1958: Peter Manuel, the Beast of Birkenshaw

1 comment July 11th, 2019 Headsman

Serial killer Peter Manuel hanged at Glasgow on this date in 1958.

U.S.-born to Scottish parents, “the Beast of Birkenshaw” was convicted of seven murders around Lanarkshire between 1956 and 1958 but suspected of more than twice that many.

He had previous convictions for sexual violence and rape was a factor in some murders, such as 17-year-old Anne Kneilands in 1956 (for which he was never convicted due to insufficient evidence) and 17-year-old Isabelle Cooke in 1957 (whose body he located for police with the chilling words, “I’m standing on her now”), others were more cold and almost gratuitous, like Peter and Doris Smart and their ten-year-old son Michael whom he all shot dead on New Year’s Day 1958, after which he simply relaxed in their Uddingston house for a week and took care of the cat.

Manuel defended himself at trial, with the usual results; however, latter-day investigations have argued that police in building this extremely high-profile case buried evidence of Manuels’ severe mental illness that might have saved him from the gallows.

“I am now more convinced than ever that the authorities played down Manuel’s psychopathic personality in the days ahead of his execution, because they had come to the conclusion that he should not receive a reprieve,” Aberdeen University legal scholar Richard Goldberg told the BBC in 2009. (The BBC broadcast, which no longer appears to be available online, aired Manuel’s voice for the first time.)

Manuel was the third-last person hanged in Scotland; only Anthony Miller in 1960 and Henry John Burnett in 1963 succeeded him before the UK’s death penalty abolition.

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1832: Elizabeth Jeffery, Carluke poisoner

Add comment May 21st, 2019 Headsman

This broadside comes from the National Library of Scotland’s vast collection of print ephemera, “The Word on the Street”.


Account of the Execution of Elizabeth Nicklson, or Shafto, or Jeffrey, when was Executed in front of the Jail, this morning, for a Double Murder, 1st, with administering, on the 4th October last, to Ann Newal or Carl, residing in Carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with meal and water and whisky, in consequence of which she died; 2d, with having administered to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at’ carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with porridge; and Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

It will be recollected that the unhappy woman who has this day justly forfeited her life to the offended laws of God, and of man, was tried at our last Assizes. The indictment against the prisoner ran thus —

You the said Elizabeth Nicklson or Shafto or Jeffrey, lately residing at Carluke, are charged with administering on the 4th of October, last, to Ann Newal or Carl residing in Carluke, a quantity. of arsenic, which you mixed up with meal and water and whisky, and which you pretended was a medicine for her benefit and the said Ann Newal or Carl having drank there of, became violently ill, and died next day in consequence of having swallowed the said mixture.

You are also charged with having on the 28th of October last, administered to to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at Carluke, and lodging with you, a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with porridge and the said Hugh Munro having partaken of the porridge became ill and, continued so the two following days. You are likewise accused of having on the 30th, October last, administered to the said Hugh Monro a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with rhubarb and the said Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

The prisoner pleaded Not Guilty, and the trial proceeded. Never before was there so connected and convincing a chain of circumstancial evidence developed in a Court of Justice. The following is a sort of summing up of the facts of the case, as they were sworn to on the trial. It appeared the no suspicion had been excited against the prisoner amongst the villagers of Carluke, on the death of the old woman, Carl, who resided next door to the prisoner — but that when her lodger Munro died in excruciating agony about four weeks after, and was buried by request of the prisoner, (as indeed Carl was also) in a great hurry, reports not favourable to her began to be openly made, and to such a length did the matter go, that both bodies were raised from their graves, and certain portions of the stomachs extracted for medical examination. It afterwards appeared from the evidence of the two surgeonss at Carluke as well as from that of two highly experienced chemists in Edinburgh, to whom portions of the matter found in the stomach s has been transmitted, that minute quantities of arsenic, but quite sufficient to cause death, had been discovered in each of the stomachs. It was also proven that the prisoner had purchased arsenic at two different times, by the hands of another person, for the ostensible purpose, as was alleged, of killing rats, by which she said her house was infested, although none of the witnesses on that spot had ever seen a rat about the premises. These purchases, be it observed, were made immediately preceding the death of Carl and Munro. Add to this it was proven that the prisoner mixed up the dose for the sick woman Carl herself and also made the porridge by which her lodger Munro was poisoned. With regard to this poor highlander, it appeared that he came home on a Saturday, in as good health and high glee as ever he was in his life, looking forward, no doubt to a happy meeting he was soon expecting to have with his friends in Skye, and that having partaken of some porridge made by the prisoner, he was soon after seized with dreadful thirst and pain, in this state the continued for two days when she again tendered him mixture of rhubarb as she alleged; soon after which she expired in great agony. The prisoner owed Munro five pounds, which she could not pay, and this seemed to be the only cause she had for committing so diabolical a crime. About the period of the murder, Jeffrey used many ineffectual tricks to makevthe friends of the deceased believe that she had accounted on the money to the deceased, but it came clearly out that she had not paid a farthing of it. With regard to the murder of the old woman, Carl, the Depute-Advocate’s theory was, that the prisoner had tried her hand on her to discover how much poison it would take to kill the young man, Munro, but the villagers say the houses were very scarce at Carluke, and that the prisoner wished to make room for a more productive lodger. There were many other facts came out in detail, all tending to criminate the prisoner, who after a trial of 18 hours, was found Guilty, and sentenced to be executed this day, but recommended to mercy by the Jury — for what reason, or on what grounds, was not mentioned. On this recommendation the prisoner had great hopes until Thursday, when an answer to an application to Lord John Russell, from a few Quakers and other eccentric individuals in this City, was refused; These characters say it was a mighty piece of unheard-of cruelty to execute BURKE!

But we have no patience with them — their maukish ravings are an outrage on nature and common sense, how humane, and kind, and charitable they are to the cold blooded murderer — while not a sigh is given to the innocent butchered victims!

When the prisoner understood there was no hope, (Which had been so unproperly raised) she betook herself to her devotions, and has continued almost since, engaged in prayer. The crowd, this morning, around the, scaffold was large. After some time spent in earnest prayer with the clergymen who assisted her; she gave the signal, when the drop fell, and in a minute she ceased to exist. The crowd then left the ground in good order.

Muir, Printer, Glasgow.

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1853: Hans McFarlane and Helen Blackwood, married on the scaffold

Add comment August 11th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1853, Hans M(a)cFarlane and Helen Blackwood were hanged before a crowd of some 40,000 souls in Glasgow, Scotland.

It wasn’t the only civic ceremony the couple would participate in that day.

McFarlane and Blackwood had been convicted of murdering Alexander Boyd, a ship’s carpenter with the merchant navy. On June 11 of that year, they drugged his whiskey, hit him over the head with the chamber pot, stripped him down to his pants and socks and threw his body out the third-floor window.

McFarlane, Blackwood, and two alleged accomplices, Ann Young and Mary Hamilton, were arrested immediately. Although they tried to make Boyd’s death out to be an accident, two children in the room, whom the killers had thought were asleep, had witnessed the whole thing and told on them.

In the end, the case against Hamilton was ruled not proven. Young was convicted, but her death sentence was commuted to transportation. Blackwood and McFarlane had to swing.

Douglas Shelton, in his book Deadlier Than The Male: Scotland’s Most Wicked Women, records,

While in Duke Street Prison, McFarlane asked for permission to marry his lover, Blackwood. Permission was refused but they were determined to be man and wife. As they stood on the scaffold near to Glasgow’s South Prison on the site of the present-day High Court, McFarlane announced to the woman — and the 40,000-strong crowd there to see them hang — “Helen Blackwood, before God in the presence of these witnesses I take you do be my wife. Do you consent?”

The woman replied, “I do.”

McFarlane then said, “Then before these witnesses I declare you to be what you have always been to me, a true and faithful wife, and you die an honest woman.”

The minister officiating the hanging then said, “Amen,” the bolt was drawn and the newly married pair fell to their deaths.

Helen Blackwood was the second-to-last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland. This broadside was sold to commemorate her and her husband’s deaths.

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1865: Edward William Pritchard, MD

5 comments July 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, tens of thousands crowded Glasgow Green to send off the murderous Dr. Edward William Pritchard … and with him, the era of public hangings in that city.

Pritchard died for poisoning his wife and his mother-in-law earlier that same year, but he might have first killed in 1863. That’s when his 25-year-old servant suspiciously burned to death in a home fire she suspiciously didn’t try to escape. Despite how it looked, Pritchard’s insurance paid up for the incident.

Murder or no, that used up all his escaping-justice karma: there’d be scant deniability next time.

After knocking up another servant in 1864, Pritchard performed an illegal abortion to dispose of the unwanted progeny with the understanding that he’d marry the girl.

Pritchard then found that his increasingly inconvenient wife had taken suddenly and strangely ill. When her mother came to care for her, mom caught the exact same symptoms — vomiting, dizziness. They checked out within three weeks of each other in early 1865, having suffered months of patient, systematic dosing by the medical man of the house.

An anonymous letter, conceivably supplied by an attending physician who naturally had suspicions about these incredibly suspicious deaths, led to the bodies’ exhumation and the ready discovery therein of antimony in lethal quantities. Servants’ testimony affirming the proclivity of others in the household to get sick when they tasted the victims’ food easily nailed down the conviction.

Asked if he had any last remarks on his way to the scaffold, Pritchard replied, “in a firm and clear, but sepulchral, tone of voice, ‘Simply to acknowledge the justice of my sentence.'” (London Times, July 29, 1865)

His posthumous notoriety in Victorian crime pulp is attested by Sherlock Holmes’ tribute in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, published full 27 years after our man’s death: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.”

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1818: Matthew Clydesdale, galvanic subject

3 comments November 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1818, murderer Matthew Clydesdale was publicly hanged at Glasgow’s High Court building, along with a habitual burglar named Simon Ross.*

This was the city’s first hanging in a decade and accordingly drew a throng of gawkers.

But they weren’t there only to mete out justice to the killer of elderly Alexander Love: there as another attraction, too. Ross, the small-timer, was done for after his hanging and buried away unceremoniously.

But Clydesdale’s body “was put into a coffin, and was forthwith conveyed, for the purpose of dissection, to the Professor of Anatomy. The cart was followed by a large portion of the crowd.” (London Times, Nov. 11, 1818)

Before a mob of rubbernecking — sometimes fainting — onlookers, the flesh that had lately belonged to Matthew Clydesdale was subjected to the fashionable and creepy science of galvanism.

Andrew Ure and James Jeffray hooked up a galvanic battery and for an hour excited the corpse with various electrically-charged proddings. Ure, at least, dreamt of the hypothesis that the right jolt to the right spot might in principle achieve a Frankenstein-like reanimation.

We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first … life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.

I mean, you’d have to think it would at least be good enough for tenure.

Regrettably failing in this honourable endeavor, the gentlemen of science did make such grisly sport with their subject as to strike awe and terror into the astonished crowd.

every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements … the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension …

Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish,and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face …

When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.

* Two others condemned for the same date’s harvest of souls — James Boyd (housebreaking) and Margaret Kennedy (passing forged notes) — were reprieved.

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1683: James Smith and John Wharry, Covenanter bystanders

3 comments June 13th, 2010 Headsman

Inscription on a marker on the road from Kirkintilloch to Kilsyth* in Scotland:

In this field lies the corpse of John Wharry and James Smith, who suffered in Glasgow, 13 June 1683, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation: ‘And they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death'” (Rev. xii. 11)

Halt, courteous passenger, and look on
Our bodies dead, & lying under this stone.
Altho’ we did commit no deed,** nor fact
That was against the Bridegroom’s contract,
Yet we to Glasgow were as prisoners brought,
And against us false witness they sought.
Their sentence cruel and unjust they past,
And then our corps on scaffold they did cast.
There we our lives and right hands also lost.
From Glasgow we were brought unto this place
In chains of iron hung up for certain space.
Then taken down interred here we ly–
From ‘neath this stone our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks, or Mahometans,
Had Scythians, Tartars, Arabian Caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s blood seed,
Commenced the same, less strange had been the deed;
But Protestants, profest our Covenants to,
Our countrymen, this bloody deed could do.
Yet notwithstanding of their hellish rage
The noble Wharry stepping on the stage
With courage bold and with a heart not faint,
Exclaims, This blood now seals our covenant–
Ending, They who would follow Christ should take
Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.


Image (c) Maria ‘Mia’ Gaellman | http://www.mariaphoto.co.uk/

The epitaph above is from this Victorian text, which further observes:

The probability is, that what is called on the new stone “the old tombstone” is not much older than this [the 19th] century, and that it is the successor of an older one on which may have been inscribed the following epitaph:

Halt, passenger, read here upon this stone
A tragedy, our bodies done upon.
At Glasgow Cross we lost both our right hands,
To fright beholders, th’ enemy so commands;
Then put to death, and that most cruelly.
Yet where we’re slain, even there we must not lie,
From Glasgow town we’re brought unto this place,
On Gallow tree hung up for certain space.
Yet thence ta’en down, interred here we lie
Beneath this stone; our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks or Mahometans,
Had Scythian Tartars, Arabian caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s bloody seed,
Commenc’d the same, had been less strange their deed.
But Protestants, once Covenanters too,
Our countrymen, this cruel deed could do:
Yet, notwithstanding this, their hellish rage,
The noble Wharrie leapt upon the stage.
With courage bold, he said, and heart not faint,
‘This blood shall now seal up our covenant,’
Ending, ‘they who would follow Christ, should take
‘Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.'”

* Kilsyth lays claim to be the birthplace of curling.

** Smith and Wharrie, apparently uninvolved civilians, were seized as the nearest available guys to punish after a Covenanter guerrilla attack near Inchbelly Bridge.

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1723: Margaret Fleck, with a fresh dempster

1 comment June 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Margaret Fleck was hanged in Glasgow for murdering her infant child.

According to “The Last Speech and Confession of Margaret fleck who was Executed at the Howgate-Head of Glasgow on the 5th of June for the Murdering of her Own Child”* (it does what it says on the tin):

I am brought this day, and that justly, to suffer for the murder of my own child, and I doubt not but that it will be expected, and I think it most proper and my indispensable duty, that as I have sinned so heinously against God, so I should glorify him by repenting my unnatural, atrocious and bloody fact — the murder of mine own child … For which crime, and all my other sins I desire heartily to mourn, and to fly to the fountain that is opened to the House of David and the Inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness; and I desire to take shame and confusion of face to my self for my sins and iniquities, especially for the bad entertainment I gave to the gospel of Christ.

At the time, death sentences in Scotland had to be pronounced not only by the judges but by the dempster, a juridical office responsible for the actual execution.

Major League Baseball pitcher Ryan Dempster: would he hang Margaret Fleck?

In this case, dempster Thomas Cochran refused to join the sentence, evidently partaking in a popular discomfort with Fleck’s hanging. Nothing daunted,

their Lordships having desired the Sheriff Depute to provide another Dempster instantly, or else to do it himself, he craved their lordships might delay the same till the next day, against which time he should have one provided. Which being condescended to by their Lordships, they continued pronouncing of sentence against the said Margaret Fleck till to-morrow at nyne o’clock; with certification that if the Sheriff Depute did not provide a Dempster against that time, they would oblige him to do it himself …

The Sheriff Depute wriggled off the hook when a guy named Robert Yeats stepped up and did the Dempstering.

* As cited by Anne-Marie Kilday in “‘Monsters of the Vilest Kind’: Infanticidal Women and Attitudes to their Criminality in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” Family & Community History, Nov. 2008.

Kilday observes that “pamphlet material relating to deviant behaviour … became popular sooner [in Scotland than in England], with publications beginning in earnest in and around 1702, nearly three quarters of a century ahead of publishers south of the Tweed. In addition, it was unquestionably infanticide (and latterly child killing in general), more than any other crime, which became the focus for the pamphlet literature produced.”

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1923: Susan Newell, the last woman hanged in Scotland

3 comments October 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Susan Newell achieved footnote status by hanging for the murder of her 13-year-old paperboy … the last Scottish woman to die on the gallows, and the only one in the 20th century.

Newell was nabbed by nosy neighbors who noticed her dumping John Johnson’s body a few blocks away from prison* where she would ultimately expiate the crime.

Newell pointed the finger at her husband (she never admitted guilt), but John Newell produced a fistful of alibi witnesses to the effect that he was staying with relatives after a couple of nasty domestic fights.

Susan — so the jury believed — had worked off the stress solo by throttling the newsboy when he’d had the temerity to ask her to pay him. Paid content: the hidden killer.

Well, sometimes, you can only take so much.

Despite the guilty verdict, the jury entertained her insanity defense and plumped for mercy when it convicted her. But the crown was having none of it, in part because the murderess wouldn’t admit her crime in her clemency petitions, and perhaps also because “the application of the law in Scotland had to be seen to be in line with that in England where Edith Thompson had been hanged for what most of us would regard as a much less serious crime only 10 months earlier.”

Thompson’s same executioner, John Ellis, unhappily handled the Newell job just 20 days after her conviction. The condemned woman managed to wriggle her hands out of their bonds while her legs were being pinioned, and she ripped the hood off her face with the words “don’t put that thing over me!”

Wanting to get the distasteful procedure over with, Ellis obligingly dropped her barefaced.

* She was also the only woman ever executed at Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

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1615: St. John Ogilvie

1 comment March 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1615, Scotland’s only post-Reformation Catholic martyr was hanged at Glasgow Cross.

The Protestant-born Ogilvie had been educated in Europe and there fallen under the sway of the Catholic faith forbidden in his homeland. He converted, trained as a Jesuit, and at his own request returned to minister to the secret Catholic population in Glasgow.

Within a year he was in irons, awaiting a death sentence he refused to spurn with a timely submission to King James‘ spiritual supremacy. Ogilvie greeted his conviction for treason — and like most Catholic martyrs in the British Isles, he protested his loyalty in vain — with the words,

God have mercie upon mee! … if there bee heere anie hidden catholikes, let them pray for me, but the Prayers of Heretickes I will not have.


John Ogilvie? (See Update below)

There’s a multilingual Jesuit text celebrating Ogilvie available free from Google books.

Glaswegians can watch for more demonstrative tribute at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which is poised to produce a monumental mural by Peter Howson.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.


Update: Friend of the blog Louise Yeoman, whose guest post on a witchcraft execution remains one of the best pieces in this humble space, has an interesting correction to offer on Saint J.O. According to Yeoman, disemboweling “was not part of Scots law until 1708, when the British government wanted to hang draw and quarter some of those involved in the abortive Jacobite uprising of that year and were shocked to find that Scotland had no such penalty.” She’s backed by this contemporaneous account of Ogilvie’s death, which observes that even the “quartering” part of the sentence was not carried out.

So, what gives with the image, if Ogilvie’s corpse wasn’t carved up?

It’s from this (U.S.) Library of Congress page which marks it as a representation of Ogilvie in a late 17th-century text of Bohemian Jesuit propagandist Matthias Tanner. That provenance, of course, would be consistent with a bit of sanguinary exaggeration. It’s also possible that it’s mislabeled on the Library of Congress page, whose identification of it seems a bit oblique.

Working as I am from secondary sources, I tread cautiously here and welcome further clarification or correction.

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