‘Old Stories Retold: The Thorter Row Murder’ (12 November, 1887)

The following was part of a series of historical tales about Dundee which appeared in ‘The People’s Journal’. A key tenant of the paper was to promote self improvement in its readers and articles pleading for sobriety were common—this can be seen as a moral story in that tradition.

On the peaceful Sunday morning of August 5th, 1838, an event occurred in Dundee which not only made a profound sensation in the town itself, but was the cause of much commotion throughout the country. What this was we shall endeavour to set forth, and our task will be made easier by the fact that the scene of this dreadful occurrence has remained unchanged since that day. Proceeding to the East side of Thorter Row, still a well-known and busy thoroughfare, we turn up a narrow entry and find ourselves in a small court, closed in on every hand by tall houses, with grimy smoke-stained walls and many broken windows stuffed with rags, showing that they are occupied by the poorer classes. Looking inquiringly around, we should then have found the keynote to this story and the spring from which its incidents flow in the fact that into this little, desolate, squalid, poverty-stricken court no less than three public-house back doors opened. Today, thanks to better habits and wiser legislation, there is nothing of the kind, but in 1838 it was considered no disgrace but rather a right and proper thing for people, even in the highest circles, to drink till late and go to bed under the table, and their habits were naturally imitated by their poorer fellow-countrymen. With such facilities close at hand need we wonder that the people living in this court were poor, miserable, ignorant, wretched, and steeped in vice and crime? Would it not rather have been amazing if they had been anything else? Now to our story.

The History of Woods.

Just in the middle of this court, facing us as we enter, stands a house isolated from its neighbours, with a cellar below, and a short outside stair leading to the door. This house was occupied by one Arthur Woods, whose career we must trace for a little. He was a native of Ireland, the son of a small farmer there, who seems to have given Arthur a fairly good education. When about 30 years of age Woods came to Scotland, and started in business in Glasgow as a hawker, a trade which was of considerable importance and respectability in a time when communication between town and country was not so easy as it is now. Woods married a woman named Drew; and owing no doubt to the fact that this wife’s father carried on a business as a fish-dealer in Perth, he settled down in that city. Several children were born to him, but only two—a boy and a girl—lived to grow up. About the time of his son’s birth Woods came to Dundee and started in business as an auctioneer. Here his ready native wit, good education, and powers of “blarney” stood him in good stead. He soon had an immense business, and enjoyed a considerable reputation among his fellow-townsmen for uprightness, energy, tact, enterprise, and—most noteworthy of all—for sobriety. Having got into a good connection with wholesale dealers in Dundee, Woods now bought the extensive business of an auctioneer named Taylor, and seemed to be on the highway to fortune. Elated by his success, Woods turned his attention to larger speculations than any he had yet engaged in, and here his good fortune began to desert him. Taking with him a large stock of valuable goods, he went to Aberdeen, and proceeded to sell them in a public hall in the Granite City. This adventure turned out disastrously, and just about the same time his wife’s bad behaviour caused him great trouble and uneasiness. She frequently left him, and finally went to stay with her friends in Perth, where she met with a fatal accident. Fresh business speculations brought further losses, and Woods, discouraged and disappointed, turned, like many another out-worn spirit, into the way which led him to ruin and death.

He Took to Drink,

and went downhill with wonderful swiftness. With his children Woods went back to Ireland, where he stayed and for a year or two, then returned to Dundee, and confided his little ones to the care of their grandmother in Perth. Woods had now a fair chance of retrieving his character and regaining his former respectability; but his bad habits had got too strong a hold upon him to be shaken off without a great effort. That effort he does not seem seriously to have made, and the downward course continued. He got odd sales to conduct in the Greenmarket on Fridays and Saturday evenings; but even this humble employment left him, and he was forced to make a living as a street porter, occupying his frequent leisure house in the making of straw mattresses. At this point Woods made another fatal mistake. He married a woman of worthless character named Hourietta or Honey Young, and the union, as was inevitable, deteriorated him still further.

Father and Son Hastening to Ruin.

John Woods, the son of Arthur by his first ‘marriage, was now growing up, and having been reared under such adverse circumstances, he turned out a very bad young man indeed. He also carried on the business of a hawker, but having no character, he made a very poor living. His stepmother having taken a dislike to him did all she could to make dispeace between him and his father, and seems to have been only too successful in carrying out her base designs. Both father and son drank to excess, and fighting and quarrelling were nightly occurrences in the miserable home in Thorter Row. On the sultry evening of Saturday, 4th August 1838, one of his old-fashioned watchmen passing down Thorter Row heard the sounds of fighting and quarrelling in Woods’ house. This, however, was nothing unusual. It only meant that John and his father were drunk, so the sagacious watchman went on his way. Had he been near enough to have heard the words spoken he would assuredly have interfered with all speed.

The Fatal Deed.

“I’ll be your butcher before I sleep,” roared the father in his drunken fury.

“Oh! oh! Don’t choke me, father,” gasped a faint voice in reply. Then a stillness fell—the stillness of death.

A woman who chanced to be looking from the unglazed staircase window saw Woods and his wife carrying out a ghastly burden—the body of a man, which they deposited at the bottom of the steps. Listening intently, she heard the woman say in a hoarse whisper, “We’ll not be fashed wi’ him any more.”

Shortly afterwards our friend the watchman returned, trudged in his heavy, sleepy fashion into the court, shouted out, “Half-past one, and a fine star-light morning,” and then stumbled over a man living at the bottom of the steps leading to Woods’ house.

Awful Work.

“Umph. Confound it!” he growled hoarsely. “Why can’t they sleep somewhere else.” Thinking that the man was helplessly drunk, the watchman was just about to administer a few vigorous kicks as a restorative, when something in the man’s appearance startled him, and caused him to bend down and look closer.

“Guid guide us!” he ejaculated. Then, after a short inspection, “There’s been awfu’ wark here!”

Awful work indeed, watchman. A man lying there beneath that peaceful August sky with fractured skull and the deeply-indented marks of a rope around his neck, and that not in the burglar-infested lanes of Paris, Vienna, or Madrid, but in a peaceful Dundee street. Worse still; a son done to death by his father and mother—those who should have cherished and protected him. Awful work indeed!

The watchman having had the body removed, communicated with headquarters, and soon a sergeant of police was demanding admittance at Woods’ door. Woods and his wife, the latter leaving off some cookery at which she was engaged, turned to meet the officer with drunken bravado.

Where is Your Son, John?

“What dae ye want wi’ us, honest folks?” she demanded in shrill, virago-like accents.

“I want to know where your son John is,” replied the officer with unusual meaning in his official tones.

“My son is it! Bedad I don’t know anything about him. The spalpeen! I haven’t cast eyes on him this blessed night at all, at all,” said Woods with suspicious volubility.

“I’ve seen him though, the drunken ne’er-do-weel that he is,” broke in the woman. “He was here no lang syne wantin’ a bed, just that drunk that he couldna stand, so I didna let him in.”

“Well, I apprehend you both on a charge of murdering him,” said the sergeant, and detailed the circumstances noted above. Both were removed loudly protesting their innocence, and then the house was searched, when a piece of rope was found, which Woods used in his calling as a street porter, and which corresponded exactly with the marks found upon his son’s throat! In addition to this, medical investigation showed that, although the young man’s skull was fractured, death had been caused by strangulation.

An Ominous Incident.

The prisoners were at first taken to the Police Office in St Clement’s Lane, but on Monday they were removed to what was then the “New Gaol.” On the way an incident occurred that made a great deal of talk in that superstitious age. On turning the North-West corner of “the Howff,” the coach in which they were being driven narrowly escaped colliding with a cart in which lay the body of the murdered man in course of conveyance to the new burying-ground in Constitution Road.

The Trial; A Painful Scene.

On account of the female prisoner’s condition the trial was delayed, but it took place shortly after the birth of her child. On the cold, grey morning on Monday, 25th February 1820, Arthur Woods and his wife were arraigned before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh and charged with the wilful murder of their son. Both pled not guilty, and evidence was led, setting forth much of what has already been put before the reader. By an almost unanimous verdict Arthur Woods was found guilty, while in the case of the wife the jury, by a majority of three, brought in a verdict of not proven. On hearing the words fall from the Foreman’s lips, Woods seized his wife’s hand and shook it heartily, no doubt with incredible bravado, congratulated her on her escape. She burst into tears and sank upon his shoulder weeping bitterly, while her husband tried to comfort her. After this painful scene had lasted for some minutes the woman was removed from the bar, and Lord Moncrieff, assuming the black cap, sentenced Arthur Woods to be executed at Dundee on the morning of Monday, 18th March.

Speech by the Condemned.

Woods, whose coolness during the trial had been something wonderful, addressed the Court as follows:—“My Lords, permit me to say a word, I hope that the honourable jury will not suppose that I am going to cast blame on them, nor on those who have conducted the prosecution, nor on the Court. The boldness and freedom I am using arise from the perfect knowledge of my bosom never entertaining the thought of being guilty of that action, and true knowledge of my innocence of the charge for which your Lordships have been pleased kindly to sentence me. I hope that Almighty God will pardon my sins, and I throw myself sincerely on Him for mercy. I wished to say these words, for many would say afterwards that the boldness of that man would show no repentance.”

No Respite; Fortitude of the Prisoner.

A petition was forwarded to Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, and as a result a respite of a week was granted in order that the circumstances of the case might be reviewed. On examination, however, it was found that no grounds existed for interfering with the course of the law. This was intimated to the condemned man, who received the news with the same extraordinary calmness and fortitude which had animated him throughout. Woods, who was a Roman Catholic, now devoted himself heart and soul to the ministrations of the worthy Father M’Pherson, then priest of the Catholic community in Dundee. On the Sunday night proceeding his execution he did not go to bed, but sat with some intimate friends of the same faith, and engaged in reading and prayer. Frequently he asked his friends to take warning by his fate, and to beware of evil habits.

Preparations for the Execution.

The dread hour of eight o’clock now drew near. All preparations had been carefully made beforehand. The hideous apparatus of death was erected outside one of the gaol windows, and in front an immense crowd of spectators had assembled, a crowd made larger by the fact that all the mills and factories had been closed. A noteworthy feature was the large number of women, who at such a scene should have been conspicuous by their absence. About seven o’clock Woods dressed himself with much care in a decent suit of black, and then engaged in “confession” with the Rev. Father M’Pherson. At this interview he is said to have acknowledged his guilt, a statement which cannot be anything but a mere rumour, as in the Catholic community all confessional matters are kept secret as the grave.

In consequence of a violent article which appeared in an Edinburgh paper called the True Scotsman, some fears of a popular riot were entertained on the occasion of Woods’ execution. In view of such a contingency, two companies of the Royals were sent to Dundee, and came by steamer on Sunday afternoon, but such precautions proved needless.

Last Words.

A great stillness fell on the multitude as the condemned man, accompanied by the prison officials, appeared on the scaffold. All preparations having been made, Woods stepped forward, and addressed the crowd in the clear tones, which were distinctly heard as far off as St David’s Lane, in North Tay Street. He said—“Good people, all you that are here this day, take my fate as an example, especially those who get drunk or behave disorderly on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. Remember this, and let it sink into your hearts. I go before a just God to answer for my sins; but the crime I am here to suffer for I know nothing of it. I was not, to my knowledge in the sight of God, either art or part in that crime. I never entertained a thought of it at any time, and I die freely without any knowledge of the kind before God. Neither did my companion, to my knowledge, entertain any such thought, or was art or part in the crime. It was said that she was the cause of quarrelling in the family; this I never knew anything of. Now that before God I stand, I return my thanks to the honourable Magistrates, the gentlemen whom you have over you, and keep it well in mind that they are placed over you by God, and that is it your duty to obey them; for they are better than fathers—they have been much more to me.” He concluded with what seemed to be a religious expression ending with—“and to God who made me.”

Having finished his address, the unfortunate man have the signal, when the drop was loosened, and Arthur Woods went to meet his Judge.

This was nearly fifty years ago, and still our police records teem with cages in which the motive power to crime is drink. This old story of the Thorter Row murder will not have been revived in vain if every one who reads it shall resolve that he at least will resolutely avoid the path of danger.

The above represents the scene of the execution, about the centre of the bare wall. This part is now occupied by the Sheriff Court House.

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