The murder of housemaid Jess McPherson in the 'Square Mile of Murder'

·14-min read
The murder of housemaid Jess McPherson in the 'Square Mile of Murder'
The murder of housemaid Jess McPherson in the 'Square Mile of Murder'

The savage murder of servant Jess McPherson was one of the most senseless murders that Glasgow had witnessed but was it also a miscarriage of justice?

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It is one of five infamous killings that took place in an area of Glasgow which became known as the Square Mile of Murder.

All the victims lived a short walk from the Charing Cross area of the city where the M8 now passes through the centre of town.

In 1857, Madeleine Smith was cleared of poisoning her older French lover at her parents' house in Blythswood Square.

Eight years later, Dr Edward Pritchard - known as the human crocodile - was publicly hanged for killing his wife and her mother at the family home on Sauchiehall Street.

Elderly Marion Gilchrist's death in West Princes Street in 1908 was blamed on an immigrant Oscar Slater. He served 20 years in jail before being cleared on appeal following a fresh review of his case.

However, the brutal slaying of housemaid Jess McPherson in July 1862 is possibly the biggest mystery of them all and greatest miscarriage of justice.

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Jess, 35, worked as a servant for three generations of the Fleming family in a three storey townhouse in Sandyford Place.

The well-built Victorian property is situated where the shopping part of Sauchiehall Street ends.

Nowadays they house offices, restaurants, clinics and bars.

But then some of the city's most affluent and respected families lived there including the Flemings.

Jess is thought to have been murdered either late on Friday, July 4, or early on Saturday, July 5.

That weekend was one of the warmest of the year and Glasgow had been bathed in sunshine for days on end.

Jess's murder was barbaric in its brutality.

She was stabbed to death 40 times with a meat cleaver in her bedroom, where she was later found half naked in a pool of her own blood.

Such was the ferocity of the attack that some of the strokes from the cleaver had cut through the bone at the back of Jess's head.

A piece of carpet had been casually thrown over the naked part of her body.

There was blood all over the bedroom, lobby and kitchen including the sink.

Some of the victim’s clothing and belongings, as well as several items of silverware from the house, had been stolen.

The kitchen and bedroom floors had been washed in a bid by the killer to conceal the crime and cover their tracks.

Unusually the face, chest and neck of the victim had also been cleaned.

The blood-stained murder weapon was found in a drawer in the kitchen.

A chest that had contained Jess McPherson’s clothes stood open—the few remaining contents all stained with blood.

All her best clothes had disappeared, and the dress she normally wore each day was also missing.

In a chest of drawers in a dressing room belonging to a male member of the Fleming family were two bloodstained shirts.

On the wooden floor of Jess's bedroom next to the window, there were three bloody imprints of a small naked foot.

The killer or killers hadn't made such a good job of covering up their tracks after all.

It was one of the most senseless murders that Glasgow had ever witnessed and its savagely shocked a city that had become all too used to violence in recent years.

A young woman with her future before her had been brutally slain in one of the most well-to-do parts of the city.

It would later emerge that Jess had planned to leave Glasgow and emigrate to Australia to seek a better life for herself.

A major investigation was launched by the City of Glasgow Police who would use some ground-breaking techniques to solve the case.

A move which in turn would change how murders were investigated in the future.

It was the first Scottish case in which forensic photography was used to help solve a crime and the first case handled by the newly formed detective branch of the City of Glasgow Police.

The Fleming family agreed to vacate their luxury home to allow a full examination of the property to take place.

Unusually the murder victim's body was kept at the crime scene or locus to gather more evidence.

At first, police suspected that the killer was a thief who had been disturbed by Jess and had then killed her to cover his tracks.

However, police thought that a normal housebreaker would have stolen more than was taken.

Six silver ladles, a silver fish slice, a silver soup dispenser, and a sauce spoon were all missing, but the killer had left behind their solid silver stand which was in itself of great value.

Three generations of the family lived in the house.

The head of the house was John Fleming an accountant and landlord in the city. He was also said to rent out several slum properties to poor families.

He lived in Sandyford Place with his son John Jnr and dad James, known as Old Fleming. His wife was dead.

On the weekend of the murder John Fleming, his sister and son had spent the weekend at their holiday retreat in Dunoon leaving Old Fleming and Jess alone,

Jess had her own bedroom in the basement of the spacious house.

When John Fleming returned on the Monday, there was no Jess to answer the door and he asked his elderly dad if he knew where she was.

Old Fleming said he hadn't seen her since Friday and thought she had gone away.

When John went down to her room on the Monday evening - after finishing work - he found Jess's mutilated body.

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A post-mortem would show that she had lain there for several days.

He immediately alerted the police who first suspected Old Fleming.

It was his room where the bloodstained shirts had been found.

It then emerged that a milk boy had called at the house early on the Saturday morning and he had answered the door.

A job that would normally have been the responsibility of their maidservant Jess.

Old Fleming was charged with the murder and remanded in custody at a prison in the city.

He couldn't explain why Jess had lain there for three days, why he thought she had gone away and why he hadn't checked her room.

The blood stains on his shirts also pointed to him being the killer.

He was alone in the house with Jess all weekend, who else could it possibly have been?

It would be later claimed that he murdered Jess after she refused his amorous advances.

He was also said to have once got a servant girl pregnant when in his 20's.

However, the attention of the police detectives would later turn to another Jessie after the footprint discovery.

They compared their length by putting a measuring stick against the soles of the dead woman whose body was still in the house.

The victim's feet were shorter that the bloodstained footprints left at the murder scene.

Though they hadn't been made by Jess McPherson, detectives still thought they were those of a woman.

During the investigation bloodstained clothing belonging to the victim was found dumped in a field in Hamilton, presumably by the killer, adding to the mystery and intrigue.

A pawnbroker, who had read of Jess' murder in a newspaper, said he was offered the missing silverware from a woman called Mary McDonald.

That was a name sometimes used by Jessie McLachlan, a former servant at Sandyford Place, and best friend of the victim.

The pawnbroker had alerted police after spotting the initials JF on the stolen items.

McLachlan was handed almost 17 pounds by the pawnbroker - around £900 in today's money.

She was arrested and gave a statement to police denying any involvement in the murder.

However, the further discovery of blood-stained clothing in her house - including the victims coat - made the suspect seem even more guilty.

Jessie, then 28, lived about a mile away in the Broomielaw with her husband and her three-year-old daughter.

She claimed that clothes found in her house had been given to her by pal Jess to clean.

Detectives asked McLachlan to place her foot in a bucket of cows blood and then step on a plank of wood. They then matched this bloody footprint to a photograph of one at the murder scene.

It was a perfect match.

After her arrest Old Fleming was released from prison where he had been awaiting trial and McLachlan was instead incarcerated.

The case was heard at the High Court in Glasgow over four days in September 1862.

It would prove to be one of the most sensational trials of the age.

McLachlan worked hard to provide for her child, but there was never enough to make ends meet.

Her husband James was away at sea when the murder took place.

Though a suspect at the time - along with his wife - he clearly had a convincing alibi.

McLachlan enjoyed the company of best pal Jess and both had forged a strong bond, now torn apart by the murder.

During the trial three witnesses spoke of passing the Fleming house late at night and hearing cries and shouts.

Her lawyers argued that McLachlan had been nowhere near the scene of the crime.

All three male members of the Fleming family gave evidence.

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Old Fleming claimed that on the night of the murder he had gone to bed around 9:30pm and left Jess working in the kitchen.

When he woke up the next morning she was gone.

McLachlan's defence team focussed on Old Fleming and questioned him over the visit by the milk boy.

When he was asked why he had answered the door and not Jess he replied: "We kent it was ower wi Jess afore that."

Translated into modern English it meant: “We knew it was all over with Jess before that."

Did that mean he was admitting that he knew she was dead. And who was we?

McLachlan's defence team then asked him why he hadn't checked Jess' bedroom to see if she was there - given that he had a spare key to the locked room.

They also questioned why he was full dressed when the milk boy called at 7:40am that Saturday morning.

The implication being that he had stayed up all night trying to cover up the murder and had never gone to bed.

However, trial judge Lord Deas would not allow any further questioning of the witness on his conduct that weekend, saying it was not the old man who was on trial.

His summing-up of the evidence, lasted more than four hours.

However, the jury took less than 20 minutes to return a unanimous guilty verdict.

When their decision was announced McLachlan angrily stood up in the dock and said she was no more guilty of the crime than her three-year-old daughter.

Before the sentence was passed, a final 40-minute statement was read on behalf of the prisoner by the clerk of the court, giving a revised account of what had happened on the night of Jess's murder.

McLachlan changed her story and admitted she had lied and had been in the Fleming house when the killing took place.

She had arranged to meet Jess at Sandyford Place on Friday July 4.

The accused had a drink with her pal and Old Fleming.

He had then sent her out to get more alcohol.

When she came back, she discovered Jess lying on the floor with a facial injury and blood on the floor.

As she tended to her pal Old Fleming began mopping up the blood with water which spilled over Jess's stockings and boots.

She then took them off to dry and that is how she left the footprints in the floor with her bare feet

Her friend said Old Fleming had attacked her because she previously refused his sexual advances, and he was worried Jess would tell his son what had happened.

John Fleming was already concerned at his father's drinking and sexual involvement with female servants.

A concerned McLachlan went to call a doctor but both Old Fleming and Jess asked her not to.

However, when Jess's condition worsened the young mother decided to get medical help.

While she was at the top of the stairs Old Fleming began attacking Jess with the cleaver and killed her.

He later told McLachlan that he thought she would die anyway and decided to kill her before she talked.

She claimed that Old Fleming then urged her not to say what had happened.

He would make it worth her while and set her up in business

The old man also said he would blame her if she went to the police.

McLachlan then claimed that Old Fleming told her to take the silver and clothes to make it look like a robbery.

However, the judge refused to believe the newly convicted killer.

In an astonishing personal attack from the bench denounced her 40-minute plea as a "tissue of wicked falsehoods" .

Donning the traditional black cap he sentenced her to death, which was to be carried out by hanging on October 11, 1862.

Before then he told her: "You did most barbarously and cruelly murder that unsuspecting woman.

"There is not upon my mind a shadow of suspicion that the old gentleman had nothing to do with the murder."

In his 1961 book the Square Mile of Murder - about the Madeline Smith, Pritchard, Oscar Slater and Sandyford cases - legendary Glasgow writer Jack House was critical of the trial judge.

He wrote: "I know of no other convicted person who was sentenced in such a cruel and vindictive manner as Lord Deas used towards Jessie McLachlan."

In the same book he also described Jess's killing as: "One of the most savage Glasgow murders."

There was also public criticism of the trial judge who appeared to protect Old Fleming when he was in the witness box. He also praised the jury over their verdict and deliberations.

There were later claims of a cover up to protect the Fleming family.

The judge also refused to allow the defence to challenge the conviction based on McLachlan's fresh testimony.

Due to a public outcry, in an unprecedented move, a commission was set up to review the evidence.

Many were now convinced of Jessie's innocence and impressed by the impassioned 40-minute statement read out in court on her behalf.

The Home Office instructed the Lord Provost of Glasgow to halt the hanging pending further investigations.

The commission did not clear her of the murder but commuted her sentence to life imprisonment.

It means she would live and wouldn't hang.

McLachlan served 15 years in Perth Prison before being released on parole on October 5 1877.

She emigrated to the United States and married again. She died in Port Huron, Michigan, on New Year's Day in 1899.

After the trial the younger Flemings left Scotland to escape the public attention, the reputation of the family ruined.

Many criminologists believe Jessie McLachlan was innocent and her story of walking in on Old Fleming while he was murdering Jess McPherson might just have been true.

Later it emerged that the grandfather had a roaring fire on all weekend in the house, even though it was the middle of the summer.

One theory is that he was burning any incriminating evidence including his own bloodstained clothing.

After Old Fleming died, he was buried in nearby Anderston cemetery which is now gone.

In May 1892, there was a bizarre development when a woman in Dundee Isobel McLennan made a death bed confession to the murder.

Many people at the time and since believe that Jessie McLachlan was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Unlike Oscar Slater her name was never cleared, nor was her reputation restored.

What possible motive did she have for murdering her best friend and confidante apart from pawning the family silver.

As a lowly housemaid she may have been worried about the consequences of not going along with Old Fleming's plan.

To this day it remains one of the city's biggest and enduring crime mysteries.

If Jessie McLachlan and Old Fleming didn't murder Jess McPherson - then who did?

 

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