The King's Cramond Murderer - Part 2


The end of part one found our Martha Geddes lying lifeless on the floor of her westmost cottage in Long Row (within my 2 Brae Park property boundary), the victim of a vicious blow from her own garden spade. Her daughter was gardening at Craigie Hall. A surgeon from Westfield House, near Inveralmond, was called.

More witnesses surfaced: George Phillip, carter of Long Row, saw the body. Helen Drummond of Long Row saw the “murder run down the brae” and take the carriage road to Cramond Brig. Thomas Scott of Cramond Brig saw him escaping. Long Row was honoured with a personal visit from their feudal superior: Mr Howison Crawford [note the court-record spelling] who came across from Braehead House, bringing his servant Thomas Anderson. Anderson was cited as witness, his boss was excused.

About 1 o’clock, Mrs Isabella Hodge at Craigie Hall told poor Janet Geddes to go home because her mother was on the floor.

The murderer, John Howison [note spelling], an illiterate labourer of no fixed abode, was arrested the next day,  Saturday, 3 December, 1831 and put in Calton Jail. We have seen how his trial concluded by 3 am on Sunday, 1 January 1832. He was found guilty. As a consequence of The Anatomy Act 1832, John Howison became famous! He was the last person to be hanged for murder in the Capital whose remains had to be passed to the medical authorities for public dissection. As a result, Edinburgh University kept his skeleton. They still have it! [next to William Burke].

Sometimes John Howison, when in the money, would stay at Mrs Crombie’s lodging in a close off the Canongate. A resident witness said John had been there for two weeks but had left two weeks before the murder. John said his last job, about a month before his arrest, was “digging the potatoes”. John would move from farm to farm seeking work or a night in a barn. He visited places near Ratho and Kirkliston. He knew folk at North Clermiston [now below a housing estate] and at Lennie Port [now Lenny Cottages]. He said that on the night of Thursday, 1 December he was at a wood near Mr Watson’s house at New Saughton [now Cammo]. He told the court he was 38. Others said 44. Much was made at the trial of his distinctive clothes which lent weight to witness identification.

I mentioned in part one that Willie Simpson, the weaver, of Long Row had seen John before. Willie had hitched a ride in a cart into town when the cart was stopped so that John Howison could get on board. Willie noticed that John had blood on his collar and John had showed Willie that he had been pricking his wrists (we’d say ‘self-harming’) and sucking out the blood, getting some on his collar, so that it would reduce “the pain in his head”. John carried a bible and catechism tied together with cord. He liked the company of cats and children; and he would sit, sweeping imaginary flies from his arms for hours on end. He had a terror of witches. Mrs Crombie, the landlady, said John had become unrecognisable some months previously, having let go of his looks and having developed a ferocious appetite. He would gorge on 2lb of bullocks’ liver, uncooked and uncleaned and would then stuff himself with bread.

After his trial, John Howison entertained the authorities with his tales: he had joined the Society of Friends – but the Quakers had never admitted him. He had committed seven other murders – but there was never any record of these. 

I feel sorry for our John. He had no money, no work and was starving. The people who lived in Cramond Parish would not help. When he reached the end of Long Row, did he reach the end of his tether? Five medical experts at his trial could not satisfy the court that he was mad at the point of murder. John said he didn’t do it because nobody saw him do it. Today we would say he was a ‘paranoid schizophrenic’. But who was he? Court records say the feudal superior was ‘William Howison Crawford’. If that was the correct spelling, when did they choose to become ‘Houison Craufurd’? And why? Was John a relative? When did the feudal superiors cease to occupy Braehead House?

After the trial, our Janet lived in her mother’s cottage till at least the 1851 census (by which time she said she was 49). Other cottages at the west end of Long Row seemed to become increasingly less occupied. Oh, if you’ve been counting, I said in part one that 8 families in Long Row were required to provide a witness at the trial. I have mentioned only 7. The 8th household was John Mason, labourer, of Long Row, residing with his sister Ann. It was Ann Mason who was also cited as a witness; but she was called by the defence not the prosecution. Her precognition is therefore not in our national archive. So, what was going on there?

Cameron Black

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