My mother, when told that I had started researching our family history, tried to put me off by saying that “You will find things you do not want to find.” Maybe she knew of a dark secret, however, I was not deterred. Sure, I found that her paternal grandfather was born illegitimate, however, his parents did get married a few months after his birth.
There was a child murderer in our family. Not a direct ancestor I hasten to add but the wife of a first cousin 4 times removed, so a very tenuous link but still someone who appears on my family tree.
As a born and bred Scot I had assumed that our family was 100% Scottish as far back as we could go. Imagine my surprise to discover that my 4times great grandfather was English hailing from Bocking in Essex.
Timothy Gentry was born there in 1766 and during his life he spent 24 years in the army from 1790 -1814. He served with the 4th Dragoons and saw action in the Peninsular Wars being wounded in the foot in July 1809 during the Battle of Talavera. The regiment had been based in Perth for a time and Timothy married a local girl, Jane Easson.
This article revolves around Timothy and Jane’s grandson, John (1846-1918). John spent virtually all his life in Perth. The Census’ for 1851-1871 give his address as 9 South Street in the city where his father, another Timothy (1800-1877), was a tailor. Young John duly left school and according to the 1871 Census was a mason. By 1881 he was an engine fitter living at 12 South Street with his wife, Margaret Guthrie Shepherd. The couple were married on 3 October 1878 in Abernethy parish church. Margaret’s father was the village schoolmaster. The witnesses were Elisabeth Gentry, John’s older sister and Alexander Matthew Moncrieff Shepherd, Margaret’s younger brother. John’s occupation was given as engine fitter.
The early years of their marriage would have followed the normal pattered of Victorian life. Two children were born within the union, Margaret in 1879 and William in 1881. Sadly William died of whooping cough at the relatively young age of 14 months on 2 September 1882, his distraught father being the informant on the certificate.
The internet is a great source of information not least to genealogists. To aid my research I have subscriptions to both Ancestry and Find my Past. The latter holds the British Newspaper Archive and it was that resource I used to try and find out more about the “English” side of my family who had settled in Perth. Gentry is not a common surname in this area so there might not have been many references to the surname, if any, in the local newspapers.
Imagine my surprise when tucked away towards the bottom of a column in The Scotsman of 8 May 1888 was a sentence under the heading – Suspected Child Murder at Perth. It read “Yesterday, Margaret Shepherd or Gentry, domestic servant, 36 years of age, was examined before Sheriff Grahame, at Perth, on a charge of child murder or concealment, and committed to prison for further examination.”
Other newspapers took up the story. Several had the same report almost word for word as their rivals, perhaps early examples of mass syndication. Prior to The Scotsman’s report the Evening Telegraph of 27 April 1888 ran a story about her. Their report stated that Margaret Shepherd or Gentry had been in service in Perth as a cook. After she complained of being unwell she was removed to the house of a relative. Apparently as there was suspicion around the cause of her illness an investigation was launched and a search of where she had been employed revealed the dead body of a newly born male child concealed in one of the rooms. The Evening Telegraph described it as being found in a house where she worked. However, from other newspaper reports it was found to be the Moncrieff Arms Hotel on Princes Street. (The hotel has since closed.) A post mortem was carried out but at the time the newspaper went to press the result was not known.
Speculation as to what had happened was no doubt rife. The Aberdeen Evening Express of Monday 7 May went as far as to say that the baby’s body had been found behind a grate. On 16 June Margaret was once again brought before Sheriff Grahame on a charge of child murder. She pleaded not guilty and was scheduled to be tried at the Circuit Court in Perth on 26 June.
At her trial Margaret was charged with having murdered a male child to which she had given birth in the Moncrieff Arms Hotel on Tuesday 24 April 1888. The baby had had his throat and chest compressed. This had fractured his lower jaw. His neck had also been lacerated. Margaret also faced a charge of concealment of pregnancy. The jury returned a guilty verdict and she was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.
Where was her husband, John, while all this was happening to his wife? Did he stand by her as many husbands would do? In a word “no”. The Scotsman of 26 November 1888 reported on a divorce action by John Gentry against his wife. John’s occupation was given as a cleaner and he was living at 64 Longcauseway in Perth when the petition was heard. Margaret was still a prisoner in Perth prison. John Gentry stated that he had married Margaret in 1878. She left him in 1883 and he had only seen her two or three times since. There were two children from the marriage but one was dead. John had heard that his wife had had a further child but he was not the father. Margaret was also examined and said that she had given birth to an illegitimate child during her absence from her husband.
As I have already mentioned several newspapers carried details of the case. However, while using her name as a search term in the BNA I came across a report from the Perthshire Advertiser of 8 August 1888. This was an action against the Procurator Fiscal. William Garvie, a telegraph linesman, of 19 Cross Street with the consent of his wife, sued Melville Jameson, the Procurator Fiscal for the sum of £7 13s 4d. this amount was the expenses Mrs Garvie had incurred in connection with Margaret Gentry’s board. Margaret came to the house in late April complaining of feeling unwell. She took to bed. The local doctor was sent for following which a policeman came and told the Garvies that Margaret was under police surveillance on a charge of doing away with her child. The Garvies were to give her everything she required. Gentry received board and lodgings for 13 days. The doctor – Dr Simpson – ordered that she should receive nourishing foods and stimulants. In addition to which he ordered that she receive a certain amount of spirits. A fire was put in her room and Mrs Garvie bought medicine for her. A female searcher – Mrs Reekie – was also boarded in the house along with the policeman to keep na eye on the accused. Mrs Garvie received payment for this. However, after legal dispositions which were noted in the newspaper report the case against the procurator fiscal was dismissed. The Fiscal’s solicitor – Mr Mackay – asked for expenses but this was refused.
Margaret Gentry duly served her sentence, but what happened to her? There is a family gravestone in Abernethy Churchyard erected in memory of several members of Margaret’s family including her parents and some siblings. An image of it can be found on the Find a Grave website (www.findagrave.com). Towards the bottom of the memorial a reference to Margaret says that she died in Oldham, Manchester on 16 March 1907, aged 59 years. However, as yet, I have not been able to verify this following a search on Ancestry, Find my Past or indeed the GRO indexes. The final name on the stone is that of John and Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Guthrie Gentry who died on 24 February 1964 at “Mornington,” Abernethy aged 84.
I wonder who arranged for the final “memory” to be placed on the stone?