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The Murders

1839 - Watchman William MacDonald convicted of culpable homicide in the apprehension of thief, Christopher Brown, who died in his custody

1864 - Axe used to murder Anne Forbes  & wax cast of victim's skull

If 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 had happened. 

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. 

Blood and Granite: Murder and Mystery in Aberdeenthe 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

1934 - 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

1945 - 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.

1961 - 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 caught

1963 - 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

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Last modified: 01/09/2013