Morag Allan Campbell is in the first year of her PhD in modern history at the University of St Andrews. Her main research interest is madness associated with childbirth in the nineteenth-century, in particular in urban Dundee and rural Angus, looking at the social and cultural meanings behind the puerperal insanity diagnosis in a Scottish context. In addition, she has been looking at Victorian attitudes to mothers and motherhood, particularly in relation to infanticide and child murder.
In March 1889, Jessie King became the last woman to be executed in Edinburgh. Her crime, the murder of a young child in her care, was considered too ‘heinous’ for her to escape the death penalty.
Britain was in the grip of a moral panic surrounding so-called ‘baby farmers’, who, it was thought, took in the children of others for a fee, only to let them starve or to brutally murder them. Such women were perceived as preying on the unsuspecting, though many women may in fact have been performing a legitimate childcare role. In other cases, however, the discarded offspring of the desperate undoubtedly met a sad end at the hands of strangers, and cases such as Jessie’s served to corroborate public fears about the ever-present danger of these child-murdering women. In an age of high infant mortality, these women were singled out for the contempt of a society where the harsh realities of life did not measure up to the high ideals of middle class family values.
A dangerous woman, Jessie was sent to the gallows. Yet a closer investigation of the Stockbridge child murderer reveals an intensely vulnerable and manipulated individual, and a victim of her times. Perhaps she was a child killer, and perhaps not. In many ways, she was little more than a child herself.
And while the hangman measured his rope, the people of Edinburgh began to ask – just how dangerous was little Jessie King?
‘Will you take a walk with me?’
Can you see me? Are you ready to follow me, now? Watch your step; the cobbles are none too even. We wouldn’t want you slipping and falling into the dirt. We wouldn’t want any of that filth rubbing off onto you, would we? Or perhaps it would be no bad thing.
Here she is, our story’s heroine, if you could call her that. The centre of the story, anyway. She’ll take the drop, that’s a story for you. Six feet, the man who knows will say. A six feet drop is all that’s needed to hang Jessie King. There’s not much of her.
That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? The grim details; and it will be grim. You can’t help her, you can’t do anything. Even if you wanted to. Would you dare? She’ll take the drop, but would you? Aw, don’t worry, you won’t have to. Her fate was sealed a long time ago.
So she takes the parcel, and the money. Look at her. She’s fingering the money like it’s her life blood, though she knows it’ll never be hers. She’ll hand it over to him. She always does. But it’s a moment of promise as she looks at those bright, bright coins. Now she’s looking down at the child, new and wriggling in her grasp. Full of life. She tells the shady figure it’ll be fine, the child will be safe. Forget it, don’t worry, pay me the money and go on your way. You go on with your life.
She moves away, and the bundle squirms.
So is she that bad, this bairn that takes in babies? It’s a living, and a living is hard to get these days. You could wear yourself out in the factories, in the mills, or washing folk’s clothes, or cleaning up their mess. Or maybe looking after fine ladies, a ladies’ maid, handing them dresses and doing their hair. Taking their crap away in a china pot. But she’s not fine enough even for that. The likes of them would expect her to rot her days away in darkness; she’s not for the likes of them to see. She’ll make her living how she can.
It’s a living, and it’s a service. Sorts the problem out for those that have got into difficulties. They pay the money, and they don’t have to think about it again; it disappears off into the darkness. What do they care what happens next? What right do they have to ask?
She turns to leave, swaying a little as she goes. She’s none too steady on her feet – she’s never too far away from her next drink, is wee Jessie. That’s what she and her man do. They sit at their dirty kitchen table, drinking to the health of the tiny corpses in their cupboards.
And now she’s away. Darkness and dampness descend as she scurries away, the living corpse heavy in her arms.
Will we follow her, do you think? No, let her go just now, we’ll see her later. The day’s getting brighter – take a walk with me up to Calton Hill. We can talk on the way.
So where did she come from, this Jessie King? She’s a sorry wee thing, there’s no doubt about that, in and out of institutions, the Magdalene and the like. And then she had a bairn and she gave her a name, baby Grace. But wee Grace is not around now. She’s not playing keepie-up in the stairwells, or learning her lessons. Baby Grace is long gone.
The father would have married her. He would have looked after her. More or less. But she fell in with a bad one; she met that Thomas Pearson. Twice her age, a drunken sot, battered one of his women to death, so they say. Nothing to look at either. But he paid her attention, and that’s what she wanted. I can see that now. That’s what she craved more than anything. She moved in with Pearson, and they started to take in babies. Shared their whisky with them to keep them quiet.
What’s that you said? It could have been different? Aye, it could all have been so different for Jessie, if someone decent had taken her on. Would you have done it? Would you have given her house space, that dirty wee girl with no mother, not too bright in the head? Maybe you would, it’s easy to say that now. But you didn’t, and that’s that.
We all make mistakes.
They moved about a lot, Jessie and Pearson, they had to. They’d use different names, and they’d tell people different stories about who they were and what they were to each other – father and daughter, uncle and niece, even, sometimes, a couple. Mr and Mrs Macpherson. A nice couple who could take a baby off your hands, for a price. Then folk would get suspicious, and start asking questions, ask to see inside their cupboards. And off they’d go again, leaving stains on the shelves and a nasty smell in the air. But then – this whole place stinks.
Wait, stop a minute – let’s go this way. There’s something I want you to see. Just down here, where these boys are playing.
At least… they’ve stopped playing now, and they’re looking at something on the ground, that packet they were using for a football. One of the boys is crouched down, he’s teasing open the wrappings and cautiously looking inside. He’s jumping back, nearly knocking his pals over. They’re all looking now, peering close, one of the boys is leaning against a wall and vomiting, his friends are starting to run. They’re running this way.
Let’s move on, it’s going to get busy around here.
Dead and cold, black and rotting, what they found in that packet, but a baby still, with ten fingers and ten toes. Well, mostly. They found Jessie’s house nearby, and on a shelf in a cupboard, another quiet little corpse in a bundle, a little stain on the shelf beside it.
Jessie told them everything. She told them how she’d killed the babies, strangled them with a cord, winding it round twice to make it easier. Oh she knew how to do it, alright, she’d done it quick. You’ll hang, they said, if you confess. But still she said she did it. What about Pearson, they asked, what did he have to do with it? Oh, nothing, she told them, nothing at all. She killed the babies when he was out, and she told him they’d gone to a home, or back their families, or overseas. He knew nothing.
You’ll hang for this, Jessie, they told her.
Right, here we are at Calton Hill, not too steep a climb, is it? Here’s Calton Jail, this is where Jessie is now. See why you need me, now? You couldn’t just stroll up here by yourself; they wouldn’t let just anyone in here. They’re not even letting the press in for this one. I had to slip a man a few coins to get this close, and he’s only let us in because he feels sorry for me. Or he’s nosy, like you, wants to hear the whole story. He’ll have to wait.
They’re saying it’s not proper, they’ve not hung a woman for a long time, so they’re making it as private as they can. There’s plenty of people outside the gates, though – they’d pay a fortune to get a good view. But they’ve tucked the scaffold in nice and neat so you can’t see it from outside, no matter how high you climb. All they’ll see is the black flag raised when the lassie is dead.
Everyone knows about Jessie King. It’s been in all the papers. The Stockbridge murders. The Edinburgh baby killer.
Can you hear the women weeping? They think it wasn’t her fault, even if she did kill the babies. He told her to do it, he made her do it. But who knows if she even did? They might have just slipped away in the whisky, or too much Godfrey’s Cordial. They didn’t find all the babies, and the ones they did find – well, they couldn’t really tell how they’d died. But she was under his spell, doing his bidding. Some folk even got a petition together, saying she shouldn’t hang, that she wasn’t right in the head. But the man who makes these decisions said she’d confessed to the murders, and that her crimes were just too ‘heinous’. Good word, that, ‘heinous’ – really makes her sound evil, doesn’t it?
So Jessie had to hang. But whose fault is it really?
I never paid her enough attention.
The passing bell is tolling.
I’m glad I can’t see it. I wouldn’t want to see her up there, trying to look smart in her shabby little black dress. Looking all composed, ready to meet her god. She never really did understand what was happening to her, and she won’t be understanding this.
It could all have been so different. It could all have been different for me and Jessie and baby Grace.
I don’t want to hear the platform fall; I don’t want to see that six foot drop. I just thought I ought to be here.
Did you hear the city hold its breath?
Has that satisfied your curiosity, then? Is that what you came to see? Well, now you can get yourself back to your fire and your family. You can forget about Jessie King. You can forget about me too. Get yourself back to your family, your warm cocoa, your bed warmed and clean.
The hanging’s over. The bairn is dead.