A Pair of Parricides

A Pair of Parricides


Francis Watt

THERE is a new series of State Trials continuing the old and
edited with a skill and completeness altogether lacking in its
predecessor ; yet its formal correctness gives an impression of
dulness. You think with regret of HowelPs thirty-three huge
volumes, that vast magazine of curiosities and horrors, of all that
is best and worst in English history. How exciting life was long
ago, to be sure, and how persistently it grows duller ! What a
price we pay for the smug comfort of our time ! People shud
dered of yore ; did they yawn quite so often ? Howell and the
folk he edits knew how to tell a story. Judges, too, were not
wont to exclude interesting detail for that it wasn t evidence, and
the compilers did not end with a man s condemnation. They had
too keen a sense of what was relished of the general ; the last
confession and dying speech, the exit on the scaffold or from the
cart, are told with infinite gusto. What a terrible test Earth's
great unfortunates underwent ! Sir Thomas More's delicate
fencing with his judges, the exquisite courtesy wherewith he bade
them farewell, make but half the record ; you must hear the
strange gaiety which flashed in the condemned cell and by the
block ere you learn the man's true nature. And to know
Raleigh you must see him at Winchester under the brutal insults

The Yellow Book—Vol. XIII. N


214 A Pair of Parricides

of Coke. " Thou art a monster, thou hast an English face but a
Spanish heart ; " again, " I thou thee, thou traitor;" and at Palace
Yard, Westminster, on that dreary October morning urging the
sheriff to hurry, since he would not be thought fear-shaken when
it was but the ague ; for these are all-important episodes in the
life of that richly dressed, stately and gallant figure your fancy
is wont to picture sweeping the Spanish Main in his Elizabethan
warship. Time would fail to tell of Strafford and Charles and Laud
and a hundred others, for the collection begins with Thomas a
Becket in 1163 and comes down to Thistlewood in 1820. Once
familiar with those close-packed, badly printed pages, you find
therein a deeper, a more subtle charm than cunningest romance
can furnish forth. The account of Mary Stuart s ending has a
finer hold than Froude's magnificent and highly decorated picture.
Study at first hand " Bloody Jeffreys's " slogging of Titus Gates
with that unabashed rascal s replies during his trial for perjury, or
again my Lord s brilliant though brutal cross-examination of
Dunn in the " Lady " Alice Lisle case, during the famous or
infamous Western Circuit, and you will find Macaulay's wealth
of vituperative rhetoric, tiresome and pointless verbiage. Also
you will prefer to construct your own Braxfield from trials like
those of Thomas Muir in 1793, and of Alexander Scott and
Maurice Margarot in 1794, rather than accept the counterfeit
presentment which Stevenson s master-hand has limned in Weir
of Hermiston

But the interests are varied. How full of grotesque and
curious horrors are the prosecutions for witchcraft ! There is
that one, for instance, in March 1665 at Bury St. Edmunds before
Sir Matthew Hale, with stories of bewitched children, and plague-
stricken women, and satanic necromancy. Again, there is the
diverting exposure of Richard Hathaway in 1702, and how the


By Francis Watt 215

rogue pretended to vomit pins and abstain from meat or drink for
quite miraculous periods. The trial of the obscurer criminal has
its own charm. Where else do you find such Dutch pictures
of long-vanished interiors or exteriors ? You touch the vie intime
of a past age; you see how kitchen and hall lived and talked;
what master and man, mistress and maid thought and felt ; how
they were dressed, what they ate, of what they gossiped. Again,
how oft your page recalls the strange, mad, picturesque ways of
old English law. Benefit of clergy meets you at every turn, the
Pelne Fort et Dure is explained with horrible minuteness, the lore
of Ship Money as well as of Impressement of Seamen is all there.
Also is an occasional touch of farce, but what phase of man's life
goes unrecorded in those musty old tomes ?

Howell's collection comes down only to 1820. Reform has
since then purged our law, and the whole set is packed off
to the Lumber Room. In a year s current reports you may
find the volumes quoted once or twice, but that is " but a
bravery," as Lord Bacon would say, for their law is " a creed
outworn." Yet the human interest of a story remains, however
antiquated the setting, incapable of hurt from Act of Parliament.
So, partly for themselves, partly as samples of the bulk, I here
present in altered form two of these tragedies, a pair of parricides ;
one Scots of the seventeenth, the other English of the eighteenth

The first is the trial of Philip Standsfield at Edinburgh, in 1688,
for the murder of his father, Sir James Standsfield, of New Mills,
in East Lothian. To-day New Mills is called Amisfield ; it lies
on the south bank of the Tyne, a mile east of Haddington.
There is a fine mansion-house, about a century old, in the midst
of a well-wooded park, and all round are the superbly tilled Lothian
fields, as dulcia arva as ever the Mantuan sang. Amisfield got its


216 A Pair of Parricides

present name thus : Colonel Charteris, infamed (in the phrase ot
Arbuthnot s famous epitaph) for the "undeviating pravity of his
manners" (hence lashed by Pope in many a stinging line),
purchased it early in the last century and renamed it from the seat
of his family in Nithsdale. Through him it passed by descent to
the house of Wemyss, still its present owners. Amongst its trees and
its waters the place lies away from the beaten track, and is now as
charmingly peaceful a spot as you shall anywhere discover. Name
gone and aspect changed, local tradition has but a vague memory
of the two-centuries-old tragedy whereof it was the centre.

Sir James Standsfield, an Englishman by birth, had married a
Scots lady and spent most of his life in Scotland. After the
Restoration he had established a successful cloth factory at the
place called New Mills, and there lived, a prosperous gentleman.
But he had much domestic trouble, chiefly from the conduct ot
his eldest son Philip, who, though well brought up, led a wild life.
Serving abroad in the Scots regiment, he had been condemned to
death at Treves, but had escaped by flight. Certain notorious
villainies had also made him familiar with the interior of the
Marshalsea, and the prisons of Brussels, Antwerp and Orleans.
Sir James at last was moved to disinherit him in favour of his
second son John. Partly cause and partly effect of this, Philip
was given to cursing his father in most extravagant terms (of
itself a capital offence according to old Scots law) ; he affirmed
his parent " girned upon him like a sheep s head in a tongs ; " on
several occasions he had even attempted that parent s life : all
which is set forth at great length in the " ditty " or indictment
upon which he was tried. No doubt Sir James went in consider
able fear of his unnatural son. A certain Mr. Roderick Mackenzie,
advocate, testifies that eight days before the end he met the old
gentlemen in the Parliament Close, Edinburgh, whereupon "the


By Francis Watt217

defunct invited him to take his morning draught." As they
partook Sir James bemoaned his domestic troubles. Yes, said
Mackenzie, but why had he " disherished his son ? " And the
defunct answered : " Ye do not know my son, for he is the
greatest debauch in the earth. And that which troubles me most
is that he twice attempted my own person."

Upon the last Saturday of November 1687 the elder Stands-
field travelled from Edinburgh to New Mills in company with
Mr. John Bell, minister of the gospel, who was to officiate the
next day in Morham Church (Morham is a secluded parish on
the lower slope of the Lammermoors, some three miles south-west
of New Mills : the church plays an important part in what follows).
Arrived at New Mills the pair supped together, thereafter the
host accompanied his guest to his chamber, where he sat talking
" pertinently and to good purpose " till about ten o clock. Left
alone our divine gat him to bed, but had scarce fallen asleep when
he awoke in terror, for a terrible cry rang through the silence of
the winter night. A confused murmur of voices and a noise of
folk moving about succeeded. Mr. Bell incontinently set all down
to " evil wicked spirits," so having seen to the bolts of his cham
ber door, and having fortified his timid soul with prayers, he
huddled in bed again ; but the voices and noises continuing
outside the house, he crept to the window, where, peering out, he
perceived naught in the darkness. The noises died away across
the garden towards the river, and Bell lay quaking till the morn
ing. An hour after day Philip came to his chamber to ask if his
father had been there, for he had been seeking him upon the banks
of the water. " Why on the banks of that water ? " queried Bell
in natural amazement. Without answer Philip hurriedly left the
room. Later that same Sunday morning a certain John Topping
coming from Monkrig to New Mills, along the bank of the


218 A Pair of Parricides

Tyne, saw a man's body floating on the water. Philip, drawn to
the spot by some terrible fascination, was looking on (you picture
his face). " Whose body was it ? " asked the horror-struck
Topping, but Philip replied not. Well he knew it was his father's
corpse. It was noted that, though a hard frosty morning, the
bank was " all beaten to mash with feet and the ground very open
and mellow." The dead man being presently dragged forth and
carried home was refused entry by Philip into the house so late his
own, " for he had not died like a man but like a beast " the
suggestion being that his father had drowned himself, and so the
poor remains must rest in the woollen mill, and then in a cellar
" where there was very little light." The gossips retailed un
seemly fragments of scandal, as "within an hour after his father's
body was brought from the water, he got the buckles from his
father s shoes and put them in his ; " and again, there is note of
a hideous and sordid quarrel between Lady Standsfield and Janet
Johnstoun, "who was his own concubine," so the prosecution
averred, "about some remains of the Holland of the woonding-
sheet," with some incriminating words of Philip that accompanied.
I now take up the story as given by Umphrey Spurway, described
as an Englishman and clothier at New Mills. His suspicions
caused him to write to Edinburgh that the Lord Advocate might
be warned. Philip lost no time in trying to prevent an inquiry. At
three or four of the clock on Monday morning Spurway, coming
out of his house, saw "great lights at St. James Gate ; " grouped
round were men and horses. He was told they were taking away
the body to be buried at Morham, whereat honest Umphrey, much,
disturbed at this suspicious haste, sighed for the " crowner's quest
law " of his fatherland. But on the next Tuesday night, after he
had gone to bed, a party of five men, two of them surgeons, came
post haste to his house from Edinburgh, and showing him an


By Francis Watt 219

order " from my Lord Advocate, for the taking up again the body
of Sir James Standsfield," bid him rise and come. Philip also
must go with the party to Morham. Here the grave was opened,
the body taken out and carried into the church, where the
surgeons made their examination, which clearly pointed to death
by strangulation, not by drowning (possibly it struck Spurway as
an odd use for a church ; it had not seemed so to a Presbyterian
Scot of the period). The dead being redressed in his grave clothes
must now be set back in his coffin. A terrible thing happened.
According to Scots custom, the nearest relative must lift the body,
and so Philip took the head, when lo ! the corpse gushed forth
blood on his hands! He dropped the head—the "considerable
noise" it made in falling is noted by one of the surgeons fran
tically essayed to wipe off the blood on his clothes, and with
frenzied cries of " Lord have mercy upon me, Lord have mercy
upon us," fell half swooning across a seat. Strong cordials were
administered, and in time he regained his sullen composure.

A strange scene to ponder over, but how terrible to witness I
Think of it ! The lonely church on the Lammermoors, the dead
vast and middle of the dreary night (Nov. 30, 1687), the murdered
man, and the parricide s confession (it is so set forth in the ditty)
wrung from him (as all believed) by the direct interposition of
Providence. What fiction ever equalled this gruesome horror ?
Even his mother, who had sided with him against the father, scarce
professed to believe his innocence. " What if they should put
her bairn in prison ? " she wailed. " Her bairn " was soon hard
and fast in the gloomy old Tolbooth of Edinburgh, to which, as
the Heart of Midlothian, Scott s novel was in future days to
give a world-wide fame. The trial came on next February 6.
In Scotland there is no inquest or public magisterial exam
ination to discount the interest of the story, and the crowd


220 A Pair of Parricides

that listened in the Parliament House to the evidence already
detailed had their bellyful of surprises and horrors. The Crown
had still in reserve this testimony, sensational and deadly. The
prosecution proposed to call James Thomson, a boy of thirteen,
and Anna Mark, a girl of ten. Their tender years were objected.
My lords, declining to receive them as witnesses, oddly enough
consented, at the request of the jury, to take their declaration.
The boy told how Philip came to his father s house on the night
of the murder. The lad was hurried off to bed, but listened
whilst the panel, Janet Johnstoun, already mentioned, and
his father and mother softly whispered together for a long time,
until Philip s rage got the better of his discretion, and he loudly
cursed his father and threatened his life. Next, Philip and Janet left
the house, and in the dead of night his father and mother followed.
After two hours they crept back again ; and the boy, supposed
to be sleeping, heard them whisper to each other the story of the
murder, how Philip guarded the chamber door "with a drawn sword
and a bendit pistol," how it was strange a man should die so soon,
how they carried the body to the water and threw it in, and how
his mother ever since was afraid to stay alone in the house after
nightfall. The evidence of Anna Mark was as to certain
criminating words used by her mother, Janet Johnstoun.

Up to this time the panel had been defended by four eminent
advocates mercifully appointed thereto by the Privy Council ; there
had been the usual Allegations, Replyes, and Duplies, with frequent
citations from Mattheus, Carpzovius, Muscard, and the other
fossils, as to the matters contained in the " ditty," and they had
strenuously fought for him till now, but after the statement of
the children they retired. Then Sir George Mackenzie rose to
reply for the Crown. Famous in his own day, his name is not
yet forgotten. He was " the bluidy advocate Mackenzie " ot


By Francis Watt 221

Covenanting legend and tradition, one of the figures in Wander
ing Willie s tale in Red Gauntlet (" who for his worldly wit and
wisdom had been to the rest as a god "). He had been Lord
Advocate already, and was presently to be Lord Advocate again.
Nominally but second counsel he seems to have conducted the
whole prosecution. He had a strong case, and he made the most
of it. Passionate invective and prejudicial matter were mixed
with legal argument. Cultured politician and jurist as he was,
he dwelt with terrible emphasis on the scene in Morham Church.
"God Almighty himself was pleased to bear a share in the
testimonies which we produce," nor was the children s testimony
forgotten. " I need not fortifie so pregnant a probation." No !
yet he omitted not to protest for " an Assize of Error against the
inquest in the case they should assoilzie the pannal "—a plain
intimation to the jury that if they found Philip Standsfield " not
guilty" they were liable to be prosecuted for an unjust verdict.
But how to doubt after such evidence ? The jury found the
panel guilty, and my lords pronounced a sentence of picturesque
barbarity. Standsfield was to be hanged at the Mercat Cross of
Edinburgh, his tongue cut out and burned upon the scaffold, his
right hand fixed above the east port of Haddington, and his dead
body hung in chains upon the Gallow Lee betwixt Leith and
Edinburgh, his name disgraced for ever, and all his property
forfeited to the Crown. According to the old Scots custom the
sentence was given " by the mouth of John Leslie, dempster of
court"—an office held along with that of hangman. "Which is
pronounced for doom " was the formula wherewith he concluded.
On February 15 Standsfield went to his death "in manner alone

The second case, not so romantic albeit a love-story is woven
through its tangled threads, is that of Mary Blandy, spinster,


222 A Pair of Parricides

tried at Oxford in 1752, before two of the Barons of the
Exchequer, for the murder of her father, Francis Blandy,
attorney, and town-clerk of Henley-on-Thames. Prosecuting
counsel described her as " genteel, agreeable, sprightly, sensible."
She was an only child. Her sire being well off, she seemed an
eligible match. Some years before the murder, the villain of the
piece, William Henry Cranstoun, a younger son of the Scots Lord
Cranstoun and an officer recruiting at Henley for the army, comes
on the scene. Contemporary gossip paints him the blackest colour.
" His shape no ways genteel, his legs clumsy, he has nothing in
the least elegant in his manner." He was remarkable for his
dulness ; he was dissipated and poverty-stricken. More fatal
than all, he had a wife and child in Scotland though he brazenly
professed the marriage invalid spite the judgment of the Scots
courts in its favour. Our respectable attorney, upon discovering
these facts, gave the Captain, as he was called, the cold shoulder.
The prospect of a match with a lord s son was too much for
Miss Blandy, now over thirty, and she was ready to believe any
ridiculous yarn he spun about his northern entanglements. Fired
by an exaggerated idea of old Blandy s riches, he planned his
death and found in the daughter an agent, and, as the prosecution
averred, an accomplice.

The way was prepared by a cunning use of popular superstitions.
Mysterious sounds of music were heard about ; at least, Cranstoun
said so ; indeed, it was afterwards alleged he " hired a band to play
under the windows." If any one asked, "What then ? " he whispered
" that a wise woman, one Mrs. Morgan, in Scotland," had assured
him that such was a sign of death to the head of the house within
twelve months. The Captain further alleged that he held the
gift of second sight and had seen the worthy attorney s ghost ; all
which, being carefully reported to the servants by Miss Blandy,


By Francis Watt 223

raised a pleasing horror in the kitchen. Cranstoun, from necessity
or prudence, left Henley before the diabolical work began in
earnest, but he supplied Mary with arsenic in powder, which she
administered to her father for many months. The doses were so
immoderate that the unfortunate man's teeth dropped whole from
their sockets, whereat the undutiful daughter " damn d him for a
toothless old rogue and wished him at hell." Cranstoun, under
the guise of a present of Scotch pebbles, sent her some more
arsenic, nominally to rub them with. In the accompanying letter,
July 18, 1751, he glowingly touched on the beauties of Scotland
as an inducement to her, it was supposed, to make haste.
Rather zealous than discreet, she near poisoned Anne Emmett,
the charwoman, by misadventure, but brought her round again
with great quantities of sack whey and thin mutton broth,
sovereign remedies against arsenic. Her father gradually be
came desperately ill. Susannah Gunnell, maidservant, perceiving
a white powder at the bottom of a dish she was cleaning, had it
preserved. It proved to be arsenic, and was produced at the
trial. Susannah actually told Mr. Blandy he was being poisoned ;
but he only remarked, " Poor lovesick girl ! what will not a
woman do for the man she loves ? " Both master and maid
fixed the chief, perhaps the whole, guilt on Cranstoun, the father
confining himself to dropping some strong hints to his daughter,
which made her throw Cranstoun's letters and the remainder of
the poison on the fire, wherefrom the poison was in secret rescued
and preserved by the servants.

Mr. Blandy was now hopelessly ill, and though experienced
doctors were at length called in, he expired on Wednesday,
August 14, 1751. The sordid tragedy gets its most pathetic and
highest touch from the attempts made by the dying man to shield
his daughter, and to hinder her from incriminating admissions


224 A Pair of Parricides

which under excitement and (one hopes) remorse she began to
make. And in his last hours he spoke to her words of pardon and
solace. That night and again on Thursday morning the daughter
made some distracted efforts to escape. " I ran out of the house
and over the bridge and had nothing on but a half-sack and
petticoat without a hoop my petticoats hanging about me."
But now all Henley was crowded round the dwelling to watch
the development of events. The mob pressed after the distracted
girl, who took refuge at the sign of the Angel, a small inn just
across the bridge. " They were going to open her father," she
said, and " she could not bear the house." She was taken home
and presently committed to Oxford gaol to await her trial. Here
she was visited by the High Sheriff, who "told me by order of the
higher powers he must put an iron on me. I submitted as I
always do to the higher powers " (she had little choice). Spite her
terrible position and those indignities, she behaved with calmness
and courage. The trial, which lasted twelve hours, took place on
February 29, 1752, in the Divinity School of the University.
The prisoner was " sedate and composed without levity or
dejection." Accused of felony she had properly counsel only
for points of law, but at her request they were allowed to examine
and cross-examine the witnesses. Herself spoke the defence,
possibly prepared by her advisers, for though the style be artless,
the reasoning is exceeding ingenious. She admitted she was
passionate, and thus accounted for some hasty expressions ; the
malevolence of servants had exaggerated these. Betty Binfield,
one of the maids, was credibly reported to have said of her, "she
should be glad to see the black bitch go up the ladder to be
hanged." But the powder ? Impossible to deny she had ad
ministered that. " I gave it to procure his love." Cranstoun,
she affirmed, had sent it from Scotland, assuring her that it would


By Francis Watt 225

so work, and Scotland, one notes, seemed to everybody " the
shores of old romance," the home of magic incantations and
mysterious charms. It was powerfully objected that Francis
Blandy had never failed in love to his daughter, but she replied
that the drug was given to reconcile her father to Cranstoun.
She granted he meant to kill the old man in hopes to get his
money, and she was the agent, but (she asserted) the innocent
agent of his wicked purpose. This theory, though the best avail
able, was beset with difficulties. She had made many incriminating
statements, there was the long time over which the doses had been
spread, there was her knowledge of its effects on Anne Emmett
the charwoman, there was the destruction of Cranstoun's letters,
the production of which would have conclusively shown the exact
measure in which guilty knowledge was shared. Finally, there
was the attempt to destroy the powder. Bathurst, leading counsel
for the Crown, delivered two highly rhetorical speeches, " drawing
floods of tears from the most learned audience that perhaps ever
attended an English Provincial Tribunal." The jury, after some
five minutes consultation in the box, returned a verdict of" guilty,"
which the prisoner received with perfect composure. All she
asked was a little time " till I can settle my affairs and make my
peace with God," and this was readily granted. She was left in
prison five weeks. The case continued to excite enormous
interest, increased by an account which she issued from prison of
her father s death and her relations with Cranstoun. She was con
stant in her professions of innocence, "nor did anything during
the whole course of her confinement so extremely shock her as the
charge of infidelity which some uncharitable persons a little before
her death brought against her."

Some were convinced and denied her guilt, " as if," said Horace
Walpole, "a woman who would not stick at parricide would


226 A Pair of Parricides

scruple a lie." Others said she had hopes of pardon "from the
Honour she had formerly had of dancing for several nights with
the late P—e of W—s, and being personally known to the
most sweet-tempered P ess in the world." The press swarmed
with pamphlets. The Cranstoun correspondence, alleged not
destroyed, was published—a very palpable Grub Street forgery !
—and a tragedy, The Fair Parricide, dismal in every sense, was
inflicted on the world. The last scene of all was on April 6,
1752. "Miss Blandy suffered in a black bombazine short sack
and petticoat with a clean white handkerchief drawn over her
face. Her hands were tied together with a strong black ribband,
and her feet at her own request almost touched the ground."
(" Gentlemen, don t hang me high, for the sake of decency," an
illustration of British prudery which has escaped the notice of
French critics.) She mounted the ladder with some hesitation.
"I am afraid I shall fall." For the last time she declared her
innocence, and soon all was over. " The number of people
attending her execution was computed at about 5000, many of
whom, and particularly several gentlemen of the university, were
observed to shed tears " (tender-hearted " gentlemen of the
university ! "). "In about half an hour the body was cut down
and carried through the crowd upon the shoulders of a man with
her legs exposed very indecently." Late the same night she was
laid beside her father and mother in Henley Church.

Cranstoun fled from justice and was outlawed. In December
that same year he died in Flanders.

MLA citation: . Watt, Francis. "A Pair of Parricides." The Yellow Book 13 (April 1897): 213-226. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV13_watt_parricides.html