Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Don’t worry. This terrible event didn’t happen recently. It took place in October 1837.
In November 1837 papers across the country reported that ‘the wife of a respectable man in Carluke’ had been taken to Lanark jail on suspicion of poisoning two people – a man and an older woman. The woman accused of these crimes was Elizabeth Nicklson or Shafto or Jeffray and her victims were Ann Newal or Carl, a neighbour of Elizabeth Jeffray, and Hugh Munro, a lodger in the Jeffray household.
On Monday 30th April 1838, Elizabeth appeared before Lord Mackenzie at Glasgow Circuit Court (the High Court in the Saltmarket) in a trial that lasted almost eighteen hours. The following charge was read out :
‘…. charged with administering, on the 4th of October last, to Ann Newal or Carl, residing in Carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she had mixed up with meal and water and whisky, and which she pretended was a medicine for her benefit; and the said Ann Newal or Carl having drunk thereof, became violently ill, and died next day in consequence of having swallowed the said mixture. The prisoner was also charged with having, on the 28th of October last, administered to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at Carluke, and lodging with her, a quantity of arsenic, which she had mixed up with porridge; and the said Hugh Munro, having partaken of the porridge, became ill and continued so on the two following days. The pannel ( defendant ) was likewise accused of having on the 30th of October last, administered to the said Hugh Munro a quantity of arsenic which she had mixed up with rhubarb; and the said Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.’
Following Elizabeth’s plea of ‘Not Guilty’ to the charges, several witnesses appeared for the prosecution. The first to do so was Jane Harkness, who operated a druggist business Carluke’s High Street. She confirmed that she had twice sold arsenic to the prisoner, before the death of Mrs Carl and before the death of Mr Munro. This was supported by the evidence of Miss Harkness’s niece Jane Bowman, who testified that Marion Tennant had called at her aunt’s home with a line for the arsenic, saying that it was for William Jeffray. According to Elizabeth Jeffray, the arsenic was for the purpose of poisoning rats.
There followed an account of the circumstances of Ann Carl’s death by Janet Meikle, who was living in the Jeffray household at the time. Janet also provided a detailed account of the hours leading up to Hugh Munro’s demise and this was corroborated by Mrs Lindsay, who had taken up residence in Ann Carl’s rooms after her death, and James Miller, a mason who was another of the Jeffrays’ lodgers and who, along with Janet Meikle, Mrs Lindsay and another lodger by the name of McKay, was with Hugh Munro when he departed the world. They claimed that he had been ‘in good health and spirits’ on returning home from his work on the Saturday and had eaten some porridge prepared by the accused before heading up to his attic room. Within two or three hours, however, he was unwell, vomiting and complaining of pain in his chest and stomach. He was also complaining of a terrible thirst. Over the next couple of days, Hugh’s condition deteriorated and extreme diarrhoea was added to his list of symptoms. He departed the world late on the Monday night.
Both Janet Meikle and James Miller stated that they had told Mrs Jeffray on the Saturday that she should send for a doctor. Janet said that her suggestion was dismissed on the grounds that Mr Munro ‘would object to the expense’ while James claimed that the accused had said that she was going to fetch Dr Rankin. In giving evidence relating to this, Dr Rankin’s servant, Susan Brownlee, testified that nobody had called for Dr Rankin on either the Saturday or Sunday before Hugh Munro’s death. Later in his evidence, James Miller stated that Dr Grossart had attended Hugh on the day of his death, leaving word about a powder he should take. Mr Miller stated that he saw Elizabeth Jeffray give Hugh the powder in a cup and that a second powder was administered later.
Several other lodgers also gave evidence relating to Hugh Munro’s death offering up a potential financial motive behind Elizabeth’s Jeffray’s actions. These witnesses claimed that she was holding the sum of £6 for Hugh and that he had asked for it as he was giving up his work and returning to his home on Skye. These witnesses also stated that they were not aware of any rats in the Jeffray household. There appears to have been no motive for the poisoning of Ann Carl but it was suggested that it was an experiment on the probable effects of the arsenic on Hugh Munro – a trial run so to speak.
Although both Ann Carl and Hugh Munro had been buried within hours of their deaths, witnesses claiming that this was on the request of Elizabeth Jeffray, their bodies had been exhumed to allow them to be examined. A number of medical professionals including Dr Rankin and Dr Logan from New Lanark as well as Thomas Stewart Traill, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Christison, Professor of Materia Medica at the University of Edinburgh, testified that both victims had arsenic in their systems.
The case for the prosecution complete, Elizabeth Jeffray’s counsel began her defence. It appears that Elizabeth, who appears to have remained composed throughout the proceedings, did not take the stand but her ‘declarations’ were read out. In these she stated that she could not account for the death of Ann Carl and that she had repaid Hector Munro his money and claimed that his death must have occurred by the arsenic being accidentally mixed with the food he ate at breakfast.
Following lengthy summing up speeches by both the prosecution and defence, the jury adjourned at 1.40a.m. to determine the verdict. They took only twenty minutes to find Elizabeth Jeffray guilty of the two murders. Providing their majority verdict to the judge, however, they unanimously recommended mercy.
In front of a still crowded courtroom, Lord Mackenzie donned the black cap and pronounced the death sentence. He did state that the jury’s recommendation of mercy would be passed on to the appropriate people but went on to say that he did not hold out any hope of a pardon ‘as it was difficult to conceive how a double murder could come within the limits of mercy’.
In fact, not only was the jury’s request for mercy forwarded to Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, so too was a petition signed by about one thousand people asking for Elizabeth’s sentence to be commuted. Both requests were denied and, just after 8.00a.m. on Monday 21st May 1838, the death sentence was carried out in front of the jail in Glasgow before an enormous crowd. Elizabeth Jeffray had become the first woman to be hanged in Queen Victoria’s reign.
(Fuller details of Elizabeth Jeffray’s trial and execution can be read in a number of newspapers from the time, ‘The Caledonian Mercury’ and ‘The Scotsman’ probably carrying the fullest reports.)