At the Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, Fife on Saturday 21 April 2018

Agnes Laing Paterson


Agnes Laing or Paterson was placed on trial in 1872 charged with the murder of her young daughter. The jury found her to be insane and she was detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Discharged in 1897, she worked as a laundress and as a fish hawker until she died from heart failure after falling in the harbour at Newhaven.

The Scotsman – Tuesday 23 April 1872


THE Perth Circuit Court met again yesterday at 10 A.M. —Lords Cowan and Neaves presiding.

Agnes Laing or Paterson, from Cupar Prison was placed at the bar, charged with the murder of her daughter, Mary Ann Paterson, aged six years, by wounding her on the throat with a razor on 3d January. The plea of not guilty was put in, as also a special defence that at the time the alleged deed was committed she was not in a sane state of mind.

Sheriff Bell, Cupar, examined by Mr RHIND, said he saw nothing peculiar in the prisoner’s manner on taking her deposition.

Jessie Paterson, a young girl, deponed—I am the daughter of David Paterson, and live in Union Street, Cupar. The panel lived “but-and-ben” with my father. Mary Ann Paterson and I used to go to school together. I saw her the morning she died in my father’s house along with her mother. They both went together into their own house, and I heard Mary Ann screaming; and on going to take her to school, I saw her lying on the floor. Her mother was standing behind the door with a razor covered with blood in her hands. I told my father. By Mr RHIND—I did not tell him that her mother had a razor. By a JURYMAN—There was nobody in the room except Mary Ann and her mother.

David Paterson, labourer, Union Street, Cupar—I know the prisoner. On the day of Mary Ann’s death the prisoner and her daughter were in my house at about twenty minutes past eight o’clock. The girl was then all right, and I saw nothing peculiar about the mother. After they had left I heard the crying of the little girl, and my daughter came back saying that Mary Ann was lying on the floor with her clothes half on. She did not tell me of the razor and the blood. I went into Thomas Paterson’s house about ten o’clock. The door was on the “sneck,” and I saw the child lying on the floor with her head in a pool of blood. I did not see the prisoner. I went to Mrs Balfrey’s house and when we returned we found her mother in bed in the room. Mrs Balfrey shook the prisoner, and asked her what was this she had done . Mrs Paterson replied that it was her doing. The prisoner appeared to be drunk, but to understand Mrs Balfrey’s question. The child was lying on Its left side with a great gash on its throat, and I saw a bloody razor lying on the top of a small chest of drawers near the bed. The prisoner’s husband was out at his work as usual. When Mrs Paterson came to my house in the morning she asked for drink. I said I had none. She did hot appear to be insane, and was not so drunk as not to know how to conduct herself. By Mr RHIND—On the morning in question she first came alone, and a second time with Mary Ann, and asked for whisky. She came again before my girl went to school. This was the fourth visit prisoner paid to my house that morning, and in a few minutes came a fifth time. The two first visits were before I heard the scream, and the three others after that. She lost two children in September last. She appeared to be fond of her children. I never saw her ill-use Mary Ann.

Mrs Balfrey corroborated the last witness’s evidence as to what occurred after the murder, and said—I have known the prisoner nearly all her days. I have seen her have a glass, but never drunk. By Mr RHIND—I went to the bed and said, “What’s this you have done noo?” Panel replied , “Not me, Mary. You drink yoursel’.” By ADVOCATE-DEPUTE—It never occurred to me that Mrs Paterson was insane. One of her hands was covered with blood.

Jane Low—My father keeps a spirit shop in Kirkgate, Cupar. The prisoner came to the shop on the 3d January. She got a gill of whisky in a bottle. This was about 10 A.M. There was blood on her hands, and when attention was called to it she said she had been cutting a stick and had cut her hand.

By Mr MILLIE—The only time I saw the prisoner drunk was about a fortnight before the New-Year. Mrs Low said she never saw the prisoner drink whisky. After the death of her two children in August last, she was very sad for a time, and she cried frequently. She was fond of her children, and I never saw her ill-use any of them. By ADVOCATE-DEPUTE—Prisoner was in my shop frequently. I never saw anything like insanity in her.

David Pratt, labourer, Union Street, Cupar, saw the prisoner go into the shop of Mrs Low. At a quarter to nine he saw her standing at her own door with her head hanging down, apparently under drink.

By Mr MILLIE—She was at my house on the previous Tuesday seeking drink, but I did not give her either drink or money. She appeared to be very dull and horrified like. I never saw her in a similar state before. William Stewart, Inspector of Police, Cupar, deponed as to the position of the child and the condition of the room. The left arm of an arm-chair had been grasped by the child’s right hand . He suspected that the prisoner had been drinking, and observed her hands and half-way up the arms to the elbows to be covered with blood.

Janet Wilson, sick nurse, was sent for to take charge of the prisoner by the police. The prisoner asked for a glass of whisky, and told her where she would find it. She talked quite sensibly. She washed her hands, but expressed no surprise at their being bloody. She asked for the child, and repeatedly for whisky. From “Wednesday till Friday morning she never said or did anything which made me thing [sic] her insane. Dr Monro said when he was called in after the murder he found the prisoner in a deep sound sleep, and her pulse at eighty-six, and quite soft and natural. She could not be aroused. She had been taking an excessive quantity of whisky at one time.” 

The report of the post mortem examination of the body by Drs Monro and Mackie was then read. Dr Monro further deponed that he observed no symptoms of insanity in the prisoner. – Dr Mackie concurred . The declaration of the prisoner, emitted on the 5th January, was to the effect that on the morning in question she went to bed in her daughter’s absence, and when she awakened Mrs Wilson was in the house.

Mr RHlND proposed to call a number of witnesses to speak as to the hereditary insanity in the prisoner’s family, but the Court disallowed this.

Evidence was then adduced as to the conduct of the woman previous to the death of her child, and afterwards in Cupar Prison, where she was put into a strait jacket in the night-time.

The ADVOCATE-DEPUTE, in addressing the jury, contended that the special plea of insanity had failed, and he asked from the jury a verdict on the capital charge of murder.

Mr. RHIND, in his address to the jury, contended that the conduct of the prisoner clearly showed that the death of her child resulted from insanity, and asked a verdict accordingly.

Lord NEAVES then summed up, and the jury having retired, were absent for ten minutes, and returned with the following verdict: —”We are unanimously of opinion that the panel at the time the deed with which she was charged was of unsound mind, and acquit her on account of such insanity.

By the instructions of the Court the prisoner was ordered to be detained in the General Prison of Perth during Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Excerpt from the forthcoming Kalendar of Convicts:

LAING, AGNES (1835-1904): aged 28 in 1872, was born/bapt Cupar, 28 Dec 1835/10 Jan 1836, dau of James Laing, carter/labourer, and Mary Smith, and married Cupar, 19 March 1866, to Thomas Paterson, carter, Union Street, Cupar, son of Thomas Paterson, labourer, and Robenie Lindsay; she was tried at PCC 22 April 1872 for the murder of her 6-yr old dau, Mary Ann Paterson (born Kirkgate, Cupar, 14 May 1866) on 3 Jan 1872, with a razor or other sharp instrument; found not guilty due to insanity (AD14/72/237; JC26/1872/9; FJ 4 & 11 Jan 1872), and to be detained during HM pleasure; she was imprisoned in the Lunatic Department of Perth Prison; on 28 July 1897 she was liberated into the care of one Mrs McLusky, Leith Walk, Edinburgh, with whom she had to reside as a laundry worker, and was discharged from custody on 5 July 1898; latterly she resided as a widow fish hawker at 17 South James Street, Edinburgh; on 4 June 1904 she fell off the quay at Newhaven into the sea, and although she was rescued exhausted and taken to Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, she died from heart failure shortly before 4pm on the same day, aged 71; brief death notice in the Scotsman of 6 June 1904; she was said to have been somewhat given to drink and a fortnight before her death had been drinking rather heavily; case notes, with photograph, in HH21/48/1 Pp 399-404; see also EFR 26 April 1872.

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