Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds), Part 2

Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds) is my third great grandmother. She was also convicted of theft by housebreaking in 1877 in a Glasgow court and was sentenced to eight years in prison. I have obtained the court records, including the statements of the witnesses, for the trial. Without a doubt Roseannah and her husband, James Mitchell, appear to have lived a hard life, scratching out a living in a hard knock world.
The following is a summary of the evidence that was presented to the jury in 1877 on the first two charges.

First Charge

Anna Thomson or Cullen, wife of David Cullen, lived at Malvern Place, Comely Park, Glasgow. She testified that on August 24, 1877, sometime between 10:00 - 11:00 a.m., the following articles of clothing were stolen from her home: a cloth coat, cloth vest, cloth trousers belonging to her husband and a silk dress, jacket, and tunic belonging to Anna Cullen.

Anna stated that she left the house, a second floor flat, at 10:45 a.m., locked the door, and returned at 11:10 a.m. When she returned, Anna states she found the door to flat locked, just as she had left it, and nothing in the flat looked out of place. She didn't notice the missing articles until about 7:00 p.m. that evening when she was putting other items away in a clothes chest. Anna asked a neighbour to report the theft to the police. Anna later identified the missing articles at the police station. She also testified that she did not know Roseannah Mitchell (Dowds).

David Cullen, Anna's husband, corroborated his wife's story and stated that he had been in and out of the house for various periods of time throughout the day. He testified that he reported the theft to the police and did not know Roseannah Mitchell (Dowds).

John McCann was an assistant pawnbroker to Charles Shannon at 4 Saint Joseph's Place, Abercromby Street, Glasgow. John stated that during the afternoon of August 24, 1877, Margaret Prentice (nee Brown) 'pledged' a coat, vest and trousers for which she was given £1 and a pawn ticket. Margaret, according to John, used the name of Mary Stewart for the transaction. John positively identified Margaret Prentice (nee Brown) as the woman who pawned the clothing articles.

Second Charge

Margaret Smith (nee Shearer), was the wife of William Smith, a cotton-yarn dresser, and lived on Bernard Street, Bridgeton, Glasgow. She testified that between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. on September 17, 1877, her house was entered by someone using a 'false' key. She further testified that two dresses, two jackets, two napkins, a beaded bertha and a child's blouse and dress were stolen from her house. Margaret stated that when she returned to her home at about 1:30 p.m. the door to her third floor apartment was still locked and nothing looked out of place. Later in the day, she found the drawer where the clothes were kept to be empty.

Margaret told a neighbour, Mrs. Cree, of the theft. Mrs. Cree in turn told Margaret that a woman had been in the building selling things door-to-door. Margaret reported the theft to the police and later identified the recovered beaded bertha and napkins at the police station.

Margaret's sister, Matilda McDonald (nee Shearer), testified that she went with her sister to the police station and helped identify the recovered items.

David Cree, Jr. lived next door to the Smiths at 159 Bernard Street in Glasgow. David stated that at about 1:00 p.m. Roseannah Mitchell (Dowds) came to his flat door, selling pinafores. According to David, Roseannah was carrying a canvass bag over her shoulder. He stated he was able to identify Roseannah based on a mark on her face. He also testified that he didn't know if Roseannah had gone to the door of the Smith flat and he did not hear the door to the Smith flat open after Roseannah had left his door. David further stated that his mother was in bed at the time this occurred so she had not seen the woman.

Betsy Dunn (nee McDougall), the wife of John Dunn, a boilermaker, lived in a flat directly below the Smith flat on Bernard Street in Glasgow. Betsy testified that at about 1:00 p.m. on Monday, September 17, 1877, she saw Roseannah going upstairs in the building. "I took a good look at her, knowing she was a stranger." Betsy stated that she didn't hear anything out of the ordinary after seeing Roseannah, including any doors opening, and she did not see Roseannah come downstairs and leave the building. However, Betsy did testify that 15 minutes after Roseannah went upstairs, Mrs. Smith told her that her house had been entered. She then told Mrs. Smith about the "stranger woman" who "was alone and carrying a bag over her arm. There was nothing in it."

My Opinion

The justice system, then and now, places the burden of responsibility on the prosecution to prove guilt 'beyond a reasonable doubt.' Roseannah was found guilty by the jury based on what I think was very flimsy, circumstantial, and at times contradictory evidence. Nothing placed Roseannah near the Cullen home on charge one nor ever in possession of the stolen articles. In fact, the evidence suggests that the stolen clothing articles were in the possession of Margaret Prentice, using the name of Mary Stewart when she pawned them. Margaret Prentice testified that not only did she not steal the clothing, the pawnbroker's assistant, John McCann, was mistaken when he identified her as the woman who 'pledged' the clothing articles in the pawn shop.

On charge two, there were two witnesses, David Cree and Betsy Dunn, who placed Roseannah in the building around the time that the theft of the Smith clothing occurred. Roseannah herself did not refute that she may have likely been there, explaining that as a 'hawker' she went from place to place all day long selling various articles to make a living. No one saw or heard anything that directly links Roseannah with the theft of the clothing.

I'm certain that without the benefit of forensic evidence, prosecuting cases may have come down to credibility in 'he said - she said' scenarios in the era of these charges being heard by the court. It doesn't appear however that any substantial defence was put forward for Roseannah that would have pointed out the conflicting timeline offered by Betsy Dunn who stated that Roseannah went upstairs in the building at 1:00 p.m. and that at 1:15 p.m., Mrs. Smith told her about the theft from her flat even though Mrs. Smith's evidence was that she had not returned home until 1:30 p.m. and didn't notice the missing articles until later in the day. Betsy Dunn also stated that the bag she saw Roseannah carrying had nothing in it although no one seems to have asked her how she knew it to be empty.

If there is doubt, the accused is to be acquitted but Roseannah was somehow found guilty. I can't help but feeling that the proceedings were based on 'marching the guilty party in.' It seems Roseannah didn't stand a chance of finding justice and being acquitted - but then I'm a proud great-great-great grandson.


  1. Every ggggrandmother needs a ggggrandson like you!

  2. Thanks for the comment Joan. I'm certainly proud of the my ancestors and the vigour they showed in overcoming hardships.