11th March 1889

Edinburgh carries out its last female execution

Jessie King was hanged in Edinburgh for the murders of two children that she had taken into her home in exchange for payment. The evidence against her was sufficiently compelling that, on two of the charges she faced, the jury took just four minutes to find her guilty. It’s unlikely she was the only culprit, but she was the only one who went to the gallows: King lived with her lover, Thomas Pearson, but in return for a guarantee he wouldn’t suffer a similar fate, he testified against her.

King’s scheme was uncovered when a group of boys discovered the body of a young child wrapped in cloth and dumped on the street. Police started to investigate, and found their way to King’s door, at which point she admitted to the two killings for which she was ultimately hanged. However, she later changed her mind.

Tried for murder

The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette of 19 February had reported that she “was tried on a charge of murdering at different times last year and previous year three babies she had got to bring up. King, in her declaration, admitted suffocating the children, with each of whom she had got a premium, but when placed at the bar she denied the crimes.”

The Aberdeen Press and Journal of the same day recounted how, in the case of one of the children, “she got the child, Gunn, who was about eleven months old, from its mother, who gave her £3. Thomas Pearson, with whom she lived, was unwilling to take the child, as they had enough to do to keep themselves. When she told him that she had got £3 he agreed to keep the child for three or four weeks. They kept the child from April until the end of May 1888. At the end of May they found they were unable to support the child, and prisoner tried to get it admitted to a Destitute Home, but admittance was refused on the ground that the child was illegitimate. At last one Monday, after unsuccessfully trying to get the child taken into a home, the prisoner got very much the worse of drink. She strangled the child.” When she was sentenced to death, said the Journal’s reporter, “the agony of the prisoner’s face was now distressing. She groaned continuously, and was carried in a fainting condition down the stair to the cells.”

Suicide attempt

She was held in custody to await her fate but tried to hang herself in the interim. Although unsuccessful, this caused some to question her mental state, and whether execution was right. A petition attracted 1600 signatures, but it wasn’t enough to save her.

The John O’Groat Journal of 12 March – the day following her death – reported that King had slept well until dawn on the day of her execution, after which she heard mass and ate a light breakfast. “The officials were all affected, but she was unmoved. The officials then, about 8 o’clock., individually bade her farewell. Berry then pinioned the prisoner and drew the white cap down over her head, [during] which she was still in the cell, so that she saw nothing afterwards. The procession then formed and marched towards the scaffold, King holding a crucifix while Canon Donlevy was praying. All being ready, Berry moved the lever and the unfortunate woman was dead. Death was instantaneous.”

Although charged with three counts of murder and convicted of two, the number of babies who had died while in King’s care is unknown.



Other events that occured in March

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