Four months after his marriage to a beautiful 19-year-old, middle-aged Thomas Ogilvie was dead. His younger brother and the young widow were suspected of conspiring to poison him with arsenic.
Thomas Ogilvie, a wealthy bachelor in his late 40s and the eldest of three brothers, lived with his widowed mother, Isobel, on the family estate at Eastmiln in Forfar, Scotland. In 1764 he proposed to the beautiful 19-year-old Katherine Nairne, daughter of the late Sir Thomas Nairne. She agreed to marry him and it was believed by both families that at the time of their engagement they were genuinely in love with each other.
That may have been so, but a few days before the wedding ceremony, which took place on January 31, 1765, the groom’s brother, Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie of the 89th Regiment of Foot arrived at Eastmiln to convalesce. Patrick had suffered a life threatening illness while serving in the East Indies and the prognosis was not good, but if his health improved, he intended rejoining his regiment.
The youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, was not present at the nuptials. He was estranged from the family following his marriage to the daughter of an Edinburgh porter, a woman of a much lower social class, who was considered to be unsuitable for him and unacceptable to his mother and brothers.
Thomas was a highly respected member of the community and although it was known he had suffered poor health for some time, there was widespread dismay when it was learned that he had died on June 6, a little more than four months after his marriage. However, there were those who were not surprised. Shortly after the wedding, rumours began to circulate regarding Katherine’s relationship with the lieutenant, which suggested they were lovers and these rumours now took on a new significance.
Hints of Incest
Several people living nearby had reported seeing the couple embracing and kissing passionately and the possibility that they were on intimate terms was given credence by John Gilloch. Hired to repair items of furniture in Patrick’s bedroom, John arrived mid-morning and although the lieutenant was in bed he told John to start work. After a few minutes, Katherine appeared at the door and Patrick beckoned her to him. As she sat on the bed, John saw her place her hand lovingly on Patrick’s chest, which she caressed for some time before standing as though to leave. As she did so, the naked Patrick kicked away the covers, wrapped a sheet around himself and caught Katherine at the door, where they kissed.
Katherine Campbell, Elizabeth Sturrock and Ann Samplon were servants in the Ogilvie home and they too had apparently seen the couple behaving in what they felt was a shameful manner and seemingly not caring that they were seen doing so. Katherine Campbell slept in the room below her new mistress’s bedroom and was convinced that some nights, when Thomas was absent on estate business, she heard Patrick enter the room, followed by the sounds of the couple making love. Elizabeth Sturrock had seen the couple in bed together and Ann Samplon was certain she heard Thomas accuse Patrick of seducing his wife and ordering him out of the house.
Suspicions of Murder
Katherine Campbell became so concerned that she took the unusual step for a servant of confronting the lieutenant. He assured her that his brother had asked him to be affectionate towards his wife when he was away. He also insisted that the argument overheard by Ann Samplon concerned a family financial matter. He was aware of the rumours but insisted the gossips and the servants had misinterpreted what they had seen or heard and that the relationship with his sister-in-law was platonic. It was true he was about to leave the house, but this stemmed from his wish to spend a few weeks travelling throughout Scotland before returning to his regiment, and not because he was being ejected by Thomas.
Alexander Ogilvie arrived at Eastmiln the day after Thomas’s death and became the first person to openly accuse the couple of incest and murder. He prevented a burial from taking place and demanded that an investigation be held. The responsibility for this was put in the hands of George Campbell, the Sheriff Substitute of Forfar.
The servants and a number of neighbors were interviewed, together with Anne Clarke, the niece of Isobel Ogilvie. She had arrived at Eastmiln a few days after the wedding and stayed on, saying she wished to mediate between the family and the estranged Alexander. However, what was not realized at the time was that Alexander had deserted his wife and was living with his cousin Anne in an Edinburgh brothel.
Anne claimed to have witnessed Patrick caressing Katherine’s breasts and to have seen them in bed together on two occasions. She had reported her concerns to her Aunt Isobel, who told Thomas and it was this, she insisted, that led to the argument, heard by Ann Samplon, despite Patrick’s protestations otherwise. Anne Clarke further advised the Sheriff that she overheard Katherine tell Thomas that she hated him and if she had some poison she would happily murder him.
Those who believed in the innocence of Patrick and Katherine insisted that no credence could be given to Anne Clarke’s account and that she should not be permitted to testify at the trial. She was accused of being a notorious liar and a common whore, who had lived for the previous three and a half years in a noted Edinburgh bawdy house.
These supporters were convinced that Anne and Alexander were the real culprits, who had been motivated by greed. They were accused of taking advantage of the rumors surrounding Patrick and Katherine’s relationship and conspired to murder Thomas and then implicate the pair, thereby ensuring their executions. Given that Thomas had long suffered from poor health and it was assumed he would die childless in the not too distant future and Patrick’s more or less permanent absence on military duties and his more recent failing health, Alexander had been content to wait for what he believed would be a relatively short time to gain control of the family wealth. But circumstances had changed dramatically and the intention was to eliminate Thomas before he could father an heir and also Patrick, leaving Alexander as the only surviving brother.
However, Sheriff Campbell was not persuaded by this argument and continued to gather evidence incriminating Patrick and Katherine. Dr. James Carnegie, a surgeon friend of Patrick living in Brechin, reported that toward the end of May, Patrick approached him complaining of stomach pains and asked for some laudanum together with a quantity of arsenic, which he said was to poison an unwanted dog. The doctor had no reason to suspect any murderous intent on the part of his friend and on payment of one shilling handed over the laudanum and one ounce of arsenic.
Another to be interviewed was Andrew Stewart, a merchant in Alyth and a relative of the Ogilvies, who was due to visit Eastmiln. Patrick called on him and handed him the laudanum and a sealed packet said to contain salts and asked Andrew to hand them to Katherine, adding that he should not let anyone else in the house know he had done so. At the time, this request did not strike Andrew as being suspicious.
Andrew Stewart arrived on the day before Thomas died and despite Patrick’s request, mentioned to Anne Clarke that he had handed the items to Katherine. She advised him that Thomas might possibly be at risk, but Andrew refused to accept Patrick was capable of such despicable behaviour. Nevertheless, he agreed to inform Thomas and his mother of the delivery. At first, Thomas dismissed the idea that his wife and brother would wish to harm him but he was persuaded that for the time being at least, he would not eat or drink anything his wife might offer him.
On completing his enquiries, George Campbell was satisfied he knew what occurred on the day Thomas died. That morning, Katherine gave her husband a bowl of tea laced with the arsenic which had been provided by Patrick. The victim suffered no immediately obvious effects and left to visit a tenant. But at 10 o’clock he fell ill, complaining of terrible pains throughout his body. He reached home and from his bed told his mother and Andrew Stewart that Katherine had persuaded him to drink the tea and he agreed to do so despite his earlier promise that he would not, as he continued to believe his wife was incapable of such treachery.
During the day, Thomas developed a great thirst and when Ann Samplon brought him water in a bowl similar to that from which he had drunk the tea, he screamed “Damn the bowl, for I have got my death in it already.” Clearly, Thomas realized he was dying and believed Katherine to be responsible. He died later that afternoon in great agony, but his wife had not visited him once after giving him the tea. Elizabeth Sturrock reported being approached by Katherine that day; she had admitted giving the tea to Thomas and was worried she would be accused of poisoning him. She denied having done so and asked Elizabeth to tell anyone who might enquire, that she too had drunk tea from the bowl without suffering any ill effects, which the servant refused to do.
The evidence against the couple was damning but circumstantial and the sheriff knew that corroborative medical testimony would be helpful. Katherine had disposed of what was left of the suspect tea, so that could not be examined. He discussed the case with local doctor Peter Meik, a friend of the Ogilvy family, who had arrived at Eastmiln shortly after Thomas died. He believed initially that death was due to natural causes but had noticed the deceased’s tongue was terribly swollen. He felt unable to say arsenic was the cause of death but added that on his arrival, the newly widowed Katherine begged him not to disclose any information surrounding her husband’s death that might incriminate her and repeated her fear of being accused of poisoning him.
The sheriff asked two other doctors to examine the body and Gilbert Ramsay described seeing swollen tongues in those who died of natural causes but never one so swollen as that of Thomas. However, he would only say it may possibly indicate a suspicious death but nothing more precise. It was not until six days later that the corpse was examined by John Ogilvie, who was no relation to the family and he agreed with his colleagues that it was impossible to give a definitive cause of death. Neither the accusers nor the accused objected to a post-mortem taking place but Dr. Ogilvie said there was now no point as it would be too late to detect traces of arsenic and the corpse was so putrefied it would be a health risk to others if dissected. Thomas was therefore buried without a post-mortem having taken place but George Campbell, nevertheless ordered the arrests of Katherine and Patrick, convinced they colluded in committing the crime so Patrick could inherit the estate and be with Katherine.
Their trial opened in Edinburgh on August 5, 1765 and lasted for several days. A significant part of the prosecution was the hugely incriminating evidence provided by the servants Katherine Campbell, Elizabeth Sturrock and Ann Samplon, but the defense argued this should be ignored. It was not unusual when a major trial was to take place that the important crown witnesses were held in relatively comfortable detention to ensure their attendance at the hearing. On this occasion, the servants were provided with rooms in Edinburgh Castle, which they shared with Anne Clarke. Following objections by the defense, the crown promised to separate her from the others before the trial opened, but did not in fact do so. At the trial, the defense accused her of exerting influence over the servants, meaning their testimonies were tainted and should not be heard. Despite these objections all were called to testify and provide details of what they had seen.
The accused couple acknowledged that not all the prosecution witnesses were acting out of malice, but insisted their displays of affection had been misconstrued or exaggerated by some. Although they had grown fond of each other, incest had not occurred; theirs was not an intimate relationship and Katherine claimed to have loved Thomas and had no reason to wish him dead. She explained that she had been experiencing difficulty in sleeping and prior to leaving Eastmiln, Patrick promised to send her some laudanum and salts, which were the drugs he sent with Andrew Stewart. Patrick denied sending arsenic and Katherine denied administering that or any other substance to her husband.
Their lawyer repeated the claim that Anne Clarke and Alexander Ogilvie were the guilty parties. The jury did not believe this claim and on August 14 both defendants were found guilty of all charges. However, before the judge could pass sentence, the couple’s lawyer rose to his feet. He protested that the proceedings had not been conducted properly and a retrial was necessary. He described a number of occasions when jury members had left the chamber to answer the call of nature, even as witnesses were giving evidence. At other times some had risen from their seats and joined friends sitting in other parts of the courtroom. Nevertheless, the judge agreed with the crown that although they had left their seats, the members of the jury who did so were always able to hear all the evidence.
Katherine then told the judge she was pregnant and as was customary, a panel of five matrons examined her in a side room. They were unable to reach a decision. The custom of the time prohibited execution of a pregnant woman. As a result her sentence was postponed until it could be determined if she was expecting a child. In the meantime she was held in the Tolbooth Gaol.
Patrick's execution date was set for September 25. As he awaited execution, Patrick continued to declare his innocence and there was widespread support for a reprieve, which led to his execution being postponed four times. He was eventually hanged on November 13 in the Edinburgh Grassmarket, before a large and sympathetic crowd. Coincidentally, members of his regiment were billeted in Edinburgh and a watch was kept on them lest they attempted to rescue him. He addressed the crowd briefly but refused to confess to the crimes. After praying, the noose was put around his neck and the ladder pulled away. Regrettably, the noose slipped, causing the condemned man to fall to the ground still alive. The hangman helped him to his feet and to once again step on to the ladder. Patrick did so in a dignified and courageous manner, for which the spectators showed their admiration. Seconds later, the hangman had completed his task successfully. Following his execution, his body was dissected.
Katherine was found to be pregnant and her execution was deferred until after the birth. She returned to the Tolbooth, where she gave birth to a daughter on February 27, 1766. She was permitted to care for her for a few days before being told that her execution would take place on March 17.
However, there would be no hanging. Two days before her scheduled execution, she walked out of the Tolbooth dressed as an army officer, her face hidden by a slouched hat with a cockade and the upturned collar of a greatcoat. It was suspected that her family bribed the turnkeys to facilitate the escape which was not reported for almost 24 hours, allowing her a generous head start over those sent in a fruitless pursuit. Her movements were traced as far as Berwick from where it was learned she took the London coach, still wearing her disguise. To avoid arousing suspicions, it was necessary for Katherine to leave her baby daughter in the Tolbooth Gaol, where she died two months after her mother’s departure.
The escape was widely reported and the government offered a reward of £100 for her arrest, but Katherine was never caught. She was said to have spent the early months of her freedom in Dublin, Ireland, avoiding capture by passing herself off as a man, before travelling to France. Some believed she spent her remaining days in solitary penance in a Lisle convent, but others gave more credence to the probability that she married a wealthy French merchant, had many children, survived the French Revolution and lived to a great age.