Duke Street Prison ✿ Notes on Jessie McLachlan

Five years or so ago I discovered my link to Jessie McLachlan nèe McIntosh. I remember the discovery well; it all began with a wedding certificate. The wedding certificate between my ‘blood uncle’ and Jessie seemed straightforward enough, a typical document. I’d say nothing special, but we all know these seemingly simple documents mean a good deal to family historians. I do not know what happened that day which brought me to google her name, but somewhere between Celtic Women’s ‘I See Fire’ and ‘Tír na nÓg’ Jessie’s name was run through the search engine. Imagine my surprise when I was faced with the fact she had been accused of murder – or had she?

My mind was a muddle, was this her? Surely not! I went back over the documents, and again. I went so far as to double-check the whole line – was James McLachlan really my uncle? I think I ran through that for days just checking and checking again. My emotions towards her story swung rapidly between ‘She must be guilty’ to ‘She was certainly innocent’.

Eventually, I needed a book – were there any? My first read would be Alan Veale’s ‘The Murder Tree’, if you have not read it, I highly recommend it. His belief in her innocence kept me going, and he had a good summary of the crime itself. Next up it was necessary to purchase William Roughead’s ‘Notable Scottish Trials: Trial of Jessie McLachlan’. Roughead’s book is quite thick and certainly a bit tough if you are not entirely willing to sit and read – it is extremely thorough. I happen to have my copy signed by the ‘Murder, Mystery and My Family’ team from my time on the show.

Skip forward to 2021 and there I was sitting in Edinburgh’s ‘National Records of Scotland’ reading the Duke Street Prison records of 1862. The records look at Jessie’s day-to-day interactions, her emotions, what she said and did – they even detailed when she awoke, rose, washed, slept and at points what and how much she ate. There appear to have been three main wardresses, one woman during the day and two at night. Margaret Galbraith took the role of daytime wardress working from 8 am to 8 pm. Agnes Broadley and Margaret Wilson took the night-time role, from 8 pm to 8 am.

Margaret Galbraith was from Dalmellington, Ayrshire, approximately 28 years of age. She appears to have been quite kind to Jessie though in truth we will never know for she took the notes. Agnes Broadley was from Glasgow and approximately 34 at the time she cared for Jessie alongside Mary Wilson who has been difficult to trace.

There are many interesting points throughout these notes, I wish to highlight a few though if you are interested in the case, I do encourage you to go along and visit the National Records of Scotland to read the notes in their entirety.

First Point – Psalm 109

On the 22nd of September Agnes Broadie and Mary Wilson write that Jessie McLachlan requested the hundred and ninth psalm to be read. Let’s not forget this is all but a few days after her being sentenced to death by Lord Deas.

The Psalm I believe sets out exactly how Jessie was feeling at this point:

For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.

For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.

And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.

When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.

Let his days be few, and let another take his office.

Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

11 Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.

12 Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

13 Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

14 Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

15 Let them be before the Lord continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.

16 Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

Upon reading this I felt so broken hearted and angry. My image of Jessie was one of pain and hopelessness. To ask for this to be read to her must have been akin to heading over to Amazon Music and letting the most angry song on your play list blare through your living room. The psalm appears to fit well with her version of events. She certainly viewed James Fleming as the guilty party, a curse upon him . . . and his family . . . or so the psalm would suggest.

Second Point – Reading

The number of books read by Jessie and their religious bases, Jessie read ‘Blind Barimaeus’, ‘The Anxious Inquirer’, ‘Sips from the Fountain’, and of course The New Testament.

It is interesting to see where her mind was, The Anxious Inquirer really does appear to highlight her feelings at this point in time. Confusion, desperation, and the knowledge that death is on its way. The book played a role in preparing you for your afterlife.

Third Point – Connections

On the 13th of October at 8 am we see Margaret Galbraith write something rather interesting. Jessie is said to have spoken of her father William McIntosh and his family. Jessie states her father’s cousin nursed the Queen’s child and said cousin was also allowed a pension. This leads us to ask questions such as – did Jessie McLachlan receive a reprieve due to her connections?

Fourth Point – Did Smith and McLachlan meet, even just briefly?

Jessie talks about her time with the King family on the 2nd of October. When looking into the previous families that Jessie had worked for, I discovered her connection to the Walker family of Helensburgh. Jessie would likely have been here around 1852/4 when she worked with Robert Walker for 18 months. After working with Robert Walker Jessie went on to work for his uncle Peter Walker who was Provost of Helensburgh 1850 – 53. 

Given Jessie was in ‘Row’ around the time Madeleine would have been attending Rowaleyn I did give passing imagination to the Smiths visiting Rockforth House on Clyde Street in 1854 when James Smith was looking to build.

Likely not but the two houses were close by. Another little connection between those of the Square Mile. 

Fifth Point – Dreaming

Jessie’s dreams are well detailed throughout the Duke Street Prison notes. On the 21st of September, she dreamt of eating an apple, on the 24th she dreamed of her mother. We know Jessie’s mother died when she was around the age of ten, leaving Jessie to help raise her younger siblings. Dreaming of her mother occurs again on the 10th of October, Jessie states she did not enjoy the dream.

Significant dreams mentioned include the 30th of September. Jessie dreamt of the Flemings being arrested and the judge had altered her sentence to 13 years. I understand this to mean that she knew James Fleming to be guilty but understood she had done something to feel guilty for – possibly that she had not informed the police about her friend’s death. This appears to have been a theme, as she has a dream on the 6th of October that Fleming visited her house and was taken away by the police. 

The day after Jessie was due to be hanged at Jocelyn Square, and a few days into her respite from said hanging occurring Jessie dreamt that her sister was to be hanged at 3 pm and herself at 8 pm. The execution of herself was delayed for reprieve but none came. She then goes on to say she expected none to come nor was she depending upon it. She thought it was an awful death to die. 

These are just my top five interesting points that I took away from reading the Duke Street Prison notes. Duke Street Prison of Glasgow is itself a fascinating topic, this we shall leave for another post. 


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