Watchman William MacDonald
convicted of culpable homicide in the apprehension of thief,
who died in his custody
Axe used to murder
& wax cast of victim's skull
ever there was a Victorian melodrama, this was it; 62 year old George
Stephen, wood merchant from Thainstone had been having an affair with a married
woman, Anne Forbes from Aberdeen. It was well-observed amongst the locals in
Port Elphinstone that Anne would walk from Aberdeen to Thainstone to have an
assignation with her lover in the woods. On the fateful day, she was known to
have visited the Kintore Arms for a half-gill of whisky; local woman, Mrs Duncan
saw Anne meet George at their usual spot near the Porter's Lodge of Thainstone
estate. George was carrying his woodsman's axe. That was the last anyone
saw of Anne in a hale and hearty state. It would seem that George Stephen had
enough of his paramour and decided to get rid of her. The very axe you see
today was later found by police in his house with traces of blood on it. He
brutally killed Anne in the secrecy of the woods and walked out as if nothing
It was a young servant boy of Basil Fisher, the then lessee of Thainstone, who
had the misfortune to come upon Mrs Forbes lying in the undergrowth, dressed
only in a thin gown. Knowing her habit of visiting the pub, the boy's first
reaction was that she was drunk, since Anne was known to visit the local
hostelry, but on closer inspection the boy realised her skull had been smashed
and was drenched in blood. The 'Black Kalendar' of Aberdeen takes up the story:
"Her skull was much broken, apparently by a blow from some obtuse instrument,
which at once led to the suspicion of foul play. A messenger was despatched to
Kintore, to inform the police and fetch a doctor. Dr Irvine, Inspector Aiken
and two constables, speedily arrived. It was found that the woman still
breathed, and they endeavoured to remove pieces of the fractured skull, knocked
in on the brain and to restore consciousness, but in vain. She was removed to
the Porter's Lodge, but never was able to utter a single word...the wound being
examined, was just such as would have been inflicted by a severe blow of an axe,
such as Stephen carried."
George Stephen was duly apprehended by 5pm on the same day. He languished in
prison until April 18th
1865 when his trial came up at Aberdeen Circuit Court.
Stephen shocked the judge and jury by pleading guilty, despite his defence
counsel's comments that "the prisoner was at the time in a state of insanity, or
in a state of mind that made him incapable of pleading." He was found guilty
and sentenced to hang, but whether people felt sorry for Stephen, perhaps
believing his head had been turned by the younger, careless Mrs Forbes, or it
was simply seen as a one-off crime of passion, magistrates in Inverurie
petitioned the Home Secretary who later would commute George's sentence to one
of life imprisonment in Perth Insane Asylum. His deadpan comment at the time
was: "Jist a whiley langer tae live." Whatever happened in the Thainstone Woods
that day, it is clear that George Stephen snapped and took out his frustration
on his lover.
After a bit of my own detective work, I found George Stephen's death
certificate. He actually breathed his last in the Asylum ward of Perth Prison,
not the Murthly Hospital, only seven years after his own grim prediction. The
cause of death? Epileptic seizure. Stephen was an epileptic. Perhaps he and
Anne had merely argued that day in the woods, and it had brought on a seizure.
Out of his senses, he had lashed out at her, bringing the axe, the tool of his
trade, down on her head, without realising he killed her. Coming out of his fit
and seeing what had happened, he accepted that he had committed this terrible
crime when the officers came to arrest him. His sad statement suggests he
thought death would bring him peace from his condition, which would not have
been fully-understood at the time. But although avoiding hanging, natural
justice ensured that in this case, a life was taken for a life.
first ever book on murder and mystery in twentieth-century Aberdeen.
Written by Norman Adams, a journalist who reported on many of the chilling
crimes he now recalls so vividly, Blood and Granite is compelling reading for
those who are too young to remember – and those who cannot forget.
All are human tragedies from the dark side of life, including: the tragic love
affair that led to the gallows in 1963 – the first hanging in Aberdeen for 106
years; the double life of brilliant scientist Dr Brenda Page of Aberdeen
University, battered to death in her flat in 1978 and the barbaric killing of a
nun at St Mary’s Cathedral in 1988 that revolted a city.
Containing a wide range of cases from love affairs gone bad to dismembered
bodies – reflecting the darker side of the Granite City
Helen Priestly Murder – Eminent Pathologist, Sir Sydney Smith
helps to identify murderer as neighbour Jeannie Donald, who killed the 9
year-old girl and dumped her body in a sack in the Urquhart Road tenement.
Donald is given life-imprisonment
Betty Hadden Murder; only victim's arm is ever found. Sydney
Smith involved again. No-one ever convicted for her death
1955 - 2 high-profile murders take place: William McKerron strangles his
wife in their Ferrier Crescent tenement. Robert James Boyle smothers his
girlfriend's baby and throws the body into the harbour. He is convicted without
the body being found.
Woodside Murder; 6 year old girl is found dead in a back lane. The murderer
would later turn out to be a paedophile who would strike again before being
Jackson Terrace Murder: Henry John Burnett kills his lover's husband and is
executed at Craiginches.
7-year old boy disappears; his body is found in a Castlegate allotment later in
the year and John Oliphant is convicted – he confesses to the murder of the girl
in Woodside also. Found to be insane, he is detained for life in the Carstairs
State Mental Hospital