A Sink of Atrocity

Good day to you.

The name is Sergeant James Mendick of Scotland Yard, but my friends call me James. Not that I have many friends, only colleagues. The others are citizens or criminals and neither like the police.

Queen Victoria is secure on her throne, the country is recovering from a great depression and the towns and country are crawling with criminals who prey on the respectable.

I have recently returned from a stay in Dundee in Scotland where I encountered one of the worst cases I have ever seen, with cannibalism, murder and street riots. Now I happen to know Dundee well as I was born there, but my early memories were anything but happy. The only bright spot this time was my meeting with Johanna. . . I believe my biographer will have mentioned that in his scribblings about my case in his book A Burden Shared: the Dundee Murders.

However this is not about me. I would like to tell you about a murder that occurred high in the hills when I was a youth:

Cock of the North

In common with many criminals of the 19th Century, Charles McEwan often adopted an assumed name. Sometimes he was known as Robert McLeod, sometimes as John McIntyre, or even Charles Mackay, but very seldom did he use his real name of McEoch.  Born in Armagh, to many people he was The Cock o’ The North and was a coppersmith as well as a tinker. He was a tall man, well made and muscular.

Around 1814 the 26 old McEwan and the rest of his tinker clan took the boat from Ireland and landed in Scotland. Rather than search for work in the burgeoning industrial towns of the central belt they headed north for the small communities and wide spaces of the Highlands and north east. The band soon became notorious for petty and not so petty theft mixed with a casual violence that saw doors locked on their approach. The other travelling people knew McEwan well and tried to avoid him. If they were unlucky enough to fall into his company he was quite capable of robbing them of their meagre livelihood; any resistance could lead to assault.

McEwan was a keen follower of prize fighting and was a lady’s man; or rather he had an eye and a fancy for any woman who could give him what he wanted. In his ten years roaming the north of Scotland he kept company with at least three different women and the second last of them gave him three children.  His final woman was short, well made and around 30 years old. Her name was Margaret Mooney and they had only been together for a few days when McEwan made his fatal mistake. On the 8 October 1823 McEwan had speared a salmon in an Aberdeenshire river and they cooked it under the autumn stars. The drop of blood that spilled on McEwan’s light corduroy trousers may have been seen as an omen, but if so he ignored it.  They were walking, as always, heading south over the high hills from Aberdeenshire and enjoying the hospitality of farms and cottages on the route, as was the way of old Scotland.

Elizabeth Middleton and John Smith were shearing sheep at the farm of Kildow, and passed a few hours with McEwan and Money before lodging them comfortably in a barn. The next morning, 9 October 1823, saw the tinkers trudge on to the Firmouth, a rough and lonely drove road that toiled over the Grampians from Deeside to Glenesk and the glens of Angus. They were walking side by side when a group of four whisky smugglers joined them. The smugglers were a jovial crew with the panniers on their garrons heavy with whisky. They were not afraid of McEwan in the slightest; these men were well used to taking care of themselves against the Excise or anybody else who tried to rob them.

At a place called Lochmaven, at the apex of the pass, McEwan and Mooney sat down to rest; both were sober, despite sharing the smuggler’s peat reek, but McEwan may have been a little less sober that Mooney.   What happened next is pure conjecture, based on later evidence, but at some point in the late afternoon McEwan and Money must have argued and he lifted a small iron anvil that he used in his tinkering trade and smashed her over the head until she was dead.

Although there were no witnesses to the actual act, there were people who used this lonely road and their stories helped piece together something of the story. Later that evening Joseph Stewart of Ballater rode past and saw Mooney lying on the heather with one hand above her head. He saw McEwan at her feet; gasped at the sight of the blood that stained McEwan’s shirt and trousers, kicked in his spurs and rode on into the slithering rain without stopping or looking back.

At around two in the morning of 10 October McEwan banged at the door of a lonely house at the south side of the Firmouth. His shirt was bloody, his trousers were sodden with rain and the deep blood stains below his knees suggested that he had been kneeling in blood.   Margaret Machardy answered the door to him and gave him lodgings for the night. Not surprisingly she commented on the blood but he told her little.

McEwan did not sleep well that dark morning, nor on the night of that Friday 10 October, which he passed at an inn at Balfield, about three miles North West of Brechin. The inn keeper, Helen Young had not wished such a bloody, battered apparition as McEwan to remain in her house all night, but she could not put him out into the dark, so allowed him to remain. Sometime during the long hours of darkness he demanded whisky; he was seen furiously scrubbing at his sleeve with a wet brush and trying to wash his hat but nobody questioned him.

On Saturday 11 October McEwan asked Young if she had heard about the woman killed on the Firmouth. When Young said that ‘there are many lies in the country and that was one, for I would have heard of a murder,’   McEwan said he had seen her ‘all over blood’ and was sure she had been murdered.

In the meantime, Elizabeth McDonald and Margaret Cruickshanks were first to find the dead body of Mooney about half past seven on the Friday morning. They had been harvesting in the south and were returning home when they saw the body lying among the heather. It lay close to the road in a welter of blood and disturbed ground.  When McDonald investigated, she saw that Mooney wore some rags of clothes and there was a basket nearby, with tea caddies and other items inside.  The two women followed a trail of blood for about twenty metres but it petered out in the heather and led nowhere.  They hurried the nearest cottage, some miles ahead, hammered on the door and told what they had found.

As soon as they heard the news, the scattered population gathered to see the body, but it was taken away and decently buried. Mr Garioch, a surgeon, later examined Mooney and decided that she had been killed by a blow to the head. He was shown a box of tools including a small anvil whose concave sides fitted the indents into Mooney’s head. Many tinkers carried such a portable anvil.  Garich said that Mooney had been drinking spirits before she was killed.  A second surgeon, Dr Murray did not entirely agree with Garioch; he was not so sure that the anvil had been the murder weapon.

As soon as Mooney was found, the authorities began the search for McEwan. He was a kenspeckle figure in Aberdeenshire and not hard to trace with his blue coat, corduroy trousers and prominent hat. John Fyfe, a King’s Messenger in Aberdeen, traced McEwan’s route by the places he had stopped and the people he had passed on the road. Fyfe arrested him in Brechin and brought to Aberdeen. The small anvil was inside the box of tools that he carried with him.

McEwan denied all knowledge of the murder. He said he came across the body in the moorland but he had not killed Money. Even so the deed seemed to affect him and his normal false joviality altered to a sullen silence. He gave conflicting statements about his background: in his first he said he had been apprenticed to a Dublin coppersmith and had no fixed abode and had never in his life been asked for a certificate of his character. In his second he said he was a Glasgow man but had been to Dublin. In this statement he said he and Mooney lived as man and wife; he agreed that he had travelled on the Firmouth with her, but said he had left her there, hale and hearty.

During the trial in March 1824 at the High Court in Edinburgh, McEwan challenged many of the statements made by the prosecution: he claimed he had not asked for whisky when in the houses south of the Firmouth, but only drank whey.  He said that the blood on his trousers was his own, from a bleeding nose.  He said he was wetting his hat to try and remove the ‘cloors’ or dimples in the material. His clothes were produced in court, complete with blood stains on the sleeve of his shirt and blood stains on his trousers. The jury had no difficulty in finding him guilty.

When Lord Gillies sentenced him to hang, McEwan said ‘Thank your Lordship, I’ll die innocent. There has not been a doctor here today but has perjured himself.’ As was normal in the period, McEwan was chained in his cell; he paced, clanking, back and forth as far as the chain would stretch.

He remained stubborn even as the day of his execution drew closer, and when the ministers tried to save his soul he replied: ‘I am not the better of you, or any like you.’ Only when three Catholic priests came did he show any interest, but if he confessed to them, his guilt travelled no further.   On the evening of Tuesday 6 April 1824 McEwan was taken from Calton Jail to the lock up house in the High Street of Edinburgh. At about ten past eight he was led out and he marched bravely to the gallows. He was hanged at Libberton Wynd in Edinburgh on the 7th April 1824 and his body was given to Dr Munro to be dissected.

Ah the good old days.

If you enjoyed what you read, I will be back with more stories of crime in my days.

That one was in Fishermen, Randies and Fraudsters’ by Malcolm Archibald

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