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Authors: Christianna Brand

Heaven Knows Who

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Heaven Knows Who

The Trial of Jessie M'Lachlan

Christianna Brand




An isometrical view of the basement at 17 Sandyford Place is on
page 27
and of the ground floor on
page 29
; a detailed ground plan of the basement is at the end of the book. Jessie M'Lachlan's route to and from the spirit shop is shown on a plan of Sandyford Place on
page 31


Any work on the case of Jessie M'Lachlan must owe a vast amount to the great William Roughead, who edited this, among so many others, in the Notable British Trials series. It was his favourite, ‘the ideal murder'; and H. B. Irving, a great connoisseur in these matters, wrote to him that it was ‘the best murder trial I ever read'.

In a humble attempt not to seem to be in my turn simply editing Mr Roughead, I scoured England and Scotland for extra scraps of information about my dear Jessie—always to find that he had been there before me. Fortunately for me, he hadn't had space to use by any means all of it and I did proudly discover a very few interesting facts which he seems to have missed, and make one—to me interesting—deduction which he didn't make. For the rest—though lots of it ‘on soul and conscience' I declare I found for myself before I got access to his library and saw that he had noted it too—I gratefully acknowledge my huge indebtedness. I would like to say thank you also to Mr W. N. Roughead for his ready permission to make as much reference as ever I liked to his late father's work; he says he couldn't stop me, but it's still very pleasant to be made free of it so graciously. I should also like to thank Messrs. William Hodge Ltd, for the loan of blocks printed on
pages 27
and at the end of the book. And lastly, I do thank all the people in Glasgow and Edinburgh for their wonderful helpfulness in what I rather grandly call my research; they have a heart-warming talent for making one feel not a nuisance.

Mr Roughead tells me that his father's habit of writing only M' in all surnames prefixed Mac or Mc was partly to assist the printers but largely ‘just a fad.' Any fad of William Roughead's is a fad of mine.



She wore a straw bonnet throughout her trial—a lilac wool gown, a little black shawl and the straw bonnet, trimmed with broad satin ribbons, its brim edged with a frilling of narrow black lace. One can't help wondering how she got it—this special bonnet to be worn during the four days of her trial for murder. Did the prison matron go out and buy it for her? Was James, her perfidious husband, commissioned to choose it, with anxious recommendations as to colour and trimming? If she had one poor, pitiful, seldom indulged little vanity, it was a fondness for pretty clothes.

This is the true story of the trial of Jessie M'Lachlan for murder—the ferocious murder of her dearest friend. It is in every possible detail authentic. If Jessie is described as having smiled or sighed, if a witness is said to have thought a thought—then there is evidence somewhere of that smile or that sigh or that thought. Where dialect is reproduced it is the reported dialect actually used by that speaker at the time. If a place or a person is described, it is from a contemporary description or picture. Background, ‘plot', dialogue, character—all this, which may read like fiction, was true enough and real enough, only too true and only too real, a hundred years ago.

The murder was of a young woman named Jess M'Pherson, at 17 Sandyford Place, Glasgow, on the night of July 4, 1862. Her friend, Jessie M'Lachlan, stood her trial for four days in the Old Court, Jail Square, Glasgow—the court sitting for eleven hours of each of the first three days. At the end of this time, the jury, having deliberated for exactly fifteen minutes, returned with a unanimous verdict. It was, moreover, an unequivocal verdict. There was no question of ‘not proven'.

And the trial was interesting in this, if in nothing else—that the defence was simply that the prisoner had been nowhere near the scene when the crime was committed, that it had been committed by another person, a named person, a supposedly
respectable old gentleman, Mr James Fleming, of 17 Sandyford Place. Mr Fleming variously described himself as eighty-seven years of age and seventy-eight. Whether or not his word was entirely to be trusted, we shall see: but eighty-seven is obviously a more unlikely age to be embarking on murder. It may be said here that there was no question of any collusion in the murder: one person alone, in both senses of the phrase, killed poor Jess.

The crime took place, as has been said, in Glasgow, some time in the night between July 4 and July 5, not far from the scene of three other
causes célèbres
. It is interesting to note their outcomes: for of the three accused, Dr Pritchard, infamous mass murderer, was executed—the last to be publicly hanged in that same Jail Square where Jessie stood her trial; the resourceful Miss Smith was set free, and Oscar Slater, after twenty years of wrongful imprisonment was granted a free pardon. As for Jessie M'Lachlan—once again, we shall see.

She was about twenty-eight at the time of the murder: a frail, slender, rather pretty creature with a lovely figure, brown eyes in an oval face and soft straight light brown hair pulled back into a bun. Everyone seems to have liked her. Her sisters-in-law, it is true, who came of a large and cheerful family, thought she was not quite forthcoming enough and considered herself above them; and indeed she is often described as having ‘a ladylike air'. But she was said to be very delicate and got easily tired: and self-contained and reserved she might be, but she was ‘a very mild, gentle and kindly woman', and ‘of a religious turn of mind'. Her neighbour, a lady rejoicing in the name of Mrs Clotworthy, gave testimony at the time of the trial that, ‘being in great distress from a melancholy accident that happened to one of my children in falling into a sawpit' she was further discomposed by a siege of the curious flocking about her home. Mrs M'Lachlan alone refrained from joining the sensation seekers, but sent round constantly with kind enquiries. The ladies hardly knew one another, they were both people who kept themselves to themselves; but Mrs Clotworthy strongly approved of Mrs M'Lachlan. She seemed ‘a feeling, kind woman and she was particularly quiet, contrasting favourably with the other neighbours who were anything but quiet'. She was especially kind to Mrs Clotworthy's
children, who seem to have had a propensity for getting themselves into dangerous situations. But then she was fond of all children. She had a little boy of her own, of three years old.

She had been married four or five years and now, after several changes of address, lived at 182 Broomielaw Street—a district running along the banks of the Clyde, commonly referred to as the Broomielaw. The main industry of Glasgow, then as now, was ship-building, at that time in the process of changing over from wood to iron. It is a crowded, shabby city, with a beauty all its own—built on the foothills of a low valley but so packed with buildings that nothing of its conformation is to be seen except where the steep streets shoot up off the main highways, each ending in a skyline. It is built largely of red and yellow sandstone which weathers in its smoke and fog to a dark blue black; but, without the glitter of granite or the glow of Portland stone, it has nevertheless, its own loveliness of smokey blacks and greys, undertoned with sepia and rose. Through it all runs the reddy brown waters of the river Clyde, a tidal river up almost as far as the Broomielaw where Jessie lived. Here, as all over Glasgow, had been built tenement houses for the workers, so solid and strong that most of them stand to this day, though some are two hundred years old. They are mostly two or three storeys high, with a feature peculiar to Scotland—the ‘close', presumably so called because it is on the contrary quite open, a passage at ground level running through from front to back of the building, without doors at either end. From this the stairs run up to the several flats, or houses as they are, rather confusingly, called. The opening of the passage into the street is called the ‘close mouth'. (The term ‘close' appears also to be given to the narrow, cobbled lanes running between the main streets, with many of these tenement houses opening on to them; these are also called vennels, or wynds. In Jessie's day, the pump would be situated in the centre of the wynd and a gutter ran down one side; they seem to have been, and indeed still are, indescribably dirty and unlovely. No traffic, of course, runs through them, and the people simply sit on the cobbles to do their gossiping, their backs against the houses, while the children play about them; above them the lines of washing hang drying on poles stuck out of the windows.)

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