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Jessie KING





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Baby farmer - Convicted of taking money to adopt babies and then killing them
Number of victims: 2 +
Date of murders: August 1887 - October 1888
Date of birth: 1866
Victims profile: Children (The babies in this case were the illegitimate sons and daughters of domestic servants and factory girls whose unwanted pregnancies threatened what was already a precarious existence)
Method of murder: Strangulation and suffocation
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging on March 11, 1889

Jessie King - the last woman executed in Edinburgh

By Steven Brocklehurst - BBC Scotland news

January 22, 2015

Jessie King was the last woman in Edinburgh to be executed, after she was convicted of taking money to adopt babies and then killing them. But was she a callous serial killer or a vulnerable scapegoat?

One afternoon in October 1888, a group of young friends made a makeshift football from a bundle of oilskin they had found in the lane behind Cheyne Street.

Little did they know what was inside the bundle.

The discovery of the body of a dead child led to the authorities being alerted and Jessie King and her partner, Thomas Pearson, came under suspicion.

When their house was raided a baby girl was found strangled in the coal closet.

Jessie King took on all the guilt, claiming that Pearson knew nothing of what went on.

When he was subsequently released, she asked to withdraw her confession but was too late.

The case of Jessie King was about to bring Edinburgh face-to-face with one of the biggest scandals of the Victorian period - baby-farming.

In February 1889, 27-year-old King appeared at the High Court in Edinburgh accused of the murders of three babies.

She was not their mother but had taken on the children after responding to advertisements in newspapers for "Person wanted to adopt child".

For the payment of a small amount of money, the baby-farmer would take the child which was then either killed or severely neglected.

The babies in this case were the illegitimate sons and daughters of domestic servants and factory girls whose unwanted pregnancies threatened what was already a precarious existence.

Powerful hold

What could have driven Jessie King to such a fate?

Vulnerable, uneducated and penniless, Jessie had struggled to survive.

She met Thomas Pearson when she was heavily pregnant to a man who had offered to marry her, but somehow fell under the spell of the disgraced Glasgow man, who was some 30 years older than her.

He was a middle class figure who had abandoned his wife and family and was drinking himself towards destitution, yet he still seemed capable of a powerful hold over Jessie.

What exactly went on in the houses they stayed in between August 1887 and October 1888 may never be known.

But it appears the pair "adopted" at least three babies and they did not live long.

During her trial Jessie was seen as beyond evil.

Eleanor Gordon, professor of social and gender history at the University of Glasgow, says: "Jessie was given no mercy, either in the press coverage or even in the drawings that depicted her.

"She was portrayed as a ravaged, wretch, a rat-like creature, instead of a 27-year-old woman who was vulnerable and perhaps had a mental health problem."

Allowed immunity

Pearson proclaimed his innocence and his ignorance of what happened to the children.

"That is beyond belief," says Prof Gordon.

Historian and broadcaster Louise Yeoman says Pearson turned Queen's evidence and helped convict King.

She says: "He was allowed immunity from prosecution for being a Crown witness."

There was good reason to suggest Jessie had not been alone in the crimes.

For one, the remains of one of the victims were found on a shelf which was too high for Jessie to reach. Another child was found wrapped in Pearson's coat.

It took the jury just minutes to find Jessie guilty and she was given an automatic death sentence.

Her Roman Catholic confessor wrote pleading for her life to the Secretary for State: "To save Pearson she made the statement which has done her so much injury. She now declares that he in one of the cases did the deed and in the other two, he stood near directing and guiding her in the administration of the [whisky]..."

"It seems a more likely solution of this terrible crime that this hard-hearted man and unfaithful husband - an aged man! was there directing the unsteady and clumsy hand of a poor woman he had made his slave."

On the night of 10 March 1889, Jessie parted with her own baby, Thomas, for the last time. She was hanged the next day.

The last woman executed in Edinburgh is buried under the car park of St Andrew's House, which used to be the site of the Calton Gaol.

Pearson died in Glasgow the following year.

Louise Yeoman says: "I don't think justice was done. Thomas Pearson was clearly the person that came up with this scheme.

"I don't think Jessie could have come up with it on her own. Thomas Pearson really should have carried some responsibility for this."

Advocate Clare Connelly says: "It is my belief that if Jessie King was to be tried for a similar crime today, given what we know about her mental impairment, her relationship with Pearson, the controlling and coercive nature of that relationship, that she would certainly be pleading diminished responsibility to a charge of murder and that, if successfully pled, would have resulted in a conviction of culpable homicide rather than murder."


Jessie King was shopped by her lover and went to the scaffold Children of the shadows

December 20, 1995

Cases of mass murder by women are, fortunately, rare. The Rosemary West trial filled pages of most newspapers for weeks and various family survivors continue to provide gory details for eager readers.

Myra Hindley, who has at last admitted to being corrupt, wicked and evil, has at least one supporter to remind us of the horrors of the Moors murders, lest we forget.

Apart from the antics of sportsmen, soap stars, politicians and the royal family, nothing fascinates the public more than a "good" murder story.

But mass murders by women are by no means a confined to modern times. Just over a century ago, in 1889, Jessie King was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh for the murder of three babies. There were no complex medical or legal issues and the evidence was clear.

The case held nothing of the mystery and intrigue of the Madeleine Smith trial with its ingredients of clandestine romance, arsenic and a Frenchman, which may explain why it has not achieved the same notoriety.

The trial of Jessie King ended with almost inevitable verdicts of guilty on two of the charges of murder. The jury took only four minutes to reach a unanimous verdict and King was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.

The case gives us a glimpse of life in Victorian Edinburgh, particularly among the lower classes.

The stigma and financial realities of illegitimacy were disastrous to girls who "got themselves into trouble" and none of the choices available was likely to provide a happy solution.

The girl could return in shame to her parents if they would take her or she could rely on the charity of the parish. Other options were infanticide, illegal abortion with its great risks to health, trying to find the prospective father and persuade him into marriage, having the child and trying to earn money to support both mother and baby, often by prostitution.

The other choice was to have the baby and arrange an adoption. Without the advantage of social work departments this was usually a private arrangement and it was not until 1930 that adoption was put on a formal basis as we now know it.

In a commercial transaction, a deal is easily struck if there is a willing buyer and a desperate seller. Newspaper advertisements usually provided the necessary link between the parties. For only a few pounds the girl could solve her problem with only her conscience to trouble her.

We should bear in mind that antenatal care was probably non-existent in the vast bulk of unwanted pregnancies and the risk of miscarriage was fairly high.

Many "quacks" were willing to provide a wide range of drugs in these circumstances, with varying degrees of success. Professor Glaister's great text-book Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology refers to a considerable traffic in abortifacient drugs under barely disguised names such as "Female remedies for obstruction".

Others resorted to the unskilled use of instruments with the accompanying risks of septicaemia.

The trade of "baby-farming" seems to have been more popular in England but the profits to be made attracted the attention of Jessie King and her elderly lover, Thomas Pearson. It is not clear how many babies died in their care but the matter came to the attention of police when some boys playing in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh found the body of an infant wrapped in an old coat.

Inquiries led to Jessie and her lover being charged with the murder of three children. Jessie admitted the murder of two of the infants but Thomas denied his guilt.

At the trial he was more anxious to speak up and gave evidence as a prosecution witness, saving his own neck from the rope and ensuring Jessie's conviction.

The evidence was clear and the Solicitor-General withdrew the third charge, which she had not admitted. He had an easy task to convince the jury that the only appropriate verdict was guilty of murder.

Following the best traditions of the Scottish Bar, counsel for King made a creditable effort to suggest reasonable doubt and to persuade the jury to consider the role the lover had played.

The Lord Justice Clerk painted a far from pretty picture of life behind the public image of Edinburgh and indicated that the parents of these wretched children must bear at least some moral reponsibility. But he made it clear that if the jury accepted the evidence, it was enough to convict.

While awaiting execution in Calton Jail, Jessie made unsuccessful attempts at beating the hangman by trying to strangle herself. Her mental health was investigated, but she was pronounced fit to hang and the sentence was carried out on March 11, 1889.

Just as, earlier in the century, Burke might have walked free if Hare had not given evidence for the Crown, Jessie King might have escaped if her "gallant" lover had not shopped her.

Even today, the Crown Office faces a difficult task in deciding whether to use guilty people to give evidence against their criminal associates, thus rendering themselves immune from prosecution. It is expedient, but is it justice?

Although Jessie King's trial was not complex, the Crown took great care to obtain the best possible forensic evidence. It would have been easy to jump to conclusions in a case of suspected child murder and in the case of very poor people some babies who died of natural causes were disposed of very casually to avoid expense.

The case was notable for the eminence of the doctors involved - Dr Henry Littlejohn and his son, Harvey, who succeeded him in the Chair of Forensic Medicine at Edinburgh University, and Dr Joseph Bell, the "original" Sherlock Holmes.

It was also the first trial attended by William Roughead W.S, the eminent chronicler of crime, who covered every murder trial, bar one, at the High Court in Edinburgh for the next 60 years. He missed one because he happened to be on holiday in Arran at the date of the trial.

Just as in 1889, there are still many unwanted children around the world and a final thought for 1995 can be found in the Gospel according to St Mark: "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not."


“Child Murders In Scotland”

The Maitland Mercury (NSW, Australia), Apr. 4, 1889, p. 6.

On Monday, at the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, the Lord Justice Clerk presiding, a woman named Jessie King, residing at Stockbridge, Edinburgh, was charged with having murdered three children by strangulation and suffocation, the first child being twelve months old, the second six weeks, and the third five month’s.

The children were illegitimate and had been adopted by the prisoner, who received sums varying from £2 to £5 in each case.

In a declaration made by the prisoner in November last she confessed that she strangled one of the children; and that after getting the second child she brought it home and gave it some whisky to keep it quiet. The whisky took away its breath, and while it lay gasping she put her hand upon its mouth and choked it.

At the High Court yesterday the prisoner pleaded “Not guilty.” Evidence was led at great length for the prosecution, but there was no evidence for the defence. The Solicitor-General withdrew the charge in the third case.

The Lord Justice Clerk, in summing up, said it appeared to be quite a common thing for guilty parents to hand over their offspring to the care of others. When they heard that advertisements for the adoption of such children wore answered by twenty-five such persons they could not but have the most grave suspicion that, underlying the system of supposed adoption, there lay a state of things which was dangerous to the moral welfare of the State.

The jury, after an absence of six minutes, unanimously found the prisoner guilty of murder on both charges. Sentence of death was then pronounced. The prisoner was greatly affected, and, upon being removed, said, “ Oh ! to be hanged ! What a death !”



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