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

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