Solving a murder in the family
- 10 August 2010
- From the section Magazine
After the Magazine's recent feature on what happens when murder cases go cold, Chris Paton, the great-great-great grandson of the UK's oldest unsolved murder victim, talks about his attempts to find the killer 150 years on.
Self-confessed "story junkie" Chris Paton began uncovering the details of a gruesome murder while looking into his family history about 10 years ago.
After noticing the death certificate of his great-great-great-grandmother had omitted a cause of death, he made inquiries which revealed she was killed by "injuries inflicted on the head by someone unknown".
A contemporary article in the Scotsman newspaper confirmed that Janet Rogers (nee Henderson), 55, was clubbed to death from behind with an axe, on 30 March 1866.
"When I first found out, I did think, 'Oh my God, my great-great-great-granny was murdered'," says Mr Paton, although at least it would have been a quick death.
Another shock lay in store of him - that one of the key murder suspects was also in his own family.
Using the newspaper collection at the AK Bell Library in Perth and the series of trial papers held at the National Archives of Scotland's West Register House, Mr Paton says that what he discovered was a "sorry picture of an investigation that was simply incapable of bringing the perpetrator to justice".
When Mrs Rogers was killed, she was staying with her brother, William Henderson, at Mount Steward Farm, a few miles south of Perth. Her body was discovered by her brother in the twilight hours on his return from Perth market.
A panicked William sought assistance from a doctor and a constable, and sent a note by train to Perth to summon the public prosecutor, stating "my sister has been murdered today whilst I was in Perth".
The investigation that ensued lasted a year and was plagued by a lack of substantial evidence and unreliable witnesses. The case eventually came down to either Mr Henderson or his ploughman, James Crichton, being the murderer.
Mr Henderson and Mr Crichton had had a dispute, before Mrs Rogers' arrival on the farm, over a domestic servant named Christina Miller, who was initially a suspect. Mr Henderson had dismissed Ms Miller just the week before because he felt she was insubordinate and emotionally too close to Mr Crichton.
Both Mr Henderson and Mr Crichton had been arrested and released during the course of the investigation.
"Henderson said it was Crichton, and Crichton said it was Henderson," says Mr Paton, 39 and from Largs, North Ayrshire. Indeed, Mr Henderson even tried to incriminate Mr Crichton by planting evidence, he says, but the prosecutor saw through Mr Henderson's "foolish" attempt and the evidence was ruled out.
The police finally charged Mr Crichton with the murder after they discovered Mr Henderson's former servant, Ms Miller, had apparently overheard the ploughman confess to his wife late one night.
The trial jury returned a verdict of "not proven". This means the jury believed Mr Crichton was guilty but did not have enough evidence to convict him.
"An axe murder is as dramatic a murder as you can get, but I was more shocked about what happened to William."
William Henderson's death certificate reveals he died in Murray Royal Asylum in Scone, north of Perth, in 1890. Medical papers describe the deterioration of his mental health: "[William] refers continually to the murder of his sister, for which he was apprehended and acquitted 15 years ago, in a state of complete mania."
"When I read the asylum papers I really appreciated what William went through. In many ways he was the bigger victim - his was a 20-year decline," says Mr Paton.
James Crichton relocated to Fife following the murder, with his family, and continued to work as an agricultural labourer. He died 6 April 1894 at Milton, Markinch, and the official cause of death was gangrene.
The murder of Janet Rogers remains unsolved 150 years on. Mr Paton, who is writing a book on the case, accepts "it's never going to be solved". He says the case shines a light on how helpful forensics can be in solving crime. During the original investigation a CID officer was dispatched from Edinburgh to aid the police, but he was soon sent home again because he could not uncover any new leads.
Mr Paton does not think the small police force were incompetent, just that "they didn't have the tools for the job".
After piecing together all available evidence, Mr Paton still cannot say who the murderer was. "Perhaps William had been the killer himself, and his troubled thoughts finally gained the better of him."
Although Mr Paton thinks Mr Crichton is the more likely culprit, he maintains that "the first rule of being a genealogist is that you can't judge what happened in the past".