In 1891 a book entitled ‘Tales, Legends, and Traditions of Forfarshire’ was compiled by Alexander Lowson. Chapter seventeen deals with the crime, trial and subsequent execution of a Margaret Wishart from Arbroath. The account was written by Lowson’s grandfather, Donald Jolly, who was acquainted with Margaret, and chronicled her last few months in a very detailed account written at the time. Margaret’s origins are currently unclear. At the time of her execution (for murdering her blind sister and child) she was recorded as being about forty years of age, and originally from the parish of St Vigeans in Arbroath. Her parents may have been Walter Wishart and Helen Anderson, however we don’t currently have any proof to support this theory. Part 1 of the chapter deals with Margaret’s alleged crime, and we reproduce a transcription as it was published below, with part 2 detailing the trial itself.
The great King of Kings
Hath in the table of His law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder.
He told how murderers walked the earth
Beneath the curse of Cain,
With crimson clouds before their eyes,
And flames about their brain.
Is there a crime
Beneath the roof of Heaven that stains a soul
With more infernal hue than damned
Part One: The Crime
My first acquaintance with the woman whose crime, trial, and execution will form the subject matter of these sketches, was when she was a servant with the worthy old gentleman, Mr Webster, many years Provost of Forfar. A smarter and tidier girl could not have been than Margaret Wishart, when she became general house-maid to Provost Webster. The Provost was a kind-hearted man, of the old school, honourable and upright to a fault, pompous, punctilious, haughty in his manner, a sincere Christian, and regular church-goer. He invariably occupied the Provost’s chair in the Council loft; not a day did he miss, sunny or stormy, and what was rather unusual, his lovely daughter, then a fair-haired girl of fifteen summers, always sat at his right hand in church.
The reason of my intimate acquaintance with young Maggie Wishart was that I sometimes did odd jobs for the Provost, and on these occasions the servant lass and me would take our dinner in the kitchen. Margaret came to Forfar from Arbroath where her family resided, as she told me she had three sisters, two of whom were older than herself and married, and the third – whom she often spoke about with great tenderness and affection – was her sister Jean, who had been blind from her birth; who stayed in family with her widowed mother. This blind sister of hers, she said, notwithstanding her affliction, was an expert spinner of lint. She would sit for many hours daily at her spinning wheel, singing as blithe as a skylark at her task, and many of the townspeople both gentle and simple would call at her mother’s house, to see the wonderful expertness of the puir blind lassie deftly converting with her nimble fingers the lint into thread.
Maggie Wishart, when a servant with the Provost, was much admired by the lads in her own station of life. Many of them would have gladly wooed her, but although she would crack and joke with them, and had a kindly smile for them all, I could see that there was none of them whom she specially favoured. I sometimes marvelled at this: but ere long I got the true explanation, when once I met her on the street in company of a good-looking young man. They stopped and spoke to me, and Margaret told me that the man was Andrew Roy, an acquaintance of hers, from Arbroath. I could easily perceive from the blush on her cheek and the love-glint in her eye that this young man, Andrew Roy, had gained the girl’s affection. During the five or six years that Margaret Wishart was a servant with Provost Webster, this young man paid her occasional visits, once or month or so, and he was recognised in the Provost’s household as the future husband of their respected and trusted servant.
About this time Margaret’s mother died, and she had to give up her place in Forfar to go to Arbroath, so that her blind sister might have a home, as the domestic arrangements of the other two sisters would not permit either of them taking Jean to live in family with them. The old Provost was loth to part with so trustworthy a servant, and Miss Webster, who during the years that Margaret had been with them had developed from a slip of a girl into a young woman, actually shed tears when Margaret told her she would have to leave. I could understand that Andrew Roy’s influence, combined with her sister’s helplessness, had weighed with Margaret in resolving to leave her good place and set up housekeeping on her own account. Although I did not say so to Margaret at the time, I thought that Andrew Roy should have, if his intentions had been good, married the girl, and thus provided a home for her blind sister. I was astonished to hear sometime after Margaret left Forfar that she had taken a house at the east end of Orchard St., Arbroath; that she kept four lodgers, and that her sweetheart, Andrew Roy, was one of them. I had my doubts about the expediency of this arrangement, and after-events awfully proved that my doubts were well-founded. Margaret had only been eighteen months in her new vocation when a sad calamity befell the household – she discovered that her blind sister Jean was with child. No threats, no entreaties, had any impression on the girl. She would not tell who had been the seducer, neither does it appear that at that time any suspicion was entertained that the party who had acted so heartlessly was the pretended lover and promised husband of Margaret, the good-looking scamp, Andrew Roy.
Somehow or other I was much interested in everything connected with my old acquaintance, Margaret Wishart. I never lost an opportunity when I met any of my acquaintances from Arbroath of inquiring after her welfare, and how she was getting on generally, and if there was any word of her marriage with her sweetheart, Andrew Roy. I grieved very much when I heard that her blind sister had given birth to an illegitimate child. I was sure that this would be, putting aside the shame of such an incident, in a respectable family a heavy burden for them to bear in their poverty. The child did not live long, however, some nine months, I believe. Again matters seemed to get along in the Wishart family in the same manner as it did before, – the blind sister spinning evidently at her lint, Margaret attending to the comfort of her four lodgers, and ekeing out a living by performing a day’s washing occasionally to the gentry.
This Andrew Roy, who plays such a heartless part in the tragic story I am endeavouring to relate, was a man of whom every person in Arbroath had a good word to say. He was expert at his trade as a millwright, and well employed; he attended Church regularly, and in fact possessed all the outward tokens of probity and respectability. Alas! How often does a fair exterior cover a fiend in human form; a mind debased by lust and deception, and a heart callous and unfeeling.
It has always been my opinion that Margaret had a strong suspicion, if it did not amount to a certainty, that this first child of her sister’s was begotten by her own false lover, Andrew Roy, and that this occurrence planted in her mind the seed which in time germinated and grew into mad unthinking desperate jealousy. Oh! Jealousy, thou green-eyed monster! What sad disaster hast thou wrought in this beautiful world of ours. Thou has estranged husband from wife, parent from child, and friend from friend. Spencer in his “Fairy Queen” thus describes the passion –
Foul jealousy! Thou turnest love divine,
To joyless dread, and mak’st the loving heart
With hateful thoughts, to languish and pine,
And feed itself with self-consuming smart;
Of all the passions of the mind, thou vilest art.
The great essayist Montaigne also says: –
When jealousy seizes the poor weak and resistless souls, ‘tis pity to see how miserably it torments and tyrannizes over them. This fever defaces and corrupts all they have of beautiful and good besides; and there is no action of a jealous woman, that does not relish of anger – ‘tis a furious agitation. The ordinary symptoms are intestine hatreds, factions, conspiracies, and a rage which so much the more frets itself, as it is compelled to veil itself under a pretence of good will.
The havoc and destruction that jealousy has caused can never be sufficiently realised. It has nerved the arm of the murderer, corrupted the heart of the vile poisoner, and added venom and spleen and vindictiveness to the tongue of the dirty slanderer. If strong drink has had its thousands of victims, jealousy has had its tens of thousands. Let every man and woman pray that they may be protected from and kept free of the deletrious influence of cruel unreasoning jealousy.
No more atrocious crime exists than that of secret poisoning. The individual who resorts to this diabolical act must for a very considerable time before the perpetration thereof have become a murderer in thought. It is horrible to imagine that a human being created in God’s image, could slay by this secret deadly means, the mother who gave them birth, the father who loved and cherished them, or the sister that lay in the same womb as themselves; and yet, if we are to believe the records of the past, based on the most reliable testimony, may thousands of miserable miscreants have stained their souls with such crimes. I recollect of hearing an eminent divine deliver a sermon on the inhabitants of the ocean. He drew a fine picture, in which he contrasted the denizens of the earth with those of the sea. He compared the sword-fish to the warrior, the whale to the millionaires, the shoals of herring to the common people, and so on; and then he spoke of strange fearfully-formed monsters who lived far far down in the depth of the mighty waters, who only now and again came to the surface, when the sea was disturbed by some fearful hurricane, and these repulsive monstrosities he compared to the Lucretia Borgias, who now and again shocked society with their atrocious secret poisoning.
In the month of September, 1826, Andrew Roy negotiated for the sale of his business. All his friends wondered at this act, for he had a good and increasing trade. He however tod them he had made up his mind to convert all his worldly effects into cash, and to go to America. He did this and left Arbroath before the end of the month. This was a sad blow to Margaret Wishart, as she had naturally expected that the consummation of their courtship would have resulted in marriage. Deep down in her heart she felt she had been slighted, but womanly reticence and modesty prevented her from letting the world see how deeply she was afflicted; besides by this time she began to suspect that all was not right with her blind sister Jean. The horrible though oppressed her night and day that this fact had something to do with the sudden resolve of Andrew Roy to sell his business and leave the country. By the first week of October her worst fears were realised. Her sister became very ill, and as Margaret suspected her condition, although Jean denied it firmly, she sent for the mid-wife, Mrs Prayne, who quickly removed all doubt. For a few days the poor blind woman lay very ill, and on Thursday the 6th October she gave birth to a male child, and sometime on the night between the Saturday and Sunday thereafter both mother and child were dead.
There does not appear to have been, at the time of the deaths nor for some time after, any suspicion of foul play; at least if there was among the neighbours and inmates, no such rumour had reached the ears of the public or the authorities, for the body of Jean and her child were quietly and decently interred in the picturesque kirkyard of St Vigeans. Soon, however, it began to be bruited abroad that everything was not right; that there were suspicious circumstances attending the death; that the poor blind woman had died in great agony, and that some days before her decease no food would remain in her stomach. Catharine Greig and Mary Greig, two neighbours, and Bell Sands, another neighbour, stoutly and openly maintained that Jean Wishart had been done to death by poisoning. The authorities came to hear of all of this, and after taking the depositions of these neighbour women, they deemed there was sufficient grounds for a strict and searching examination.
On a quiet Sunday forenoon, while the service was being conducted in the Church on the hill, the congregation became aware that something unusual was taking place in the graveyard of St Vigeans. They heard distinctly where they sat on their pews the sound of spades and mattocks removing the soil, and so great was the excitement that the eloquence of the minister ceased to interest them, for in a few minutes the whole congregation were on their feet and looking out of the windows of the Church. They saw three men flinging the mould from the grave in which a short time before the mortal remains of Jean Wishart and her child had been buried. The Procurator-Fiscal of the County, Mr Hutchison, as there watching the proceedings, and along with him were three well-known Arbroath doctors – Dr Arrott, Dr Palmer, and Dr Sharpey. In a short time they saw the coffin taken from the grave and carried to the adjacent schoolhouse. In the schoolhouse the doctors took the bodies from the coffin; they opened them, and the stomachs and certain parts of the intestines were taken out. These were divided into two portions, one portion being retained by the Arbroath medical gentlemen, and the other securely sealed in a glass jar, and forwarded the same day per mail coach to Edinburgh, addressed to the famous Dr Christison, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in the Edinburgh University. That same evening Dr Arrott reported to the fiscal that there were traces of arsenic in the stomach of the deceased woman, but that he could find none in that of her infant. Acting on this information, and the facts deponed to in the depositions of the two sisters, Catharine and Mary Greig, Mr Hutchison gave instructions on the Monday forenoon, that Margaret Wishart should be arrested on the suspicion of having poisoned her sister. That same day Margaret was brought before Sheriff Robertson who had gone to Arbroath for the special purpose, when she emitted a declaration which in brief was as follows:
That she thought she gave her sister potatoes for supper on Tuesday, and that after partaking of the same she became very ill with what appeared to be a severe colic; that she however recovered, and had got up and begun to spin at her lint, and appeared from that time until she was overtaken with the pains of child-labour to be perfectly well.
After emitting this declaration, on the order of the Sheriff, Margaret Wishart was locked up as a prisoner in the Old Tollbooth of Arbroath, there to await instructions from Crown Counsel.
Howard the great philanthropist had many years before this commenced his campaign against the loose and cruel management of the prisons of the world. He had in fact published his great book on the subject in the year 1777. It has often occurred to me that Howard had surely not visited and reported on the miserable condition on the Tollbooths of Scotland. Society has unquestionably a right to punish the offenders against its laws, and against the laws of God, but it has no right to trifle with the health, the intellect, or the remaining principles of even the worst of its members. A writer on prison reform truly says: – “Torture in every horrible variety – chains – stripes – solitary confinement in darkness – dampness and coldness – promiscuous crowding of offenders of every degree of guilt in the same loathsome narrow vaults – insufficient and unwholesome food – filth – illness of the body and sickness of the soul, are some of the evils which have in every age been wantonly, carelessly, or ignorantly inflicted upon the violators of the war. What is worse, hey have been inflicted upon those who have violated no law, upon those who have been proved innocent, after suffering the infliction of some or all the ills enumerated in this atrocious catalogue, and upon many whose imprudence alone has exposed them to the vengeance of an equally imprudent creditor.” Is proof a wanting of the horrible state of our prisons in this year 1826? Mr Hill one of the Government Commissioners, in his report on the Scottish prisons says, in reference the jail at Cupar: – “It would be impossible by any alteration to render it tolerably suitable as a place of confinement. In the only part of the prison which is secure it is impossible to do more by way of separation than to keep the males apart from the females.” In a history of the fair city of Perth, published the other day, I find the following about the jail there: – “The jail contains a sufficient number of apartments, but they are cold and dirty, and the building is so insecure that humanity calls loudly for a new prison.” Then again in the capital of the nation we have a Tollbooth, a disgrace to civilisation, thus described: – “A turnpike stair gives access to the different floors; it is narrow, steep, and dark; the visitor is assisted in his ascent by a greasy rope which has seen service in the hanging of a criminal. In one of the apartments on the second floor is a door leading out to the platform whereon criminals are executed and on the floor above, an ill-plastered part of the wall covers the aperture through which the gallows was projected. On the west wall of the hall hangs a board on which – the production of some insolvent poetaster is inscribed, the following emphatic lines: –
A prison is a house of care,
A place where none can thrive,
A touchstone true to try a friend,
A grave for one alive.
Sometimes a place of right,
Sometimes a place of wrong,
Sometimes a place of rogues and thieves,
And lonest men among.
The old Edinburgh Tollbooth is a vile, dirty, dismal hole.” What unjust effects to society does the enforced idleness and promiscuous herding of all kind of criminals produce. The refractory apprentice, whom solitude and silence and labour might have brought to his senses, and returned him well disposed to his duty, is herded with the felon and the atrocious villain. And the villain himself, though he is destitute of virtuous principles, yet before his confinement he had been accustomed to labour, he will be more than likely from the enforced idleness of a long imprisonment contract a habit that will render him a useless and worthless member of society all the rest of his life.
I have been thus particular and minute in describing the looseness and inadequacy of our prison-houses because Andrew Durward, the jailor of Arbroath, has been so severely censured in connection with this case, for the want of discipline, promiscuous intercourse between the sex, and other irregularities, which were alleged to have taken place in Arbroath Tollbooth, while Margaret Wishart lay there awaiting her trial. These irregularities, and the effect they had on her conviction, will be fully described when we come to treat of the trial itself, as well as other details of the story of the crime, as sworn to by David Edwards, the lodger, the two Greigs, the two midwives, Jessie Mackenzie, Bell Sands, and the doctors; by the Macphersons, mother and daughter, Wiliam Ogg, a civil debtor, and Andrew Durward, the jailor of Arbroath.
When it became generally known in the good town of Arbroath that Margaret Wishart was lodged in jail, on the charge of poisoning her blind sister, nearly everyone was amazed. She had always been known as a very decent respectable woman though poor. The story of the bastard bairn was greedily discussed by the gossips, and the disappearance of Andrew Roy freely commented upon, and many a one who had never such a thing in their head declared “that they werna at a’ surprised; they aye thocht there was something wrang an’ that it was easy seen that Jean Wishart an’ Andrew Roy wer ower thrang,” and so on, and so on. The ignorant senseless gossiping busy-bodies, who form such a large part of every community, are a sore plague in this world, and it is a problem that never has been solved for what purpose were they sent into this world at all. The wise and the prudent in the town held their tongue awaiting the development of the case, and the true kind-hearted Christians grieved that there were so much crime and sin and immorality in the world, and in their hearts they pitied the poor woman whether she was guilty or innocent, who now lay in prison on such a diabolical charge.
Part Two: The Trial