"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Maidservant Vs. the Patriarch: Which One Was the Murderer?

The slaying of a maidservant named Jessie McPherson, which took place in Glasgow, Scotland in the summer of 1862, still manages to stand out in the strange world of criminal jurisprudence. As crime historian William Roughead noted, it is not every day that one encounters a murder trial where the chief witness for the prosecution was the actual killer. 

This sordid and gruesome crime took place—as so many of them do—against a backdrop of quiet respectability. Miss McPherson worked for the family of a well-to-do and socially prominent accountant, John Fleming. Prior to the murder, the only known flaw in the Fleming history was John’s father James, who was most commonly—and probably most politely—known as “Old Fleming.”

Old Fleming, a man of (according to him) eighty-seven or (according to the lawyers) seventy-eight years, was the sort who makes a colorful and entertaining figure when seen in literature, but who is inevitably a living hell to deal with in real life. While his son proudly rose to the level of comfortable bourgeois, he himself remained stubbornly and embarrassingly crude in manners, habits, and speech. Indeed, he was scarcely a member of the family circle at all, preferring to spend his time “downstairs” with the servants. He preferred the company of the female staff, a predilection that sometimes presented delicate difficulties, especially when—as often happened—he had too much to drink. Ten years before our story opened, Old Fleming had even suffered a public rebuke from the local Kirk for having impregnated a domestic servant named Janet Dunsmore. Considering the results of his involvement with Miss McPherson, Miss Dunsmore was relatively fortunate.

Every summer, the Fleming household retired to their country house in Dunoon, leaving McPherson to tend to the family home—and Old Fleming, who was always left behind to holiday in his own fashion. John Fleming, along with his son John Jr., stayed in town during the week to attend to business, leaving every Friday afternoon to spend the weekends at Dunoon. On the morning of Monday, July 7, 1862, John Fleming and his son returned to Glasgow, going straight to the office, as was their habit. Around four-thirty in the afternoon, John Jr. went home. He was greeted by his grandfather, which was extremely unusual, as McPherson was invariably the one to answer the door. When young John asked what had become of Jessie, Old Fleming simply said, “She’s away, she’s cut.” He added that he had not seen her since Friday, and her bedroom door was locked.

John Fleming arrived at this time, and when he was told of the missing maidservant, he immediately led them to her basement room to investigate. The key to her locked door was missing, but John Sr. was able to get inside using the key to the adjoining pantry. They found the room covered in blood, with the body of Jessie McPherson lying nearly naked, with a piece of carpet covering her head. “She’s been lying there all this time,” Old Fleming exclaimed accurately, if unnecessarily. “And me in the house!”

A police surgeon was soon on the scene. When the house was examined, blood was found on the sink and door of the nearby kitchen. The doormat was so soaked with blood, it was sticking to the threshold. A trail of blood could be seen in the hallway leading from kitchen to the maid’s bedroom. Most notable, however, was the discovery that the kitchen floor, the hallway, and the upper part of the dead woman’s body had obviously all been washed. The hallway was still visibly damp, indicating that this crude clean-up operation had happened fairly recently. Investigators also discovered blood in Old Fleming’s dressing-room, and in the kitchen was a cleaver, which had been cleaned, but that still bore traces of blood. Several imprints of a bloody foot were found in the maid’s room. There was also blood-stained water in her wash basin, and her “servant’s box” containing her personal belongings had obviously been rifled. It was also discovered that several of the dead woman’s garments were missing, as well as some pieces of silver from the dining room.

Advertisements were placed in the local papers about the burgled items, in the hope that it would lead them to the thief, who was also presumed to be the murderer. The autopsy revealed that the unfortunate maid’s head and been badly mangled by repeated blows from a hatchet or cleaver. Defensive wounds were also found on her hands and arms. It was believed that she was attacked from above, as she lay on the ground, and then her body was dragged by the feet from the kitchen to her room.

Unfortunately, we do not have a record of what precisely Old Fleming told investigators when he was asked to give his account of that fatal weekend. It would be good to know his original explanation for his nonchalance about his missing maidservant. Or his failure to notice that he was spending three days alone in a blood-stained house. Or his obliviousness to these recently-washed floors. All we know is that his responses were so evasive and suspicious that he quickly found himself under arrest.

Just when things were looking black for the Fleming patriarch, salvation came in the form of a local pawnbroker, who announced that some of the missing silver had been placed in his shop by a woman who gave a phony name and address. Soon after that, the police—who were evidently guided in this direction by Old Fleming himself—arrested another young maidservant named Jessie McLachlan. She had been the dead woman’s best friend.

When interrogated, Mrs. McLachlan, most unfortunately for herself, lost her head and told her questioners what soon proved to be a tissue of frantic lies. She denied having been at the Fleming home the night of the murder. She stated Old Fleming had given her the silver to pawn for him, as he needed the money. When confronted with the fact that the deceased’s missing clothes were found in her home, she said that McPherson had given her the garments to be altered. Tests established that it was her foot that left the bloody print found in the Fleming house. All of this, while undoubtedly incriminating to Mrs. McLachlan, did nothing to mitigate the equally suspicious behavior of Old Fleming. However, from this time on, the authorities suddenly displayed a new-found trust and respect for that gentleman. Whether or not the fact that the Procurator-Fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of public prosecutor) was a close personal friend of the Fleming family had anything to do with this shift in attitude can only be left to speculation.  “The old innocent,” as he was dubbed by his sympathizers in the local press, was not only set free, but he became the star witness when McLachlan stood trial for murder on September 17-20 1862.

The highlight of “the old innocent's” testimony undoubtedly came when he was asked about his remarkable lack of curiosity about his missing servant, particularly when she failed to answer the door to visitors, as was her invariable duty.

“Jessie was deid!” Fleming answered matter-of-factly in his broad Scots accent. “She couldna open the door when she was deid!”

In those days, McLachlan was forbidden by law to take the stand, so her defense relied on a handful of witnesses. They testified to the warm friendship that had existed between the two women, and the victim's loathing of Old Fleming, whom she described as “an old wretch and an old devil.” A friend of the deceased who saw her shortly before her murder asserted that McPherson confided that she had a secret she wished to tell her when they were alone—a secret that was obviously of a very intimate nature, and one that related to her difficult relations with her employer's eccentric and intrusive father. She died before she could relate the nature of this secret, but the judge, Lord Deas, who was as suspiciously partial to the Flemings as the investigators, urged the jury to ignore the issue. He was certain that the deceased only wished to say that she was thinking of emigrating to America!

It was in his summing-up to the jury, however, that Deas truly distinguished himself. As a contemporary law journal put it, he “put his foot fiercely into one scale [of justice] and kicked at the other.” Anything that told against the accused was emphasized with loving fervor; whatever reflected badly on “the old innocent” was either excused or simply ignored. In a speech lasting four hours, he failed to say one word even remotely in favor of the defendant.

The jury could take a hint. After deliberating for a grand total of fifteen minutes, they obligingly came back with a verdict of “Guilty.” Upon hearing this dreaded word, McLachlan—who appears to have been the only one in the courtroom surprised by this decision—told her counsel that she wished him to read a statement on her behalf. It was an account she had related to her lawyers back in August, after she learned that Old Fleming had been cleared of suspicion. When permission was given, he gave, for the first time in public, McLachlan’s version of the night Jessie McPherson died. It was a tale that could give Lovecraft or Poe the vapors.

In brief, she claimed that on the night in question, she was visiting her friend in the Fleming kitchen, with Old Fleming, as usual, lending his highly unwelcome presence. After the trio made generous inroads in the family whisky, he gave McLachlan money to have their bottle refilled. Upon finding that the local public house was closed, she returned to find her friend lying semiconscious on the floor of her bedroom, with large gashes over her face. When the horrified woman asked Fleming what had happened, he said there had been “an accident.” He refused to send for a doctor.

After McPherson had somewhat recovered her senses, she told McLachlan that some days previously, Old Fleming, during one of his habitual fits of intoxication, tried to force himself on her. She had fought him off, but there had been “words” between them ever since, and he was terrified she would tattle about his behavior. After McLachlan had left to buy the whisky, there had been an argument, which ended with him striking her in the face with “something.”

McLachlan nursed her friend as best she could, but as dawn approached the victim suddenly grew much worse, and she became desperate to fetch a doctor. However, she found that Old Fleming had locked her inside the house. She returned to find the old man again attacking McPherson with a meat chopper. Hysterical with fright, unable to stop him or flee this house of horrors, she ran upstairs, screaming for help. 

Fleming followed her. He said that McPherson had to die, as otherwise she would have “told” on him. He assured her that as long as she kept silent about what had happened, she had nothing to fear, but if she did not, he would accuse her of the murder. He said calmly that he would leave some windows open and say that burglars had been responsible for the crime. To add verisimilitude to his story (and, of course, to implicate McLachlan, although her wits were not about her enough to realize this,) he gave her some of the dead woman's clothes, as well as some items of silver to pawn. He also gave her a small sum of money, promising more if she held her tongue.

McLachlan's mind was still frozen with fear for her own life and uncertainty about what she, a mere servant, could do against the patriarch of a wealthy and powerful family—uncertainties that were certainly to prove justified. She did as she was told.

In response to this statement, Lord Deas immediately and contemptuously dismissed it as “wicked falsehoods.” Without hesitation, he donned the Black Cap and sentenced the prisoner to be hanged. 

Fortunately for McLachlan, others found her story considerably more convincing. There was such a public outcry against executing her before further investigation could be done that the Crown was compelled to appoint a “Secret Inquiry” into the matter. The Commissioner could not subpoena witnesses or force anyone who appeared to testify under oath, and one of the heads of this “Inquiry” was the same Procurator-Fiscal who had pressed the original charges against the accused. However unsatisfactory these private proceedings may have been, those involved obviously realized they were in a bad position, and, as so often happens when those in authority are forced to pass judgment on their own mistakes, they attempted a compromise. On November 6, 1862, McLachlan's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

As is usual with compromises, no one was happy. If the accused was guilty, she hardly deserved mercy, and if innocent, a life sentence was pure outrage. The whole issue wound up as the subject of two lengthy debates in the House of Commons. They established that so far as the defendant's statement could be checked, it fit the known facts perfectly, and included details which were unknown at the time, but were later found to be accurate. A number of witnesses were called, including some who had not appeared at the trial, all of them giving evidence favorable to McLachlan's story. In Roughead’s words, if her statement was false, “we have lost a fictionist more marvellous than Defoe; one so adroit as to foresee and account for facts and circumstances which it is humanely impossible she could have known she would be called upon to meet.”

Her belated efforts to clear her name proved largely for naught, however. Jessie McLachlan had saved her life, but lost virtually everything else. She spent fifteen years in prison, and was quietly released on October 5, 1877, when she was forty-four. After her trial, her husband and infant son moved to America, and upon finding that she was still a notorious figure in her native land, she soon followed them there. All we know about her subsequent history is that she died in Port Huron, Michigan on January 1, 1899. We are equally ignorant about the last years of her Nemesis, Old Fleming. This is probably just as well, unless his relatives found a way to keep him well clear of the whisky and the maids.


  1. As Roughead said "you can't get enough of a good murder". As a matter of fact Jessie long outlived them all. The flemings did not long survive the trial, John Fleming, the son, died in 1866 at his house in Dunoon. He would have been about 50 being born in 1816. The old man, James Fleming, died in 1869 when he must have been in his early 80s. He died in Cumbernauld where the family came from originally.

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