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Evil Baby Farmer or Victim of Her Time?

28th Aug 2018

As we plan for our Halloween tours, our thoughts turn to some of Edinburgh's more gruesome tales. The story of Jessie King isn't one we get to share often but it certainly makes for a chilling account of life in 19th Century Edinburgh.

On the site of the Old Calton Jail, here in Edinburgh, stands one of the most outstanding Art Deco buildings in the city, St Andrews House, home of the government civil service. Built at the end of the 1930’s, it was officially opened in 1939, on the very day that the Second World War broke out (1 Sep 1939), by His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The car park of St Andrews House is built on top of the site where the victims of state capital punishment were laid to rest, in unconcecrated ground, they still lie there today! Sixteen bodies in all, fifteen men and one woman, Jessie King, the last woman to be executed in Edinburgh.

On a quiet afternoon in October 1888, the leaves were falling from the trees on to the heads of a group of young boys who were playing on Cheyne Street in Edinburgh’s New Town. They decided to have a game of football and began to search around for something they could use for a ball, they found a bundle of oil skins that had already been tied up, it was the perfect solution and the boys began happily playing their game, unaware of the horror that was about to befall them.

The makeshift ball was beginning to fall apart and when they picked it up to try and put it back together they discovered that the oilskins held a grisly secret; the decomposing body of a child! The police were informed, and after just a few hours, information led them to the home of a couple in Cheyne Street, 59 year old Thomas Pearson and 27 year old Jessie King, local baby farmers.

Baby farming was a widespread practice in Victorian Britain, during a time when contraception was not available, abortion was illegal and no effective adoption services existed. Unmarried women (or the baby’s fathers) would hand over the child along with a sum of money to baby farmers, usually to be found by placing adverts. The baby farmers would then usually place their own adverts for “childless couples wanting to adopt”, always with a price tag attached. A few of these baby farmers found it much easier to kill the babies that had been given into their care, much more profitable than taking care of the child for the next few months!

Jessie King was uneducated, vulnerable with a tendency to obey anyone that she saw as being in authority. When she served a prison term for breaking the concealment of pregnancy law, her jailors described her as a meek, law-abiding prisoner who was eager to please and followed instructions without question.

At the beginning of 1897, Jessie became pregnant with a man who offered her marriage. However, during this time she also met a man called Thomas Pearson, a middle-class Glasgow man who was descending into alcoholism and who was a good 30 years older than her and with a bad track record when it came to women. He left Glasgow, his wife and his children to come to Edinburgh to live with another woman. It was when that woman died and was laid out awaiting burial, that he seduced the heavily pregnant Jessie, who had come to help out around the house. Immediately he seemed to have exhorted a strong hold over the vulnerable young woman and she left her man who had offered her marriage to live with Pearson. To make ends meet the couple took in those unwanted babies of single mothers.

After the police’s suspicion was aroused they raided the house occupied by Pearson and King and the bodies of a further two babies were uncovered, one on the top shelf of a cupboard and one wrapped in Pearson’s coat. The couple were arrested. From the time of her arrest, it was noted that Jessie never really understood was happening and she made an immediate confession that Pearson knew nothing about the crimes and that she was solely responsible for the murders. Pearson himself turned Queens Evidence and became a Crown Witness which gave him immunity from any charges, both then and in the future, just as William Hare (one half of the infamous Burke and Hare serial killer duo) had done, sixty years earlier.

He told the police and the court that he had absolutely no idea that Jessie had embarked on this killing spree and had assumed that the babies had been returned to their biological parents, yet, when we look at the evidence, the body of one child had been found on the top shelf of a cupboard way out of reach of Jessie and a second was found wrapped in Pearson’s coat. Who answered and placed adverts? Jessie couldn’t read and write.

When she realised that Pearson had been set free she tried to withdraw her confession but it was not allowed. Jessie was illiterate and vulnerable but the press and the court portrayed her as beyond evil, a ravaged wretch, a rat-like creature. The jury took just four minutes to decide her fate, she was found guilty and sentenced to hang! Her executioner wrote, “In all his life, he had never seen a woman meet her death so bravely”.

After Jessie’s execution Pearson moved back to Glasgow, things were getting a little difficult for him in Edinburgh as there were many people who felt he had got away with child murder. A year later he was found dead, of a head wound, not an unusual accident to fall and hit your head, especially when the person concerned was an elderly alcoholic, but the question still lies unanswered today, did he fall, or was he pushed?

You can hear more about Edinburgh's darker side on our walking tours.

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