‘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)”

1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 3 (31 December, 1859)

‘The People’s Journal’ was a considerable contributor to the creation of the modern image Christmas in Scotland. The images and aesthetic of the celebration of Christmas we know to day largely began with the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens in 1843, the publication and celebration of Christmas stories of this ilk became a regular feature of ‘The Journal’, with a special Christmas edition eventually been produced each year due to the demand for festive content.

Chapter VIII

St Mungo Redivivus, and a Visit to the Necropolis

On reaching his lodgings, at the close of the revival meeting mentioned towards the end of the last chapter, Mr Sturges found a note awaiting him on his table. It was from Mr Frank Moreland, who had arrived in town from New York that morning, and it arranged for a meeting between the writer and Mr Sturges on the afternoon of the following fay, which, it so happened, was to be held as a general holiday. Mr Sturges was delighted at the prospect of meeting Mr Moreland, for he had entirely lost sight of the Misses Aymer since their leaving Pine Grove, and he hoped that Moreland would be able to give him some intelligence regarding them. That very night, too, he had procured the information which Frank was so desirous of obtaining before his departure for New York.

The place appointed for their interview was in the immediate vicinity of St Mungo’s Cathedral. Precisely at the hour indicated, Mr Sturges reached the spot, where he found Mr Moreland impatiently waiting his arrival. Their joy at meeting was mutual. The first inquiry Frank made was as to the residence of Mrs Aymer.

“Don’t you know?” said Simeon in evident surprise.

“No, no, Mr Sturges; and if you can’t tell me no body can,” said Frank.

“Well I can’t,” said Simeon, shaking his head. “Mr Aymer has never seen them, so far I know, and never so much as named them in my hearing since their misfortune. You have heard of that matter no doubt?”

“I have,” answered Frank, much agitated; “before leaving New York a letter reached me from Emma, in which she related the whole tale of their misfortunes, how they were resolved to hide their poverty in retirement, how she released me from any engagement I might have come under to her, and how she had determined on seeing me no more.”

“Could we only discover their residence,” said Simeon, pulling from his pocket a paper, which he thrust into Frank’s hand, “I think that document might be of some use to them.”

“That’s the very thing, Mr Sturges,” cried Frank, after a momentary glance at its contents. “We have the old fellow now, sir; but is he aware of your having it?”

“You don’t suppose I’m a fool,” replied Simeon, with a knowing wink.

“Anything but a fool, Mr Sturges. Well, if old Ben isn’t obliged to fork out now, it shan’t be my blame,” said Frank, with great emphasis; “and if you should happen to be suspected in connection with this business, as it is more than likely you will, never mind, you shall lose nothing.”

Their minds being wholly engrossed in this conversation, they had entered quite unconsciously an open door in St Mungo’s venerable pile, and by-and-bye they found themselves pacing arm-in-arm the damp floor of the crypt—a mouldy, sombre, awe-inspiring chamber, underneath the main body of the edifice, with just light enough in it to render the darkness visible. Pausing for an instant, as most visitors do, to contemplate the tomb of St Mungo, they were startled by an unearthly voice, which seemed to issue from the tomb of the worthy saint.

“Unhallowed mortals,” said the voice, with deep sepulchral solemity [sic], “how dare ye presume to disturb my sleep of a thousand years! St Mungo’s dust is sacred—defile it not! Beware! beware! beware!”

As the words died away in faint echoes through the distant recess, strange chocking-like sounds, as if of some one striving to suppress an outburst of laughter, could be distinctly heard in a part of the chamber, whose obscurity the “dim religious light” struggled in vain to illuminate. Not a spark of superstitution [sic?] adhered to either Frank or Simeon, yet at that moment they owned to an uncomfortable sensation creeping through their nerves. Their suspense was of short duration, however, for Tom Winter, with a loud laugh, burst from his concealment, and grasped Frank by the hand.

“So, my dear Tom, you are still a bit of a ventriloquist,” said Frank. “But come now, we have no time for foolery. Tom can keep a secret,” continued Frank, turning to Mr Sturges, and so saying, he proceeded to unfold to Tom the Sturges, and so saying, he proceeded to unfold to Tom the whole story of Ben’s villany—the main facts of which, Tom assured them, were already guessed at by the public.

“And the old rascal has turned revivalist too, I believe,” remarked Tom, with a sarcastic smile.

“Yes,” replied Simeon, “and our next meeting comes off on Friday evening, at seven o’clock.”

“I’ll be there, as sure as a gun. Good-bye,” said Tom, marching off, snapping his fingers, and humming to himself a tune.

On parting with Tom at the Cathedral gate, Frank and Sturges directed their steps towards the Necropolis. In the mottoes on the tombstones, with which the grounds are thickly dotted, they found sufficient food for reflection. Having spent some time in this way, Frank suggested a visit to the last resting-place of Mr George Aymer. Drawing near to the spot they beheld two ladies sitting beside the grave, gazing intently on the sod, and wiping a tear now and then from their eyes.

“Heavens!” whispered Frank to his companion, “can you be Emma and Rosabelle.” Continue reading “1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 3 (31 December, 1859)”

1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 2 (24 December, 1859)

‘The People’s Journal’ was a considerable contributor to the creation of the modern image Christmas in Scotland. The images and aesthetic of the celebration of Christmas we know to day largely began with the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens in 1843, the publication and celebration of Christmas stories of this ilk became a regular feature of ‘The Journal’, with a special Christmas edition eventually been produced each year due to the demand for festive content.

Chapter IV

Frank Moreland Gets Acquainted with Mr Simeon Sturges

A day or two subsequent to Ben’s visit to Pine Grove Cottage, as described in the last chapter, Mr Frank Moreland received a note of the following tenor:—

“Pine Grove, Wednesday Evening.

“Dearest Frank,—Uncle Ben was here last night, and surprised us by the unwelcome tidings that my father’s estate has just cleared itself—not to say suspicious, that the balance should have happened to be so very exact? I confess I am not at all satisfied with the result. Something must be wrong. I have told mamma so, but she can’t see the matter in the same light that I do. He has, moreover, prevailed on mamma to invest the remnant of her fortune in Western Bank shares—a most unwise step in my opinion, risking as it does our whole means on a single throw of the dice. Say whether anything, and, if so, what, should be done, and oblige your

“Emma.”

On reading this note Frank’s first impulse was to run down to Pine Grove to learn more of the matter from Emma’s own lips, but on father reflection he decided on obtaining, if possible, an interview with Mr Simeon Sturges, Ben’s clerk, with the view of ascertaining whether he had any knowledge of the transactions connected with the winding up of Mr George Aymer’s estate. Full of this idea he set off in search of Mr Ben’s counting-house, feeling not a little perplexed all the while as to how he should get introduced to Mr Sturges. Threading his way down the Saltmarket, he alighted on an old chum, Tom Winter, a clerk in the office of Messrs Cleekum & Hook, to whom he mentioned his difficulty. Tom knew Sturges intimately, and promised to introduce Frank to him the first opportunity, but refused to call on him at the office lest they should encounter Old Ben, whom he described as a “crusty old bear, who was always either cursing or praying.” As good luck would have it, however, Sturges was soon descried crossing the street, and Tom having hailed him, introduced Frank, and then took his leave.

Frank, having a polished and rather insinuating address, soon got on the most intimate terms with his new acquaintance. Though neither of them cared for drinking, yet, for convenience sake, Frank proposed an adjournment to an adjoining tavern, where, over a bottle of champagne, he explained to Sturges the object of his seeking an interview with him. The simple mention of the family at Pine Grove was a sufficient passport to the confidence of the honest clerk, for, during the preceding winter, he had been on frequent business-visits at Park Place, had seen Rosabelle, and, need it be said, had fallen desperately in love with her, though, being a prudent young man, he as yet cherished the flame in his own bosom.

“Egad, Mr Moreland, but I’m glad to find you know the Misses Aymer, aren’t they nice girls—especially Miss Emma?” said Simeon, singling out the eldest, though in truth, he was all the while thinking of Rosabelle.

“Nice girls—why, yes, very nice girls, Mr Sturges. Rosabelle is, indeed, a sweet fairy-looking creature, though still very young,” said Frank thoughtfully. “But,” added he, staring hard at Simeon, “isn’t it a thousand pities they have no fortune?” Continue reading “1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 2 (24 December, 1859)”

1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 1 (17 December, 1859)

‘The People’s Journal’ was a considerable contributor to the creation of the modern image Christmas in Scotland. The images and aesthetic of the celebration of Christmas we know to day largely began with the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens in 1843, the publication and celebration of Christmas stories of this ilk became a regular feature of ‘The Journal’, with a special Christmas edition eventually been produced each year due to the demand for festive content.

Our Christmas Story.

Chapter I

The House of Mourning

The grave had just closed over the mortal remains of Mr George Aymer, who was reputed to have been one of the most thriving, certainly one of the most enterprising, merchants in the great commercial capital of Scotland. It was a keen, cold day in winter—showers of snow and hail fell at intervals—the sun shot forth timid, momentary glances through the rifts of the hurrying clouds—the streets along which the funeral cavalcade slowly crept were gloomy and deserted—wreaths of driven snow found shelter behind the tomb-stones that crowd the noble “city of the dead,” which looks solemnly down on the hallowed fane of St Mungo’s, and in which the dust of George Aymer was that day gathered to its kindred dust. For a moment the crowd of mourners hung sadly over the grave into which the coffin of their deceased friend had been lowered, saw the first shovel-full of earth filled in, and then hurried back to their desk and counting-houses, there to speculate as eagerly as if nothing had happened to warn them of their frail mortality.

Mr Aymer had been snatched away with awful suddenness. But one short week had elapsed since he was in his wonted vigour, and now the elegant mansion in Park Place, so recently the scene of gaiety and happiness, was filled with weeping and lamentation. He left a widow and two daughters. On the latter, who were just blooming into womanhood, he had doted with more than a father’s fondness. Hitherto his had been a happy home, over which love shed her benign influence, and around whose hearth was never heard the jarring sound of a discordant word, nor seen the semblance of an unkind or distrustful glance; all was peace and harmony. In proportion as one is beloved in his life, however, will he be lamented in his death; and hence the bitter, choaking [sic] tears wept by those whom he had let behind to bewail his untimely fate. Continue reading “1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 1 (17 December, 1859)”