In a comment on an earlier post, Glyn (my cousin Barbara’s husband) reminded me of the case of James Robb, the Auchterless murderer, which had originally been brought to my attention by Diane, another Robb family researcher. Both Glyn and Diane believe that the convicted man was the son of the James Robb who was the brother of my 3 x great grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. Glyn suggests that the following statement in William Robb’s 1880 memorandum reflects an attempt to cover up an unpleasant family secret:
I had an Uncle James who on my Uncle William’s death took possession of the property in Fisherford in Aberdeenshire and left children how many I don’t know, but have heard that James, the eldest went to America many years since.
Here’s the basic information about the event from a Scottish history website:
6 October 1849
The execution of the Auchterless murderer James Robb was the first to be carried out by the London hangman William Calcraft in Aberdeen. Robb was apprehended by the renowned Aberdeen sheriff and criminal officer George Webster for the murder of sixty-two-year-old spinster Mary Smith.
The murder of Mary Smith was of sufficient interest to warrant a long report in the London Medical and Surgical Journal of 1850. The account, entitled ‘Report of a case of alleged rape and murder, with medico-legal remarks on the cause of death’, is not for the fainthearted. The first paragraph reads as follows:
At the autumn circuit Court of Justiciary, held in Aberdeen last month, a case was tried which involved the double charge of rape and murder, and which, after a lengthened investigation, ended in the conviction of the person indicted, and his consequent execution for these crimes on the 16th October.
The convicted man was described as ‘James Robb, quarrier, a stout young man of 22 years of age’. Having been at the fair or market at Badenscoth on 9th April, where he had ‘indulged in liquor’ and in ‘quarrelling and fighting’, he left the market and ‘proceeded homewards to Fisherford, where his father resides’.
The gruesome details of the offence need not detain us here and can be read in the journal report. What interests me is whether this James Robb is linked in any way to our family, and if so, whether it undermines the information in William Robb’s memorandum.
The only definite information we have about Charles Edward Stuart Robb’s brother James is contained in that memorandum. From it, we can surmise that he was younger than his brother, Rev. William Robb, and presumably older than Charles (since James, not Charles, inherited the family property on Rev. William’s death). There is a record of a James Robb being born in May 1772 in Logie Newton, near Fisherford, and in the 1841 census we find a 70 year old James Robb living in Fisherford who seems to fit the bill.
The James Robb convicted of the Auchterless murder would need to have been born in about 1827. At the time of the 1841 census he would have been 14 or 15 years old, but there is no record of anyone matching those details in the record. It’s conceivable, however, that he might have been living and working away from home, even at that young age.
The 1841 census for Fisherford contains records for 5 or 6 households. Among these is the family of James Robb, a crofter aged 70, his wife Elizabeth, 55, and their daughter, also Elizabeth, 10. There’s also a George Robb, 35, described as a slater, living in the village. He’s married to Isobel, also 35, and has children named John, Alex, Jannet, Hellen and Isobel.
By 1851, James and Elizabeth Robb are aged 80 and 67 respectively, have a house servant named Elizabeth Morrison, 22, and a boarder, Mary Boddie (?), 3. James is now described as a farmer of 9 acres. There’s still a George Robb living in the village, but it’s far from clear whether it’s the same one. He’s a farmer of 20 acres, and his wife is Elizabeth not Isobel. Moreover, the names of his children – Ellen, Henry, Charles, William and Mary – don’t match those of the 1841 George. This George is said to be 45, so he would have been born in about 1806.
I find searching through Scottish birth and baptismal records for this period extremely difficult, and it’s hard to come to any definite conclusions. So far I’ve been unable to find any record of a James Robb, with a father also called James, being born in Auchterless around 1827. However, a James Robb was born in January 1827, in nearby Culsamond, to a George Robb and Elizabeth Clark. So might the murderer have been the son of George Robb of Fisherford, not James?
A number of other family trees on the Ancestry site mention the Robbs of Fisherford. However, there seems to be a good deal of confusion about the marriages of both James Robb and George Robb. Did James marry twice, first to Christian Harper and then to Elizabeth Manson? Are the George Robbs in the 1841 and 1851 census records the same person, and if so are Isobel and Elizabeth two separate people, or the same person using two different names? When it comes to the lists of their children by various wives, things get even more confused.
However, one detail on the Dulleck family tree at Ancestry offered a possible solution to the problem. That tree has George Robb as the son of my 3 x great uncle James Robb. Since this George was born in 1804, when James would have been about 32, this makes a lot of sense. And it makes it possible that the James Robb born in Culsamond in 1827 – who may just be the Auchterless murderer – could be George’s son, and James’ grandson. The same tree gives George a younger brother, James, born in 1806, who could easily have grown up and emigrated to America.
There remains the uncertainty over the two Georges. Even if the first George remarried, gained property and changed his occupation between 1841 and 1851, it seems unlikely that his whole first family would have disappeared, to be replaced by a new wife and completely new set of children. More research would be necessary to fill in the gaps in the history of the Fisherford Robbs in the early decades of the 19th century, after Charles Edward Stuart Robb had moved south to Yorkshire and then London.