 1892, with the proceedings being reported at length in the Aberdeen Press & Journal. Among the details on the poster are that MacDonald "Frequented hotels etc., and while treating others to whisky, he himself invariably drank port wine". The newspaper report confirms this behaviour, with his hapless/drunk victims, James Anderson and John Ewen, being targeted at the Commercial Inn and the Aberdeen Arms Hotel in Tarland. In total, MacDonald stole £101 from the two farmers, which equates to a little over £13,000 in today's money.

Towards the end of proceedings, MacDonald makes a fairly pathetic plea for leniency:

"[The] Prisoner, leaning heavily against the rail, of the dock made a pieous appeal for mercy. He was an old man, he said, and had already done 23 years' penal servitude and 3½ years of short sentences. His breathing was bad and he was afflicted with rheumatism; and he begged his lordship to give him one more chance for life in his old age. 

LORD YOUNG: What do you want to do?

PRISONER: I want a short sentence and you will never see me in this court any more. You are a merciful man, I know; and I know that you will be merciful to me this day.

LORD YOUNG: I do not think on this occasion I should be justified - that I should be doing my duty to the community - if I let you at large with any reasonable possibility of your going about to such places as Tarland looking out for farmers and others who are intoxicated and emptying their pockets. (Laughter). That seems to be what you wish to have a chance of doing again; but I must prevent that if I possibly can. At the same time, I cannot possibly make your sentence now less than it was on the last occasion - 

PRISONER: Good Lord! I'm an old man! (Laughter).

LORD YOUNG: The ways of transgressors are hard, and I must sentence you to penal servitude for seven years

PRISONER (excitedly): I do not think I shall live to see it. (Renewed laughter)".

We know from his entry in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen (see below) that William MacDonald did indeed survive to see the other end of this sentence which he served in Peterhead Prison, being discharged on the 2nd August 1897. During the following months, he lived at various addresses in Aberdeen including Harriet Street, Marischal Street, Guestrow and Leadside Road. In September 1897 he was apprehended for failing to report a change of address for which he was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment. By the end of 1897 he is a resident of the West Poorhouse where he remains for much of 1898, apart from a short stay at the infirmary. 





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