Helen Blackwood – married on the gallows!


Helen was about thirty years old and lived in a third floor room in a tenement in Crolley’s Lane in the New Vennel area of Glasgow.  She shared her room with her boyfriend, Hans Smith McFarlane, two prostitutes, Mary Hamilton and Ann Young (aka Marshall) and two orphan brothers, eleven year old William and nine year old James Shillinglaw.  It must have been a very overcrowded room when they were all there!


On Saturday the 11th of June 1853 Ann and Mary picked up a couple of clients, Alexander Boyd and James Law who were both home on leave from the merchant navy and had money to spend.  They had been drinking heavily all day and went to Helen’s apartment with Ann and Mary. James Law was with Mary and Alexander Boyd arrived a few minutes later with Ann, Helen and Hans Macfarlane.  The two Shillinglaw brothers were already asleep in their normal place under Helen’s bed.  James Law was in state of stupor having drunk so much and Alexander was little better.  Helen got some money from Boyd and went out and bought some more whisky.  Mary took a cup of the whisky and poured something into before giving it to Alexander.  He drank it down and staggered about, aiming a punch at Helen who responded by hitting him over the head with the chamber pot, which shattered from the force.  Alexander went down and Helen and Ann decided to strip him to his pants and socks, presumably in the hope of finding money.  Having done so for some inexplicable reason the foursome decided to throw him out of the third floor window.  He fell some twenty five feet to his death on the cobbles below.  Ann went to the open window and shouted out “My man’s dead! He went to the window and fell over it.”  She took the precaution of throwing out the fragments of the chamber pot to make it look like an accident.  The plan might have worked except for two small problems, the brothers Shillinglaw, who had heard every word and seen the bulk of the action from their place under the bed.


As a result of the commotion caused by the body falling into the street neighbours came out to see what happened and a passing policeman came to see what was going on.  Helen, Hans, Ann and Mary had fled but were soon picked up.  The police took the young brothers and James Law to the police station and questioned them, where the whole sordid story began to unfold.  Helen, Hans, Ann and Mary were arrested the following day and charged with Alexander’s murder. 


In view of the seriousness of the offence they stood trial at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh on the 21st of July.  The brothers were the principal prosecution witnesses.  A girl called Jane Leith told the court that she had seen Alexander with Helen, Hans and Mary and followed them back to the apartment where she was able to witness some of the goings on through the cracks in the door.  Jane said that she did not think that Helen, Ann or Mary was drunk on the fatal evening.

Forensic evidence was given to show the cause of Alexander’s death as consistent with falling from the window. The jury brought in guilty verdicts against Helen, Ann and Hans and a verdict of not proven against Mary who was thus released.  The verdict of not proven is only possible under Scottish law and not available to English juries.  It in effect says that we believe the prisoner was involved but are not certain as to the level and culpability of that involvement.  Unlike an acquittal the prisoner can be retried if further evidence comes to light at a later date.  The prisoners were taken back to Glasgow and housed in the New Jail, as it was known, in the Saltmarket area of the city by the River Clyde.

Ann was recommended to mercy and was later reprieved to transportation.  As one of the principals in the crime, Ann’s reprieve drew adverse comment in the press and hardly seemed justified by the facts.  Hans applied to marry Helen in prison although the application was refused by the authorities.  There were to be no further reprieves and the double execution was fixed for Thursday the 11th of August.  Neither prisoner made a confession despite the efforts of the chaplain to obtain one. 


Many thousands gathered on Glasgow Green in front of the New Jail to witness their hangings at eight o’clock that morning.  William Calcraft had travelled up from London to officiate and the prisoners were led out a few minutes before the hour.  Here an unprecedented occurrence took place.  Hans in clear firm voice proposed to Helen, saying “Helen Blackwood, before God and in the presence of these witnesses, I take you to be my wife.  Do you consent?  Helen said she did and then Hans went on “Then before these witnesses I declare you to be what you have always been to me, a true and faithful wife and you die an honest woman.”  The chaplain added an Amen and under Scottish law of the time Helen and Hans were now legally man and wife.  At this point Calcraft released the trap so ensuring that the marriage was just as quickly dissolved.

Hans died almost without a struggle but Helen writhed and convulsed in agony for some three minutes before succumbing.  After hanging for an hour their bodies were taken back into the prison for burial.  Broadsides of the lament of Hans and Helen and of their execution were sold amongst the crowd and the execution reported in the Glasgow press.


Although robbery may have been the motive for the killing, this has to be one of the most senseless crimes recorded here, committed before several witnesses with virtually no hope of going unpunished.

Helen was just one of fourteen women executed in Scotland between 1800 and 1868 and one of only five hanged in Glasgow.  Only one more woman was to be hanged in public in the country, she was Mary Timney who suffered at Dumfries on Tuesday the 29th of April 1862 for the murder of her neighbour.


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