Edinburgh's Old Town is teeming with tales of death and murder, and the gruesome details of serial killers and grave robbers. Yet the New town had its share of violent deaths and criminals too. On this day in 1889, the Scotsman newspaper reported the execution of a woman tagged as the 'Stockbridge Murderess'.
Jessie King, born Jessie Kean, was in her late 20s and worked as a washerwoman and laundry worker in Stockbridge. As one of the city's burgeoning suburbs, in the 1880s Stockbridge was also where Keane had become involved in a business even more despicable than the cash-for-corpses scandal that linked Edinburgh's medical school with killers Burke and Hare.
In an age when illegitimate children were on the rise, and when the poorest members of society were struggling more than ever to feed and clothe their families, it was not uncommon to see adverts seeking people to adopt unwanted or unmanageable babies. For a small cash payment - £5 was a standard fee - your baby would be taken and given a better life than you could afford to give it. Or so the theory went.
In reality, people like Jessie Kean would take your child, and the cash accompaniment - sometimes as low as £2 - with no intention of raising it. With little effort to track or monitor the wellbeing of the children, it was not unusual for them to vanish without trace. It was a practice known as baby farming, with the children neglected or even killed once the cash had been spent.
Such was the fate of children like Sandy Gunn, Violet Tomlinson, and Walter Campbell, all under a year old at the time of their death.
Jessie Kean was unmarried, but was living on Cheyne Street with Thomas Pearson. He was operating a failed business and it is thought the pair lived off Jessie's immoral income drawn from working as a prostitute. Kean had become pregnant, and given birth to a baby girl, named Grace.
Weeks after moving into Pearson's home, Grace mysteriously vanished. Kean began replying to adoption adverts, and was known to have taken charge of Alexander Gunn, among a number of other young babies.
One afternoon, it is said, two local boys were playing football in the street with an oilskin package they had recovered from rubbish heap in the street. The rough package began to unravel, and as they tried to tie it up more tightly to continue their game, the skin fell open to reveal the badly decomposed remains of a small baby. When the police examined the small body, they concluded that they were remains of Alexander Gunn.
The police visited the home of Jessie Kean and Thomas Pearson, and discovered Kean nursing her own newborn baby, Thomas. On examining the property they discovered the remains of three children.
The pair were arrested, but Pearson denied all knowledge of the fates of the children he had helped to adopt, and Kean persuaded the police that she had acted alone in adopting the children, with Pearson only signing the papers as she was unable to write. That one of the child's bodies had been found on a shelf in Pearson's home that was too high for Keane to have reached it was not considered sufficient to implicate Pearson in the crimes.
Kean would eventually stand trial alone for the deaths of three children, although the police had their suspicions about the fates of several more.
Kean was hanged after being found guilty by a jury after just four minutes of deliberations. On 10 March 1889 she had her own baby, Thomas, taken from her for the last time, and she was hanged early the following morning. She was the first woman to be hanged in Scotland since 1862, and the last until 1923.
Pearson himself left Edinburgh and moved to Glasgow, perhaps to escape the cloud of suspicion that hung over him for his part in these terrible events. As an elderly, alcoholic man, he was perhaps destined to trip and fall and die in a pool of his own blood. But that his body was found with a badly fractured skull suggests someone else may have had a hand in his death, in revenge for the children that he may have been involved in killing.
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