Thorter Row, August 1838

As watchman Duncan MacNab patrolled the Thorter Row area of Dundee on the night of Saturday 4th August 1838, he happened to see what he believed to be a drunken man propped up against the stairwell close to some properties.  Upon closer investigation, MacNab realised that the man in question was dead.  The deceased, John Drew Woods was quickly identified by his friend James Low, a local police sergeant.

Low immediately visited the house of his father, Arthur Woods to advise him of the situation.  By this time, it was late at night, but Arthur woods came to the door fully clothed, including a hat.  Suspicious, Low enquired as to the whereabouts of John, but his father said he had no idea.  Mrs Woods then appeared, and when Low asked her, she said that John had been at their door only half an hour prior to Low’s visit.  Mrs Woods was not John’s mother, being described as “much younger” than his 60 year-old father and it was also noted that she could be quite a violent woman.  Pressing further, Mrs Woods imparted that she thought John may have fallen on the stairs on his way out.  Arthur became defensive at this point, emphasising that he had nothing to do with anything that had happened to John.

An examination of the body revealed marks on his neck consistent with strangulation.  Rope matching the size of the welts on John’s neck was found at the home of his father.  As the murder investigation opened, witnesses came forward to describe what they saw or heard on the night of August 4th.  Two men purported to have heard cries for help coming from inside the Wood’s home a week or so prior to the death.  Upon entering the property to offer assistance, they saw Arthur Woods sitting on top of his son, attempting to strangle him with his own neck cloth.  The men separated the battling duo, whilst fending off the attacks of Mrs Woods, who was also trying to beat John with a poker.

A neighbour reported seeing the deceased on the night of his murder, drunk and on his way to his father’s home.  As she lay in bed, she heard noises and looked out of the windows over to the Woods’ residence.  Listening more intently, she described how John Woods had pleaded with his father not to choke him, followed by a series of noises and thumps.  She then described how Arthur Woods had proclaimed to his son that he would be his son’s “butcher” before he slept that night.

Both Arthur and his wife, Henrietta were charged with murder at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh in February 1834.  Henrietta was cleared of the crime by a majority, but Arthur Woods was found guilty of filicide (the murder of one’s own son or daughter) and was sentenced to be executed in Dundee on 18th March 1834.

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?

Templeton Woods, March 1979

On March 21st, 1979, the naked body of Carol Lannen was found in the growth at Templeton Woods.  A search quickly began, scouring the entire country for the callous murderer of 18 year old Lannen.   A troubled teen, Carol had fallen into the trappings of Dundee’s seedier side, and had become a prostitute.  This high-risk behaviour may have put her in extreme danger often, but it most certainly sealed her fate on the night of 20th March/morning of 21st March.

A little over a week after her murder, Carol’s handbag was found washed up on the banks of the River Don, Aberdeenshire.  Last seen getting into a red vehicle the evening before her disappearance, the search focused on owners and drivers of red cars; specifically a Ford Cortina.  However, with no more witnesses and no real evidence, the case of the murdered mother of one was beginning to go cold.  Although there were suggestions that the murderer was from the Aberdeenshire area, there were theories which suggested the ditching of the handbag was merely to provide a decoy to divert attention away from the real location of the murderer.

The murder of Elizabeth McCabe less than a year later in almost the same area led people to believe that there was a serial killer on the loose.  Many people were fearful to walk in the woods alone in case they met the “Templeton Woods Killer” and suffered the same fate as these very different young women.

Carol’s murder was thrust into the spotlight again as speculation and gossip ran rife, not only throughout the city, but throughout the entire country.  Peter Sutcliffe was briefly intimated to be a suspect, but this theory was rejected due to the fact that Carol had not appeared to have suffered a particularly violent death (although murder by strangulation is still pretty horrific in our eyes!).  Evil Angus Sinclair was also suspected, but charges were never brought to the notorious sex killer.

Subsequently, in an effort to crack the cold case, investigations opened up again nearly 30 years later.  New evidence and eyewitness reports led police to talk with sex offenders Peter Syme and Joseph Stewart in Peterhead Prison, in an effort to extract information in relation to a lead they had received that a registered sex offender incarcerated in HMP Peterhead may have been responsible for Carol’s death.  Despite this breakthrough in the investigation, the man pegged as their prime suspect had since died, so no formal charges could ever be brought, and indeed, his guilt or innocence never proven.

Unfortunately for the memory of Carol Lannen and for the sake of closure for her grieving family, her murder continues to be largely unsolved.  Surprisingly, despite the high level of publicity surrounding the case, her estranged father did not learn of her death until 2005 due to a complete breakdown in family relationships after he left them and moved away in the early 1970’s.

Although police are satisfied that Carol’s killer is dead, her murder still essentially remains unsolved, and still begs the question: What really did happen to the tragic Carol Lannen?

Templeton Woods, February 1980

Still regarded as a huge mystery is the story surrounding the disappearance and murder of Elizabeth McCabe, a nursery nurse with a kind heart and a new-found passion for socialising and disco-dancing.  Elizabeth’s body was recovered on 26th February 1980 entangled in woodland growth at Templeton woods by two rabbit hunters, 16 days after her ill-fated night out.  Believing that she may have stayed out with a friend, her mother was not overly concerned to see that Elizabeth’s bed had not been slept in the following morning.  However, as the day wore on and she was made aware that Elizabeth had not turned up for work that day, Mrs McCabe became understandably alarmed.  This was completely out of character for shy, quiet Elizabeth.

Police were notified, but it took a few weeks before things began to pick up pace.  Mr & Mrs McCabe scoured their daughter’s favourite haunts around the city in the hope of locating their daughter safe and sound.  As Elizabeth’s parents’ frustrations rose at the little-to-no progress made in their own investigations and those of the Police, they turned to local media for help.  This appeal still yielded no answers and it seemed as though Elizabeth McCabe had literally vanished from the face of the earth.

As the rabbit hunters stalked through the undergrowth on the morning of 26th February 1980, one of the dogs began showing signs of interest in a nearby covered mound.  Horrified, the two men quickly realised that they had stumbled upon a female body, naked but covered by a blue jumper and some surrounding fauna.  Ligature marks on her neck suggested she had been choked to death.  Gossip consumed the city, with many believing there to be a link between Elizabeth’s death and the death less than a year earlier of Carol Lannen, whose body was found close to where Elizabeth’s body had lain.  As vague pieces of Elizabeth’s last night came together, it emerged that she had left her friend, Sandra in a nightclub and had headed outside.  When the idea was posed that perhaps she had gotten into an unknown car, those close to Elizabeth denied this, citing an earlier incident which had made Elizabeth very aware of getting into an unmarked “taxi”.

With this in mind, every single taxi driver in the city was invited for questioning, in the hope that a breakthrough in the case could be made.  In desperate attempts to ascertain anything about Elizabeth’s final moments and her cold-hearted killer, Police even attended a séance for answers, but this too, proved fruitless.  With Carol Lannen’s unsolved murder not far behind them, the search became focused on taxi drivers and little else.  During the course of questioning both the taxi drivers and witnesses, a man named Vincent Simpson was noted a vital witness, as he had been seen and had admitted to being in that area around the time Elizabeth was murdered.  Although his home and his vehicle were searched, there was no evidence linking him to the crime.  Whilst he may have been involved in petty crime in the past, there was nothing to support the theory that he may have been the murderer, and he was released without charge.

The case went cold, and for a quarter of a century, the story of Elizabeth McCabe and any hope for a conviction slowly faded.

When the Scottish police force initiated ‘Operation Trinity’, a number of cold cases were re-opened and evidence re-checked using up to date DNA analysis techniques that were not available at the time of investigation.  Elizabeth’s murder was one of these cold cases, and, once again, she was thrust into the spotlight.  Evidence from the crime scene and the victim was re-examined and, based on this, police arrested Vincent Simpson 27 years after they had first questioned him.  Despite his repeated protestations of innocence, Vincent Simpson stood in the dock at the High Court in Edinburgh accused of Elizabeth’s murder.

During the trial, the Court heard that examination and crime scene protection techniques had changed significantly since 1980.  Protective clothing had not been worn when officers removed Elizabeth’s body from the woods, and no real effort had been made with regards to the contamination of the site by other officers and officials attending the scene.  Swabs taken from the body had been stored in a paper folder inside a filing cabinet, rendering them all but useless.  Once officer told the Court that the mortician did not wear protective gloves during the removal of personal effects from the body.  Whilst unheard of today, these practices were the norm.

Details of Vincent Simpson’s private and personal life were laid bare in the Courtroom as the weeks unfolded.  Despite the onslaught, he maintained his innocence.  He provided an alibi, called witnesses and also provided names of people who may have been responsible, either alone, or in a group for this horrific crime on a loving young woman.  Although DNA evidence has proved culpability and secured convictions in the past, doubt had grown as to the validity of the findings due to their degradation and the overall poor management of the case itself.  As prosecution lawyers argued for their credibility, defence lawyers counter-argued for their dismissal as conclusive evidence.

DNA experts, in their findings, reported that DNA from a specialist who had examined some of the evidence in the past had been found on items, despite the man taking appropriate cautions not to contaminate anything during his initial investigation.  Footage of further investigations revealed that cross contamination was highly likely in this case due to the number of officers handling various items without taking adequate precautions.  Whilst this was denied, it was clear that cross contamination had occurred, and the prosecution’s argument started to flounder.

After a trial lasting seven weeks, Vincent Simpson was found not guilty by a jury and discharged from the dock.  With no more than a quiet “Thank you very much”, Vincent Simpson left by the side door a free man.  To date, no-one has been brought to justice for the murder of innocent Elizabeth McCabe.  Unfortunately for her family and the memory of Elizabeth herself, we may never know the real story of what happened to the pretty 20 year old with a zest for life and a promising career ahead of her.

Dundee is no stranger to a brawl – a reputation that has preceded the city for generations.  Petty crime in Dundee, Scotland in the 1920’s was unsurprisingly, not much different to as it is now. The men, and, perhaps more importantly, the women, have proven to be a fearsome populace, and continue to fight and support their city and their ideals to this day.  Some of the older generation may say “they never did anything like that in my day”, when they hear about some drunken escapade involving a fight or a lone space-hopper…but don’t let them fool you, because we’ve dug up some of the records from the 1920’s, and it makes for very interesting reading indeed. Trust us when we say this is a mere snippet of the wealth of information in the city archives, available to anyone who wishes to know more.  For now, however, let this whet your appetite.

Buckle your seatbelts, wrinklies – your secrets are out!

One of our favourites, which is still a pastime of some of our drunks today, was the crime of public pissing.  Yes, that’s how it’s recorded.  “Pissing.”  Apparently, we loved a good outdoor pee back in the day, especially when drunk.  Various records allude to the following:

“…drunkenness…committing a nuisance, mainly by pissing.”

“…worse for liquor, pissing in close at foot of tenement stairs.”

“…pissing on footway in full view of pedestrians in Brown Street.”

“…pissing in pend in view of people passing from Seagate to Murraygate.”

“…worse of liquor, pissing on footway in view of passersby in Meadow Entry.”

“…pissing in close at 27 Westport.”

“…saw pissing on footway in full view of passersby while drunk.”

“…committing a nuisance at 174 Overgate…being drunk and urinating in front of passers-by”

“…worse for liquor, pissing on footway at door of Gas Treasurer’s Office.”

We could go on, but we think you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, alcohol related assaults were many, but there were many instances of wife-beating too, which contradicts what we know about the strong, independent Dundee woman.  Never to be outdone, however, women still managed to rack up a few assault charges of their own.

Robert Bremner (64), Machine fitter – assault of wife by striking with several blows on the body with his fists, and seizing hold of 2nd witness by the neck and dragging her about in the house occupied by the accused.

Josephine Lamb or Ross (56) – assaulting Elizabeth Wood by striking her one blow on the left cheek with her fist at the door of the house at…Overgate at 11:15am.

James Doyle (40) – remanded in custody and bail set at 20/ for assaulting his wife and five children, aged from 12 to 7…seizing her by the neck and bumping her head twice against the wall, seizxing her by the left arm, dragging her out of bed on to the floor, kicking her several times on the right side with his booted foot, seizing her by the shoulder and pushing her down a flight of steps in the house at…Lochee, at 8:45am.

Hugh Boyle (42) and William Simpson (32) – breach of peace in Lochee at 10pm while at the centre of a large crowd engaging in a stand up fight, both equally willing – 7 shillings or 5 days in jail each – both paid.

Charles Fitchett (26), Labourer – assaulting wife by throwing a piece of bread at her head which would have struck her if she had not ducked, he then seized her legs pulling her to the floor and dragging her around the floor for some time – 5 days in jail.

Henry Ferrie (45), Labourer – assaulted wife by striking her several times on the face with his fists and drawing blood – assaulted his daughter by striking on her back with his fists – 3 witnesses – 38th appearance in court – trial continues to 24th December 1928 – admonished.

Peter Robertson (43) – assaulted wife by grabbing her coat and pushing her down on the bed then striking her several blows to the body with his fists at…Church Street – 4 witnesses – probation granted.

Robert Robertson (51) – assaulted son by blow of an axe which would have taken affect if witness had not prevented by seizing his arm and holding it on the stairs leading to the house at…Hunter Street at 10.50pm – 4 witnesses – 20 days in jail.

Isiah Mitchell (24), Labourer – striking his wife on the face with his hand…assaulting a witness by striking with his fist at the same address and at the same time – assaulting witness by knocking down and seizing throat, restricting breathing and striking on face with fists at the same time and address – 5th appearance in court – 30 shillings or 15 days in jail – paid 1 shilling and spent 8 days in jail.

James Guthrie (20), Labourer – indecently assaulting Isabella Thomson (16) by seizing her by the right shoulder and placing his hand under her clothes and struggling with her causing her to fall to the ground, placing his hand over her mouth to prevent her shouting for help and attempting to pull down her knickers and forcing her legs apart causing the elastic on her stockings to break on footpath between Clepington Road and Harefield Road known as King’s Cross Road at 12.05am – 5 witnesses – 20 shillings or 10 days in jail – 1 shilling paid and 8 days in jail.

Jessie Cassells, a 54 year old spinner from Polepark was given a 10/ fine or 7 days in jail for striking 62 year old Michael Gallacher, a local peddler, on the left ear with an “earthenware jar, to the effusion of blood at her home in Polepark Road”.

Even in the poorhouse, there was no reprieve.  George Burke (25), a labourer of no fixed abode was charged with assaulting 21 year old William Buchanan (21) by “striking him two blows on the face with his fist, knocking him down, seizing him by the lapel of his jacket and striking him a blow on the nose with his fist, causing his nose to bleed in the Day Hall in connection with the Dundee Combination, Eastern Poorhouse, Mains Loan, of which Charles Gow is Governor, about 1:30pm, Wednesday 21st December…”

Not only were we partial to a wee fight after a few too many, we liked a good old-fashioned breach of the peace, too.  49 year old Margaret Gould was charged with shouting and swearing at two women on the footway in Hunter Street.  Cautioned by the attending office, Margaret refused to stop, and said she “did not give a c**t for the jail”.  She was fined 21/ or was given the option to spend 14 days in jail.

Arthur Nicoll (39), a builder from Letham was charged with breach of the peace and resisting arrest after a large crowd had gathered round him in the town centre as he shouted, swore and challenged people around him to fight.  A caution did not deter him, and when he was eventually arrested, he refused to walk.  The attending officers “had great difficulty in taking him to the Police Office.”

64 year old John Clark was charged with a breach of the peace in Dundee’s Westport.  His charge reads “…in centre of large crowd, cursing and screaming and challenging others to fight…Cautioned by continued…much the worse for liquor.”

Some other charges include:

Georgina Gibson or Jones (48), no job or abode – drunk in Howff at 2.50pm on 18th December 1928 – 1 witness – 48th appearance in court – fine imposed but not paid – jailed for 5 days.

John Robbins (43), no job or abode – drunk in Lower Pleasance at 11am on 18th December 1928 – 1 witness – 64th appearance in court – 20 days in jail.

Jessie Melville or Forbes (48) and Jane Gerrie (43) – theft of three pairs of stockings at…Princes Street – admonished.

Betsy Dewar or MacDonald, (30), charged with “…contravention of the Howff Burying Ground Byelaws, dated 5th September 1912, by lounging or lying upon a monument in Howff Burying Ground, Meadowside, about 2:25pm on Friday 15th July.  Her co-accused included James Coventry, John Ellis, and Peter Shields.  In this instance, a verbal warning was enough.

Lucy McLean or Tanner, (34) pled guilty to a contravention of Article 1 of The Dog (Wearing of Collars) Order, 1911.  The dog was found in the Hilltown by Police, who described the dog as “suffering to be at large, an unmuzzled, ferocious dog.”  She was fined 10/6.

Alexandria Campbell (26) of Aberdeen was accused of deserting her child in Dundee and was let off with a warning.  No more information was available as to the exact specifics of this case.

Many Dundee folk were caught fiddling their gas meters, or allowing their chimneys to become blocked to the point they caught fire (in contempt of the General Police and Improvement (Scotland) Act 1928).  Some shopkeepers were charged with possession of unstamped, incorrect or unjust weights, and a bunch of schoolboys were admonished for “maliciously uprooting and destroying ten growing turnips in a field on the farm at Lawton, situated on the South side of Byron Street, Lochee…”

So, as you can see, we’re just as feisty and rowdy back then as we are now…the only difference is that you have to go digging for dirt like this from the past.  These days, social media and technological advances mean that there’s no safe places left to hide…so your skeletons don’t stay buried for long.

The following is a collection of extracts of Dundee Crime Statistics from the Dundee criminal returns of 1898 to 1902 inclusive, read, in part, by us on one of our forays in the archives. A very informative and insightful glimpse into the lives and crimes of this era, it’s also hard sometimes to see where things have changed greatly in the last century. See for yourself what the criminal element of Dundee were up to back in the day.

“Chief constables office, Dundee 31st January 1899

My lord and gentlemen,

I have the honour to present for your information the annual police and statistical returns for the year ending 31st December 1898

There were 4751 persons apprehended and 849 persons cited for crimes and offences making a total of 5600 against 5170 during the previous year being an increase of 430. Of that number 5291 persons were brought before the magistrates and 309 were discharged on account of the evidence against them being insufficient to warrant their being brought to trial.

The state of crime thus shews a slight increase. The increase is principally in the number of persons dealt with for contraventions of police acts, bye laws etc. the increase under this heading being 332 males. This may be accounted for by the climatic conditions, which were such in 1898 as to cause out door workers to have very little broken time; to the fact that trade in Dundee was in a prosperous condition; and to the circumstance that on 3rd march 1898 numerous sections of “the burgh police (Scotland) act 1892” were adopted, which considerably extended the powers and duties of the police and resulted in numerous prosecutions for minor police offences which could not previously be dealt with.

Serious crime
During the year there were no serious acts of crime omitted within the city and no sitting of the High Court of Justiciary took place.

Insane and destitute persons
In addition to the number of apprehensions before referred to, there were 42 insane and destitute persons taken charge of by, and removed at the instance of the police to lunatic asylums or the poor houses by the inspector of poor, or given up to guardians or relatives to be cared for without being brought before court. 25 of these, consisting of 11 males and 14 females were insane. 13 of them were removed to lunatic asylums, which the remaining 12 were taken charge of by the Paris council authorities. The other 17, found destitute were removed to poorhouses, while 9 were handed over to parents or relatives. These persons are not included in the criminal returns. There were 382 persons remitted to the sheriff during the year from the police court charged with various crimes and offenses against 547 in the previous year, shewing a decrease of 165. 144 of those so remitted were committed by the sheriff, till liberated in due course of law. This number is an increase of 16 on the total so committee during 1897.

261 persons were charged with wife-beating, being a decrease of 2 when compared with the previous year; of that number 245 were convicted, 3 were acquitted against 1 the charge was withdrawn, against 10 the charges were departed from, which the charges against the other 2 were undisposed of at the end of the year. Of the number convicted, 221 were tried in the police court and 28 in the sheriff court, 139 were sentenced to imprisonment, 85 were given the option of a fine, 6 were ordered to find caution for their good behaviour, while the remaining 15 were admonished.

There were 419 persons under 16 years of age brought before the magistrates, being an increase of 164 when compared with the previous year; 18 were found destitute, 160 were accused of theft and 241 of other crimes and offences. 102 of the total number were admonished, 128 were sentenced to pay small fines or to suffer short periods of imprisonment, 6 were dismissed, the charges having been found not proven, 8 were sent to the reformatories, 53 were remitted to the sheriff or reported to the procurator fiscal, 11 were remitted to other jurisdictions; 69 were dismissed, the charges against them having been departed from, and 42 were sent to industrial schools, the charges against them having been withdrawn. The increase in juvenile offenders may be accounted for by the large numbers of boys brought before the court charged with playing at football and other games to the annoyance of the lieges on the streets and other public places. The class of offence was not dealt with before the adoption of the burgh police act.

The number of prisoners who were apprehended and taken to each of the five police stations were as follows:

Central – 2679
Eastern – 413
Lochee – 424
Northern – 427
Western – 808

715 individuals have been more than once before the police court during the year. The frequent appearance of these persons before the police court largely increases the number of apprehensions chronicled in the returns, as on each re-apprehension during the year they are recorded. If the 715 persons who have been more than once before the court during the year and who are included in the above table had only been credited with one appearance each the number of persons apprehended or cited during 1898 would have been stated at 4361, instead of 5600 being 1239 less.

These offenders are for the most part habitual drunkards, and 283 of the 715 have been convicted of crimes of offences in Dundee from 20 to 170 times, as shown by the following table:

No of Convictions M     F
20 to 30                   84     58
30 to 40                   42     24
40 to 50                   17     11
50 to 60                    6      13
60 to 70                    2        3
70 to 80                    1      10
80 to 90                    1        1
100 – 110                           3
110 – 120                  1       3
120 – 130
130 – 140                           1
140 – 150
150 – 160                           1
160 – 170                            1

85 intimations of theft by housebreaking were lodged with the police during the year, shewing a decrease of 24 when compared with the previous year. With few exceptions the acts were of a trifling description.

The detective staff both by day and night as well as the district officers and constables give unoccupied furnished houses their special attention, and particularly those whose occupants have notified their absence to the police.

There were 804 intimations lodged of theft (simple) shewing a decrease of 179. 454 persons were apprehended in connection with these cases. In more than one half of the intimations, the properly stolen was considerably under 5/- value. By a portion of the burgh police act, which has been adopted, shopkeepers are prohibited from exposing goods outside their premises. This provision has been the means of causing shop door thefts to almost disappear, hence the great reduction in the number of simple thefts reported this year compared with the previous year.

The estimated value of property stolen, embezzled, or obtained by fraud during 1898 was £575. 8s, 1d, and the amount recovered was £320 16s 4d, thus leaving the estimated value of the unrecovered at £254 11s 9d.

There were 8 persons licenced as hotel keepers, 215 as publicans and 207 as grocers. 3 persons licenced to retail table beer. During the year 4 publicans were tried for breach of certificate in each case the charge being that of supplying liquor to persons in a state of intoxication, 3 of whom were convicted, and 1 acquitted.

Shebeens, there were 24 persons brought before the police court for selling excisable liquors without a certificate throughout the year, of that number 17 were convicted, 2 were acquitted. The fines and expenses imposed upon those convicted amounted to £213 9s 6d, of which only £24 1s 0d was recorded.

There were 994 strayed children brought to the several police stations during the year, and temporarily cared for by the female warders, being a decrease of 15 from the previous year

There were 99 fires during the year, to which members of the fire brigade turned out against 72 the previous year

There were 186 members of the police force of all ranks, this number includes two members of the sanitary staff, for whom the government grant is got, but excludes all other members of the sanitary staff, as also 1 inspector who do duty at the harbour. This strength of §86 gives a population of 884 to each constable, the population of the city according to the registrar general last estimate being 164,575

Unfortunately during the year 9 persons of 8 men and 1 women lost their lives drowning in the docs and river. 4 dead bodies were found in the river and 5 in the docks. During the same period 34 persons who fell into the docks or river were rescued from drowning.

5 fatal accidents occurred to workmen while engaged at the harbour and 96 accidents involving injury to the person, 43 of these being serious. In 56 of the cases the police on harbour duty, who have been trained in ambulance work dressed the wounds. 9 fires occurred at the harbour during the year, in neither of which was serious damage done.

D. Dewar
Chief Constable and Procurator-Fiscal

Dundee Crime Statistics

Crimes and offences

Number of crimes made known to the police

Class I, crimes against the person
Culpable homicide – 2
Assaults – 21
Assaults on etc officers of law – 70
Assaults by husbands on wives – 260
Culpable neglect of duty – 1
Cruel and unnatural treatment of children – 66
Incest – 1
Rape – 5
Assault with intent to ravish – 2
Indecent assault – 1
Lewd and libidinous practices – 3
Bigamy – 3
Culpable and reckless driving – 1

Class II – crimes against property with violence
Theft by housebreaking – 85
Theft by opening lockfast places – 4
Housebreaking with intend to steal – 5
Robbery and assaults with intent – 10
Sending menacing letters – 1

Class 3 – crimes against property without violence
Theft – 804
Reset – 9
Breach of trust and embezzlement – 5
Falsehood, fraud and willful imposition – 21

Class IV – malicious injuries to property
Willful fire raising – 2
Malicious mischief – 159

Class V – forgery and crimes against currency
Forgery and uttering – 1

Class VI – other crimes not included above
Perjury and subornation – 3
Indecent exposure – 11

Class VII – miscellaneous offences
Betting, gaming and lotteries – 1
Breach of the peace – 1545
Brokers (licenced) offences by – 5
Brothel keeping – 5
Cruelty to animals – 13
Drunkenness and drunk and incapable not under intoxicating liquor laws – 1511
Elementary education acts, offences against – 28
Explosives, offences in relation to – 4
Furious and reckless driving – 14
Industrial schools acts, offences against – 10
Drunk or drinking in a shebeen – 5
Disorderly conduct in licenced houses – 1
Refusing to leave a licenced house – 1
Breaches of certificate – 4
Trafficking without a licence – 19
Other contraventions – 4
Factory acts – 11
Offences against army, deserters – 53
Other offences – 1
Nave deserters – 2
Peddlers act, offences against – 1
Penal servitude and prevention of crimes act – 1
Police acts, bye-laws and regulations, offences against – 366
Poor laws, neglecting to maintain family – 1
Prostitution – 124
Reformatory school act, offences against – 1
Stage and hackney carriage regulations, offences against – 23
Vaccination act, offences against – 5
Vagrancy and trespass act
Begging – 36
Sleeping out – 4

Sentences and fines

1 day and under – 2
3 days and over 1 day – 2
7 days and over 3 days – 59
14 days and over 7 days – 100
1 month and over 14 days – 252
60 days and over one month – 160
Above 60 days – 7

5/- and under – 579
5 tp 10/- – 472
10 – 20 – 1292
20 – 40 – 399
40 – £5 – 21
Over £5 – 18

Number paid before imprisonment – 1033
Paid during – 318
Sentence undergone in default – 1427
Neither paid nor sent to prison – 3

Results of proceedings

Proceedings dropped – 309
Pledges forfeited – 621
Otherwise discharged – 75
Charge withdrawn – 101
Acquitted – 87
Sent to industrial school – 43
Sentenced to imprisonment – 582
Fine – 2781
Reformatory school – 8
Caution with or without sureties – 23
Placed under probation of first offenders act – 6
Admonished – 802

Sex and age of persons convicted
Under 12
m – 22
f – 0

12 – 16
m – 212
f – 10

16 – 21
M 506
F 161

21 – 30
M 774
F 462

30 – 40
M 654
F 412

40 – 50
M 356
F 244

50 – 60
M 145
F 120

Over 60
M 81
F 43

Sent to Dundee industrial schools
Sent to Glasgow R.C. Do.
Sent to reformatories
Sent to Perth industrial schools
Sent to Aberdeen industrial school for RC girls
Sent to Stirling industrial school
Sent to Tranent industrial school for boys
Sent to Leith industrial school

Return of strayed children (number, not actually returned to anyone)
Central – 303
Eastern – 183
Lochee – 48
Northern – 246
Western – 214
Total – 994

Fatal casualties –
Children found dead in bed
M 35
F 37

Deaths by burning m4 f5
Being crushed by turning lath – m1
Mill machinery – m2
Waggon m2
Cart falling on – m1
Crane striking – m1
Drowning m8, f1
Falling down stairs – m2 f 5
Falling from house m1 f1
Falling from ladder m1
Falling from steamer in course of construction m3
Tier of jute m4
Heap of wood m1
Being run over by railway train m4
Run over by vehicle m4

Sudden deaths m45 f39
Suicide by hanging m4 f 1
Jumping over bridge m1
Poisoning f1
Shooting m2

1900, there were 4987 persons apprehended and 734 persons cited for crimes and offences during 1899 making a total of 5721 against 5600 the previous year. Of that number, 5445 were brought before the magistrates and 276 were discharged on account of the evidence against them being insufficient to warrant their being brought to trial.

The state of crime this shews a slight increase which may be accounted for by the prosperity of trade. During the year there were three serious cases, two involving charges of murder and one of culpable homicide in which four persons were accused one of the cases of murder was that of a man accused of striking her on the head with a meat cleaver, he was tried before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh and the case was found not proven. The other case of murder were a man was charged with causing his wife’s death remained undisposed of at the end of the year. In the case of culpable homicide two men were accused of assaulting a butcher, in consequence o which he died. They were tried before the sheriff and a jury and found not guilty.

People were also sentenced to penal servitude occasionally, one man for five years in 1898 – Donald Ross for assault and robbery, trial was 16th Sep 1898

For 1900

There were 6048 persons apprehended and 903 persons cited for crimes and offences during 1900, making a total of 6951 against 5721 during the previous year, being an increase of 1230. Of that number 5514 persons were brought before court, and 437 were discharged

It is difficult to account for such a large increase but as contributing to the same it may be mentioned that trade in general has been prosperous while the climatic conditions throughout the year have been favourable for outdoor work. There has been a large in as in the number of labourers attracted to the city during the year on account of converting the existing tramway lines to make them suitable for electric traction and the opening up of new tramway routes. The military camp at Barry has been more fully taken advantage of by large bodies of troops being quartered there for a considerable portion of the year, and the militia regiments have been called up for lengthened periods because of the south African war. This has resulted in a large increase of the number of deserters and absentees dealt with by the police and recorded in the returns. Another factor in connection with the increase is, in my opinion owing to the greater leniency which has of late been shewn by the magistrates to persons convicted of being drunk and incapable and to those convicted of having committed breaches of the peace and acts of disorderly conduct while in a state of intoxication. This leniency has, in my opinion, led to a considerable in case in the number of individuals who have made more than one appearance before the police court during the year, the number for 1899 being 686 and for 1900, 848.

In 1902, one serious case occurred in the city during the year. A man attempted to murder his paramour by stabbing her repeatedly all over the body which a pocket knife, and seriously assaulted another woman by stabbing her. He was tried before the high court of Justiciary, found guilty of the charges and sentenced to penal servitude for life. Daniel Hughes, trial 17th Nov 1902.”

In Dundee, body snatchers, graverobbers, or “Resurrection Men” turned over a considerable amount of business.  When Cholera struck in 1832, the memories of Burke and Hare’s atrocities were still very much at the forefront of people’s minds. Even though Burke had been executed in 1829 (whilst Hare spent the rest of his years in relative seclusion, having been granted his freedom in exchange for Burke’s conviction), there were still real and valid concerns over secret pacts between the Sextons of Scotland and the medical profession. People were in a high state of alarm over the frequent exhumations made in their churchyards and it was shrewdly suspected that this was done for the purpose of supplying the Edinburgh doctors with viable dissection subjects.

The churchyard of Dundee, then popularly known as the Howff was laid under heavy contribution to the cause of science.  In an effort to deter would-be grave robbers, watches were set, but, often aided by whisky to deter the cold, their vigils were often unsuccessful.  The Resurrection Men were too sharp for them, for it was almost a matter of certainly that the body of anyone who died of a peculiar disease would disappear within a few days after it had been interred.  However, there are records of a gun fight between the tombstones, people falling into open graves in the night during their watch, and a grave robber who couldn’t get away fast enough, and ended up with the sharp point of a bayonet stuck up his bum!  So, whilst they were sometimes unsuccessful, the graveyard watchers still had their fair share of excitement from time to time.

The Logie Cemetery was another frequent location for Resurrectionists, as well as a host of drunks, highwaymen and many others of ill-repute.  The cemetery was so overcrowded that graves were dug in the pathways and onto the roads.  On 13th May 1824, The Dundee Advertiser ran a story about two graveyard watchers who had been assaulted by a pair of body snatchers during their shift.  They managed to fend off the attack and the offending duo ran off, but a second attempt to steal from the grave was carried out the following evening.  Thankfully, this attempt was also foiled, and the Resurrection men fled empty handed once more.

The most notorious of local Resurrectionists was Geordie Mill.  He was the Sexton of Dundee, and was believed to have had dealings with doctors and professors in Edinburgh.  His neighbour, Donald M’Nab, suspected Geordie of graverobbing, but, unable to catch him in the act, he is believed to have penned the following song:


Geordie Mill, wi’ his roond-moo’ed spade,
Is wishin’ aye for mair fouk deid
For the sake o’ the donnal an’ the bit short-bread
When he gans wi’ the spaiks i’ the mornin’.
An’ if the tale that’s tauld be true,
A greater gain he has in view,
Which mak’s his fryin’-pan richt foo
To skirl baith nicht and mornin’.
A porter cam’ to Geordie’s door,
A hairy trunk on his back he bore,
Which the Quentin Durward frae Leith shore
Brocht roond that very mornin’.
This trunk, I’m tauld, contained a line
Wi’ sovereigns to the amount o’ nine.
The price o’ a well-fed, sonsie quine
They had sent to Monro ae mornin’.
But Geordie, to conceal their plan,
A story tauld as fause as lang,
Sayin’ the trunk belanged to a travellin’ man
That wad call for it next mornin’.
Noo Geordie doon to Robbie goes.
The doctor’s line to him he shows,
Which wished frae them a double doze
By the coach on Wednesday mornin’.
Says Robbie, ” Is the box come back ? ”
“Oh, yes,” says Geordie, giein’ the purse a shak’,
“An’ we maun gae an’ no’ be slack
To flirt again ere mornin’.”
Quo’ Robbie’s wife, ” Oh, sirs, tak’ tent,
sure a warnin’ I’ve been sent,
Which tells me ye will yet repent,
Yer conduct on some mornin’.”
” Ye fule,” quo’ Robbie, ” Hush yer fears,
While I’ve the keys fat deil can steer’s ?
We’ve been weel paid for’t ten past years,
Think o’ auchteen pounds i’ the mornin’.”
Sae aff they set to Tarn an’ Jock,
The lads that used the spade an’ pock,
An’ wi’ Glenarf their throats did soak
To keep them brisk till mornin’.
The hour grew late, the tryst was lain
Amang these Resurrection men,
When each his glass did freely drain,
Sayin’, ” Here’s success to the mornin’.”
But Robbie noo does sair repent
His slightin’ o’ the warnin’ sent,
For the noise o’ a second coffin’s rent
Caused in Dundee a deil o’ a mornin’.

Such was the popularity of the song, it sparked outrage and M’Nab was brought before local Magistrates to be examined and questioned on his alleged ditty.  As nothing could be proved, he was released without any charge.  Geordie Mill himself, was suspended from his duties, but was never prosecuted.

Disease and plagues have rocked world history, causing untold damage and claiming countless lives. Although still prevalent in the world today, modern advances in medicine and detection have made life a lot easier for those living today. However, before the intervention of current medicinal practices, disease and plagues wiped out populations, mutated and disfigured victims and spread epidemically. Efforts to quell the outbreaks included confined seclusion, laws passed on harbouring travellers or vagrants, and even those uninfected fleeing the area in panic! Unfortunately, it was usually only the wealthy who could afford to flee, leaving behind the poor to remain with the infected victims.

The Second Pandemic of the Plague culminated in the highest level of deaths worldwide from the 14th century to the 19th century – approximately 25% of the world’s population perished at the hands of the killer disease. In the UK, the first cases were noted in England but quickly spread throughout the country. Scotland called it “the foul death of England” and believed it to be God’s wrath upon them. With up to a third of the English population dead or dying, Scotland made a daring move to attack whilst defences were at an unprecedented low in the 13th century. Upon defeat, the remaining Scotsmen swiftly fled home with a few unwanted visitors in tow. The disease went on to decimate the Scots population at the end of the 1340’s. Known as Bubonic Plague, the Great Plague and, simply, the Plague, this infection initially caused lumps or tumours in the groin, neck or armpits of various ranging sizes. Symptoms progressed, with lumps spreading, becoming larger and displaying livid and/or black spotting (hence the over-arching name “Black Death”). Within days of infections, sufferers would run high fevers, vomiting and passing blood, before finally dying an agonising death. The infected usually died within 2 to 7 days of initial infection, causing huge problems for towns and cities with no available space to dispose of the infected corpses. Bubonic plague is a disease that is carried by fleas living on rodents, such as rats. As sailors moved from port to port, taking many uninvited rodent guests with them, the risk of disease increased. Unwittingly, these rats would then leave the ship at various ports around the world, infecting other rodents by passing on disease-ridden fleas.

In 1585, plague appeared in Edinburgh, apparently brought there by a woman who had been visiting Perth. As it spread, special orders were quickly issued for the sanitisation of Edinburgh, including the removal of the coining-house to Dundee. Soon after this, the plague hit Dundee. Victims of the plague in Dundee were buried in the Roodyards burial ground in, often covered in lime salt to try and keep the disease from escaping the bodies. In times such as these, hygiene was not thought of in the way it is today. Everything was dirty, from the people, to their houses and the streets beyond. Sanitisation was not something of a priority, which did not help in curbing disease as it swept through the country. Royal orders on the matter included ceasing trading with any affected towns, cities or villages, very tight quarantine controls at ports, animals removed from the public area altogether, limitations on public houses and also a ban on gatherings of people. Any house known to have infected living in it or having died in it were prohibited from having furniture removed, for fear of spreading the disease further, and shops were restricted in the type of products they could sell. “Unwholesome” meats and perishables were banned from sale, which caused problems for those who were so poor they relied on these cheap (and often stale) food products to feed themselves and their families.

If that wasn’t bad enough, worse still was pneumonic plague, spread by the initial bubonic infection which attacked the lungs and was spread to other people through coughing and sneezing. Coughing, fever, headache, chest pain and blood in the mucus or saliva were the main symptoms of pneumonic plague. Septicaemic plague occurred when the bacteria entered the blood. In these cases, there was little hope of survival. Treatments and prevention at the time did not help. Sometimes, patients were bled with leeches. People thought impure air caused the disease and could be cleansed by smoke and heat. Children were encouraged to smoke to ward off bad air. Sniffing a sponge soaked in vinegar was also an option.


As we mentioned before, cleanliness was not a high priority and sanitation improvements were not implemented until the mid-1800’s. As with any densely populated city or town, Dundee was a dirty, smelly and overcrowded place to live. Diseases such as cholera were rife due to the high volume of animal and human excrement, rubbish and discarded animal carcasses. Outdoor toilets were shared by dozens, if not hundreds of people who were crammed into tenement blocks, and conditions were far from sanitary. Drinking water and bathing water were contaminated with faeces and crawling with bacteria, but, with no other means of obtaining water, many were forced to drink and bathe from infected pools. . It was not a common practice to boil water in the 19th century, nor was bathing popular. Dirty water and unclean bodies were major factors in the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Milk and other dairy products were a common breeding ground for scarlet fever and diphtheria. Dairies and shopkeepers diluted milk with (infected) water to yield greater profits. Beer was even adulterated with narcotic substances such as strychnine to counter the effect of over dilution with water of the original.

Cholera is a bacterial infection caused by drinking water contaminated with the bacteria, or by the consumption of food that has been in contact with the tainted water. Sickness and diarrhoea were the main contributing factors to death from cholera, as, more often than not, sanitary rehydration and salt replacement were not options. As the victim’s blood pressure plummeted, they would succumb to shock and died thereafter. A significant number of graves in the Howff house victims of the cholera epidemic. Thankfully, due to significant improvements in sanitation and proper water hygiene, cholera has been eradicated in most of the world. The rapid growth in Scotland’s urban population in the 19th century brought with it unprecedented social problems, of which ill-health was one. However, although ill-health was recognised as a major social problem, our knowledge of death rates and the causes of death in the first half of the 19th century is patchy. It was not until 1855 that the civil registration of births and deaths was introduced. Even after this date many deaths went uncertified, or the causes were wrongly entered on the death certificate. Still-born babies went unregistered and had no burial ceremony. In places with few doctors the cause of death was badly recorded. The diseases causing the most deaths were cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, whooping cough, measles and smallpox.

With more than two million people killed by tuberculosis (TB) every year, and perhaps a third of the world’s population infected, the World Health Organisation has declared the epidemic of the disease a global emergency. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection of the lungs and sometimes other parts of the body, and is spread by droplets in the coughs or sneezes of a person with the disease. Tuberculosis was known as ‘consumption’ in the 19th century and was a major cause of death in Scotland at that time. The disease is still common where there is overcrowding, malnourishment and poor health care. It was during the 19th century that tuberculosis was dubbed “The White Plague”. It was seen as a ‘romantic disease’. Suffering from tuberculosis was thought to bestow upon the sufferer heightened sensitivity. The slow progress of the disease allowed for a “good death” as sufferers could arrange their affairs. The disease began to represent spiritual purity and temporal wealth, leading many young, upper-class women to purposefully pale their skin to achieve the consumptive appearance. British poet Lord Byron wrote, “I should like to die from consumption,” helping to popularize the disease as the disease of artists.

The Antonine Plague, also known as the Plague of Galen, was probably smallpox or measles. The disease killed as many as one-third of the population in some areas, and decimated the Roman army. Measles is an endemic disease, meaning it has been continually present in a community, and many people develop resistance. In populations not exposed to measles, exposure to the new disease can be devastating. In roughly the last 150 years, measles has been estimated to have killed about 200 million people worldwide. Measles also claimed a lot of young lives, the evidence of which is still present within the Howff. The graves of many mark the final resting place of children who succumbed to the infant-killing disease. In addition to children with an unfavourable nutritional status, young children living in large families are also much more prone to being infected with measles than are children living in families with one or two siblings. Nowadays, when the total population of most western European countries is rapidly shrinking due to the limitation of family size, and at a time when most European and European-American parents have their children immunized against all common infectious diseases, measles has become rare in the West. Thankfully, when measles do make an appearance in our lives, it’s usually no more than a minor setback, quickly and easily eradicated. As with everything, there are always exceptions to the rule, and still, to this day, many people in underdeveloped countries die from this disease.


The history of smallpox holds a unique place in medicine. One of the deadliest diseases known to humans, it is also the only disease to have been eradicated by vaccination. Symptoms of a typical smallpox infection began with a fever and lethargy about two weeks after exposure to the Variola Major virus. Headache, sore throat, and vomiting were common as well. In a few days, a raised rash appeared on the face and body, and sores formed inside the mouth, throat, and nose. Fluid-filled pustules would develop and expand, in some cases joining together and covering large areas of skin. In about the third week of illness, scabs formed and separated from the skin. About 30% of cases ended in death, typically in the second week of infection. Most survivors had some degree of permanent scarring, which could be extensive. Other deformities could result, such as loss of lip, nose, and ear tissue. Blindness could occur as a result of corneal scarring. Survivors of smallpox outbreaks were protected from subsequent infection by a process called variolation. This involved inhalation of the dried crusts from smallpox lesions or inoculation of the pus from a lesion into a scratch on the skin. These were potentially hazardous procedures, yet deemed acceptable at the time as smallpox caused such severe mortality and morbidity. The practise was introduced by Edward Jenner in 1798 upon noting that a person who had previously caught cowpox did not later catch smallpox. Vaccination still occurs today, where necessary, but is not used en-masse due to it’s known adverse effects and the risk of death.

Whooping Cough was (and still is) known as “The Kink” in Scotland.  Known medically as ‘pertussis’, it is a bacterial illness caused by the Bordetella Pertussis. It can be a severe illness resulting in prolonged coughing spells that can last for many weeks but rarely causes death. It can affect anyone, but is most dangerous in children under the age of 12 months because they are not able to cough away the phlegm that threatens to choke them.  Such extreme coughing spells can make it difficult for a person to eat, drink, and breathe – people may lose weight and become dehydrated. In infants, it can cause pneumonia and in rare and severe cases, lead to brain damage, seizures and mental retardation.  From the 17th century and up to the early 19th century, pertussis was considered a killer disease, especially within infancy.  A physician was often helpless and ignorant in dealing with children because, unlike adults, they could not contribute to his diagnosis by articulate complaints.”    Before the Bordetella Pertussis vaccine became available, the illness was a leading cause of death in infants, and nearly all children developed whooping cough. The vaccine itself cannot solely be credited with the decline in pertussis deaths, however, as this was also when public sanitation systems were implemented, clean drinking water became available, better distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables and also the focus on personal hygiene was stressed.  During the 1970’s, amid claims that the vaccine was not safe, there was a decline in the number of people willing to have their children immunised.  As a result, this led to two further epidemics. Each epidemic affected an estimated 400,000 children. Immunisation rates then went up again and most children are now immunised. Whooping cough is now uncommon in UK children but remains a major cause of illness in children in countries with poor rates of immunisation.

Typhus is a series of acute infectious diseases that appear with a sudden onset of headache, chills, fever, and general pains, proceed on the third to fifth day with a rash and toxemia (toxic substances in the blood), and terminate after two to three weeks. Typhus (actually not one illness but a group of closely related diseases) is caused by different species of rickettsia bacteria that are transmitted to humans by lice, fleas, mites, or ticks. The insects are carried person to person or are brought to people by rodents, cattle, and other animals. The most important form of typhus has been epidemic typhus (borne by lice).   The lice will initially feed on an infected human, drinking in the infectious blood before jumping to another host body.  The disease is transmitted to an uninfected human who scratches the louse bite (which itches) and inadvertently rubs infected faeces into the wound left by the blood-sucking joyrider.  Rats carry the disease, and the disease is also found in the faeces of cats, skunks and raccoons.  Whilst prompt antibiotic treatment will cure nearly all patients, left untreated, the mortality rate is as high as 60%.  Effective use of pesticides and the destruction or de-sanitisation of clothing and personal items such as bedding and towels is essential.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a highly contagious viral infection that can lead to paralysis, breathing problems, or even death.  The virus usually enters the environment in the faeces of someone who is infected. In areas with poor sanitation, the virus easily spreads through the faecal-oral route, via contaminated water or food. In addition, direct contact with a person infected with the virus can cause polio.   Polio, in its most debilitating forms, displays symptoms such as paralysis and death. However, most people with polio don’t actually display any symptoms or become noticeably sick. When symptoms do appear, there are differences depending on the type of polio.  Non-paralytic polio leads to flu-like symptoms that last for a few days or weeks, such as fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, fatigue, back and neck pain, arm and leg stiffness, muscle tenderness, muscle spasms, and meningitis.  Paralytic polio will often begin with symptoms similar to non-paralytic polio, but will progress to more serious symptoms such as a loss of muscle reflexes, severe muscle pain and spasms, and loose or floppy limbs that is often worse on one side of the body.  “Poliomyelitis struck Dundee in 1947 with 43 cases and 4 deaths – this outbreak received considerable press coverage, although curiously less notice was taken of an outbreak of infantile gastroenteritis which killed 42 of 160 babies admitted to hospital. Polio struck again in 1950 with 157 cases and 9 deaths. Salk’s vaccine appeared in 1955, although an early faulty batch which caused 260 cases of polio and 10 deaths led to a degree of public apprehension as can be seen from newspaper reports of the time.  A further outbreak of polio occurred in Dundee in 1962, mainly in the Fintry area, with 40 cases and one death. However, a mass vaccination campaign in the city with 118,000 doses of the new Sabin oral vaccine brought the outbreak to an abrupt end.” (

Do you have any stories, diaries or images relating to this topic, or any other on this page that is specific to Dundee?  Get in touch with us – we’d love to feature them!

Dundee recently earned itself the notorious title of “Murder Capital of Scotland”, based on it’s percentage of murders to overall population. It’s certainly not something we as a city should be proud of. At the same time, however, we cannot argue that Dundee has had it’s fair share of gruesome and grisly murders over the decades. Many forms of punishment have been enforced throughout the ages, from banishment or imprisonment, to birching, burning and hanging.

The last “judicial hanging” in Scotland took place in August 1963, before it was permanently abolished in 1969. To this day, it is common to hear the phrase “bring back hanging” when discussing the more heinous crimes of humanity. Our list is by no means exhaustive – by now, you should know we like you to do your own digging too, and the wealth of information out there on this most sensitive of topics is abundant. For now, whet your appetite, and beware, as some of the reading is not for the faint of heart.

Surprisingly little in the way of research has been undertaken into the history of sex, gambling and drunkenness in Dundee. There is a lot of information from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century about the lives of the mass female workforce in Jute Mills – we know they were a strong, rowdy, often drunken bunch, who worked and played as hard as the men…but what was happening in the closes, pendies and back rooms when the work was done and light turned to darkness?

By the mid-1800’s, Dundee had one pub to roughly every 20 families, and whisky had become the drink of choice. Children as well as adults were frequently seen in drunken states. Gambling became a massive form of entertainment, and in the Howff, upwards of 400 people at a time could be seen partaking of illegal betting, earning the Howff the nickname “the paddock”. In addition to illegal horse-race and dog-race betting, blood sports such as cock fighting and bare fist fighting attracted illegal gambling, as did almost anything that the men and women of Dundee could place a wager on. More often than not, these “sports” went without time limits, resulting in some horrifying skirmishes. Mixed with endless alcohol, fights inevitably broke out, leading to arrests.

In the late 1870’s, the crime of ‘shebeening’ (selling alcohol without a licence) was a crime committed by more women than men, often landing them with hefty fines or a spell in the gaol. Although Dundee had the highest living costs, people living in Dundee were the lowest paid. A large proportion of offenders were sitting in separated cells for not being able to pay their bills, or were being hauled in for drunkenness. Breaches of the peace and assault were also common crimes in these years – the majority of which had been caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

Sailors frequently visited the docks, whether departing or returning from voyages, and all sought the same recreations – alcohol, drugs and women of ill repute. Historian Judith Walkowitz writes, a British city would have on average one prostitute per 36 inhabitants. This eventually led across the United Kingdom to an outcry for something to be done to stop this “Great Social Evil”. By the middle of the 19th century, the UK government was compelled to introduce the Contagious Diseases Acts 1866–1869 to address the problem of the spread of venereal diseases. At that time, it was thought that one in three men in the British Army needed treatment for VD (venereal or sexually-transmitted diseases).

It was not just in the bigger cities that the vice held its grip. In Dundee during the 19th century the dramatic rise in VD was said to mirror the increase in street- and brothel-run prostitution. At that time, prostitution was thought to be gravitating to the housing schemes on the outskirts of the city. In the Police Superintendent’s Annual Report from 1876, we see that 123 prostitutes were arrested for “loitering and importuning”.

Prostitution, illegal gambling and illicit alcohol production and supply were rife everywhere in 19th century UK. Known as “The Great Social Evil”, the boom in prostitution was attributed to the changes in industrialisation and pressures of modern life. Money was still of grave concern for many, with publicans illegally producing their own alcohol for resale, whilst the scourge of drug and alcohol addiction threatened lives on a daily basis.

As travel between countries became easier and more frequent, so did the increase in the availability of dangerously addictive drugs. An alcohol and opiate-derived mixture known as Laudanum was readily available for sale and a permanent fixture in most homes as a cure for almost anything. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was its addictive properties, and people used it greedily.

It is a common myth that “opium dens” were rife in the UK, as there is no evidence anywhere to support this, but sailors did bring back quantities of opium, as well as a myriad of other substances which were snapped up by eager locals. Life was not pleasant, and many people were looking for a way to escape the drudgery of their lives. For some, it was mere entertainment.

Chloral hydrate was another favourite of the Victorian Era, used at the time medically as a sedative and hypnotic. Mixed with alcohol, it produced the famous “knockout drops” – a staple ingredient of the Mickey Finn type of drink typically drunk at the time. Another use for chloral hydrate was its decomposition into chloroform, an anaesthetic that depressed the nervous system.

Heroin was also frequently enjoyed as a drug of choice. Initially synthesised as a non-addictive alternative to morphine (another drug widely used by addicts at the time), heroin was glamourised with the “benefits” of making you feel heroic and strong (hence the name). By the time its addictive properties had been discovered, the drug had already travelled the world and had taken its toll. Known by its medical name of diamorphine, Heroin is only ever referred to as “heroin” when talking of the drug in the context of illegal use/supply.