Friday, August 9, 2013

The Square Mile Of Murder part 1

Murder might indeed be everywhere but there is an area of Glasgow known as the square mile of murder, a term coined by Jack House in his famous book of 1962. The book re examines four separate murders that occurred within a single square mile of the city. The area stretches from Blytheswood Square, which used to be the regular haunt of ladies of the night but is now returned to its rather elegant status and now contains posh accountants, lawyers, the Royal College of Physician’s examination board etc. I think in one of my books I  punt a dead prostitute over the  wall. In fact, come to think of it, I think all the Glaswegian crime writers have done that.  I was interviewed for radio once, swinging from the railings as they wanted the sound effect of my voice coming and going with the traffic.  It was very sore on the shoulders.
                                                        The Hotel at Blytheswood Square

The square mile stretches out to Sauchiehall Street and then west to Charing Cross. Nowadays it is very unromantically, but very conveniently, crossed by the M8 motorway.  It is very easy to get a body out of the city centre because of that- imagine the M1 crossing Oxford Street  in London, with four  slip roads on and off and most of the CCTV vandalised on a daily basis.

No such ease of exit for the murders of the golden square mile, committed between 1857 and 1908. The most famous is of course, that of Pierre Emile L’Angerlier. Madeline Smith stood accused of lacing his cocoa with arsenic. A lovely patient of mine bought me the transcribed trial notes as a Christmas present. The whole issue was not one of murder but class, status, Victorian morality and ... well not being British! That murder and its aftermath deserve a whole blog to itself next week.

The Sandyford murder is the first murder to be ‘solved’ by forensic photography and the first to be investigated by the ‘Glasgow detective force’.  The body of a servant Jessie McPherson was found partially dressed in the bedroom basement of 17 Sandyford Place on 7th July 1862; she had been hacked to death with a meat cleaver, receiving over 49 blows.

So to put that in perspective. The house belonged to a very wealthy accountant John Fleming who was away on holiday in Dunoon at the time of the murder. His father, 87 year old James Fleming was at home. He sounds quite a character, often drunk, often found eating his meals in the kitchen with the servants and seemed to be quite fond of the ladies, having been rebuked by the church earlier for getting a female servant pregnant.
                                                  Typical Sandyford Place House

John had left Jessie in charge of James but when he returned from holiday James said he had not seen Jessie all weekend, John went to her room to investigate and found the poor woman dead on the floor beside the bed.

The police were called and found blood on some shirts in old Mr Fleming’s wardrobe, in Jess’s clothes chest, on the kitchen floor. In Jess’s bedroom there were three clear bloody foot prints on the floor, close to the body. Some cutlery had been stolen.
                                                   Drawing showing basement and the bloodstains.

The police immediately suspected the old man; the blows to the body had been numerous but none deep, so the killer had not been strong. And why had he not thought it odd that his servant should just disappear?

 A pawnbroker read the story in the newspaper and came forward to say that he was in receipt of the cutlery that had been stolen.  The woman who gave it to him was ‘Mary MacDonald’ who Fleming junior pointed out was actually Jean McLachlan. She was an ex servant at the house and knew the dead woman well. She gave a very long and involved statement to the police who then proved that almost every word of it was a lie. She changed her statement five times and moved herself into the frame as number one suspect.

As the police found blood stained clothing at Jean’s own house, she decided to accuse old James of the murder, saying that he had murdered Jess as she had refused his amorous advances. Jean was in jail by this time. The police came in with a bucket of cows blood and asked her to step in it,  then step on a piece of wood thus gaining a bloody footprint, which matched the photograph of the bloody footprint that had been found beside the body. They considered it unlikely that James had anything to do with the affair.
                                        The Square in former times.   The cars still park like that!                                              
At the trial James said he was woken up at four am by a squeal – this fitted with an eyewitness who saw lights on in the house and heard some moaning. James sat waiting for his breakfast which never appeared, he knocked Jess's door but she did not answer, so he went about his own business. The defence made much of the fact that Fleming opened the door to the milk boy as if he knew Jessie was incapable of answering the door... he also denied knowing Jean, although she had worked in the house, he denied asking her to pawn the cutlery for him. The judge at that point stepped in and stopped the defence from going any further just as Fleming’s story was falling apart.

 Jean was poor. James was rich. Why would he ask her to pawn anything for him? The jury came back with a guilty verdict and she was sentenced to death. This was later changed by royal pardon and a 50,000 signature petition. In the end she served twenty years and died in Michigan in 1899.

She gave another two statements to the police after her trial, the first one is now considered to hold a little more truth than any other of her statements. Her last one is disregarded as the ramblings of a vengeful woman.

Most experts now think that she was innocent, her second last statement tells of her going into the house, James is drinking and making advances to Jessie she is fed up of him and his ways and loses her temper with him. He strikes out with a meat cleaver. Jean had been sitting with them both drinking, but was out the kitchen when the attack happened, the next time she saw Jessie she was lying on the floor of the bedroom.  Still alive, but bleeding badly. The old man was then very repentant, he helped Jean clean the wounds and settle her, but she died in the night. Jean had wanted to go for a doctor but James had said it would look bad for her if she did as she would be implicated. They took the cutlery to make it look like a robbery.
Even though that statement was published the death sentence was still passed.

The press had a field day, circulation of the Glasgow papers went up five fold, everybody wanted to know about the amorous nature of this old man, the father of a very famous accountant in the city. Very little is known about the victim herself.

Jean emigrated and died twenty years later. James spent the rest of his days under suspicion, the real truth will probably never be known.

Caro GB  09 08 2013


  1. Not only is murder everywhere, but apparently also everyWHEN. The more people change, the more... well, they just don't change. Great story, Caro! I look forward to further 'parts.'

  2. Ahh, yes, yet another reason to visit Glasgow, Caro: so many lovely murders by so many lovely women. I'm sure the Glaswegians would welcome Everett appropriately.

    1. 'Glaswegians???' Makes me think of little glass figurines from Scandahoovia.

  3. But, Caro, 49 blows? 49? Delivered by an 87 year old man? Did anyone ever question the time, the determination, the bodily strength, the psychosis involved in such an act? The most famous American hatchet whacker--Lizzie Borden--was still young and she could only manage 40.

    1. Aye but Lizzie Borden wasn’t a Glaswegian. We can hack stuff up for days.

  4. Glaswegian! Yes indeed Everett. I had to look up the word Scandahoovia- thought it was a vaccum cleaner from Ikea. But you make a good point, Glaswegians could be made of glass - pretty but dangerous when at breaking point.......

  5. Yes Anna, 49 blows but none of them deep enough to kill and reading between the lines she died later of cumulative blood loss. Shame to think she might have survived if the non guilty party had acted sooner. So a weak old man or a fit young woman... both probably drunk by that point....the question remains.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I agree that murders are quite common these days. You know there are many serial killers still alive! I wonder what the government of all the countries is doing. They should take strict actions against these murderers.

  7. wonderful story but the puzzle is not solved she deserved justice but we dont know who is guilty

  8. Maclachlan thought all along that old Fleming would say there had been a burglary and not implicate her. It was only when the police released him she made the statement to her lawyers. At trial she still thought he wouldn't drop her in it and she would be acquited. It was only when she was found guilty she directed the statement to be ready to the court. Almost no one believed old Fleming wAs innocent. He was often abused physically afterwards and even stoned on one occasion. He died in 1869. Maclachlan was realeased in 1877 and emigrated to America a couple of years later where her husband and son had gone. She died in port Huron.