‘Old Stories Retold: Execution of David Balfour’ (29 October, 1887)

The following was the first in a series of historical tales about Dundee which appeared in ‘The People’s Journal’. The execution of David Balfour occurred 51 years previous to the publication of this story and, while the apparent crush in the crowd is played up in this article, the full truth of the matter is rather unclear. A ‘Dundee Courier’ report from the time does not suggest that there was a serious incident among the watching public:

“During Mr Murray’s prayer, there was one or two interruptions occasioned by a bustle on the street, but which did not in the smallest degree discompose Balfour” [From the ‘Dundee Courier’, printed in the ‘Caledonian Mercury’ 5 June, 1826]

The most disturbing aspect of this story (or at least its telling) is the way the author tacitly blames the murder of Balfour’s wife on the victim herself. 1887 was a different time, but it still makes for uncomfortable reading.

Extraordinary Noise—Panic Amongst the Spectators.

On the morning of Wednesday, December 21, 1825. Dundee was thrown into a state of great excitement by a rumour that, in a house in the Murraygate, a sailor named David Balfour had murdered his wife by stabbing her to the heart with a butcher’s knife, and immediately afterwards delivered himself up to justice. The rumour proved too true; the murderer was tried and condemned at the next Perth Assizes, and executed in Dundee in the beginning of the following June. As the case, which was in some respects unique in the history of Dundee, is now almost unknown to the present inhabitants, we consider it worth retelling.

David Balfour,

the culprit, was by no means a coarse ruffian, such as too frequently appears before our modern Police Court for wife-beating, but a man of superior intelligence, kindly disposition, and good, honest character. Like Othello, his chief error was “loving not wisely, but too well;” and, unlike Desdemona, his wife, instead of being a pattern of virtue, gentleness, and modesty, was a base and unworthy woman, who made his life a perennial martyrdom. Balfour was born in the parish of Dun, Forfarshire, in 1787; his father, James Balfour, being coachman to Mr Cruikshanks of Langley Park. David came to Dundee about the age of ten, and was shortly afterwards apprenticed to Mr Robert Lithgow, master of the brig Helen, of Dundee. Three months after the expiry of his apprenticeship he was pressed by the press gang, and afterwards served eleven years in the navy. While in the King’s service he appears to have deserted, and again joined under the name of David Mitchell, under which designation he was discharged at the peace of 1813 with a pension of £4 a year. He then came to Dundee, sailing thence three or four years, when he removed to Greenock, from which port he sailed six or eight years. Three months previous to the murder of his wife he returned to Dundee, and he had just arrived from a short voyage two days before the murder.

When A Mere Boy

he became deeply enamoured of a young girl named Margaret Clark. She was at that time little more than fifteen years of age, possessed of great personal attractions, but even then of a giddy and inconstant character. Captain Lithgow, who spoke highly of Balfour as a sober, diligent, civil, and truthful lad, remonstrated with such a girl, and succeeded twice in getting him to cease his attentions to her; but, like the doomed moth revolving around a candle, he could not resist her fascinations. He therefore told the captain that it was vain to say any more on the subject; his whole heart and soul were bound up in that young woman, and he could not exist without her. They were therefore married, he at the age of 17 and she a year younger, and from that period love and jealousy held complete possession of his mind. Her indifference towards him, and bestowal of her favours upon others, rendered him miserable. Often, he said, on nearing the land returning from a voyage, when his messmates would be rejoicing, and drinking to a happy meeting with their wives, sweethearts, and friends, he could not join them, but held aloof, considering himself an outcast. There was no welcome for him, and sometimes on landing he would go in a state of sheer distraction to an inn and drink, though he had no natural liking for it, till he had stupefied his senses. There were three children the issue of that ill-starred marriage, two of whom died in infancy, and the last, who had been long repudiated by his mother, was at the time of the murder a lad of eighteen, residing in Greenock. Shortly after his marriage Balfour unfortunately became security to a considerable extent for Robert Clark, a brother of his wife, a small manufacturer in Dundee.

Through The Failure Of This Brother-In-Law

he was thus involved in pecuniary difficulties, and these led to some of the first of his bitter domestic troubles. One Alexander Hogg, who possessed some money, offered to advance it to Mrs Balfour to relieve her brother and father, who was also involved, from their difficulties on conditions of becoming her paramour during her husband’s absence at sea. The unprincipled woman was evidently nothing loth to accept the terms, and thus one of the earliest of her married infidelities was inaugurated. While Balfour was in the navy his wife regularly got his half-pay, so that poverty was not an exuse for her ill-doing, which soon afterwards became notorious. Latterly she took up with a man named Turtell Macleod in Greenock, for whose little finger, she told her husband, she cared more than she did for his whole body. Two years before he did the rash act, Captain Aaron Lithgow, who had been a fellow-apprentice with Balfour under his brother, Captain Robert Lithgow, recognised him on the streets of Belfast. Balfour, in the course of conversation, gave Lithgow to understand how unfortunately he was situated with regard to his wife. The captain replied—”David, man, you a sailor, and break your heart about a woman! Can’t you engage yourself on board of some foreign vessel, and leave her to her own doings?” David answered that such a proceeding would be to no purpose, for even were he at the Antipodes she would be as much in his thoughts as if in the room beside him. He had no happiness away from her, and her conduct at home was simply distraction.

The Cause Of Mrs Balfour’s Irritation.

Mrs Balfour seemed to have been specially irritated at her husband getting her removed form Greenock to Dundee in order to keep her apart from the man Macleod, and more particularly was she angry at being sundered from a boy, son of Macleod, through affection for whom she repudiated her own son. On Balfour’s arrival from his last voyage he presented himself to his wife, who then resided in her father’s house in the Murraygate. She received him with reproaches and vile, opprobrious abuse, which he endured very meekly, earnestly beseeching her to be friendly to him, and he would forget and forgive her past misbehaviour. Her reply was to barricade her bedroom door with a chest of drawers, and he passed the night on two chairs in the kitchen. Almost distracted, he went out in the morning and wandered the streets foodless, and returning in the evening he met with even a worse reception than on the day before. So, after another weary night, he went out in the nearly dawn. Passing a butcher’s stall, the sight of the meat awoke a keen feeling of hunger, and he spoke to the butcher, with a vague idea of buying a piece of beef. Seeing a formidable looking knife on the counter, he asked a loan of it. The butcher inquired what he wanted it for, when Balfour replied that he intended

To Kill A Lamb With It.

The butcher remarked that it was a strange time of year (December) in which to kill lamb, when David replied that it was an animal which he had brought from a great distance in his ship. Without any further parley the butcher then lent him the knife. Balfour, concealing it in his jacket, returned to his wife. He afterwards said that his idea was to destroy his own life, but as he could ill brook the thought that she should exalt at being the cause of his death, that he would kill her also. He, however, resolved in his own mind that if she gave him a single smile or kind word he would spare her. The hapless woman again received him with insults, and even took him by the shoulders to thrust him to the door, when he, losing all self-control, drew forth the knife and

Stabbed Her To The Heart.

With one shriek the wretched woman dropped on the floor, and immediately expired. He turned and fled, in his haste falling down the half of the stair, and never slackened his speed until he reached the Town House, where he reported the murder and desired to be taken into custody. The head jailer not being at band, Balfour waited patiently at the prison door till his arrival. During his imprisonment much sympathy was felt for him, and it was hoped that he might be spared the extreme penalty for his rash deed. He was, however, himself resolved to plead guilty, and entertaining neither hope nor with for life he devoted himself assiduously to serious thought and earnest religious study.

Balfour Pleads Guilty.

At the Assizes in April 1826 he was tried at Perth, when he pleaded “guilty.” Being anxious to bring out all extenuating circumstances, the gentlemen of the Bar remonstrated with him, and at length got him to reluctantly withdraw the plea. His trial forthwith proceeded. The evidence , of course, was clear, and therefore a verdict of “guilty” was recorded, but by a large majority he was recommended to mercy. He was then sentenced to be executed at Dundee on Friday, 2d June, between the hours of two and four afternoon. A petition on behalf of the condemned man was duly prepared, numerously signed, and transmitted to the proper quarter; but, as was generally expected, it proved abortive to save his life, and Balfour, in a spirit of meekness and resignation, prepared to meet his fate. From the time of his condemnation he continued to manifest the same penitence and remorse which he had shown from the moment of the fatal act being committed. He would often exclaim, “Oh, my poor dear wife, whom I idolised so much, would that I had taken my own life, and spared you! It was a cruel, dastardly deed, and well do I deserve my fate.”

Balfour And His Brother.

A brother, an army pensioner, whom he had not seen since the embarkation of Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, hearing of his case, came to visit him, and the scene between them was most heartrending. He was also visited by his wife’s relations, and assurances of mutual kindness passed between them. Whatever attentions were shown him David accepted with much gratitude, and frequently said that he was ashamed of the trouble and kindness bestowed upon him.

The Day Of The Execution—Balfour’s Composure.

Friday, the 2d of June, a lovely sunny day of that specially sunny summer, “the year of the short corn,” 1826, duly arrived. The ghastly gibbet was erected at one of the windows of the guild Hall. To spare his feelings as far as possible the Magistrates caused the bells of the town clock to be muffled that he might not hear the hours strike. A quarter before three in the afternoon was the time fixed for the final act. When the executioner was introduced to him that “dread functionary” was astonished at the composure of Balfour, who invited him very gently to come forward and prepare him for his fate. After being pinioned, be entered the Guild Hall and bowed with much respect to the gentlemen there assembled. His countenance had a calm, contrite, and resigned expression, which did not forsake it up to the last moment it was visible. At this request the hymn beginning “Wherewith shall I, o’erwhelm’d with sin.” was given out by the Rev. Mr M’Allister and sung, his own clear and energetic voice being heard above all the others. After a short pause he addressed the assembled multitude, which was computed at not less than 18,000 individuals, in these words—”My friends, you will no doubt think my situation a bad one, and so it is, but t is not so bad perhaps as you may think it. You have no doubt heard a great deal about me, and you all know my crime. I need say nothing about it. I am here to suffer for it, but I hope God is with me, and that I will obtain mercy through the blood of my Saviour. I regret that I have brought so much disgrace upon my town, and sinned against God; but now it cannot be helped, and I am ready and willing to die for it. I took away that life which I cannot restore, and I deserve to die before God and man. I intended to have said a good deal to you, but my mind is weak as well as my body. I have been kindly treated by all, and have left something* for you, which you will see in the papers to-morrow. I hope you will take warning from my example. We know not how soon we may all be in another world—my time has come; but I thank God that I am able to bear all.” He then bowed with an air of deep contrition and respect, and retired from the front of the platform. The Rev. Mr Hersley remarked to him—”David, you have omitted to speak of the justice of your sentence as you meant to do.” Balfour, recollecting himself, said—”O, I thank you,” and again stepping forward to address the crown, he added—”I have omitted to acknowledge the justice of my sentence. I have no fault to find with the jury or my Judges. Had I been on the bench as I am now on the scaffold, I must have pronounced the same sentence on my self. Farewell.”

The Execution.

Immediately thereafter, the preliminaries being gone through, Balfour gave the signal, and the dread deed was consummated. After hanging about fifty minutes the body was drawn into the Guild Hall, deposited in a chest prepared for its reception, and sent that same evening to Edinburgh in a cart under the charge of two town’s officers for the purpose of dissection.

A Strange Circumstance—A Terrible Panic Amongst Spectators.

We must now refer to a circumstance which has made the execution of David Balfour specially noteworthy among the annals of Dundee, and caused people of a superstitious disposition to speak of it with awe and bated breath. While the Rev. Mr Murray was engaging in prayer, and the executioner was in the act of adjusting the rope around the neck of the unfortunate man, an extraordinary noise was heard, which various witnesses have described as something entirely unprecedented—not like thunder or anything with which people are familiar, but a “fearful rushing sort of sound,” the origin of which is to this day a mystery, notwithstanding that a host of theories have been advanced on the subject. The result amongst the immense crowd which filled the High Street was as if a bombshell had suddenly burst in the midst of them. The panic began near the West end, and was communicated in an instant to the whole of the dense mass, which became agitated like the waves of a tempestuous sea. Seen from the adjacent windows the scene beggared description. The rush to every opening which presented an outlet from the imaginary danger was tremendous. Large spaces of the causeway previously invisible were cleared for an instant, and as quickly covered by another wave of the undulated mass of humanity. Men, women, and children were seen overturned, sprawling, and screaming in all directions, while hats, caps, and bonnets separated form their owners were countless. Many made their escapes through the railing in front of the scaffold, and others were forced through head foremost. The din from the trampling of feet and cried of those in terror or pain rose to the welkin, forming a compound for which it would be difficult to find a simile. The very jackdaws and pigeons quitted the steeple, and consulted their safety in flight. The injuries to individuals were numerous, and some of them severe, but no lives were lost. In the midst of this panic and turmoil, perhaps the most wonderful thing of all was that Balfour remained quite unmoved. During the uproar he was engaged solely with his own momentous concerns, and seemed utterly unconscious of the terrible commotion beneath him, although the nerves of the executioner were so unstrung that he could scarcely perform his task. It would be foolish to assert that this noise must have had a supernatural origin, although that was the popular belief; but if done through human agency, the secret has been so well kept that to this day its cause has not been ascertained.

Such was the end of David Balfour, a man who, under happier circumstances, might have been an honour to Dundee, but whose life was pensioned and death disgraced through his unfortunate choice of his partner in life, in crude, undeveloped youth, without the aid which the reason and judgement of maturer manhood would have furnished.


*What Balfour alluded to was supposed to be a paper in his own handwriting which he had left for publication. No trace of this having been got in Dundee, it was supposed that it might be in the pocket of the coat in which the body was sent to Edinburgh. A careful search was therefore made, but no paper of any description was found. It was, however, conjectured that the paper indicated only contained expressions of gratitude for the kindness shown him both by ladies and gentlemen whose names he had written down.

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