Unlocking hidden history of notorious criminals

THE case of the Stockbridge Baby Farmer was a story that shook Victorian Edinburgh.

Jessie King murdered babies in her care and became the last woman to be hanged in Edinburgh in 1889.

Now the small, dingy cell where she awaited her death sentence is to be opened to the public for the first time as part of the city's Doors Open Day.

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Known as "the condemned cell", it was where some of Edinburgh's most notorious murderers were confined before sentencing. But the only outcome for any prisoner who entered the cell was a death sentence.

Grassmarket umbrella manufacturer James Wemyss was also held in the condemned cell before being sentenced for the murder of his wife in 1840. And the same four walls were the only company of Patrick Higgins before he met his fate for the murder of his two sons in 1913.

Supreme Courts official Karen Glen will be leading guided tours of the cell, which was created in 1836 following the Great Fire of 1824.

She said: "The old condemned cell was below court three and there was a hatch in the floor of the court so the prisoners could get led up to receive their sentence. But once you were put in the condemned cell, there was only one possible sentence you could get."

Holding cells dating back to 1632 will also be opened up to the public for one day only to give people a flavour of the conditions faced by the prisoners.

Ms Glen has taken staff on tours to the underground cells in the past, but said this will be the first time the public will be able to see for themselves the harsh reality of 17th century punishment.

She said: "There are about 50-odd cells, but we can only get to about 24.

"There has been a strange reaction to the place, I must admit. People find the old cells eerie and say they're a lot smaller than they would expect."

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Staff have also reported sightings of a man wearing a "frock coat and tails" walking the length of the corridor and disappearing through the exterior wall.

Ms Glen added: "It's a lovely old building, but there have been a lot of sightings of this chap, mostly at night. There's also a general eeriness around."

A re-enactment of the celebrated trial of Glasgow socialite Madeleine Smith, who was acquitted of poisoning her lover with arsenic, will also run at Parliament House during Doors Open Day.

The re-enactment comes 150 years after the original trial, which took place in the same building and attracted huge crowds of Edinburgh residents.

During the open day, members of the public will get the chance to play a part in history by becoming jurors for the trial. An exhibition featuring love letters sent between Smith and her lover will also be held in the building.

Training manager Graeme Comb, who is organising the trial re-enactment, said: "We will be giving a flavour of the trial, which lasted several days.

"This year marks the 150th anniversary of the trial and it will be taking place in the court where trial actually took place, which is used as a day-to-day court these days."

Doors Open Day will take place on September 29.


JESSIE KING "adopted" unwanted or illegitimate children. She was paid a fee by desperate mothers to look after children, becoming known as a "baby farmer".

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She lived with her partner Michael Pearson in Dalkeith Road. In 1887 they "adopted" the child of Elizabeth Campbell, who died during childbirth. The baby unexpectedly disappeared.

Months later, King and Pearson adopted Alexander Gunn, and the couple - then living in Canonmills - were given a fee of 3 for doing so. The little boy also disappeared.

The couple then moved to Cheyne Street and in 1888 adopted an illegitimate baby called Violet Tomlinson. She too disappeared.

King broke down and showed police to a coal cupboard where Violet's body was found, after suspicious neighbours had raised the alarm.