"...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, July 31, 2017

Malice Domestic: The Case of Philip Stanfield

...Wherein we perceive malice domestic incite to midnight murder."
~William Roughead, "The Ordeal of Philip Stanfield"

Even by the robust standards of 17th century Scotland, the household of Sir James Stanfield was gloriously dysfunctional. But was it a murderous family, as well?

Sir James was a Yorkshireman by birth. During the English Civil War, he fought for the Parliamentarians, rising to the rank of Colonel. After Cromwell's victory at Dunbar, Stanfield purchased some land near Haddington, and settled in Scotland. He built a cloth manufacturing company, which was extremely successful. His business acumen eventually earned him a knighthood from Charles II. He was wealthy, respected, and respectable.

Sadly, his home life was a far different story. It was, in fact, a domestic Hell. His wife made no secret of her disdain for him. Sir James's main source of unhappiness, however, came from his two sons. The younger one, John, was merely a garden-variety wastrel, but the elder, Philip, was a menace straight out of one of John Webster's darker plays. A contemporary described Philip as "a profligate and debauched person," who committed "several notorious villainies both at home and abroad." One of these "villainies" earned him a death sentence from a German court, but--rather unfortunately for all concerned--he managed to escape his prison cell. Philip was very close to his mother--so much so that lurid gossip spread about their relationship--and despised his father. He was known to "most wickedly and bitterly to rail upon, abuse, and curse his natural and kindly parent," and, on at least two occasions, actually tried to murder his sire. Small wonder that Sir James told friends that his family was "very wicked," adding mournfully that it was "sad that a man should be destroyed by his own bowels."

Philip was not just an emotional burden to his parent, he was a financial one as well. In 1682, Philip was sued by an Edinburgh merchant for failure to pay him for £1100 worth of clothing. Sir James was included in the lawsuit, on the grounds that although his son was a married adult, Philip and his wife were living with him, and were thus Sir James' responsibility. The court ruled against Philip, but discharged his father, "because he made it appear that he had paid 5000 merks of debts contracted by Philip during that very space, and that his son was a prodigal waster." Sir James' wife and sons were such spendthrifts, that he was forced to sell some of his lands just to keep up with their debts. By 1687, Sir James had finally had enough. He announced his intention to disinherit Philip in favor of the slightly less nauseating John. Philip responded by spreading allegations that his father was going insane.

Whenever a wealthy man starts talking about rewriting his will, trouble frequently follows. This was no exception. On November 27, 1687, Sir James traveled to Edinburgh to conduct some business. After returning home, he dined with a longtime friend, a minister named John Bell. Bell later said that Sir James appeared calm, rational, and in reasonably good spirits. After the meal, Stanfield escorted Bell to the guest bedroom, and then he himself went to bed.

It was the last time Bell saw his friend alive. During the night, the minister "slept but little, I was awakened in fear by a cry (as I supposed,) and being waking, I heard for a time a great din and confused noise of several voices, and persons sometimes walking, which affrighted me (supposing them to be evil wicked spirits); and I apprehended the voices to be near the chamber-door sometimes, or in the transe [hallway] or stairs, and sometimes below, which put me to arise in the night and bolt the chamber-door further, and to recommend myself by prayer, for protection and preservation, to the majestie of God; And having gone again to bed I heard these voices continue, but more laigh [low], till within a little time they came about to the chamber-window; and then I heard the voice as high as before, which increased my fear, and made me rise again to look over the window, to see whether they were men or women; but the window would not come up for me, which window looked to the garden and water, whither the voices went on till I heard them no more; only towards the morning I heard walking on the stairs, and in the transe above that chamber where I was lying. I told the woman who put on my fire in my chamber that Sabbath morning that I had rested little that night, through din I heard; and that I was sure there were evil spirits about that house that night."

Mr. Bell may have spoken only too accurately. At daybreak, it was found that Sir James had disappeared some time during the night. Later that same morning, a man passing by a small pool of water not far from the Stanfield house, noticed a disturbing sight. Philip Stanfield was standing on the edge of the pool, staring down at something floating in the water.

That "something" was the dead body of his father.

Although Sir James' friends had no trouble coming to the conclusion that he had been murdered by his family, Philip immediately asserted that his father, in a fit of mental derangement, had killed himself. With his usual filial affection, he declared that Sir James "had not died like a man but like a beast." Within an hour of his father's body being discovered, Philip had secured all the dead man's valuables, including Sir James' silver shoe buckles, which he promptly placed on his own feet.

This dodgy behavior only served to confirm the common suspicion that Sir James' nearest and dearest had something very serious to hide. Sir James' friends contacted the Lord Advocate in Edinburgh, who agreed that the circumstances of Stanfield's death warranted a closer examination. He sent a letter directing that "two or three discreet persons" should examine the corpse for signs of foul play. However, the messenger carrying this letter was intercepted by Philip, who took this message and destroyed it. That very night, he secretly arranged a hasty burial of his father's body.

When the Lord Advocate heard of this clandestine funeral, he sent another letter ordering that Sir James be exhumed and autopsied. After conducting their examination, the surgeons requested Philip to help them place the body in the coffin. This was done to put Philip through the "ordeal by touch"--the ancient superstition that a corpse of a murder victim would bleed when handled by the killer. When Philip lifted his father's head, witnesses were "amazed"--if probably not particularly surprised--to see blood "darting out" from the left side of Sir James' neck. The horrified Philip dropped the head, and staggered backwards, crying for mercy and collapsing in a faint.

What they had just seen, the onlookers instantly concluded, was "God's revenge against murder."

Philip Stanfield was arrested and put on trial in February 1688. The Crown, naturally, made much of the defendant's frequent instances of verbal and physical abuse against his father. Witnesses testified that if his father dared to disinherit him, Philip swore he would have Sir James' life, "though he should die in the Grass Mercat [gallows] for it." Only a few weeks before Sir James' death, Philip had been heard to boast that he would be "laird of all before Christmas." On another instance when Lady Stanfield lay ill in bed, Philip comforted her by promising, "my father shall be dead before you!" It was rumored that Lady Stanfield "had the dead-clothes all ready" while her husband was still very much alive.

The medical report on Sir James' autopsy was presented to the court. It stated that "a large and conspicuous swelling" was found on the side of the neck. The neck was also dislocated. The body was otherwise uninjured, and no water was found in the lungs. It was the opinion of the surgeons that Sir James died of strangulation, not drowning.

The scenario laid out by the Crown was this: Philip organized a private murder squad consisting of his mistress, "Janet Johnstoun, spouse to John Nichols," one George Thomson (charmingly nicknamed "The Devil's Taylor,") and Thomson's wife Helen Dickson. It was, according to the prosecution, the evil doings of this gang that caused the nighttime noises which so alarmed John Bell.

Unfortunately for the Crown, they initially had a hard time proving it. Philip's alleged accomplices stoutly maintained their innocence, even after being "tortured with the thumbikins." Sir James' servants were also tortured, with the same negative results. (Since these people failed to say anything incriminating, none of them were charged with the crime.) However, questioning thirteen year old James Thomson (the devilish tailor's son,) and Janet Johnstoun's ten year old daughter Anna Mark produced more interesting results.

According to young James, around nine o'clock on the night Sir James died Philip and Janet came by the Thomson house. He heard Philip tell the others, "God damn his own soul if he should not make an end of his father, and then all would be his, and he would be kind to them." Around eleven, Philip and Janet left, and soon afterward James' parents also went out. About two hours later, George and Helen returned. George told her, "the deed was done; and that Philip Stanfield guarded the chamber door with a drawn sword and a bendet pistol, and that he never thought a man would have died so soon." The murderers then dumped the body in the pool where it was found. James added that Philip had given George the dead man's coat and waistcoat, which left Helen "affrighted," as she felt "that some evil spirit was in it." From then on, Helen refused to be alone after nightfall.

As for little Anna Mark, she stated that on the fatal night, Philip visited her home as well. He sent her to find out of Sir James had returned from Edinburgh. That question being answered in the affirmative, he and Anna's mother left at about ll p.m. After a while, Anna's father sent her to fetch her mother, as they had a baby who needed nursing. Anna found Janet and Philip at the Thomson home. When Janet arrived, Anna heard her father greet his wife with the loving words, "Bitch and whore, where have ye been so long?" "Wherever I have been," Janet retorted, "the deed is done!" Ever since that night, Janet, like Helen Thomson, "was feared, and would not bide alone." Like their fellow murderous Scotswoman Lady Macbeth, these ladies suffered from uneasy consciences.

Despite all this damning testimony, the supreme jewel of the prosecution's case was the bleeding of Sir James' corpse, which Crown counsel triumphantly described as "the Divine Majesty, who loves to see just things done in a legal way," furnishing "a full probation in an extraordinary manner." This proved to be the last time in Scotland that the "ordeal by touch" was admitted as evidence in a murder trial, but it is doubtful the defendant would have appreciated the distinction.

The case for Philip's innocence depended entirely on the assertion that Sir James drowned himself while "in a frainzie or melancholy fit." (To which the prosecutor replied tartly that it strained belief that "after he had strangled himself and broke his own neck, he drown'd himself.") No witnesses were called by the defense.

As a curious sidelight on 17th century Scottish legal practices, before the jury retired to conduct their deliberations, the Lord Advocate called for "an Assize of Error against the Inquest," should Stanfield be acquitted. In other words, if the jurors were unaccommodating enough to free the defendant, they themselves would be fined and imprisoned for "wilful error."

To the shock of no one, such a proceeding was unnecessary. The jury unanimously found Stanfield guilty of high treason (it emerged during the trial that the defendant had made anti-royalist toasts,) "cursing of parents," and "murder under trust." (This last was a crime peculiar to Scottish law, where the guilty party is charged with killing someone who had reposed confidence in them, such as a family member or a servant. Such a murder was seen as particularly heinous.) Stanfield was, accordingly, sentenced to death.

Stanfield was hanged on February 24, protesting his innocence to the last. His execution was a particularly ghoulish spectacle. The noose loosened around his neck, forcing the executioner to manually strangle him. The tongue he had used to curse his "natural and kindly parent," was cut out and burned. His right hand was cut off and nailed to the East Port of Haddington. Finally, his dead body was left to hang in chains at the "Gallow Lee," between Edinburgh and Leith. However, after a few days, someone secretly removed the corpse and flung it into a nearby ditch. It was seen as poetic justice that, like his father, Philip was strangled and then thrown face-down in a body of water. The authorities ordered that the corpse be strung up again, but it soon disappeared, "and no more heard thereof."

It all provided excellent fodder for the superstitious.


  1. Murther - its just more classy.

  2. An incompetent murder is better committed without accomplices...

    1. Crime writer Edmund Pearson was always offering advice to potential murderers. His main rules were: Keep the murder simple, don't have a lover lurking in the background (the jury won't like it,) and don't enlist accomplices. Philip followed the first rule, but neglected the last two.


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