"...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, January 8, 2018

Marry In Haste, Repent With Arsenic: The Case of Christina Gilmour



Throughout history, untold numbers of women have entered into a marriage with a man who was not their true heart's desire. Many of them simply gritted their teeth and endured a lifetime of unhappiness. Some managed to overcome such unpropitious beginnings and find contentment, even love, in their wedded life. Others just fled at the first opportunity.

And then we have Christina Gilmour.

Christina Cochran was the daughter of a wealthy farmer and cheese-maker in Ayshire, Scotland. Aside from her considerable dowry, she was a pretty and personable girl, all of which naturally ensured that she had many suitors. However, there was only one man whom she wished to wed: a neighboring farmer named John Anderson. For some years, there had been an unofficial understanding that they would marry once Anderson--who was considerably poorer than the Cochrans--improved his financial status.

When Christina was 23, she attracted a particularly ardent admirer, John Gilmour. He was of higher social status than Anderson, being both rich and well-educated. In addition to these desirable qualities, Gilmour also possessed an excellent personal reputation. Christina, her heart still set on John Anderson, was indifferent to this latest suitor, but her parents found Gilmour to be a far preferable match for their eldest daughter, and urged Christina to accept his frequent proposals of marriage. She consistently refused, until the lovesick Gilmour finally threatened suicide. This melodramatic appeal, coupled with the pressure she was under from her parents, compelled Christina to ignore her heart and accept Gilmour's hand.

The first thing she did after saying "Yes" to Gilmour was to bring the news of her engagement to John Anderson. It is suspected that Christina was hoping this would force her old lover's hand and get him to agree to immediately marry her. If such was the case, her plan backfired: Anderson, like the hero in a soap opera, immediately said he was bowing out of the picture, and wished her well in her marriage.

One gets the impression that Mr. Anderson was secretly relieved to be jilted. Considering the subsequent events, it is possible that he knew our heroine better than most.

Christina fell into an epic funk. She moped around the house, took long solitary night walks, and sought consolation in large amounts of food. In short, she exhibited all the stereotypical behavior of a young person who has had a great disappointment in love. Despite Anderson's renunciation, Christina continued to correspond with him. Christina's parents, alarmed at her strange behavior, tried to arrange her marriage as soon as possible, but she obstinately kept putting off the wedding date. Finally--probably after realizing that Anderson was showing no sign of wanting to woo her back--the reluctant bride seemed to accept the inevitable. On November 29, 1842, Christina married John Gilmour, and the newlyweds settled down at his farm at Town of Inchinnan.

The Gilmour residence


On their wedding night, Gilmour was hit with the disconcerting news that Christina intended to be his wife only in the strictly legal sense. She flatly refused to consummate their marriage, preferring instead to spend her nights in a chair by the fireside. To his credit, Gilmour did not try to pressure his bride into sleeping with him. He attributed her behavior to "newlywed nerves," and assumed she would eventually come around. Christina, on the other hand, told a servant, Mary Paterson, that she had married Gilmour against her will. She added that she had "intended to take John Anderson."

On December 26, Mary Paterson left the farm to visit relatives in a neighboring parish. While it's not unusual to ask people setting out on a journey to bring back souvenirs, Christina's request was out of the ordinary: she asked Paterson to stop along the way and buy her some arsenic. Christina advised her not to buy it personally, but to stop at a particular house and get "a boy" to procure the poison. She said it was to kill some rats.

What would any true-crime story be without that classic rallying cry? "Arsenic for rats!"

Paterson forgot the location of the house she was supposed to visit, so bought the arsenic herself. On December 27, she stopped at a chemist's shop, said quite openly that it was for "Mrs. Gilmour of Inchinnan," and obtained a packet of the poison, which she dutifully passed on to her mistress. The following day, Christina showed Paterson what appeared to be the same packet of arsenic. She threw it into the fire, stating "it would be of no use to her, and she was frightened she could not use it right."

The day after that, John Gilmour--normally a strong, vigorously healthy man--suddenly and unaccountably became terribly sick. On January 2, Gilmour was still suffering greatly, but he insisted that he and Christina make a pre-scheduled New Year's visit to his family in Ayrshire. As he spent most of the visit vomiting and complaining of internal pain, it could not have been a very festive reunion. Upon returning to Inchinnan, his condition only worsened. Christina was his sole nurse, preparing all his meals. No doctor was summoned.

Early on the morning of January 6, Christina told Mary Paterson that she was going into the nearby town of Renfew. "She wanted something, to see if it would do her husband any good." She returned several hours later, without giving any details on the "something" she bought for the invalid. A while later, another servant, John Muir, found a black bag at the back of the Gilmour home. He had not seen it there earlier in day. When he opened it, he found a small vial of liquid and a paper packet marked with the unsettling word, "Poison." He gave the bag to Mary Paterson, who brought it to her mistress. Christina took it from her, saying nonchalantly that she had bought turpentine to rub on her sick husband.

That night, Christina again left the house, taking with her a farm hand named Sandy Muir. She told Muir that she was going to visit an uncle who lived in Paisley, Robert Robertson. Perhaps he would have some idea of how to deal with her husband's baffling and persistent illness. When Robertson congratulated her on her marriage, Christina remarked that she had wed Gilmour against her inclination. "She would rather of preferred one Anderson." Robertson gave her a friendly lecture on marital duty and the need to make the best of her situation: "Many persons had not got the one they liked best." Christina took his words "quite pleasantly and reasonably." She explained that Gilmour was terribly ill, but refused to see a doctor. Robertson offered to send his personal physician, Dr. McKechnie, but Christina rebuffed the suggestion. She said she would rather that he, Robertson, came to Inchinnan first, "to see what Mr. Gilmour would say." He agreed to visit the next day, and Christina returned home.

Meanwhile, John Muir thought about that strange bag he had found. He thought about the new Mrs. Gilmour's very obvious unhappiness in her marriage. He thought of his master's mysterious and violent illness. He thought of a great many things. That evening, when the invalid was alone, Muir entered his room and asked if he would like to have a doctor brought in. Gilmour replied that if he was still ill in the morning, he would do exactly that. Muir volunteered to fetch one immediately. Gilmour agreed, suggesting one Dr. McLaws, in Renfrew. "Jock," Gilmour added, "this an unco thing!"

Translated into modern dialect, Gilmour was signaling that he knew something rum was up.

Dr. McLaws arrived that very night. He thought the patient was merely suffering from some minor "inflammatory" illness. He bled Gilmour, prescribed a turpentine rub, and went on his merry way.

The next morning, a young woman entered a chemist's shop and asked for arsenic. To kill rats. She gave her name as "Miss Robertson," and stated that the poison was for a local farmer named John Ferguson. As the chemist knew of no "John Ferguson" in the area, he was reluctant to hand over the arsenic. The lady quickly added that Ferguson was no near neighbor, but "up by Paisley." Satisfied with this explanation, the chemist obligingly handed over twopence worth of arsenic.

Later that day, Mr. Robertson paid another visit to the Gilmours. He found that John was still suffering greatly. Gilmour told him of Dr. McLaws' unfruitful visit, and said that if he got no better, he would send for Dr. McKechnie. The next morning, Robertson received an urgent message from the Gilmour home, asking that he return, and bring a doctor with him. It is not known who sent this summons.

Dr. McKechnie found that Gilmour was very feverish, and suffering from unquenchable thirst. He asked for samples of the sick man's vomit and stool, but Christina told him that none had been preserved. He ordered that some should be kept for him to examine the following day. He prescribed various medicines, as well as a "blister." The following day, Dr. McKechnie paid another visit, and found that the patient seemed better. When he asked Christina for the vomit and stool samples, she said "there was so little she did not think it worth while keeping them."

Unfortunately, the next day, January 10, Gilmour's condition took a turn for the worse. On the afternoon of January 11, he died. Sandy Muir later said that shortly before the end came, Gilmour asked that his body be autopsied. Gilmour said to Christina, "Oh, if you have given me anything, tell me before I die!"

Christina did not request a post-mortem on her husband. After the funeral on January 16, she returned to the home of her parents. She also wrote a letter to John Anderson, but, unfortunately, we do not know its exact contents.

Gilmour's neighbors and servants did not share his widow's evident eagerness to have his strange death shrugged off. When an openly discontented wife buys arsenic, and her husband's funeral soon follows, it is tempting to come to certain conclusions. So loud did the gossip become that law enforcement became involved. On April 21, a warrant was issued ordering the exhumation of John Gilmour and the detention of Christina Gilmour. When Christina's father, Alexander Cochran, became aware of this, he suggested to his daughter that it might be a good time for her to take a long vacation. He quickly made arrangements to have Christina brought to Liverpool and placed on a ship bound for America. She traveled under the name of "Mrs. John Spiers."

On April 22, John Gilmour was autopsied, with the verdict that the unfortunate man had died from the effects of a poison, most likely arsenic. Two days later, police arrived at the Cochran home bearing an arrest warrant, only to find they were a bit tardy. Christina had disappeared, and her relatives refused to give any idea where she might have gone. After a bit of detective work, the local police superintendent, a man named George McKay, managed to ascertain that she had fled the country, leading him to obtain a new warrant for her arrest. McKay alerted New York authorities about the fugitive heading their way, hopped on a ship, and managed to intercept Christina in Staten Island. "Mrs. Spiers" initially tried denying that she was Christina Gilmour, but unfortunately for her, McKay had once met her during her brief stint as Mrs. John Gilmour, and he recognized her immediately. Her last gambit having failed, Christina meekly surrendered.

This was the first case of extradition under the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty between America and Great Britain, making the Gilmour case a footnote in transatlantic legal history. At her extradition hearing, the prisoner made a valiant effort to convince the court she was insane, but sadly for her, the court had little trouble coming to the conclusion that she was faking it, and ruled that she should be extradited. On August 16, McKay triumphantly placed his prisoner on a ship bound for Liverpool. One month later, she was committed for trial. In her statement before the court, Christina admitted buying arsenic (you may have already guessed that she was "Miss Robertson,") but insisted that it was only meant to kill herself. She stoutly denied giving arsenic to her husband at any time. Confronted with the fact that arsenic was found in her husband's body, she could only reply that "He got none from me, and I am not aware that he got it from anybody else."

Christina's murder trial began on January 12, 1844. The argument made by the defense was that John Gilmour had taken the arsenic himself, either accidentally or, distraught over the instant failure of his marriage, deliberately.

The court proceeding's dramatic highlight came when John Anderson took the stand. He stated that he had received two letters from the defendant since her husband's death: one in January 1843 and another on April 28. He had not kept either letter, leaving us entirely reliant on Anderson's memory for their contents. He said Christina wrote that she had bought arsenic in order to kill herself, but "she did not admit" giving it to her husband instead. She had also complained about being sent out of the country: she would have preferred to stay "till all was settled." Anderson added that Mrs. Gilmour, whom he had known since childhood, was "of a very gentle, mild, fine disposition." Other witnesses testified that although Christina may have regretted her marriage, she showed no indication of any personal rancor or dislike towards her husband, and appeared to have been genuinely distressed by his illness and death.

Unusually for a poisoning trial, the medical witnesses for both sides were in essential agreement: they had no doubt that John Gilmour had died from ingesting arsenic. The only question was, who was responsible for his poisoning: the dead man himself, or his wife? The judge, Lord Justice-Clerk Hope, gave a notable summing-up to the jury. He pointed out that Christina's statement that she had bought the arsenic for purposes of suicide might have been true. He believed that it was by no means proven that Mrs. Gilmour had been forced into the marriage against her will, thus leaving her with no obvious motive for the alleged crime. In his view, none of the prisoner's actions during her husband's life were at all suspicious. He told the jury that they "may say that without any proved act of administration on her part, your minds revolt from the notion that she committed the crime charged against her." If the jurors felt there were unanswered questions surrounding the case, the defendant deserved the full benefit of the doubt. In short, Hope essentially chucked the trial evidence out the window and instructed the jurors to free the defendant.

The panel obliged, returning a verdict of "Not Proven," that uniquely Scottish ruling that during its history was a friend to many a murderer. The decision was received in the courtroom with "loud, but not very general applause."

Christina never remarried. (Obviously John Anderson feared her second husband might fare no better than her first.) She returned to her home town, where she died over sixty years later in peace and demure respectability. Crime historian William Roughead, writing about the case some years after her death, reported that "a certain clergyman of my acquaintance," had known Christina in her later years. Roughead said the man described her as "a charming old lady, serene and beautiful, famed throughout the district for her singular piety."

3 comments:

  1. From this distance and on that evidence, there doesn't seem much doubt about the truth but, as the jury rightly concluded, no definitive proof, either. Mrs Gilmour doesn't seem to have been the type to have let any of her actions bother her in later years...

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  2. "Marry In Haste, Repent With Arsenic" - a horrible thing to do, but an excellent title!

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  3. "Christina Cochran was the daughter of a wealthy farmer and cheese-maker"

    No wonder she was so blessed.

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