SHE was found dead in the kitchen, killed by multiple blows from a bloody axe.
Yet despite several arrests, a Scotland-wide manhunt and a sensational trial, the brutal murder of Janet Rogers at a remote Perthshire farm almost 150 years ago has remained unsolved.
Rogers’ direct descendant, writer Chris Paton, reopened the case of who murdered his great-great-great grandmother after researching his family history and stumbling upon the gruesome incident.
Having re-examined evidence including court papers, police reports and mental health records he has now written a book and says he believes he knows whodunnit – and says the murderer also claimed a second victim.
The Mount Stewart Murder – the UK’s oldest unsolved murder case – shocked Scotland in 1866 when Rogers, 55, a domestic servant on her brother’s farm, was found brutally killed in the farmhouse outside Forgandenny.
Her brother, William Henderson, had asked her to help him with the chores while he looked for a new domestic servant, having sacked the last one, a woman named Christina Miller, the previous week.
“I started looking into my family history when my first son was born,” said Paton. “One of the things I stumbled across was that this murder happened within the family in 1866, and the more I researched it, the more I began to discover along the way.
“It was such a tragedy for both Henderson and his sister that I thought I would like to tell the story about what happened to them.”
Although a ploughman on the farm named James Crichton was arrested and tried for the crime, the case was eventually found not proven, a verdict which makes the crime the oldest unsolved murder since the establishment of a formal police force.
But Paton believes the compelling evidence against Crichton strongly suggests the police did have the right man all along and should have led the jury to convict him.
“There was certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence that would support the idea he might have done it,” said Paton. “Why it took so long for the trial to be brought against him I don’t know. There was a lot of evidence against him – like the fact that they found a broken pipe at the scene of the crime and Crichton claimed he didn’t smoke, when witnesses said they had witnessed him smoking in the past. And there were no other suspects.”
Paton also investigates the suggestion that Crichton had broken into the farmhouse several months earlier during a robbery – something Henderson strongly suspected him of – and that he had been disturbed on a second robbery attempt by Janet, who he had then murdered in an attempt to cover up his crime.
Henderson, who had been in Perth at a farmers’ market, discovered his sister’s battered and bloodied body after arriving home on Friday, 30 March, 1866, and being unable to gain access to the farmhouse. After climbing through a window, he found her lying dead by the fireplace.
Henderson was initially arrested for the murder by the Perth County Police, alongside Crichton, who worked for Henderson. However both were soon released after it became clear that Henderson had a strong alibi, having been in Perth all day, and it seemed there was not enough evidence against Crichton.
The local force, presided over by Chief Constable George Gordon, advertised for witnesses, and a hawker named Betsy Riley came forward to say she had seen Janet talking with a man on the day of the murder.
“This formed the basis of a manhunt which lasted for quite a few months across the whole country,” said Paton. “Every time a police force found someone who matched the description, they would send him to Perth.”
One man named John Henderson fitted the description. But when it was discovered that he had an alibi in Edinburgh, the police were back to square one. “It misdirected the investigation for a few months,” said Paton.
However, then Miller, who had been fired by Henderson the previous week and was seen as being “emotionally close” to Crichton, told police that she had overheard Crichton tell his wife he was worried he might be caught for murdering Janet, a statement that saw him arrested and tried for the crime.
Paton also suggests that Henderson, his great-great-great great uncle, was the second victim of the crime. After the murder, he was committed to a lunatic asylum in Perth. Despite being in and out of family care for the rest of his life, he eventually died there.
“Without a doubt he was the second victim of this crime,” said Paton. “But he was forgotten about by society and there was no coverage of him at all.
“I found lots of references within his medical notes that he wanted to have certain pieces of evidence re-examined and that the case had disturbed him deeply. It haunted him for the rest of his life.”