Dead and Buried? Finding Edinburgh’s last hanged woman in oral history 

Written by Chloe Bramwell

Last week, my partner found a post on Twitter advertising free ghost tours. The account wasn’t especially large or well-established. I was happy to come along, although I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been to enough free events to know better, especially as my partner has a penchant for picking especially bizarre places to visit: disused graveyards in Fife, community costume parades, Highland folk museums filled to the rafters with porcelain dolls. I don’t mean to suggest that I’m any better, only that this likely wasn’t the sort of tightly scripted, Harry Potter-infused ghost tour that writes its name in blood-soaked letters on the side of Lothian Buses. 

Sadly, our host was a very normal middle-aged man with a soft Edinburgh accent, wearing a peacoat and covering his white hair with a fiddler cap. The effect was not altogether unlike a sea captain full of old yarns of tenuous veracity. He introduced himself, plugged his YouTube channel and his blog, and explained that he was, in effect, a collector of oral histories. He was given his stories by his grandfather, many of which weren’t ghost stories at all but local anecdotes about cats and buses, and later by friends and colleagues in the paranormal community. So these would be stories, set in the past, and maybe true. It was entertainment, but he also recorded in his books (which he plugged) stories which found no home elsewhere. Stories which had existed at least a hundred years in some cases but weren’t quite ubiquitous enough to be considered folklore. Stories about murderers coming back to haunt the living, but whose victims were labourers and who had no ancestral manor to attach these ghosts to. Many of these stories were of questionable authenticity, but I don’t think our storyteller wanted the truth to get in the way of a good story. 

The most beguiling of all was a story about a woman named Jessie King. She wasn’t known to me before last week, although a woman on the tour had heard of her before. Jessie King, for the uninitiated, was allegedly a baby farmer: a woman who took payment from those who needed a baby rehomed, who would promise to care for the baby in return for a fee, and the baby would, in some sort of way, be taken care of. It was fostering, or adoption, or wet-nursing, by another name. But what other provision did the needy have? Jessie King was believed to have murdered a slew of babies, along with her partner. The smoking gun was a baby discovered by neighbourhood children wrapped in fabric. On further investigation, the police found babies in every corner of her house: on top of wardrobes, under beds, stuffed into the pocket of coats. As a moral panic, it reflects the anxieties of the Victorian haves towards the Victorian have-nots: exploitation, unwed mothers, the innocence of childhood lost to poverty, the schemes of the undeserving poor. It’s positively Dickensian. I was certain, on that tour, that the whole thing was an urban legend because it was too perfect. 

The line given to us by our tour guide was that Jessie took the blame and hanged for a crime she at best committed with the assistance of her alcoholic partner decades her senior. She hanged because she ran up against the torches and pitchforks of moral panic and was unfortunate enough to get caught up in the wrong thing at the wrong time. And it surely was the wrong time, because what could be more dangerous than a household of babies with no access to medical treatment, living in squalor, with no access to welfare. But, like I said, I didn’t believe it. Perhaps I just didn’t want to because there are only so many stories about women hanging for something they didn’t do. And initially the sources I found were suspect. BBC articles were uncited, and one blog post writing on the topic called itself “unknownmisandry”. Another paper trail led to Mercat Tours blog post. It was another notch in the belt of Edinburgh’s dark tourism industry and little more. 

I looked at online records of hangings and found nothing. The National Records of Scotland may have had some lead but it’s closed to members of the public. I wanted something, though… At last, at least, I found a hideously formatted website that looked at least 20 years old. Miraculously, it was still active, and more miraculously still contained a newspaper clipping. It was without attribution, but I took keywords from the clipping and searched on Google. This took me to another page, collating all articles regarding her case. There was undeniable evidence that Jessie King existed and died -accused of infanticide- at the end of a rope. Scotland’s last woman to be hanged. Amongst other articles was a letter from “Compassion”, appealing to Christian ladies, pointing to the hypocrisy of a justice system which sentenced a man to “only ten years for a most brutal murder in this same city”. It seems the appeal garnered her little sympathy… 

It’s hard to know what to feel about this event and about this person. Jessie King, it seems, was unanimously believed by her jury to have killed at least two children, not the litany our nautical ghost aficionado had implied. Killing her didn’t bring those children back, nor did it shed light on what social circumstances had led to their deaths. Little was said of her partner, although she was unmarried, which likely coloured the jury’s view of her. Now her story is just another one for tourists, a frisson to imbue the city with a sense of danger. Her side of Edinburgh is now well beyond anything I could afford, but it was slums once. Nevertheless, her Dickensian world feels as though it grows nearer and nearer. The baby farm moral panic is recounted to us with a hint of irony, but the central story remains intact: desperate for income, depraved women took money for children that they intended to kill. This one story is a crumb in the tourism industry’s arsenal. It’s easier to believe Jessie King was a villain than it is that she was a sad, complicated woman who lived in appalling conditions, cared for children in appalling conditions, and was hanged in the hopes of making the world a better place for her death. In all likelihood, so are many more shared in this city, old ugly stories told and retold as entertainment rather than warning. 


Bibliography

“ ‘Baby Farming’ – a tragedy of Victorian Times.” Capital Punishment U.K. Accessed 27 October, 2021. http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/babyfarm.html

Spurtle. “News from the Mews 30 – The Stockbridge Murder Case, 1889, Part I.” Published 26 June, 2020. https://www.broughtonspurtle.org.uk/news/news-mews-30.  

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