Night poaching, theft and murder

Court indictment

Indictment against William Cargill

Students of 19th century Scottish legal and criminal history might be interested to learn about a set of court indictments that have recently been catalogued and are available for consultation in Special Collections.

These unpublished documents were produced for use in court. Each indictment formally transcribes the accusations against the prisoner being brought to trial, and include lists of witnesses and names of jurors.

We have some 109 of these indictments, bound together in two volumes. They cover a wide range of trials in various courts throughout Scotland in the 1860s and 1870s. The crimes include theft, murder, cattle stealing, incest, night poaching, assault and forgery.

What makes this set of documents particularly fascinating is that they apparently represent the work of one advocate, John MacDougall Gibson (1842-1886). He has signed many of them, and – even more interesting – has often scrawled his case notes in the margins. These regularly record the verdicts of the trial in hand, and sometimes note the evidence of the accused and witnesses.

Verdict from the trial of William Cargill

Verdict from the trial of William Cargill

For example, our first indictment is against William Cargill, “prisoner in the prison of Dundee”, who was to be tried for murder on Monday 7th December 1868. He is accused of attacking and mortally injuring Ann Cargill Swankie, a fisherman’s daughter, with an iron poker in Arbroath. Gibson, who defended the prisoner, records the verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity. It is sobering to think that Cargill’s ultimate fate here in being found not guilty may have even been worse than the sentences of imprisonment and penal servitude noted by Gibson as the outcomes of most of the trials.

List of property stolen by Elisabeth Clark Scott.

Property stolen by Elisabeth Clark Scott

In fact, the stories behind these trials are surely ripe for further research and investigation.

One which particularly caught my eye is that of Elisabeth Clark Scott. She was tried for “theft by opening lockfast places” in 1872. The indictment emotively lists the various items that Scott has “wickedly and feloniously” stolen over a period of weeks; they comprise of items of clothing, boots and bedding. Was this really the “heinous” and “severely  punishable” work of a hardened criminal or the act of a desperate woman? Scott was found guilty and sentenced to seven years penal servitude.

If you would like to find out more about these indictments, each has been described in detail and catalogued with the shelfmarks Sp Coll Mu Add. f50 and Mu Add. f51. There is also small selection of further images mounted on the Special Collections flickr set.  And, of course, you may come and ask to see them in the Special Collections reading room.

Categories: Special Collections

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