"...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, September 23, 2013

Complex and Variegated Depravity: The Debatable Guilt of Katharine Nairn

Katharine Nairn poisoning case

“Readers of Mr. J.A. Symond’s book on the Renaissance hold up obtesting hands at the rich and varied iniquities of the courts of Medieval Italy. But for complex and variegated depravity the family of Mr. Ogilvy of Eastmilm could give the Baglioni and other Italian miscreants a stroke a hole whatever view you take of the case.”
-Andrew Lang

In Scotland on January 30, 1765, nineteen-year-old Katharine Nairn married Thomas Ogilvy, laird of Eastmilm, a man of questionable health and twice her age, but a prosperous landowner. The newlyweds resided with Ogilvy’s mother and younger brother Patrick, an invalided army lieutenant. The youngest Ogilvy child, Alexander, was a surgeon who, in the words of crime historian William Roughead, “was prosecuting at Edinburgh his studies in depravity and physic.” After his brothers, he was heir to the extensive Ogilvy properties—assuming, of course, that Thomas and Patrick remained without legitimate children. His eldest brother’s marriage could not have been good news for him.

Three months after the wedding, the household at Eastmiln received an unexpected houseguest: A cousin, Anne Clarke, who was, unbeknownst to the family, also Alexander’s mistress. She claimed her visit was in order to act as peacemaker between them and Alexander, who was on bad terms with his kin. In truth, young Ogilvy had deputized her to stir up as much trouble for Eastmiln as possible. She succeeded beyond possibly even his imaginings.

She had scarcely put her foot in the house before she was spreading some very dark rumors about Katharine’s relations with brother-in-law Patrick. At first, Thomas and his mother dismissed such lurid insinuations. However, the two brothers later quarreled about other matters. In the course of their argument, Thomas brought up cousin Anne’s news bulletins. Patrick responded with heated denials and indignantly stalked out of the house, even though his brother soon repented and invited him back.

The newly-pregnant Katharine was suffering from morning sickness, so she—with rather questionable tact—wrote Patrick asking him to send some medicines from his sea-chest.

Miss Clarke immediately announced to the rest of the household that Katharine was on a far more sinister mission. The new Mrs. Ogilvy, she insisted, was determined to poison her husband. She had first asked Clarke herself to purchase the lethal dose for her, but when that failed she enlisted her lover in her murderous plot.

Again, the family shrugged her stories off—until the next day, when Thomas fell terribly ill. A doctor was summoned but before his arrival the eldest Ogilvy died, declaring his bride was killing him.

Alexander arrived on the scene five days later. He halted the burial with the dramatic declaration that Patrick and Katharine had murdered his brother. After he and Clarke gave their stories to the local authorities, the accused pair swiftly found themselves in jail, charged with poisoning Thomas Ogilvy with arsenic.

At their trial, there was little proof of either poisoning or adultery other than Clarke’s ever-colorful testimony. According to this witness, Katharine’s favorite, and practically ceaseless, conversational topics consisted of her guilty passion for Patrick and her determination to put her new husband in his grave as soon as possible. If Clarke was to be believed, never was there a chattier murderer. Each charge against the defendants was used as evidence for the other: The affair was assumed from the poisoning, and the poisoning was assumed from the affair.

Even more striking is the fact that it never was established how Thomas Ogilvy died. The prosecution stated that shortly before his brother passed away, Patrick bought half an ounce of arsenic “to destroy some dogs that spoiled the game.”  However, the doctors could not show that this poison was the cause of death. Rather amazingly, it was not even proved that Patrick did, in fact, buy arsenic. The doctor who sold the substance to him could only say he assumed it to be such, and that he had “heard it from those he sold it to that it had killed rats.” Contradictory evidence was introduced about the eldest Ogilvy’s prior state of health. Some witnesses, most notably Anne Clarke, said he had been a perfectly healthy man; others, that he had been in very poor shape for many years.

Despite the fact that virtually all of the evidence against them was either weak or highly suspicious, Patrick and Katharine were convicted and sentenced to death. The verdict was highly unpopular.  Efforts were made to have the case reviewed in the House of Lords, but these agitations proved unsuccessful. Patrick was hanged on November 13, 1765, protesting his innocence to the end. Many, if not most, observers believed him.

Meanwhile, Katharine had perhaps the most mysterious fate of any high-profile convicted murderer. Her pregnancy won her a temporary reprieve until January 27, 1766, when she gave birth to a daughter, who died soon after birth. Katharine’s execution was scheduled for March 17. However, on the night of the 15th, she escaped the Tolbooth—a breakout almost certainly collusive. Her uncle William Nairn was a man of some importance—he held the post of Commissary Clerk of Edinburgh, and was later raised to the baronetcy as Lord Dunsinnan. It was said he engineered the escape plot—whether out of affection for his niece or simply a desire not to have a hanging soiling the family tree is unknown.

However it was done, Katharine successfully fled to the Continent, but her subsequent actions are a puzzle. Various stories circulated about her later life—some said she joined a convent, others that she married a Dutchman, or an American, or a Frenchman. None of her contemporaries seemed to know anything about her end, and later historians have not been any more successful in their researches.

The one bright spot in this gloomy tale is that Alexander Ogilvy failed to benefit from this wholesale destruction of his family. On March 1, 1766, he was arrested for bigamy (Anne Clarke was not among his illegal wives) and that August was sentenced to deportation for seven years. While winding up his affairs before this unwanted departure, he accidentally fell out of a high window in an Edinburgh house and was instantly killed. I’d like to think Patrick pushed him.

If Thomas Ogilvy was indeed poisoned, Anne Clarke makes an excellent prime suspect. That female Iago also disappeared from history after the trial, free to continue her remarkable practices. I have no idea what became of her, but I would not be at all surprised if she lived a long, prosperous life and died peacefully in her bed. Life is just like that.

Although I doubt she ever really regained her popularity as a house guest.


  1. Wow. That one actually had some justice to it. Whew. I hope you are right about how Alexander met his end.

  2. History can provide more interest and excitement than any work of fiction. Hmm, don't spread that around. I write fiction...

    1. This is why I'd never succeed as a novelist. There's no way I could make up stuff like this.

  3. A Scottish tale - fabulous!
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

    1. I love Scottish history. No nation on earth does "weird" quite like they do.

  4. What a story - weird indeed! maybe I'll get round to writing about her- one day!! Just found this brilliant blog. Will share this with al my Scottish pals!

  5. PS do you know the Scots sayi8ng? 'Ye maun dree your weird' meaning You must follow your fate!!

    1. Yes, I'm fascinated by Scottish history, so I've come across that one. It does seem to apply here.

      And thanks!


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