When I told my mother I had started researching our family history she tried to put me off. “You will find things that shouldn’t be found” she told me. Maybe she knew of a dark secret, however, I was not put off. I found that her paternal grandfather was born “out of wedlock”. However, his parents did marry a few months after the birth so all was well in the end.
I have discovered something more sinister. There was a child murderer in our family. Not a direct ancestor I hasten to add but the wife of a 1st 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 4 times 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 whilst there Timothy had 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 3rd October 1878 in Abernethy parish church. The witnesses were Elisabeth Gentry, John’s older sister and Alexander Matthew Moncrieff Shepherd, Margaret’s younger brother. Margaret’s father, Matthew, was the village schoolmaster.
The early years of their marriage would have followed the normal pattern 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 2nd September 1882, his distraught father being the informant on the death 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 name in the 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 8th 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 news syndication. Prior to The Scotsman’s report the Evening Telegraph of 27th April 1888 ran a story about her. Their report stated that Margaret Shepherd or Gentry had been employed as a cook by the Moncrieff Arms Hotel, Princes Street in Perth. After she complained of being unwell she was removed to the house of a relative. Apparently there was suspicion around the cause of her illness and an investigation was launched. A search of where she had been employed revealed the body of a newly born baby boy concealed in one of the hotel rooms. A post mortem was carried out but when the newspaper went to press the result had not been established.
Speculation as to what had happened was no doubt rife. The Aberdeen Evening Express of Monday 7th May went as far to say that the baby’s body had been found behind a grate. On 16th June she 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 26th June.
Using the internet I have been able to obtain the Precognition against Margaret. This is the practice, in Scotland, of taking a factual statement from witnesses by both prosecution and defence after indictment but before trial. There were witness statements from fifteen individuals including the two doctors and even her own mother.
Her mother, Margaret Shepherd confirmed that Margaret Gentry was her daughter but she had not seen her for a few months. The last time she saw her there was no indication that she was pregnant. Mrs Shepherd said that her daughter was married to John Gentry, a worker at Pullar’s dye works in Perth. Two children had been born within the marriage, a boy and a girl. The son had died at the age of eighteen months, however, the daughter, Margaret, was still alive and living with her grandmother. John and Margaret did not get on well and they had separated after about five years of marriage and had not lived together since.
Following their separation Margaret had had several jobs outside Perth. One was as a servant at Foswellbank, a farm near Auchterarder. It was there that she had intimate relations with George Miller, one of the farmhands, and also with another, John McKinnon. George in his statement said that he had no idea that Margaret was pregnant, a fact contradicted by Margaret herself when she told another woman after the discovery of the dead baby that George was the father.
After leaving Foswellbank Margaret moved to Balcallum Farm at Errol and was employed by the Taylor family. Eliza Taylor had not noticed any change in Margaret’s appearance, but she may have made some comments. In her statement Eliza indicated that Margaret had told her that it was her coffee and porridge that was making her swell out. In early March Margaret left one night without giving any notice of leaving. However, she did leave a note saying that she was not able to stay any longer but had felt unable to tell Eliza in person. Eliza felt that living and working at their farm may have been too quiet for Margaret. Eliza had also observed that she was prone to drinking. Perhaps this was her method of trying to abort the baby which as we know failed. In addition her work had not been satisfactory, a fact that had been conveyed to Margaret by the Taylors.
The owner of the Moncrieff Arms, Anne Smith, was in need of a cook and as Margaret had been recommended to her she employed her as such in early March 1888. A few weeks later Mrs Smith was told by another party that she thought Margaret was “in the family way”. Mrs Smith was of the opinion that Margaret did not have the appearance of someone who was pregnant. However, she never raised it with her. On 24 April she was advised that it had been thought the accused had had a miscarriage and had put it down the water closet. Mrs Smith stated that the accused would have to leave and lodge with friends and gave another member of staff money to give to Margaret as her wages. Margaret left in a cab that afternoon.
Two days later Mrs Smith was told of the discovery of a dead child in one of the rooms. Up to this point Mrs Smith had been ill and confined to her room so she had not seen Margaret for a few days. Mrs Smith employed two other staff members, Georgina Bowie and Elizabeth McCulloch. The three girls shared a room, Georgina and Elizabeth in one bed while Margaret had a bed to herself. Georgina had noticed that Margaret was “bulky” but had no suspicions that she may have been pregnant. However, she never undressed fully in their presence. She would put on her night dress after partially undressing removing the rest of her clothes after she got into bed. Georgina thought that Margaret’s underclothing may have been shabby and that she may have been embarrassed. She was always up and dressed before either Georgina or Elizabeth.
Elizabeth confided in Georgina that Mrs Smith had told her that she had heard that Margaret was pregnant. Georgina asked Margaret if this was true. She began to cry and said that people were in the habit of saying such things. She told Georgina that she was “no more with child than that poker” pointing to the poker at the kitchen fire. This utterance was in the presence of another woman who happened to be in the kitchen at that time. In view of her denial of pregnancy, Georgina accepted this and never raised the matter agin.
Georgina’s witness statement was very comprehensive running to eighteen pages. She thought Margaret may have been trying to harm herself as she had gone off to the toilet. Georgina went upstairs to the bathroom and discovered Margaret stooping over the toilet bowl with a lot of blood on the floor. One of her hands was bloody. Initially Georgina thought Margaret had cut her throat. Georgina later went back upstairs with the shopkeeper from next door, David McPherson. They found Margaret outside the bathroom wiping up blood and water from the floor. There were footprints leading to two of the other rooms. The footprints went as far as the grate in room 12.
According to the witness statement Margaret got dressed and took a cab from the hotel to 19 Cross Street, Perth. Georgina had come to the conclusion that Margaret had had a miscarriage. She did not pursue the matter further but on the 26th, two days after the accused left, she was cleaning the grate in room 12. She noticed that there was something behind the damper preventing it from shutting. On further investigation she saw what she thought was a child. She was frightened and went for Mr McPherson who confirmed to her it was a child hidden behind the grate. He fetched Dr Simpson who removed the body from the fireplace. The doctor went for Inspector Garrow who took the body away. Georgina noticed that the body had marks on the back of its neck and that its nose was flattened.
Margaret had lodged with the Garvie family in Cross Street a few times in the past. This was when she was between jobs. Mrs Garvie said in her statement that Margaret did not look pregnant when she lodged with them on a previous occasion. However, when she started working at the hotel Mrs Garvie did think she was pregnant. When asked Margaret flatly denied it. On returning to the Garvies Mrs Garvie noticed that she had brought a bundle of blood stained clothes with her. Observing the state of the clothing Mrs Garvie thought Margaret had given birth but she still denied it saying that she had been ill.
On 26th April Margaret was preparing to leave the Garvies when Dr Simpson arrived and told Mrs Garvie that a dead baby had been found in the hotel. After the doctor had left Mrs Garvie asked Margaret if she had murdered the baby. She said that she had done nothing to it and it had been stillborn. A neighbour, Isabella McGregor who was visiting Mrs Garvie made the gruesome discovery of the afterbirth at the back of the bed that Margaret had occupied. Isabella wrapped it up and took it away for burning.
Prior to Margaret being taken from Cross Street she was in the charge of Isabella Reekie. Isabella, a widow, had been appointed by the police to take charge of Margaret in the Garvie’s house until she was able to be removed to prison. She was in charge of her from Thursday 26th April until Monday 7th May.
Margaret told Isabella that the baby had been born in the toilet. She said that she had left the dinner table ill with diarrhoea and went to the toilet and the baby came away “all at once, head first” and fell into the water closet. She insisted that she had done nothing to the baby which had never cried.
The papers submitted to the court also included a statement from Margaret herself. She admitted that she had given birth to a male child on 24th April. However, she said that she did not harm the baby who was dead when she looked into the water closet. Georgina Bowie, one of the other hotel staff members had been standing outside and no doubt she would have heard if the baby had cried. Margaret did not wish to say any more only adding that she was not expecting the child at the time it was born.
The post mortem by Dr Simpson and Dr Trotter confirmed that the baby was full term, however, the umbilical cord had not been tied and had been torn off several inches from the body. Several wounds were noted consistent with suffocation and violence. Margaret also had been examined and the doctors concluded that she had delivered a child “probably within three days and that her labour was not of more than ordinary severity”.
The evidence was stacked against her, the witness statements and the post mortem did not help her cause. 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 24th April 1888. The jury found her not guilty of culpable homicide but did find her guilty of concealment of pregnancy. She was sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Perth prison.
The Scotsman of 26th November 1888 reported on a divorce action by John Gentry against his wife. John was by now a cleaner living at 64 Crosscauseway in Perth. When the petition was heard Margaret was still in Perth prison. John Gentry stated that he and Margaret had married in 1878 but she left him in 1883 and he only seen her two or three times since. John had heard that his wife had had a further child but he was not the father. Margaret said that she had given birth to an illegitimate child during her absence from her husband.
Margaret Gentry duly served her sentence, but what then happened to her? This still needs to be clarified. There is a family gravestone in Abernethy Churchyard originally erected in memory of her father Matthew the former schoolmaster of the village. Over the years the names of several family members have been inscribed on this memorial. A photograph of it can be found on the Find a Grave website (www.findagrave.com). Towards the bottom of the memorial a reference to Margaret states that she died in Oldham, Manchester on 16th March 1907, aged 59 years. However, as yet, I have not been able to confirm this either through a search of the GRO Death Indexes, Ancestry or Find my Past. The final name on the memorial is that of John and Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Guthrie Gentry who died on 24th February 1964 at “Mornington”, Abernethy aged 84.
I wonder who arranged for the final “memory” to be engraved on the stone?
Ancestry – www.ancestry.co.uk
Find my Past – www.findmypast.co.uk
The British Newspaper Archive found on Find my Past – reports from The Scotsman and Evening Telegraph . Other newspapers which carried details of the crime included the Dundee Courier, The Glasgow Herald, Aberdeen Evening Express, Perthshire Advertiser, Brechin Advertiser and the Edinburgh Evening News.
Scottish Indexes – www.scottishindexes.com