"...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 27, 2023

The Curious Case of the (Allegedly) Murdered Maid

The Scottish-born James Oliphant worked as a surgeon in Newcastle.  In 1755, he married one Margaret Erskine, and the pair went on to have two children.  From all appearances, the family was one of solid 18th century middle-class respectability.

This seemingly ordinary household took a very dark turn in May of 1764.  One of Oliphant’s two maidservants unexpectedly became so ill she had to quit her job.  This sudden turn of events compelled the family to replace her with a young woman named Dinah Armstrong, even though the girl did not provide the usual “character.”  (What we today would call “references.”)

This turned out to be highly unfortunate for all concerned.  It soon emerged that the reason for Armstrong’s lack of “character” was due to her lack of character.  Just a few days before the Oliphants hired Armstrong, she had been dismissed from her previous position on suspicion of being a thief.  However, the Oliphants considered Armstrong’s denials of wrongdoing, as well as her “good countenance” to be sufficient to overlook her alleged transgression.

On June 5, James Oliphant and his wife went to visit relatives, leaving their children in the care of their friend Mrs. Milne, the wife of a Newcastle merchant.  Armstrong accompanied the children to act as their nurse.  When the Oliphants returned on July 10, Mrs. Milne informed them that three of her damask napkins had disappeared, and “from circumstances” she believed Armstrong had stolen them.  When questioned, the maid vigorously protested her innocence, but showed a suspicious reluctance to have her belongings searched.  When Mrs. Oliphant inspected Armstrong’s chest, she found no napkins, but a linen sheet marked with the initials “A.H.”  This proved to be the property of Armstrong’s former employer, Mrs. Heath.  When confronted, Armstrong admitted that she had stolen it, as well as some other items.

Mrs. Oliphant treated her errant maid with unusual mercy.  She told Armstrong that she could keep her position until “her quarter” had expired, and promised that she, Mrs. Oliphant, would put in a good word for her, if only Armstrong would return the napkins to Mrs. Milne.  However, the girl continued to insist that she had not taken anything of Mrs. Milne’s.

Mrs. Milne must have been a woman who dearly loved her napkins, because she now threatened to have Armstrong prosecuted, and urged the Oliphants to immediately dismiss the maid.  For whatever reason--whether through a sense of Christian charity, or a simple reluctance to go to the trouble of finding another servant--Mrs. Oliphant rejected the suggestion.  It occurred to her that if “some person of ingenuity” was to question the girl, Armstrong might be persuaded to admit guilt and turn over those napkins.  Accordingly, a neighbor of “great humanity” named John Green was called in on July 17 to have a chat with the girl.  Armstrong confessed to Green that she had indeed nicked Mrs. Heath’s sheet, but continued to insist she knew nothing about the napkins.  Green--no doubt with a deep sigh--asked her to think things over.  He told her he would return later in the day to see if she had a change of heart.

This story may well have ended very differently if only the Oliphant home had been on dry land.  Their residence was on the south end of Tyne Bridge.  Mr. Oliphant’s shop was on the ground floor, with the kitchen and parlor on the middle floor.  The family’s living quarters were on the top floor.  Underneath the shop were winding stairs leading to a cellar.  The cellar had a door cut into two parts: the upper part could be opened to receive air and light, while the under part was used to load or unload goods into or from the river Tyne.

At one p.m. on July 17, the Oliphants gathered for dinner in the parlor.  Dining with them was Mrs. Oliphant’s father and one Henry Thompson, a patient of Mr. Oliphant’s who had been living with them since the previous month.  Armstrong cooked the meal, while the other servant, Mary Shittleton, waited at the table.  Dinah was in a noticeably sulky mood, which is hardly surprising under the circumstances.

In the kitchen with Armstrong was a staymaker named Margaret French.  She was waiting for the Oliphant’s daughter to come home from school so she could have a fitting for a new pair of stays.  Mrs. French, “amusing herself at the window,” paid little attention to Armstrong, who could not have been a very cheerful companion at the moment.  When Shittleton came into the kitchen to fetch more food, she noticed that Armstrong was not there.  Mrs. French told her that she thought the girl had gone downstairs.

Shittleton called down the stairs.  Getting no reply, she went down to the shop.  Failing to find Armstrong there, she descended into the cellar.  As she went down the stairs, she saw reflected on the east wall of the cellar the shadow of a figure leaping from the lower half-door into the river.  As the tide was out, she heard, not a splash, but a dull thud upon the shore.  When she looked out, she saw Armstrong lying on the sand 13 feet below.  Shittleton rushed upstairs to summon the family.  By the time everyone had gone down to the cellar, Armstrong was gone.

The Oliphants instantly gathered neighbors together to form a search party, but although they found the mark where Armstrong had landed, no other trace of the girl was found, in or out of the river.  It was assumed that the maid had attempted to drown herself, but when she saw the tide was out, she “escap’d undiscover’d by some of the passages leading from the water side into the town,” and her guilty conscience prevented her from contacting either the Oliphants or her own family.

That night, Armstrong’s sister Jane, who lived in Newcastle, was informed of her sister’s disappearance.  Jane replied that she had heard nothing from Dinah.  The following morning, Jane arrived at the Oliphant home.  She told the family that another sister, Tamar, lived in Long Benton, three miles from Newcastle.  She thought Dinah might be there.  

On July 19th, Jane paid another visit to the Oliphants, asking that Dinah’s clothes and chest of personal possessions be turned over to her.  As Jane seemed unconcerned about her sister’s odd disappearance, the Oliphants assumed she knew where Dinah was, and with the threat of prosecution hanging over her head, their maid wished to remain in hiding.

On the morning of the 22nd, a keelman named Joseph Barlow came to the Oliphant’s home.  When Mary Shittleton opened the door, he asked if the family “had a maid that was drowned lately.”  Shittleton replied that they had one that was missing, but she certainly hoped she hadn’t drowned.  When Mr. Oliphant came to speak with Barlow, the keelman told him that he and another man had just “taken up a woman floating in the middle of the river Tyne.”  From Barlow’s description, Oliphant could not be certain if it was Dinah or not.  He recommended that Barlow see Jane Armstrong about the matter.  Oliphant dispatched Shittleton to see the body, which she immediately identified as her former co-worker.

When gawkers examined the corpse, it was noted that Dinah, who always wore a necklace or ribbon on her neck, had a circular mark around her throat, causing these amateur pathologists to surmise that the girl had been strangled.  (However, when the body was first recovered, her cap was hanging behind her head, tied under the chin with a small string.)  Gossipmongers seized on this theory, immediately spreading lurid rumors that the Oliphants had murdered their erring maid.  The day after Dinah’s body was found, Tamar Armstrong went to the Oliphant home in order to issue “the most scurrilous abuse and threats” against the family.

On July 24, John Robson, one of the coroners for the County of Durham, came to Dunston to hold an inquest.  Unfortunately for the Oliphants, Robson, as well as the jurors he empanelled, had heard the tittle-tattle blaming the family for Armstrong’s death, and were all inclined to believe it.  Mary Shittleton was summoned to give evidence.  However, although the Oliphants volunteered to give testimony, the offer was ignored.  Likewise, although John Green attended the inquest, the coroner also refused to take his deposition.  It was clear that Robson saw the inquest as a court of the kangaroo kind.

Five witnesses testified at the inquiry.  Jane Armstrong stated that on July 16, she visited Dinah, who was “very dull and heavy.”  She claimed that when she returned later in the week, Mrs. Oliphant told her that John Green had been sent to “threaten” Dinah about the missing napkins.  She added that Mary Shittleton informed her that after Dinah leaped from the cellar window, Mary saw her “rise up and run.”

One Thomasine Elwell testified that on the day after the body was found, she was in Mr. Oliphant’s surgery.  Mrs. Oliphant told her that Dinah’s death “was the greatest trouble that ever came to her family.”  She added that three sheets and a tablecloth were missing, and “that she had her [Dinah] there [the cellar] from the Friday before to the Tuesday till she did that wicked deed.”

Mary Shittleton gave her account of seeing Dinah’s leap into the river.  A woman named Jane Greeves testified that three weeks before Dinah vanished, she encountered the maidservant on the quayside.  Armstrong told her that she was in Mrs. Oliphant’s service, and was doing very well.  On July 23, Greeves accompanied Jane Armstrong to ask Mrs. Oliphant “What she had to lay to the charge of the said Dinah.”  Mrs. Oliphant told them about finding Mrs. Heath’s sheet, and that she herself was missing some linen, but that Dinah had begged her not to tell any of the Armstrongs about it.

The coroner had requested a surgeon named Robert Somerville to inspect the body.  Somerville testified that he had found “a circular mark on her neck about half an inch in breadth, which has been made (to my judgment) by a rope, or might have been done by a ribband, necklace or the like nature, but there was no such thing found upon her neck when taken up.  Her face was quite black, occasioned by a stagnation of the blood, which is a concomitant of strangling or suffocation.”  He found no other marks of violence.

We do not have a record of how Robson summed up this rather sparse evidence to the jury.  This is a pity, for his oration must have been a humdinger.  It resulted in the jurors making the remarkable declaration that “James Oliphant, Margaret Oliphant, and Mary Shittleton, with force and arms, in the cellar of the dwelling-house of the said James Oliphant at Gateshead in the county of Durham, feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought did strangle and suffocate Dinah Armstrong with a certain cord of the value of sixpence.”  No motive was offered for why this hitherto law-abiding household dealt with an unsatisfactory servant not by firing her, but by strangling her and dumping the body in the river.  The Oliphants and Mary Shittleton were arrested early the next morning.

The three defendants stood trial at the Durham Assizes on August 17.  The Crown witnesses offered little that had not been heard at the inquest.  The defense called just two people: Henry Thompson and Margaret French.  Thompson asserted that the deceased had always been treated kindly by the family, and that the maid had never been restrained in the cellar, or anywhere else.  Mrs. French stated that she saw Dinah going about her business as usual, although she seemed “very dull.”  She corroborated Mary Shittleton’s account of the subsequent events.

No doubt much to the disappointment of Coroner Robson, the defendants were acquitted, “to the entire satisfaction of the whole court.”  The judge added that he believed they were “as innocent of the crime laid to your charge as myself.”

In September 1764, Mr. Oliphant, naturally anxious for some redress for the financial and emotional trauma his household had experienced, exhibited a complaint against Robson to the Court of King’s Bench.  The Court refused the motion, advising Oliphant to take his troubles to the Grand Jury.  However, Oliphant learned that such a proceeding would be too expensive for his severely diminished funds.  The unhappy man had to settle for publishing a pamphlet detailing his long ordeal.  The Oliphants continued to live in their tragedy-scarred home until the Great Flood of 1771 destroyed the dwelling.  A short time afterward, the family returned to Scotland, for good.  The Oliphants probably spent the rest of their lives earnestly wishing that Mrs. Milne had just forgotten about her damned napkins.

Although it seems most probable that Dinah, having failed in her first attempt at suicide, succeeded with the second, there are still mystifying elements to the case.  While it is natural that Dinah’s relatives would prefer to think she had not committed suicide, it is baffling that the coroner would pursue such a determined persecution of the Oliphants on such extremely scanty evidence.

And, of course, there is the question we are all thinking:  What happened to those napkins, anyway?

1 comment:

  1. There is indeed a mystery to all this, though I think Coroner Robson was carried away merely by the chance to exhibit his importance, such as it was. He probably didn't get too many cases he could construe into murder.


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