‘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. Continue reading “‘Old Stories Retold: The Thorter Row Murder’ (12 November, 1887)”