Scottish homicide; on trial in July 1934 for the
murder of Helen Priestly, age eight when her body was found in a sack
under the stairs of the Aberdeen tenement where she lived, 4/21/1934.
The child had gone to the store the prior afternoon to buy a loaf of
bread for her mom, and never returned. She had dyed of asphyxiation
and it was a suspected rape, which was later disproven.
The neighbors were investigated, in particular, the
Donald family. Helen had persisted in called Mrs. Donald "Coconut"
until Jeannie Donald had hit Helen. The two families had maintained
enmity since, not speaking. Human hairs were found in the sack with
Helen which proved to be those of Mrs. Donald, and a part of a loaf of
bread was found in her kitchen, the brand that Mrs. Priestly used.
Jeannie Donald was arrested and went to trial in
July 1934. It was concluded that she decided to teach Helen a lesson
for her impertinence and had jumped out from under the stairs. Helen
could have vomited in fright and choked to death. Mrs. Donald could
then have simulated rape with some blunt instrument to deflect
suspicion from herself before putting the child's body in the sack.
Jeannie Donald was found guilty and given the death
sentence, but this was later commuted to life. She was released in
1944 and disappeared from the public eye, dying in 1976.
A tragic case involving a child
that was more likely to have been manslaughter than murder.
Eight-year-old Helen Priestly
vanished on 20th April 1934. At 1.30pm she had left the first-floor
Aberdeen tenement in Urquhart Road, where her family lived, to fetch a
loaf of bread from the local Co-op bakery and had not returned. Her
body was found at 5am the next day, concealed in a sack, in a lavatory
of the tenement where she lived, by Alex Porter, a friend of Helen's
father. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation and there
appeared to be signs of rape. The sack containing her body was dry,
this was despite the fact that there had been heavy rain a couple of
hours earlier. This indicated that the body had been stored somewhere
local and the hunt, and ensuing commotion, had made the killer dump
the body in a hurry.
Further forensic tests determined that the child
had not been raped but had been injured to make it appear as though
she had been sexually assaulted. Suspicion fell upon the Donalds. The
Priestly's refused to talk to the Donalds after Mrs Donald had hit
Helen when the girl had been cheeky to her. When the Donald home was
examined stains were found and the Donalds were arrested, though the
stains later turned out to be unconnected. Mr Donald was soon
released, he had been at work when Helen disappeared, but Jeannie
Donald was charged with Helen's murder. Human hairs were found in the
sack and these proved to belong to Donald. Coal-ash and cinders
matched similar found in the Donald's home.
She was tried at Edinburgh on 16th
July 1934. The defence contended that the child's injuries were
consistent with rape that, of course, would have cleared Mrs Donald.
The most damning evidence came from Jeannie's daughter who testified
that the Co-op loaf, that had been found in the Donald house, was not
theirs. Jeannie Donald did not testify, was found guilty and sentenced
to death. This was commuted to penal servitude for life and she was
released in 1944.
It was speculated that what
actually happened was that Helen Priestly had been ringing the
Donald's doorbell and running away. Jeannie Donald had hidden under
the stairs and when the child did it again, Jeannie had leapt out and
frightened the child so much she had caused the child to choke on her
own vomit. Helen had suffered from an enlarged thymus gland and this
would have made her more prone to fainting. A frightened Jeannie then
molested the child to make it look like a rape killing.
Bad blood and the vile death of little Helen
Forensic experts prove 'sex killer' was woman If
the lynch mob had got hold of Jeannie's husband they'd have killed
By Reg McKay - DailyRecord.co.uk
October 19, 2007
MISSING. What an anxious time for those who are
left. Especially when the missing one is your eight-year-old daughter.
Little Helen Priestly had been sent to the shops by
her mum at lunchtime to buy a loaf of bread, as she was most days.
Except that day, April 21, 1934, she never returned.
The shop was near to her ho me at 61 Urquhart
Tall, fair-haired, bright Helen was well known in
the neighbourhood and while she was a wee bit quiet, she was a
confident girl. How could she have gone missing?
Helen's mother, father, friends and neighbours all
feared the worst. Helen hadn't wandered off- she had been taken.
Within a few hours, the police had been notified
and hundreds of local people volunteered to search every nook and
cranny of the area. The biggest search in Aberdeen's history went on
At 2am, Helen's exhausted father was eventually
persuaded to go home for a few hours' sleep. A neighbour, Alexander
Parker, promised that he'd go to his house and waken him again at 5am
to resume the search.
On his word, Parker entered the Priestlys' close
around 5am and was surprised to see a large, blue hessian bag lying
there against a wall.
Curious, he pulled the bag open and promptly
dropped it again, acid disgust rushing into his gullet. Helen
Priestly's dead eyes looked up at him.
Searchers, friends, family and the police had been
up and down that close repeatedly since Helen had gone missing. Her
father had walked wearily in at 2am and there had been no bag.
Someone, the killer, had placed Helen there between
2am and 5am.
Why? Why there? They were the first of many
questions that needed to be answered in the search for Helen
Priestly's murderer. Helen Priestly had been murdered all right.
But there was more. The wee lassie had deep bruises
on her upper thighs and her sexual organs had been mutilated. A sex
killer was on the loose.
Word of Helen's injuries leaked to the public.
Soon, those who had been searching for her were joined by even more
folk in vigilante groups patrolling the area with pick shaft handles
and hand-made clubs.
Police were fast losing control of Aberdeen's
streets and prayed they found the murderer before the mobs did.
On the other hand, such groups milling around night
and day were likely to ensure the killer didn't strike again.
The police carried out door-to-door interviews in
one of the biggest operations the city had ever seen.
One neighbour reported hearing a high-pitched
scream from a house in the Priestly close around lunchtime.
Later, a slater from outside the area but who had
been working in the back close that day, also reported hearing a
"screech" around the same time.
Then there was the blue hessian bag. It bore
distinctive marks and a fading Canadian export stamp. With a few
inquiries, the cops ascertained that it was used for transporting
flour and there weren't many outlets in Scotland, let alone Aberdeen.
But there was one - a bakery close to Helen's house.
There, a baker remembered that a woman had come in
asking for a bag some time before and he'd given her one of the blue
Canadian bags. He provided a rough description of her but not enough
to pinpoint the person.
The police looked closer to home.
The Priestlys and Helen were popular with everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
There was bad blood between them and a family in
the same close, the Donalds. It had all started over such trivial,
piffling matters that the Priestlys couldn't remember what they were.
But they did describe how Jeannie Donald in particular seemed to keep
the bad blood flowing.
Jeannie Donald was the woman of her house and had
even picked on young Helen by scowling at her on the street and
chasing her from playing in the close. Her husband was a barber and
they had a daughter, also Jeannie, around Helen's age. A child who was
to prove her mother's downfall.
Young Jeannie Donald told the cops how on the day
Helen went missing, she noticed that the bread in her home was
different from the type they usually had. Sure enough, the local baker
confirmed that the loaf young Jeannie described was the very type
Helen bought for her mother every day.
That was enough for cops desperate to get a result.
Jeannie Donald and her husband were arrested.
But, before the police could escort them down the
stairs to the waiting van, an angry crowd had surrounded the building
baying for blood.
Cops eventually battled their way through but when
they arrived at the station, another mob were waiting.
The whole city was united in fury at the killers of
Helen Priestly. So much so that the wee victim had to be buried in a
If the lynch mobs had got hold of Jeannie Donald's
man that night, they would have been making a mistake.
Within a day, colleagues and customers at the
barbershop where he worked confirmed he had been there throughout the
key day. He was released.
But even then, the man had to take his daughter and
move out of the area in fear of their lives. Jeannie Donald went to
trial at Edinburgh High Court on Monday 16 July 1934.
It wasn't just in Aberdeen that the death of wee
Helen had moved people. The cobbled yard outside the court thronged
with angry people from dawn. Lines of uniformed police were brought in
to keep them back as the mob swelled.
The folk outside calling for Jeannie Donald's blood
saw her as a callous sex killer. Now, inside the court, it was the
Crown's job to prove it. They intended to use 164 witnesses and
hundreds of productions.
Jeannie Donald pleaded not guilty but she had no
witnesses, no productions, no alibi. Nothing.
The Crown were about to make some Scottish legal
history by their reliance on forensic evidence.
Key to this was Professor John Glaister, of Glasgow
University. He had been studying hair and could prove that hairs found
on Helen's corpse matched hair found on a brush used by the accused in
jail. Hair inside the blue hessian sack was Jeannie Donald's as well.
Other forensic bods found fibres from the sack in
the Donalds' home and bacterial growth inside the sack matched that in
their house. All damning expert evidence but their trump card was yet
to be played.
Jeannie Donald's defence was entirely reliant on
discrediting the Crown's case. They'd argue how could she, as a woman,
have raped Helen as the injuries showed. Not so, said three
pathologists who had all independently examined Helen's body.
The injuries were caused by the shaft of a hammer
or broom handle to appear as if the girl had been raped and killed by
It was the most damning evidence of all. It took
the jury 18 minutes to find Jeannie Donald guilty of murder. She was
one of the first people in the world to be convicted on forensic
Her trial set a precedent that was soon to become
the norm. Outside, an angry mob howled for Jeannie Donald's blood.
Inside was a different scene. Judge Lord Aitchison
was reduced to tears. He had never worn the black cap and here he was
sentencing a woman to death.
Jeannie Donald was driven off through the screaming
crowds to Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen, to wait out her last few days.
On August 3, 1934, her lawyers lodged an appeal but
in truth couldn't have been hopeful. The next day, the Lord Provost of
Aberdeen had his summer holiday interrupted by a letter from the
Secretary of State. He rushed to Craiginches Prison to break the news.
Jeannie Donald was not to hang but serve life in
She was secretly transferred to the women's jail in
Duke Street, Glasgow. It's not recorded how Helen Priestly's parents
felt about the reprieve of a woman the Scottish public wanted to
lynch. Nor how they felt when, only 10 years later, Jeannie Donald was
Jeannie Donald died in obscurity never admitting
her guilt or explaining how and why Helen Priestly was killed.
Murder By Mistake? Helen Priestly and Jeannie
By all accounts Helen Priestly was a rather
unpleasant child, rude, naughty and impertinent. The eight year old
girl lived with her father, John, and mother Agnes on the second floor
of a drab and overcrowded tenement block, number 61 Urquhart Street in
the Scottish Town of Aberdeen. The imposing if dilapidated four story
building had been divided into eight two room flats, providing squalid
and cramped living conditions for the working class folk who were
resigned to living out their lives in the oppressive surroundings.
On Saturday the 21st of April 1934 Agnes Priestly
realised she was running short on bread, and so sent precocious little
Helen out to by some from the Co-Op, a local bakers that was just
around the corner from their home. Helen dutifully made her way there
and bought the bread, the baker noting the time of the sale in his log
book as being at 1.30 p.m. After purchasing the bread, something went
very wrong indeed for Helen never returned home, quickly the community
rallied round the family and a search was organised for the missing
girl, dozens of locals, men, women and children began to scour the
streets and alleyways for any sign of the missing girl. Sometime later
that afternoon as word spread about the disappearance Dick Sutton a
nine year old friend of Helen's came forward with information which
changed the entire shape of the investigation. Dick stated that as he
played in the street earlier that day he saw Helen being dragged down
the street by a disreputable looking middle-aged man in a dark
overcoat, he'd been forcibly taking a perturbed and frightened Helen
onto a local tram. The police responded to the information by
circulating a description of the child snatcher and widening the
search to the outer suburbs of Aberdeen. The police acted quickly, the
description of the kidnapper and Helen were given in radio
announcements and flashed up on the screens at local cinemas, this
remember were the days when the majority of people would spend their
evenings crowded round the family wireless or in their local cinema,
it was the 1930ís equivalent of receiving blanket news coverage, all
within a few short hours of the childís disappearance.
At 2.00 a.m. John Priestly and his friend and
neighbour Alexander Parker, who lived in the flat opposite the
Priestlyís, returned to 61 Urquhart Street after searching the city,
John was shattered physically and emotionally and Mr Parker had
persuaded him that he would be useless helping carry on with the
search whilst he was so exhausted. Mr Parker and John parted company
with Mr Parker giving some words of comfort to Agnes Priestly before
adjourning to his own flat. At 5.00 a.m. Alexander awoke and made his
way downstairs, thinking that he would leave the nervously exhausted
John Priestly to have a few more hours sleep as he carried on with the
search, as Mr Parker crept down the stairs and reached the hallway his
attention was drawn to a detail he had not noticed those few short
hours before, there was now a large blue hessian bag under the stairs.
Normally such things would go unnoticed by the
young man, but in the high adrenaline state of a search for a missing
child he felt that there was something instinctively wrong about the
bag. Mr Parker approached the bundle and unwrapped it, peering inside
he felt sick to his stomach. Helen Priestly was stuffed into the bag,
she had been strangled, her knickers were missing and bruises on her
thighs and on her genitals indicated that she had been raped.
The police were horrified, Alexander Parker was
certain that the bag had not been under the stairway at 2.00 a.m. that
must have meant that the killer had chillingly gone to Helen's home
between 2.00 a.m. and 5.00 a.m. and left her body for one of her
family or neighbours to find. What kind of sexual psychopath would do
such a cold hearted thing? The police realised something was deeply
amiss, the bag was bone dry and outside that night there had been a
heavy down pouring of rain, how had the bag been transported and
stayed so dry? Further why and how had no one seen a man lugging a
bright blue sack containing the leaden body of the dead child through
the city street? It just obviously didnít make sense so the police
re-interviewed young Dick Cotton to see if he could remember any
further details about the man he had seen taking Helen, under the
pressure from the police who were desperate to find the sadistic
madman Dick finally confessed that he had made the whole story up,
there had been no child snatcher, he had not seen Helen being
kidnapped, leading the police on a futile search which had taken their
eyes off the real area of interest, Helen's home.
The police rethought the situation, maybe the
killer hadn't returned to 61 Urquhart Street, maybe the killer had
never left. The police began to interview the residents of number
sixty-one, had the Priestly's argued? Had John or Agnes ever been seen
mistreating little Helen, no...but there was someone in the building
who might have had cause to want to harm the little girl... It was
well known that there was no love loss between the Donald family who
occupied the flat on the ground floor and the Priestly's who lived
immediately above them.
Jeannie Donald had been seen shouting at Helen
Priestly on a number of occasions for Helen's bad behaviour. Helen had
been known to torment the Donald family, Helen had been known to bully
the Donald's little girl, she was known to have kicked at the Donald's
front door, she was known to have rattled the banister outside their
house to annoy the family, she was known to have shouted abuse at Mrs
Donald. Another curious occurrence was that the Donald family where
they only residents of 61 Urquhart Street who had not participated in
the search for Helen Priestly, curious. The police began to look a
little bit closer at the Donald family, and interview its members,
Alexander Donald was a barber he didnít own his own business of course
but he worked hard and was good at his job. Jeannie Donald was a
thirty-eight year old housewife who filled her day with household
chores and looking after their daughter, also called Jeannie.
As the police interviewed the Donald family and
pondered if they were connected to the events, the investigation also
turned to the other leads in the investigation such as that hessian
bag the body had been bundled into, the bag had been stamped with a
Canadian export mark, and examination revealed two things, it had once
contained flour and it also contained traces of washed cinders, an
unusual cleaning habit that was even then rather out of vogue, the bag
also contained saucepan parks where it had been used a makeshift
The police decided to trace the bags origins, there
weren't many places in the city that imported flour from Canada,
bizarrely enough one of the only outlets to do so was a bakery close
to Urquhart Road. The police went and spoke with the owner and he
confirmed that he had received a shipment of flour in just such bags,
he also confirmed that a customer had asked if she could have some of
the bags and he had dutifully given her a handful, the description the
baker gave of the customer fitted Jeannie Donald down to a tee. One of
the residents at 61 Urquhart Road reported hearing a child scream at
about 1.30 p.m. on the day of Helen's disappearance, this report was
confirmed by a Slater who had been working in the alleyway behind the
tenement block, who also heard the searing screech. The police started
to wonder if Helen had made it back to number sixty-one after all,
perhaps she'd made it into the building, but not up to the single
flight of stairs to her home. Helen would have to have passed the
Donald family homestead, perhaps tempers had finally boiled over. The
police searched the Donald's flat; and oh dear if they didn't find
evidence upon evidence that something terrible had happened to Helen
Priestly inside those walls. The police found nine more identical bags
to the one the body had been stuff in, each with similar saucepan
stains. Blood stains of the same blood group belonging to Helen were
discovered on a packet soapflakes, a scrubbing brush and some cleaning
cloths, just the type of equipment you might need and get bloody if
you were cleaning up after a murder. Sir Sydney Smith regius professor
of forensic medicine at Edinburgh University was brought in, he
examined the flat in minute detail and discovered something a damn
site more damning, Helen Priestly had suffered from a rare condition
which enlarged her thalamus and caused her to produce an extremely
rare bacterium, this in turn caused her to be prone to fainting.
Microbiological tests showed that this bacterium was covering the
Donald household, over the floor, cleaning rags and on counter tops.
Sir Sydney examined the dust fibres in the bag they contained cotton,
wool, silk, cat hair, rabbit hair and some human hair that showed
indications of been badly permed, just like Jeannie Donaldís. Sir
Sidney took a sample of household dust from the Donaldís flat and
wonder upon wonders if it didnít exactly match the detritus in the
bottom of the sack in its composition complete with strands of badly
Alexander Donald was arrested and interviewed, if
he had finally snapped and murdered the naughty little girl the police
could at least have some understanding of the murder, but it didnít
explain why he had to rape her? The answer was perfectly simply and a
whole lot more chilling, he hadn't. Alexander Donald had dozens of
witnesses all of whom were willing to state that at the time of
Helen's murder he had been miles away at the barber shop cutting hair,
that left just one suspect, Jeannie Donald senior. Samples of Mrs
Donald's hair was taken and analysed by Professor John Glaister of
Glasgow University he could say beyond doubt that Jeannie Donald's
hair perfectly matched hair found on the body and in the blue hessian
sack. The police were dumbfounded, the evidence seemed
incontrovertible Jeannie Donald had murdered little Helen Priestly.
Charged with murder Jeannie Donald's trial
commenced at Edinburgh High Court on Monday the 16th of July 1934
before Judge Lord Craige Mason Aitchison. The defence was simple,
Jeannie couldn't have committed the murder as she had been physically
incapable of raping the young girl, the motive for the murder being so
obviously sexual, the prosecution however had carried out further
tests upon Helen Priestlyís body. One of the facts that had worried
Sir Sydney Smith was the complete lack of seamen in or near the body,
when he examined the bruises and abrasions more closely he came to the
conclusion that they had not been committed during a rape but by the
shaft of a hammer or a broom handle, something which to my mind seems
vastly more unsettling, the reason for doing this, well to make it
look like the motive of the attack was sexual in nature.
The forensic evidence was damning and overwhelming
the defence blown out of the water, in the end it took the jury just
eighteen minutes to return a guilty verdict. Lord Aitchison had never
passed down a death sentence to a woman before, doing so brought the
old boy to tears. On Friday the 3rd of August 1934 an appeal was
lodged against Jeannie's death sentence, it was a formality, not even
Jeannie held out hope that she would receive a last minute reprieve,
especially with her crime being a particularly brutal one against a
However Henry Alexander the Lord Provost of
Aberdeen (a public office equivalent to being a mayor) received a
letter from the Secretary of State ordering that Jeannie have her
death sentence commuted to one of life imprisonment. One can only
imagine how Jeannie Donald felt as she sat in the condemned sell at
Craiginches Prison and heard the news.
Jeannie was a model prisoner, so much so that when
Alexander Donald fell terminally ill with cancer in June 1944 Jeannie
was granted compassionate leave to care for her dying husband. When he
passed away Jeannie was allowed to remain a free woman. She lived the
rest of her life under an assumed name and died thirty-two years later
in 1976 at the age of eighty-one, never having publicly spoken about
her reasons for murdering Helen Priestly.
Now we reach the nub of the matter, just why did
Jeannie Donald murder a defenceless little girl? There are three
theories as to why Jeannie Donald did the deed, the first is that the
feud with the Priestly family reached boiling point and Jeannie
decided to take the ultimate form of revenge upon the Priestly family,
by depriving them of their most precious possession, their wayward but
loved daughter. The second theory is that Jeannie Donald had become
bored with her marriage and murdered Helen in such a way as to put the
blame on her husband consequently putting him permanently out of her
life. I don't believe these theories for a second, many people over
the years have spoken about the Donald family and all concurred that
Jeannie Donald appeared to be a loving, friendly family orientated
woman who loved her husband and who under normal circumstances
wouldn't have hurt a fly. This leaves the second theory, Jeannie had
been pushed to the end of her tether by the persecuting schoolgirl
upstairs, perhaps Helen did one last act of defiance against the
Donald family, Jeannie snapped and shouted and possibly even grabbed
hold of and shook the child the child, the child was scared witless
and due to her medical condition fainted. Jeannie believing she had
killed the child and fearing it would end with her neck in a noose
decided to make it look like the child had been interfered with by a
man, perhaps the child recovered consciousness as Jeannie did this,
the Helen screamed and as Jeannie Donald tried to shush the child she
strangled her, perhaps accidently or perhaps purposefully when the
child revived and in a panic fearing reprisals for her assault on the
child. I think this fits in more with what we know of Jeannie Donald
and I think the police and the prosecution thought so to, as before
the trial they secretly offered Jeannie a plea bargain, she could
plead guilty to manslaughter and spend a few short years in prison for
the little girlís death. As we know Jeannie didnít take the
prosecution up on the deal and it nearly cost her life.
The case of Helen Priestly and Jeannie Donald
leaves a sad and bitter taste in the mouth, it was a murder that
perverted all normal doctrines of a child killing, it helped to show
the world that women could be just as cold, calculating and to a
degree as sadistic as a man when it came to the disposal of child, it
also highlighted how cramped and unfit living conditions where one
cannot escape from the little mounting actions of a person that annoy
and vex us can lead to a flaring of emotion and actions that are
regretted forever more. Finally like all classics there is a moral to
the tale we should be kind and considerate to our neighbours, we never
know when they may have had a bad day, and our little joke could end
in our bloody demise.
The Murder of Eight Year Old Helen Priestly.
Did Jeannie Donald murder Helen
Priestly back in 1934? Was the forensic evidence available at the time
sufficient to convict Jeannie of the crime? Had it been purely an
On 21 April 1934, 8 year old Helen
Priestly was sent from her home in Urquhart Street, Aberdeen, to the
corner shop by her mother to buy a loaf of bread. It was one of the
things that most children throughout the United Kingdom at that time
were asked to do and the children seldom came to harm but on this
particular occasion a trip to the corner shop proved fatal for Helen.
When Helen didnít return home with the bread within a reasonable
length of time, her mother and father naturally became concerned. The
concern was subsequently shared by the Priestlys friends and
When, after initial investigations by Mr and Mrs
Priestly together with their friends and neighbours, hadnít borne
fruit, the matter was reported to the police who began one of the
largest searches in Aberdeen.
The police, aided by
volunteers from the local area, searched all night and by the early
hours of the morning it was suggested that Mr Priestly, who was
completely exhausted should go home and get a couple of hoursí rest.
One of the neighbours, an Alexander Parker, promised heíd go to the
Priestlys home at around 5.00 am (about 3 hours later) to wake him,
and true to his word, Mr Parker headed to Urquhart Street, but as he
turned into the close, he discovered a blue hessian bag lying against
the wall. His curiosity being piqued, he opened up the bag and, to his
horror, was confronted with the dead body of Helen Priestly.
The police and various volunteers had been up and down the street
numerous times since Helen had gone missing and, of course, Mr
Priestly would have passed that way at around 2.00 am when he went
home to rest and no bag had been seen there so someone had, unseen,
managed to put the bag there some time in the intervening three hours.
It seemed strange that somebody had risked returning the body almost
to the childís home and so close to the area that was being searched
by the police. From an examination of the body it seemed the child had
been strangled so it was unlikely to have been an accident of any
kind, but was considered most certainly to have been murder.
Examination also revealed bruising on the childís upper thighs and
sexual organs which meant that in all likelihood the motive had been
When news of Helenís gruesome murder broke
in the neighbourhood, vigilante groups began taking to the streets,
armed with clubs and other weapons and the police, feeling that this
wasnít good for the community and hindered the ongoing police
investigations, considered the sooner the murderer was brought to
justice the better. The police initially started with door to door
enquiries and discovered that one neighbour had heard a scream from a
house close to the Priestlys home at about lunchtime and this was
confirmed by the occupant of a property in a close near to Helenís
An inspection of the hessian bag had revealed
distinctive markings of a Canadian export stamp and, from that, the
police discovered that this particular type of bag was used for flour
transportation which, in turn led them to a nearby bakery.
The baker stated that he had recalled a woman who had gone into the
bakery some time before the murder took place and asked if she could
have one of the bags. Unfortunately he wasnít able to give a clear
description of the woman.
The police then pursued
further enquiries of the local community and discovered that the
Priestlys were popular with almost all their neighbours but one
neighbour in particular wasnít on the best of terms with them. These
were the Donalds. The Priestlys couldnít remember what the initial
argument had been about but the Donalds, for some reason, still bore a
grudge. Jeannie Donald had even taken out her wrath on little Helen
and had taken to scowling at her and chasing her away when she was
playing on the street. It was strange that the woman would have vented
her spleen on a small child as the Donalds had a daughter of their own
(also called Jeannie), about the same age as Helen.
Unfortunately, Jeannie Junior inadvertently pointed the finger of
suspicion in the direction of her parents by telling the police that
she could remember the day that Helen went missing as sheíd noticed
that the bread they had was different to what they normally ate. The
police checked with the local baker who said that the Priestlys always
had that particular type of bread, so the police hastily went to the
Donalds and took both parents into custody.
were running high and the police had problems in escorting the couple
down the stairs to the waiting police van as the building was
surrounded by an angry crowd and, by the time the police reached the
police station, they found another crowd. It seemed the whole of
Aberdeen had made up their minds that the Donalds were guilty even
though no trial had taken place. Fortunately, the police were able to
keep both of the suspects safe as, within 24 hours, witnesses had come
forward stating that during the day in question, Mr Donald had in fact
been working at a local barberís shop, so there was no way he was
connected with the murder and he was subsequently released. But even
then, he and Jeannie Junior constantly came under threat and had to
move out of the area.
Jeannie Donald Senior was
convicted of the crime and by the time of her trial, word of the
murder had spread nationwide and the Court was surrounded by crowds of
people who believed Mrs Donald was a callous sex fiend which created a
mammoth task for the police to keep her safe.
the trial eventually got under way, Jeannie pleaded not guilty. The
prosecution stated that they wished to rely on 184 witnesses and
hundreds of exhibits. The trial became of nationwide interest and also
made Scottish history on the strength of the forensic evidence put
One of the key experts to present evidence
was one Professor John Glaister of Glasgow University who had made a
study of hair. He maintained he could prove that samples of hair found
on Helenís corpse matched hair found on a hairbrush which had been
used by Jeannie Donald while in custody and also with that inside the
blue hessian sack.
Fibres which had been taken from
the sack matched those in the Donalds home
forensic bods found fibres from the sack in the Donalds home, and
bacterial growth inside the sack matched that in their house. There
was no doubt that the expert evidence was damning, but their trump
card was yet to be played.
Jeannie Donaldís defence
was entirely reliant on discrediting of the Crownís case and they put
forward that Jeannie, as a woman, would have been unable to have raped
Helen as the injuries showed to have been the case. Not so, said three
pathologists who had all independently examined Helenís body.
According to them, the injuries were caused by the shaft of a hammer
or broom handle to make it appear as if the girl had been raped and
thereby killed by a man.
It was the most damning
evidence of all. It took the jury just 18 minutes to return their
verdict of guilty of murder. So, Jeannie Donald went down in history
as one of the first people in the world to be convicted on forensic
Jeannie Donald was subsequently taken to
Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen, to await execution by hanging. However,
on 3 August 1934 Jeannieís lawyers lodged an appeal and the next day
the Lord Provost of Aberdeen had a letter from the Secretary of State,
whereupon he rushed to Craiginches to deliver the news that Jeannieís
execution had been commuted to life imprisonment.
Jeannie was transferred to the womenís jail in Duke Street, Glasgow
but served just 10 years of the term. She died in obscurity and never
admitted the crime nor explained how or why she would have murdered
Helen Priestly. Even if the child had been annoying, it seemed
illogical that a woman who had a child of her own and about the same
age as Helen, would even consider murder. And why would Jeannie put
the body so close to home? Most murderers would tend to take the body
as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. It was obvious
that, with the police search going on and being in such close
proximity to the childís home, she was lucky not to have been seen. So
was Jeannie Donald responsible for the death of little Helen Priestly;
maybe it was an accident made to look like murder? Unfortunately I
suspect weíll never know the true story behind this heinous crime.