Edinburgh history: Jessie King was the last woman hanged in the Capital after being caught killing babies for money
Warning – this article contains references to infant death which some readers may find distressing
On March 11, 1889, Jessie King was led to the gallows in Calton Jail. She was the last woman to face this fate in Edinburgh – and there are still questions about her guilt.
The horrific crime
A year before, a group of friends, out playing in the street in Stockbridge, came across a small bundle containing the body of a child.
An investigation was instantly launched, and Jessie King, along with her partner Thomas Pearson, were suspected. Their house was raided, and another horrific discovery was made.
A baby girl, strangled. Her body hidden in a coal closet. Jessie took the fall, insisting that Pearson knew nothing about what had happened. She was arrested for the murder of three babies.
Her trial was notable for containing the medical expertise of Dr Joseph Bell, who taught Arthur Conan Doyle at university, and is said to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
Baby farming was not uncommon in Victorian Edinburgh. People would agree to adopt children – often children born out of wedlock – for a small fee. The fee was pocketed and the child was killed.
Thomas Pearson was granted immunity by the state on condition that he helped strengthen the case against his partner Jessie.
It took the jury mere minutes to decide her fate.
She was hanged on the morning of March 11 at 27 years old.
Bu what was the truth?
Not long after Jessie was arrested, she spoke up, saying that it was Pearson’s idea, and that he was the murderer, but she was not allowed to take back her confession, and no one believed her anyway.
Jessie was uneducated, penniless and heavily pregnant when she met Thomas Pearson, who was 30 years her senior.
The remains of the child found in the home was in a spot out of Jessie’s reach, and Pearson’s coat was used to wrap the baby found in the street.
Jessie’s Roman Catholic confessor begged the Secretary of State to reconsider, pleading her case to him. He said that Jessie had had been the victim of Pearson’s alcoholism, temper and cruelty.
Pearson’s testimony was crucial for the state to secure Jessie’s sentence, despite her mental health being repeatedly assessed, they said that she was fit to be sentenced.
The trial was relentless, playing on Jessie’s position as a ‘fallen woman’, and the press also did not hold back in painting her as evil and monstrous.
Jessie was the last woman hanged in Edinburgh, and she is buried under the car park of what is now St Andrew’s House.