In other posts I’ve quoted, or linked to, accounts of the murder of Mary Smith by James Robb (1827 – 1849) (who was apparently my second cousin 3 x removed), and his subsequent trial and execution: from a medical journal, the judge, and the contemporary press. I’ve just obtained a copy of Norman Adams’ book, The Hangman’s Brae: true crime and punishment in Aberdeen and the North-East (Black & White Publishing, 2005). Chapter 16 of the book is about George or ‘Geordie’ Webster, a 19th century criminal officer of Old Meldrum, ‘one of a scattered band who kept law and order in rural Scotland before the days of a regular police force, and appears to be based largely on the latter’s self-published autobiography.
Webster was responsible for taking James Robb into custody, and here I’m including Adams’ full account of the event:
[In 1849] the hand that gripped seven murderers reached out for James Robb, the Auchterless murderer and rapist, whose victim was mary Smith, a quiet, sixty-two-year-old spinster who lived alone in her cottage at Redhill.
Robb, a twenty-two-year old labourer at the Tillymorgan slate quarry, committed the crime after forcing entry into Mary’s one-roomed home – ‘a peer solitary kin’ o’ hut’ is how Geordie described it – by way of the chimney. On the night of 9 April 1849, Robb left Badenscoth Fair the worse of drink, vowing that he was determined to gratify his passion on somebody before he slept. Mary was aware of Robb’s violent reputation and had remarked casually to someone that she was ‘not afraid of anybody, except that lad Jamie Robb’. Unfortunately, Robb had to pass her house on the road home to Fisherford. Next morning, neighbours, who were concerned that there was no sign of Mary about the place, entered the cottage and found her body. The bed was broken and bed-clothes crumpled. Propped against the exterior wall of the house was a distinctive walking stick, which belonged to her killer.
The police arrested Robb who was taken before Mr Barclay, a justice of the peace, at Knockleith. After an examination of sorts, Barclay allowed the chief suspect to go. James Strachan, the innkeeper at Badenscoth, passed word of the crime and Robb’s release to Geordie Webster but it was twelve houses before the messenger, Jock McCrae, delivered it. A fuming Geordie threatened McCrae with jail for his tardiness before they both set off by carriage for Badenscoth as if the devil was after them. At crossroad outside Inverurie, a frantic Geordie mistook an approaching carriage as the sheriff’s. He feared he would lose face if the sheriff and fiscal reached the murder scene before him so he ordered his driver to hold on full gallop and not allow the other vehicle to pass. He breathed more easily when the carriage turned off the road.
Geordie dragged the dumbfounded Robb from his bed in his father’s house and, pointing at his soot-smeared corduroy trousers, demanded, ‘You stupid idiot, fat d’ye mean by that?’ Geordie arrested Robb on the spot and that night they lodged at the inn in Badenscoth and downed punch in a room before a roaring fire. While McCrae kept watch at the bedside, the intrepid Geordie catnapped while chained to Robb, who was at his side in leg irons. In the course of that extraordinary night, Robb admitted he had entered Mary Smith’s house by the chimney but denied murder. He claimed he had wanted a light for his pipe (it transpired he had asked admittance upon pretence of getting a light but had been refused). The fiscal turned up next morning with the sheriff and was not too pleased to hear that his officer had been sleeping alongside a murderer.
Robb was then taken to Mary Smith’s cottage where he was confronted with her body. Two important clues implicated Robb. Ironically for Robb, the fireplace was fitted with a ‘hinging lum’ – a square wooden canopy, about five feet high by two and a half feet wide, placed about eight feet above the hearth. Streaks consistent with marks left by corduroy trousers of the kind Robb was wearing could be seen in the chimney’s soot. A distinctive metal button on Robb’s velvet coat had been broken as he overpowered his victim. The missing piece was found in a ‘lirk’ (fold or crease) of a sheet in Mary’s bed.
By the time Geordie reached Aberdeen, it was getting late. The governor of the prison was attending a meeting out of town, meaning he was unable to hand over his prisoner. Geordie was ‘terrified’ to leave Robb out of his sight till properly secured so he took him along to Mrs McHardy’s lodgings in the Adelphi ‘an’ got reed of ‘ hum neist mornin’, poor Devil’.
The trial at the Autumn Circuit Court in Aberdeen was held behind closed doors. Robb denied the charge of murder and ‘raptus’. After a thirty-five-minute adjournment, the jury returned a verdict of guilty but recommended mercy as they thought he had no intention of committing murder. Mr Shand, defending, submitted that, since the jury had expressly ruled out intent to murder, the sentence should not reflect that crime but his objection was overruled.
In his published diaries, Lord Cockburn, who was one of the judges, revealed he had no sympathy for the condemned man:
It is difficult to drive the horrors of that scene out of one’s imagination. The solitary old woman in the solitary house, the descent through the chimney, the beastly attack, the death struggle – all that was going on within this lonely room, amidst silent fields, and under a still, dark sky. It is a fragment of hell, which it is both difficult to endure and to quit. Yet a jury, though clear of both crimes, recommended the brute to mercy! because he did not intend to commit the murder! Neither does the highwayman, who only means to wound, in order to get the purse, but kills.
Cockburn revealed that, within a few hours of being convicted, Robb had confessed and explained that the poor woman had died in his very grip. The cause of death, according to the doctors, said Cockburn, was ‘an incipient disease of the heart’.
Calcraft made his first appearance in Aberdeen to hang Robb on 16 October 1949.
William Calcraft was a London hangman who acted as a ‘freelance’ executioner throughout the kingdom: Adams’ book includes a rather fearsome portrait of him.
Leaving aside for a moment the horror of the crime, the vividness of Webster’s account, as reported by Adams, serves the purpose of making my ancestors and their world leap to life from the dry pages of the parish registers and census records. As with the stories about Rev William Robb mentioned in this post, the account of James being dragged from his bed in the house of his father, farmer and inkeeper George Robb, and the intriguing picture of law officer and prisoner drinking punch together at the inn in Badenscoth, before going to sleep chained to each other, linger in the imagination.