Ill Met by Gaslight: Five Edinburgh Murders

BOOK: Ill Met by Gaslight: Five Edinburgh Murders
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Five Edinburgh Murders

Allan Massie

Paul Harris Publishing


Book Jacket




Ill Met by Gaslight
is a study of five Edinburgh criminals over a period of 100 years. It extends from the professional thief David Haggart who flourished in the Edinburgh of Walter Scott and Lord Cockburn to the 1920’s psychopathic triple murderer Donald Merrett. It is not, though, primarily a work of criminology in the Roughhead-Lustgarten tradition. As a novelist, Massie is interested in the characters of his murderers, and, as a historian, in the social circumstances of murder. His studies explore the hidden recesses of regency, Victorian and early twentieth-century Edinburgh, tracing the changing character of the city and of society, illuminating its manners and morals by enquiry directed at a breaking-point of civil life: the moment of murder. He reveals an Edinburgh more turbulent and passionate than is suggested by its elegant façade.

Allan Massie
was educated at Glenalmond and Trinity College, Cambridge. He has written two novels,
Change and Decay in All Around I See
The Last Peacock
, and a critical study of Muriel Spark. He is at present writing a novel about a political assassination, set in Rome (where he lived for a number of years) and researching a book about the early Caesars. He has been fiction reviewer of
The Scotsman
for the last four years and has contributed to a wide variety of newspapers and periodicals.

© Allan Massie 1980

First published 1980 by


25 London Street


ISBN 0 904505 92 8

For Euan Cameron

in affection and with gratitude.



David Haggart

William Bennison

Eugene Marie Chantrelle

Jessie King

Donald Merrett


Murder may be taken as the breaking-point of civil society. It is that moment when bonds of interest and affection, which commonly act as a restraint on the passions and the individual will, are severed; the murderer rejects the authority of society, and, in doing so, proclaims himself an alien. In society we live amicably by accepting limitations placed on our freedom to exercise our will. We commonly accept those limitations willingly, recognising, if only tacitly or unconsciously, that they are the obverse of society’s duty to protect our own Persons and Property. As Burke put it in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, `Man cannot enjoy the rights. of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.’ It is this convention, on which civil society is properly based, that the murderer rejects, asserting instead his own right `to be his own Governor’. For this reason, because the act of murder threatens to tear apart the whole social fabric, society has always recoiled in aversion from the murderer. Common humanity is revolted by this act; he, setting himself above the law, is set by us without it. Murder therefore takes place at a crossroads where the will of the individual diverges from the code society has imposed.

It is easy to romanticise the murderer. That attitude is implicit in the greatest novel to centre on murder, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; even though Dostoevsky himself does not fall into the trap, his careless readers may. Inasmuch as society is felt to be oppressive, to impose restrictive, diminishing conventions, then the Free Man, a rebel against its dominion, may be fascinated by the act of murder. You can see that in the existential attraction to the actegratuit, the motiveless murder, the one that exists simply as a gob of spittle in society’s face. Such identification with the murderer is dangerous; he acts out the unconscious fantasies of others. Joked at this way, public obsession with the most hideous crimes takes on a new ugliness; the cries of outrage too easily resembling the rage of the mirrored Caliban; the beast in all of us shrieking for release. Of course, at the same time, we enjoy the equally deep, and wholly conscious, pleasure of reprobation, the experience of our own moral superiority and the reassurance that we at least are comfortably settled in society.

Seen in this way, the murderer has a heavy symbolic load to bear. Seen more closely he is rarely up to the job. For, of course, it is only in Fiction and sometimes in his own imagination that the murderer approaches the Nietzschean Superman. In that cold reality that so often ends in a grey dawn he is too often quite the reverse; not someone who transcends the social norm, but rather one incapable of measuring up to it; untermensch not ubermensch. When one sees the public rage poured on these miserable incompetents one sees society at its most unpleasant. For, while the murderer represents the failure of social man, society can hardly altogether escape some responsibility. To say that is not to slide into the imbecilities enshrined in the cant phrase, `we are all guilty’; merely to say that for society callously to cast out social failures may accord with some Darwinian theories of how to behave, but is hardly civilised or humane.

Because murder happens at that point when the demands of the individual Will, the Ego, clash with the duties ordained by society, a study of murders and murderers may help to illuminate our nature in both its social and its secret aspects. Different epochs give rise to different sorts of murder. The crime passionel, for instance, was long rare in Anglo-Saxon countries, common in Latin ones, not because Latins were more passionate, or more violent than Englishmen, but because their social conception of what became a man decreed that in certain circumstances he should slay his mistress or his wife, or the woman’s lover. That may seem to contradict what has been said about the clash between individual and society which murder represents; it does not really do so however; these were murderers, on the point of social acceptibility, still of course illegal, but in that particular society more easily understood, more easily forgiven. For attitudes to murder change according to social developments; some kinds are always more reprehensible than others. For this reason a study of murders offers valuable lessons in sociology.

For a long time domestic murders were peculiarly British; they are no longer so common. The reasons are doubtless various, but essentially domestic murder was the result of the elevation of the family to a position of extreme importance, while at the same time the cult of respectability was practised and divorce was difficult and disgraceful. Such a combination set up conflicts in the individual which were too often resolved in murder, as the cases of Bennison and Chantrelle described here illustrate. In our lifetime all these - family, respectability, sanctity of marriage - have been relaxed. It is no longer necessary to murder to gratify your lust, or please the Ego; hence, domestic murders are rarer. Yet at the same time the naked commercialism of our society, allied to vaguely articulated but widely diffused notions of self-realisation, has spawned all sorts of sexual fantasy; this may be seen as a social tendency, but sociey does not move as fast as the individual imagination; things are still illegal; murders take place in consequence. (I am not of course advocating still further liberation in this respect; merely indicating how social tendencies, worked up by the fantasising individual imagination, will frequently have anti-social results.)

Recognition of how forms of murder respond to social developments should make us wary of theories concerning criminal types. First, murder is in some ways an unusual criminal action, a good many murderers leading otherwise law-abiding lives. Too much should not be made of this difference however; essentially murder is like all other crimes in its rejection of the obligations which society tries to impose on the individual. However, the second point is more important. A man, law-abiding in certain circumstances, becomes criminal in others; that is to say, the same man may find one society acceptable in its demands, another not. You can see this difference manifested by problem children, who suddenly, removed to a new school or a new environment, become reformed. The essential self has not changed; but has merely found society against which it is not necessary to rebel. Talk of criminal types is always glib:

`In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold. I always notice with pain, however, a curious absence of the portraits of living millionaires from such galleries of awful examples; most of the portraits in which we are called upon to remark the line of the nose or the curve of the forehead appear to be the portraits of ordinary sad men, who stole because they were hungry or killed because they were in a rage. The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head; sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development, sometimes to the striking deficiency, of the back of the head. I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists in being poor.’

So Chesterton, and most of what he says is admirable sense. Even his own ironic conclusion, sentimental though it may be pronounced, can be defended. The poor are more likely than the rich to find society thwarting their will; the obstacles placed in the way of their self-gratification being incomparably greater. So, for example, the first of my subjects, the amiable scoundrel, David Haggart, followed a career which could fairly enough be interpreted as an act of defiance directed at his poverty and social position. It is, I think, possible to identify mental habits and qualities characteristic of the criminanal - selfishness, indifference to others' well-being or interests whenever these clash with one’s own, disregard of consequence - but, as Chesterton points out, these characteristics are frequently shared by the successful. In any case such criminal attributes can generally only be identified after the criminal act.

This book deals with murders in society. It concentrates less perhaps than some readers might wish on the set-piece, the trial for murder, which concludes my murderers’ careers, and it is not pretended that these are cases of the kind likely to give rise to much debate. It is probable that the four who were hanged were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused, and that the one who got away was extremely lucky. Interest lies in the circumstances of the crimes rather than in questions of guilt or innocence. Why were these five people brought to this defiance of society and its laws?

It is also a study of Edinburgh where all five murderers lived, where four of the crimes were committed and four of the murderers hanged. The cases extend from the years just after Waterloo to the 1920’s. They shed some light on the development of the city, on changing habits of living, thinking and feeling. It is perhaps a_ remarkable feature of Edinburgh murders that so many were committed by incomers. Of my subjects only David Haggart and Jessie King were natives of the,city, while the most famous of those I have chosen not to deal with, Burke and Hare, were of course Irish immigrants. I doubt whether there is much significance in this fact, though it might be claimed that incomers always find it harder to adapt to the norms of any particular society, and are therefore more likely to find themselves behaving as outlaws.

Any student of Edinburgh crime owes much to William Roughead, its most indefatigable chronicler. Roughead (1870-1952), who as a small boy met Chantrelle, and who attended the trials of Jessie King and Donald Merrett, is a figure worthy of close attention himself. A largely nonpractising solicitor, he attended every major trial in the High Court over a period of more than fifty years, and wrote about most of them. I confess to a certain feeling of guilt towards him and his shade; for I have used him freely and used him roughly. Roughead, very much of his period, was fascinated by crime and deviance, and totally unsympathetic towards criminals. He regarded the Law with absolute reverence and no suspicion whatsoever. It was an attitude that spoke of complete social security - criminals belonged to a lower class - of a lack of any real imagination and of a crude, if effective, psychology. He quite rightly saw that criminals were subversive, and concluded that they were therefore wicked. So he displayed a vengeful relish in his treatment of them that a more squeamish, more sceptical, age may find unattractive. He could not see the ugliness of a society where established authority employed the law to keep the inferior classes in order; or that the criminal might be victim as much as rebel. And, worse than that, he had rarely any idea why the crimes were committed. In short the trouble with Roughead was that he was a judge, not a murderer. That may seem an extraordinary thing to say; at a time when society is under strain it may even sound rather silly. Nevertheless I think it is both true and important to recognise this as a limitation in criminologists such as Roughead. It displays something deficient in their knowledge of, and response to, human nature. He knew why judges put on the black cap, and even what they felt like as they did so; but not why the man in the dock had earned it or how he felt when he saw it donned. Given his place in, and view of, society, that was reasonable enough; you can’t however write sense from that standpoint today.

BOOK: Ill Met by Gaslight: Five Edinburgh Murders
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