the debauched grandfather

On 4 July 1862, the maid at the prosperous Fleming household at Sandyford Place was brutally murdered.

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The Sandyford Mystery had two unlikely suspects, a debauched grandfather and a sailor’s wife. Old James Fleming lived with the corpse for three days while his family summered at their coastal villa. When investigators eventually arrived, they found that Jessie McLachlan, a twenty-eight-year-old mother who was a friend of the maid and a former employee at the house, had left three bloody footprints behind.

Grandfather Kirk found here

Old Fleming, who at eighty-seven was a hunched and balding figure with sideburns and a hooked nose, was a rustic who had turned to textile manufacturing. His son had “intimate” ties to the chief investigator. While that must have augured well for the elder Fleming, who collected rents for his son and attended church twice the Sunday after the murder, he also had Scottish law on his side. Scots Law is perhaps most famous for its third courtroom verdict—besides “guilty” or “not guilty” a jury may declare “not proven” and set a suspect free.

knives seized in Scottish courts found here

Even if all parties to a murder shared equal guilt, a suspect turned prosecution witness was guaranteed total immunity. In the end, Old Fleming was made legally white as snow: once a prime suspect with blood spattered on his nightshirt, the old man became the Crown’s chief witness in the murder trial of the hapless Mrs. McLachlan.

Witness for the Prosecution found here

Dozens of witnesses testified; floorboards with a bloody footprint, ripped up as evidence, were displayed before a rapt audience of fashionable ladies, reporters and city officials. McLachlan sat stoical in her white straw bonnet with ribbons and veil, her hands tucked under a black woolen shawl.

black shawl found here

Adam Gifford, gowned and bewigged advocate-deputy for the Crown, said to the jury “It will be my duty to ask a verdict against the prisoner, “Is the prisoner guilty or is she not guilty? Not, had she confederates?” While Old Fleming was indeed under “the gravest possible suspicion,” a crime by multiple parties was not at issue. “If guilt be brought home to one, it will not be enough to say, ‘Somebody else had a share in it.’”

“Lawyer’s Wig” mushrooms found here

The jury took fifteen minutes to find McLachlan guilty. Although the verdict was dramatic enough, next came “one of the greatest sensations in Scottish legal history.” Lord Deas, a judge known as Lord Death for his willingness to hang, allowed McLachlan a final statement. She stood in the dock, lifted her veil, and requested to have it read. For the next forty minutes, her lawyer told her story “amid the breathless attention of the court.”

On the night of the murder, she had visited her friend Jess McPherson. She found Jess in the downstairs kitchen with a drunken Fleming. His whiskey jug had run dry. He asked McLachlan to replenish it at a local pub. When she returned, Jess was lying in her bedroom moaning. She had resisted the drunkard’s advances, and now she had cuts about her face and there was a “large quantity of blood on the floor.”

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McLachlan begged to go for a doctor, but Fleming made her swear secrecy on a Bible. In return “he would make her comfortable all her life.” She again began to leave, but hearing a noise in the kitchen rushed back to see “the old man striking” the maid with a “meat chopper.” Fleming cornered her: “If you tell you know about her death you will be taken in for it as well as me.” Dawn had arrived, and before she left, Fleming gave her a few pounds of hush money and silverware to pawn. It was to look like a robbery.

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Lord Deas was unmoved, his mind having not “a shadow of suspicion” about Old Fleming. He put on his black cap and sentenced McLachlan to hang, directing that until then she live on bread and water and asking that God have mercy on her soul.

McLachlan’s eleventh-hour account in the courtroom hit the presses and galvanized the nation. Fifty thousand Glaswegians signed a petition. Old Fleming was so harassed that he fled to the villa. His family moved away from the city. Finally, new evidence put the verdict in limbo “until further significance of Her Majesty’s pleasure.” The queen’s pleasure was to commute the death sentence. In the fall of 1862, Mrs. McLachlan walked through the gloomy gates of Her Majesty’s General Prison at Perth for a “life” imprisonment, which meant fifteen years in those days. She was released in 1877.

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Published in: on November 24, 2011 at 7:35 am  Comments (48)  
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