Bessy and John, Part 5: The Truth will Out

After a pregnancy rife with rumour, gossip and denial, Bessy had given birth with John fending off any outside interference.  John had secreted away the body of the dead infant.  The women of the township simultaneously cared for the young woman while sustaining a fiction of ignorance.  Childbirth was usually a communal female event.  Pooling expertise helped protect mother and baby, as well as providing moral and emotional support.  Giving birth alone was highly unusual and it was dangerous, especially for a first time mother.  Although Bessy had cut herself off from the community of women who would normally have offered help and advice, without speaking to her about what happened they nonetheless gathered around to look after her.  A stream of women appeared at the door of the MacKay house: Aunt Bessy; Christian Ross the midwife, Janet, widow of Alexander Bethune the shopkeeper; and Aunt Margaret.  As Margaret MacKay lived some twenty miles away at Lairg of Tain, her visit was not casual.  It seems likely she had heard about her niece’s predicament and had come to render what assistance she could. 

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 The wintry landscape through which Aunt Margaret would have travelled to get from Lairg of Tain to Inveran.  Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

Despite later claiming to know nothing about a pregnancy or a birth, ignorance which was perhaps wise in the case of a mysteriously disappeared infant, Aunt Bessy saw her niece twice after the delivery.  During the first visit the girl was ill and in bed and did not confide in her aunt.  The experienced eyes of Aunt Bessy were not reassured by what she saw and she called on Christian Ross, the Inveran midwife.  Her aunt explained that young Bessy was ‘lying very ill a-bed’.  The problem was that in order to treat her, Christian needed to know details about the birth or about how Bessy’s body had been responding since.  That conversation could not happen without both women openly acknowledging that there had been a birth but that there was no baby.  Christian was reluctant to attend the girl, ‘being apprehensive of after trouble’.  ‘After trouble’ was very likely.  While the ritual humiliation of Kirk Session discipline was deeply unpleasant, the mysterious disappearance of a baby could bring a more serious charge. 

Since 1690 the Act Anent Child Murder presumed that a woman who concealed a pregnancy; who did not ask for help at birth; and whose child was missing or dead; was guilty of murder.  If found guilty, she would be hanged.  Bessy fell into all three categories.  By the middle of the century extreme punishments, such as death, were very rare.  Attitudes were changing, and gradually the public began to see such women as victims of circumstances rather than murdering monsters.  In 1809 the statute was revoked, and the crime became concealment of pregnancy.  This bore a punishment of a maximum of two years in jail.  This is the law under which Bessy and John could be prosecuted.  Understandably, Christian Ross did not want to be mixed up in a prosecution.  She may also have been reluctant for Bessy to incriminate herself through talking to her.  However, the girl became dangerously ill and Christian relented.  She visited on Wednesday 16th February 1814, six days after the birth.  Christian tied a napkin about Bessy’s middle and examined her breasts, concluding that she needed ‘to be taken care of’.  Inspecting her breasts helped confirm that the girl had indeed given birth, but there was already little doubt about that in people’s minds.  For the first time Bessy spoke to someone other than John about what had happened.  Bessy talked, Christian treated her, and Bessy recovered.  The conspiracy of silence continued, although it was perhaps now a desperate attempt to protect Bessy and John, and in the hope that the authorities might not find out.  Soon gossip was to erupt, perhaps inevitably, into something more dangerous.

Thomas Munro was a missionary preacher living in Invershin.  Missionaries were assigned to large Highland parishes to help the minister.  As well as preaching, catechising and visiting the sick, part of their job was to supervise the behaviour of people in their district and report offenders to the Kirk Session.  The Kirk Session dealt with church business, but it also operated as the lowest court in the land, referring more serious cases to the civil courts.  This case potentially involved both the moral offence of fornication and the criminal offence of child murder.  An active Kirk Session could be very powerful and controlling in a locality, and in some places this power appears to have developed into a puerile fascination with people’s sexual lives.  However, it seems that Invershin’s missionary minister had steadfastly ignored the rumours of pregnancy for months.  ‘A story had gone abroad and made some noise in that part of the Country that Bessy MacKay … had been with child some time before and that it was believed she had been delivered of the said child but that no trace was left of where it was or what had become of it.’  The shared surname and place of residence suggests that Thomas was brother to Isobel, Invershin’s midwife.  Recognising that elders, missionary ministers and even ministers were often closely connected with parishioners, means church discipline starts to look less like straightforward, top-down institutional power, and more like community regulation with the authority of the church behind it.  Sympathy for Bessy and John’s circumstances might have led Thomas Munro to ignore the illicit pregnancy but, after a month of thinking about it, he decided the possibility of murder could not be ignored.

To be continued… 

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814   

Lynn Abrams, ‘From Demon to Victim: The Infanticidal Mother in Shetland, 1699-1899’ in Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400, Yvonne Galloway Brown and Rona Ferguson, eds, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)

Elizabeth Ritchie, ‘“A Palmful of Water for your Years”: Babies, Religion and Gender Identity among Crofting Families, 1800-1850’ in Jodi Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan and Heather Parker (eds) The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Family, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond (University of Guelph, Ontario, 2011)

Deborah A. Symonds, Weep not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

Bessy and John, Part 4: ‘the cry of a young child’

Early one Friday morning in February 1814, Bessy woke up with cramps.  She made her way across the room to John’s bed to tell him she had started her labour and he promised to attend her.  With his Uncle Donald and the twelve year old servant Mary still asleep there wasn’t much he could do as Bessy’s pains intensified.  Awake, worried and feeling useless, he crept next door and perched on a stool by the fireside, perhaps prodding the smoored peats into flickering warmth.  Before daylight young Mary Matheson got up to light the fire and maybe to make some breakfast.  She was rather surprised to find John up so early ‘as he was not in the habit of doing so’.  He muttered something about having a cough and left the house.  He walked across to his aunt’s to get senna leaves.  Aunt Bessy happened to have some leaves in the house which she had ‘got for a son of hers, and she gave him a part of it, but she neither enquired what was the matter with Bessy nor had any other conversation with him that morning.’  Senna aids constipation but can also used to stimulate contractions.  Aunt Bessy was willing to help, but she was not going to get involved, especially if she wasn’t asked to.

John took the leaves home and asked Mary to ‘clean a pot in order to boil the physic for Bessy … when the Physic was ready it was put into a jug by John MacKay who went to the Room with it where Bessy was lying, and [he gave] the Physic to her, and her drink it off … Bessy MacKay was unwell and uneasy before the physic and … much worse after it was administered.’  It was doing its job.  As he had promised, John remained in the room with Bessy, leaving only to eat some breakfast.  Mary noticed that ‘he ate very little breakfast and his uncle having asked him the reason he said that he did not feel disposed.’  It seems that Donald, like his sister Aunt Bessy, was choosing to remain ignorant of the situation.  Once Donald had breakfasted he went out for some time.  When he returned he neither asked after his daughter nor went through to the bedroom to see her.  Mary, who was well aware of local gossip, ‘went occasionally into the room [and] saw Bessy MacKay alternately sitting in the bed and lying down … she had her clothes on and seemed to be in great distress’.  John later said that he ‘rendered her no assistance during her labour, but when he understood that she was delivered he put his hands under the Bedclothes … and therefrom took the child of which she had been delivered.’  Indeed, about an hour ‘after the Physic was administered [Mary] heard a cry in the room in which John MacKay and Bessy were which she though very much resembled the cry of a young child but whether it was so or no she cannot be positive.’  Mary later retracted this statement but it seems likely that it was at this point, at eight in the morning, that the baby girl was born.  At that moment, John apparently said something ‘as if a runging a cat out of the room and [Mary] saw a cat come out below the door with a mouse in its mouth’.  This may have just been an odd co-incidence or it may have been a frightened twelve year old’s attempt to explain a wailing noise and maybe to defend two people she liked and admired.

John, trying to think what to do next about the baby and about Bessy who was probably bleeding heavily, ‘called from the top of the Room door to [Mary] to go to the house of Widow Donald Macneil [Christian MacDonald] in Inveran for a piece of [word unclear] leather for the purpose of applying a Blister to Bessy.’  It is not clear what happened in that short time, but Christian Macneil insisted on accompanying Mary back to the house.  She may well have been worried about Bessy, not trusting an eighteen year old boy, a twelve year old girl and a middle aged man to have the knowledge to keep a birthing mother and a new baby alive and well.  John didn’t want her involved.  He waylaid her, inviting her ‘to come by the fire and take a pinch of snuff with him’.  Perhaps reassured that the situation was not one of life and death and it being clear that John was still attempting secrecy, she returned home without going through to the bedroom.

John was later questioned about why he did not get assistance for Bessy during her labour.  He confirmed that he knew there was a midwife in the township whose help could have been gained in a few minutes, but that Bessy did not want assistance and that he did not think of it.  The latter seems unlikely – he was clearly trying to ward off outside interference.  Bessy, however, may well have been telling him not to let anybody in.  About an hour after the birth John went through to the bedroom and told Bessy that the ‘Child was dead and that he had put it out of the way’.  A desperate conversation ensued.  Bessy told him of ‘her extreme desire to see the child even although it was dead’, but he answered that would be better not to.  He explained that he had taken one of her napkins and had ‘tied up and carried away the child’, and had buried it immediately.  This was not entirely accurate.  Mary later explained ‘there were some Chests in the Room but only one trunk, which belonged to Bessy’.  Over the next few days John kept the key to this trunk, not letting Mary have it.  It seems that while Mary was out of the house getting the leather from Mrs Macneil, John put the little corpse in Bessy’s trunk and locked it, giving him time to decide what to do.  Three days later he took it out, dug a hole in the floor of his uncle’s workshop, and buried it.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814