Baby killer? The last woman hanged in Edinburgh

A nurse feeds children in the baby room at a home run by the NSPCC Many illegitimate babies in Victorian Britain were sent to care homes

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Jessie King was the last woman in Edinburgh to be executed. In 1889, she was accused of taking money to adopt babies, and then killing them. Historian and broadcaster Louise Yeoman asks if she really was a baby killer.

The boys couldn't resist the oil-skin package someone had tried to burn. The younger lad kicked it, his playmate opened the bundle and then ran for the constable. Inside were the badly decayed remains of a year-old baby.

Fingers soon pointed at the hard-drinking, odd couple on Cheyne Street, Stockbridge - Thomas Pearson and his much younger paramour, 27-year-old Jessie King.

When the house was raided and a baby girl found strangled in the coal closet, Jessie King, her own tiny baby Thomas at her breast, took on all the guilt.

Industrial Edinburgh suddenly had its nose rubbed in one of the biggest scandals of the Victorian period - baby-farming.

'Not all there'

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With no effective contraception and heavily stigmatised unmarried sex, the city spawned hundreds of illegitimate babies.

One fix was a sixpenny advertisement in a newspaper - "Person wanted to adopt child". Dozens of replies would follow, nearly all from poor people willing to take the baby off your hands forever, for little money.

Two pounds or £5 - to take a baby for life? No surprise then, when the £2 lowest tender turned out to be Jessie, and the £2 take-your-baby service involved pouring neat whisky down its throat and then strangling the child.

This was baby-farming - repeatedly adopting for money, then killing or neglecting the children.

The lost children were the illegitimate sons and daughters of domestic servants and factory girls. Sandy Gunn was 11 months old, Violet Tomlinson was six weeks old, and Walter Campbell only a few months.

An open and shut case then, surely Jessie was a monster? But once you prod the horrific parcel of the Stockbridge baby murders, it becomes clear that there was far more to Jessie and to the case.

'Highly suggestible'

Born Jessie Kean in 1861 and orphaned young, she ricocheted from institution to institution, eventually falling into prostitution. Her fellow inmates reckoned "that lassie was not all there".

Her partner, though, was quite different.

Thomas Pearson was the disgraced paterfamilias of a middle class Glasgow family. A surgeon's servant, then a night-attendant at the Montrose asylum, he may have learned how to stop a body stinking or how to manipulate the vulnerable.

The worst Victorian serial killer?

Police discover victim of Jack the Ripper
  • Jack the Ripper is often remembered as the worst Victorian serial killer
  • But in 1873, Mary Ann Cotton was accused of poisoning her step-son and a local newspaper pointed out that a lot of her family had died of 'gastric fever'
  • The body of her husband was exhumed and found to contain arsenic
  • Cotton was hanged and it is believed she murdered three husbands and 15 of her children

Source: BBC History

The killer who was never caught

In 1880, business failure saw him in Edinburgh, drinking hard and living off immoral earnings. Weeks after she moved in with Pearson in 1887, Jessie's new baby Grace vanished. Then the applications to adopt babies started.

After the raid, Jessie took all the blame. The duty officer for the poor warned those confessions would hang her, but Jessie ignored him. On hearing that Pearson would not be charged, she was delighted and tried to withdraw her admissions. Too late.

Pearson turned Crown evidence against her, claiming ignorance of the children's fate. But he wrote the initial adoption applications because Jessie "was not good at the pen", and his coat wrapped the body of Sandy Gunn.

The police found one body on a shelf too tall for Jessie. Pearson was surprisingly incurious as to the children's fates, after showing so much initiative in getting them.

Jessie's words damned her. The jury took just four minutes: "Guilty" - an automatic death sentence. Collapsing onto the police officer next to her, Jessie's cries filled the court room.

Appeals for clemency failed - despite Jessie's institutional track record and reports by fellow inmates of how easily she could be swayed by those in authority over her.

She was a highly suggestible, badly damaged young woman.

Fractured skull

Her Roman Catholic confessor wrote pleading for her life to the Secretary for State: "To save Pearson she made the statement which has done her so much injury. She now declares that he in one of the cases did the deed and in the other two, he stood near directing and guiding her in the administration of the [whisky]..."

"It seems a more likely solution of this terrible crime that this hard-hearted man and unfaithful husband - an aged man! was there directing the unsteady and clumsy hand of a poor woman he had made his slave."

To no avail. On the night of 10 March 1889, Jessie parted with her own baby, Thomas, for the last time. She was hanged the next day.

A condemned woman

In March 1889, the Times newspaper wrote:Yesterday morning Jessie King who was recently found guilty at the High Court of Justiciary of murdering two children at Stockbridge, was executed in the Calton Gaol, Edinburgh. On Sunday night the condemned woman made a confession.

The last woman executed in Edinburgh, she is still there, buried under the car park of St Andrew's House. She pointedly "forgave" her companion for his part in the murders - thus stating his guilt. Nothing is known of her son, Thomas Kean, left in the care of the Catholic Church - and not with his father Thomas Pearson.

But there's an interesting coda. Pearson, back in Glasgow, died in 1890 of a fractured skull. Elderly alcoholics do fall over, but baby-murderers face risks of their own.

I tracked Pearson down through newspaper reports. Perhaps someone else did, too. We'll never know, but he may have faced justice after all.

Jessie King's story is told in episode 1 of Women with a Past on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday 12 Nov at 14:05 GMT or online afterwards at the above link.

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