Wife O’ Denside

The Wife O’ Denside

We’ve stepped out of Dundee a wee bit to bring you the tale of the Wife O’ Denside – a tale of love and passion with disastrous consequences. David Smith, was a busy and prosperous farmer at West Denside, a large farm estate in the parish of Monikie. He lived there with his wife Mary Elder (or Smith) and their two sons and two daughters. As the boys grew, they helped their father with the upkeep of the farm. One daughter still lived with her parents, but the other was the wife of the farm foreman and lived in the foreman’s cottage with him. The Smiths had three live-in servants; Barbara Small, Jean Nome and Margaret Warden, in addition to various other servants who came and went throughout the day. Barbara slept at the foreman’s house, whilst Jean and Margaret slept in the main house on a cramped, uncomfortable box bed in the corner of the kitchen. Young Margaret is the focus of the tale of the Wife of Denside – a twisted tale of forbidden love with tragic consequences.

When Margaret’s father died, her mother was left with three children to bring up on her own. Mary’s sister was a friend of Margaret’s mother and did everything she could to help the woman through her unfortunate situation, to the point where Margaret’s mother was “greatly beholden” to her. Due to their friendship, Mary’s sister put in a good word for young Margaret, and, before long, Margaret was employed as a live-in servant at the Denside estate. Mary was alleged to have been quite elitist, and looked down her nose at a lot of people. Margaret was no different, despite her mother’s friendly connections with Mary’s sister. It did not do Margaret any favours when, at the age of twenty-one, she found herself pregnant. She was sent away from Denside in shame, back to her mother’s, where she had the baby, whose father was unknown. How Margaret managed to secure employment again at Denside remains a mystery, but it was more than likely to do with pressure from Mary’s sister. Margaret’s mother agreed to keep Margaret’s baby and raise it herself whilst Margaret returned to work for the Smiths.

Before long, the tension began to build up once again between Margaret and Mary. When Mary was told that Margaret was in a relationship with Mary’s youngest son, she flew into a rage. In some stories, it is alleged that Mary found the young lovers in a compromising position behind a barn; in others, she merely seeks out Margaret and berates her. However the story goes, Mary is said to have called Margaret all the names under the sun, resulting in a slanging match that ended with Margaret tearfully storming back home to her mother’s once again. Another attempt between the women to reconcile failed miserably, so Margaret remained at home. In her fury, it is alleged that Mary banished her son, George, so that he would never see his love again. Mary felt that a woman with morals such as Margaret had no right being with someone as prestigious as her son, and she made sure everyone knew it.

When Margaret’s mother returned home from work one afternoon some weeks after this last incident, she was very surprised to find Mary sitting in conversation with Margaret. Mary alleged that she had come over to bury the hatchet once and for all with Margaret, and to ask her to return to Denside under her employ. In private, Mary pressed Mrs Warden for information on her daughter’s present condition, allaying her fears that Margaret was pregnant with her son’s child. Whilst Mrs Warden stated that she did not know, Mary was said to have told the woman that she would obtain something from the chemist to ensure that Margaret’s “ill-behaviour” did not become a “trial”. Mary got her way, and Margaret returned to Denside that night. She was made to work hard, both inside the house and out on the land and was said to have been fed and watered only enough to keep her from starving. Margaret is not noted to have complained about this much, but there is a reference to her intimating to another two servants on 4th September 1826 that Mary was trying to harm her. It is also not known whether Margaret had been made aware by Mary of her intentions, and was perhaps originally complicit (maybe in order to deflect more shame upon her family) but tried to back out of the agreement; by which time it was too late. The following night, at around 9pm, Mary appeared in the kitchen, holding a short glass tumbler, filled almost to the top with a milky liquid. She offered a small spoonful to Jean before giving the rest of it to Margaret, telling them she had already has some herself and it would do them the world of good. Margaret gulped it down readily, finishing it off with a lump of sugar to sweeten the bitter-tasting liquid.

Margaret swiftly became ill, gradually getting worse as the early hours of the morning made way for daylight. During the course of that day her condition deteriorated to the point where she feared she would die. Shaking, vomiting and barely able to move, Margaret’s condition became so grave that Jean begged Mary to send for help. Cholera was doing the rounds at the time, so it was assumed she had fallen ill with disease. Margaret’s mother was called for, as Margaret was too unwell to return home. By this time, it was Friday 8th September, and Margaret had been ill for almost 3 days. Screaming in agony that her insides were burning, a doctor eventually arrived to attend to the ailing young woman. Before he was allowed to examine her, Mary took him aside and described her symptoms. In addition to this, she also asked whether or not he would be able to tell if Margaret was pregnant and also whether this “bout of sickness” could bring on a miscarriage. When he asked if Mary has given anything to Margaret, she replied that she had only administered Castor Oil. Upon examining Margaret, Dr Taylor noted her grave appearance and tired, frail demeanour and concluded that he should not stress her any further by asking more questions. As far as he was concerned, Mary’s diagnosis was accurate – Margaret Warden was dying of cholera.

Suspicion was only raised when Margaret mentioned to Jean, in the presence of her mother, that her illness was not caused by natural means, and that someone was to blame for her condition. When pressed further by her mother, Margaret is said to have told her that Jean would explain what she meant. She is alleged to have said to her mother “My Mistress gave me…” and then could not continue. Margaret Warden died that night, with nobody disputing the earlier diagnosis which led to her death. On 10th September 1826, Margaret was laid to rest, but it was not to last for long.

Within a week, rumours had been circulating that Margaret had been poisoned by Mary and that she had been pregnant with Mary’s grandchild – a social disgrace that Mary would never have allowed. It transpired that neither Mary’s husband nor sons knew of Margaret’s pregnancy, but it is not known if her daughters were aware or complicit. When questioned by neighbours, Mary’s retelling of events was inaccurate and wildly variable. Enough suspicion was raised to lodge an official complaint, and, on 30th September, no less than twenty days since she had been laid to rest, the body of Margaret Warden was under medical examination. Traces of arsenic were found in her system, and, amidst a protracted series of incidents incited by Mary to stall further examinations, she was arrested on suspicion of murder. She was forty-two at the time of her trial; her alleged victim, twenty-five.

Originally, she had stated she had never purchased arsenic, but this turned out to be untrue. Changing her story to account for the purchase did nothing to confirm her innocence, and she stood charged with ‘the wilful Murder of Margaret Warden, a young woman, her own Servant maid, by Administering Poison’. The trial itself was eventful, with many witnesses and a few postponements due to illness, new information and calls for abandonment, but it eventually went ahead. With all arguments heard, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Not Proven’, and Mary was freed with an admonition.

The rumours must have continued well after she was released, as she earned the nickname “The Wife Of Denside”.

Here is the transcription of the Broadside concerning the trial and sentencing of the Wife Of Denside, as found at the National Library of Scotland.

A Full, correct, and Particular Account of the Trial and Sentence of MARY ELDER or SMITH, wife of David Smith, Farmer at Denside, Parish, of Monikie, and county of Forfar, who was tried at Edinburgh, on Monday the 19th February 1827, for the wilful Murder of Margaret Warden, a young woman, her own Servant maid, by Administering Poison to her, on the 5th September last, in consequence of which she Died the third day after; but the libel was found Not Proven.

At Edinburgh, on Monday the 19th February, 1827, came on, before the High Court of Justiciary, (after several postponements, one of which was in consequence of the sudden indisposition of one of the Jury, after a good deal of the evidence for the prosecution had been gone through, and out of which circumstance another postponement was rendered necessary, in consequence of the arguments of Counsel against proceeding again with the case,) the Trial of MARY ELDER or SMITH, wife of David Smith, farmer at Denside, parish of Monikie, and county of Forfar, accused of Murder, by having, on the 5th September last, within the house at Denside aforesaid, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, administered, or caused to be procured or administered, to Margaret Warden, then servant to the said David Smith, a quantity of arsenic, or other poisonous substance, mixed up with water, or other liquid, inducing her to swallow the same, by falsely representing to her that it was a medicine intended for her benefit; and she having accordingly swallowed the said deleterious mixture, became immediately thereafter violently ill, and lingered in great pain until the 8th of the said month of September, 1826, when she died inconsequence thereof; she being thus wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously Murdered – To which the panel pled Not Guilty.

A number of witnesses were then examined, from whose evidence it appeared, that the deceased turned unwell on Tuesday, and that the prisoner gave her something to drink of a whitish colour, in a large dram glass, with a peace of sugar to take after it, about nine o’clock at night, which she swallowed, and went to bed. That she turned ill before morning, complaining much of her inside, and suffering from thirst; and, on drinking water, which she always cried for, saying her inside was burning, she immediately threw it up. That the prisoner, on Thursday night, a witness observed, came and asked the deceased if she thought a drop of whisky would be good for her, to which the witness, Jean Norrie, a fellow servant, who slept with the deceased, replied, that she had got enough of that, or something else, she could not tell what, for such purging and vomiting she never before had seen. That Margaret Warden’s mother was sent for and came to see her on Friday forenoon, the day she died, and said to this witness, in presence of her mother and 1 Ann Gruar, another witness, ‘ you ken wha has been the occasion of my lying here, but dinna say nathing; they will get their rewards, but I forgive them.’ That she died that night at 9 o’clock, and her body appeared of a blackish colour. She was 25 years of age, was with child at the time, and George, Smith the prisoner’s son, the deceased had said, was the father. The body was buried on Sunday the 10th September, and the corpse was taken up three weeks after, opened in the church-yard, and some particles of poison taken from the stomach, which was the cause of her death, the quantity and quality of which being particularly described by the medical gentlemen attending; one of whom, Dr Taylor, who had been sent for, states, that the prisoner repeatedly inquired, if he thought the violent vomiting would not cause abortion, adding in her own words, I dinna care though such a thing, (a miscarriage) should happen, for the’ gude man would tear down the house if he ken’d it.’

The prisoner’s declaration was then read, and several exculpatory witnesses examined, when the Jury were addressed by the Lord Advocate for the Crown, and Mr Jeffrey for the panel. The Lord Justice Clerk summed up the evidence, and concluded an animated address at half-past 5 on Tuesday morning, when the Jury were enclosed, and directed to return their verdict in writing at 2 o’clock afternoon. The Court met accordingly at 2 o’clock, when the Jury returned a verdict finding the Libel Not Proven ; and, after a suitable admonition, she was dismissed from the bar. This trial excited a great deal of interest.

Printed for JAMES M’LEAN.

The story has lasted almost 200 years, and is the ultimate “did she/didn’t she?” tale of forbidden love and dire tragedy. Whilst Mary Smith may have been found not guilty, there’s a lot of truth to the saying “there’s no smoke without fire”. Innocent until proven guilty, right?

– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.


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