From the written confession used in evidence at a 16th century witch trial to early 20th century mugshots of a pair of Birmingham’s female felons, a new exhibition in Aberdeen showcases women criminals across the centuries.
Drawn from original records found in Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives, Outcasts: Women, Crime and Society examines how women who commit crime, particularly murder or violent crime, often become the subject of a morbid fascination, challenging society’s notion of the ‘nurturing sex’ and runs as part of the city’s Granite Noir International Crime Writing Festival from Thursday 20 to Sunday 24 February.
Spread across two city venues, The Music Hall and Lemon Tree, the free exhibition explores how society has been all too comfortable casting disproportionate blame on women for certain types of crimes and misdemeanours, whether bearing the responsibility of ‘fornicators’ by the kirk session, or the witchcraft trials in Aberdeen and surrounding areas during the 1590s.
Katy Kavanagh, senior archivist, said: ‘Both the exhibition and the talk explore the wealth of material in Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives collections relating to crime. This year we are focusing on women’s experiences of crime and punishment, and what this can tell us about women’s status in society at the time.
‘Visitors will be able to see a range of different material, from early 20th century Police wanted posters to court documents from witchcraft trials in the late 16th century. Some of the cases are truly harrowing, and it really makes you appreciate the progress that has been made towards equality. My talk on Thursday 20 February will expand on all the sources used in the exhibition, as well as exploring cases in the Aberdeen House of Correction, which was operated by the Burgh authorities and Kirk Session in the 1630s and 1640s.’
1596-97 witnessed an outbreak of witchcraft paranoia in Aberdeen the scale of which was unprecedented, either before or since. In those two years alone around 40 cases were recorded locally, with many of the individuals – the vast majority female – being executed, following significant periods of incarceration and torture. In common with other parts of the country, there was undoubtedly local enthusiasm in the North East of Scotland for identifying and persecuting witches during the 1590s. However, the influence of James VI, whose views on the subject quickly permeated to the ruling classes and clergy, was also a significant catalyst.
To characterise witch-hunting during this period as “women-hunting” would be too simplistic. It was, however, undoubtedly influenced by societal attitudes towards women, especially towards their sexuality, which was viewed as dangerous and a latent corrupting influence. Not every witch was a woman, but it was certainly the case that every woman was a potential witch.
One such case highlighted in the exhibition relates to Isobel Strathanchyn (possibly an archaic spelling of the name Strachan) who was also known as “Skuddie”. Accused of four counts of witchcraft from enchanting a piece of cloth to enable Elspet Mutray to marry the man ‘whom she loved the best’ to the more serious charge of gathering dead folks’ bones and boiling them, washing William Symmer with the water, then casting them into the River Don, she was convicted and subsequently executed. The records also show the accounts payable for the costs of the imprisonment and execution of Isobel – from 26 loads of peats, four barrels of tar and six loads of firewood for burning her, to the fee payable to the executioner.
From the Enactment Book to the Kirk Session records, the Outcasts Exhibition highlights the position of poverty-stricken women across the centuries. From prostitution to infanticide, petty theft to ante-marital fornication, records show women, many in desperate circumstances, turning to crime.
While a number of featured cases relate to infanticide, there occasionally appear to be mitigating circumstances, as in the case of Catherine Anderson, an outworker from Pitfodels accused of concealing her pregnancy (a crime in itself) and smothering her newborn child. Her counsel, Mr J C Wilson pleaded for clemency, stating that the girl was in a state of starvation, deserted by the father of the child and ‘Indeed in the most wretched circumstances – without food, without clothing, and without the means of procuring them, and altogether alone and in her misery, her child was born, and this child unfortunately met its death.’
The Kirk Sessions, the lowest court of the Kirk of Scotland, dealt with societal control and frequently tried women accused of concealment of pregnancy or extra-marital fornication. One such case was Margaret Dunbar – while the court acknowledged that she had been raped (twice) and named her attacker on record, she was, non-the-less, brought before them accused of having a child out of wedlock.
Another case highlighted in the Outcasts Exhibition deals with Anna Durward and Margaret Campbell who, in 1742, had been held in the Tolbooth for ‘several years’ accused of murdering their own children. They voluntarily elected to depart from Scotland and transport themselves to ‘some of His Majesty’s Plantations in America’, never to return home. If they did not leave, they were to be imprisoned again for a period of three months, and publicly ‘scourged’ every Market day by the hands of the common hangman.
Discovered in a Police Station in Dufftown, a series of Wanted Posters will be on display at The Lemon Tree. These posters would have been distributed to Police Stations across the country in the early 20th century and include images of Ellen Jane Pugh and Lily Hart, who both went under the alias of Wiliams, members of a gang in Birmingham in 1911 suspected of manufacturing and passing of ‘spurious coin’. The two women had previously been convicted of a range of offences including brothel keeping, obscene language, fighting and Assault of Police. The display of Wanted Posters will be accompanied by a number of mugshots drawn from the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen.
Aberdeen Performing Arts chief executive, Jane Spiers said: ‘Granite Noir is rooted locally, taking inspiration from our unique history and heritage in Aberdeen and the North East. Outcasts draws on a fascinating collection of stories from the city and shire archives about local women who have come before the courts, exploring the notion of wrongdoing and perceptions of justice down the centuries in a male dominated judiciary.’
Aberdeen City Council culture spokesperson Councillor Marie Boulton said: ‘We’re delighted to see our UNESCO recognised archives being used to tell the tragic stories of women who were on the fringes of society, perhaps because of poverty or persecution, and in some cases because they sought a life of crime. These fascinating women have much to teach us about our cities past and perhaps even our present – each year, the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives Team delivers an excellent exhibition in the Granite Noir festival and The Outcasts continues this high standard.
‘I’d urge everyone to come along to Granite Noir to explore this exhibition which is a great example of the partnerships between the council and cultural organisations in the city, delivering first class events throughout the year for residents and visitors to Aberdeen as part of the 365 Events Calendar.’
Outcasts: Women, Crime and Society is part of Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s Crime Writing Festival, and runs from Thursday 20 February to Sunday 23 February 2020 at The Music Hall and Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. Entry is free. Katy Kavanagh, Senior Archivist, reveals some of the stories behind the exhibition in a talk on Thursday 20 February at 5.30pm at the Music Hall. Full details of the exhibition, and all other events in the programme, can be found at www.granitenoir.com.
Granite Noir is produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts on behalf of Aberdeen City Libraries, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives and the Belmont Filmhouse. Granite Noir 2020 is supported by EventScotland, part of VisitScotland’s Events Directorate, Creative Scotland and Aberdeen City Council.