Arbroath, 8th October 1826
On 14th April 1827, Margaret Wishart appeared at Perth Circuit Court, charged with the wilful poisoning of her blind sister, Jane, and her newly born son. The charges laid against her were: ‘[having] administered a quantity of arsenic to her sister, Jane Wishart, residing with her in Arbroath, on the 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th days of October 1826, which poison was mixed up with a quantity of porridge or gruel, and given to her to eat, – as also to an infant male child of which the said Jane Wished had been delivered up the said 6th October, – in consequence of which poisonous mixture the said Jane Wishart immediately thereafter became violently ill, and lingered in great pain until the 8th day of said month, when she died in consequence thereof.’
Despite these charges, Margaret pled her innocence. Key witnesses to the life of the two sisters were put on the stand and cross-examined to prove Margaret’s guilt. Janet had given birth to a boy on 6th October, and it was heard that Margaret had only been informed of Janet’s pregnancy in the week leading up to the birth. This was Janet’s second child, although her first had sadly passed away. The father was alleged to be a man named Andrew Roy – a man who’s own reputation was questionable.
It was also intimated that he and Margaret had been more than just acquaintances in the not-so-distant past, and that there may have been more to their relationship recently than had been publicly known. Janet had been urged by both her sister and Andrew Roy not to reveal the identity of her children’s father. To add to this, during the period leading up to the birth of the child, despite Janet’s obvious deteriorating health, Margaret seemed nonchalant. Janet herself blamed bad food for her sudden downturn, and Margaret did not disagree with her assumption. On Tuesday 3rd Oct 1826, Janet began to complain of pains in her stomach and bowels (which happens to coincide with Jane confiding in Margaret about her pregnancy, and, more than likely, the identity of the father).
It wasn’t uncommon for the sisters to have lodgers, and it was one of these lodgers, David Edwards, who told the court Jane had confessed to him that Andrew Roy was the father of her children. He testified that, during those days, he had seen and heard Janet vomiting. Margaret seemed to do very little to help ease her sister’s suffering. Despite this, Jane gave birth to her son. Margaret was alleged to have told David Edwards that the birth of the child was ‘a great affront to them…and were the mother to die, it would be given out…’ By the time Jane had delivered her baby, she was so ill she could barely speak other than to tell a friend she felt like she was dying.
The baby was also clearly unwell, and was seen to be vomiting and in distress. When a family member offered to get a doctor, Margaret was dismissive of any help stating that no ‘doctors in Arbroath can do you any good.’ Another witness claimed to have seen Margaret feeding the baby with a milky-like liquid, and, when she noticed she was being watched, acted as though she had been caught doing something she shouldn’t have been. Jane died on Sunday 8th October; her child died the following day, only 3 days old. They were both buried a few days later in St Vigean’s cemetery in Arbroath, where they lived.
In a small town like Arbroath was back in 1826, gossip and speculation ran rife that Margaret had somehow been responsible for the deaths of Janet and her son. The authorities were alarmed by the accusations of murder, and the bodies were promptly exhumed in front of an entire congregation the following Sunday morning during the church service. Margaret was arrested and detained in Arbroath’s Tolbooth until the Crown had decided what to do with her. A decision was eventually made that she was to be tried, and her day in court came on 14th April of the following year. An examination of Jane’s intestines revealed a very small amount of arsenic, and it was from this finding that the examiner concluded that Jane had been administered the poison. He further speculated that the arsenic had been administered over a period of time, most likely within the last week. Whilst conceding under cross-examination that the symptoms surrounding Jane’s death may have been caused naturally, and that the amount of arsenic found was not of a significant volume, the seed had already been planted that would seal Margaret’s fate.
A jury, unconvinced with Margaret’s pleas of innocence, and unmoved by any of the defence’s character witness testimonies or arguments, found Margaret Wishart guilty of the murder of her sister and her days-old nephew. Her sentence was death by hanging. Those who doubted Margaret’s guilt petitioned on her behalf for clemency, but it was refused. Protesting her innocence, even to the end, Margaret went to the gallows with remarkable restraint and dignity, meeting her end on Saturday June 16th, 1827.
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