‘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. Continue reading “‘Old Stories Retold: Execution of David Balfour’ (29 October, 1887)”