DR FIONA-JANE BROWN reveals the gore behind Aberdeen’s gruesome axe murder 150 years ago …
A dark wood; two lovers meet for a tryst; but only one leaves alive. Sounds like the beginning of a horror novel, doesn’t it? Yet this was a true story, a crime of passion which occurred in the autumn of 1863 in Thainstone Woods, Aberdeenshire. Mrs Anne Forbes was a frequent visitor to the Kintore Arms public house, a few miles from the wood, where she would buy a half-gill of whisky, drink one quarter before she met her paramour, and the other when she returned on her way home to her oblivious husband.
Mrs Duncan, a native of Kintore, spotted Anne and her lover, local woodcutter, George Stephen, meeting by the porter’s lodge on the Thainstone estate where George was employed. Anne was laughing flirtatiously. It was the last anyone would see of her in a hale and hearty state. Later in the day, George Stephen was observed walking from the woods carrying his axe, appearing completely at ease. A servant boy who worked for the estate, came upon Anne Forbeslying in the undergrowth. She was in a state of undress, only her slip covering her body. Thinking her drunk, he approached tentatively, but as he came level with her, the boy saw her hair and face were drenched in blood; a horrible gaping wound in her head the cause. He screeched in terror and ran for his master. Soon the local constabulary and physician were on the scene. A contemporary report of the case noted “It was found she still breathed”, an incredible situation considering her skull had been smashed open. The naïve Dr Aitken thought he could alleviate the pressure of the bone on her brain by removing the broken pieces. Anne’s dying body was carried back to the porter’s lodge; she never spoke another word.
The axe was found in George’s kitchen, blood, hair and skin still clinging to the blade. He was arrested immediately and incarcerated in Aberdeen’s East Prison, where our present police headquarters now stand. It was the following April before the trial took place. George pled guilty to the shock of the court. His defence immediately claimed that his client was in a state of insanity since the murder and could not coherently represent himself. The lawyer continued with an assassination of Mrs Forbes’ character, reminding people of her drinking, her immoral behaviour, and the fact she was twenty years younger than Mr Stephen. Incredibly, this defence was accepted. George would escape the rope. His response to his lawyer’s masterful defence was less than grateful, “Ah well, just a whileylanger to live.”
For six years he was a prisoner in the “Lunatic Department” of Perth Prison, the nearest suitable facility. In his 67th year, George Stephen died of “epileptic insanity” a condition, according to the prison doctor which had been worse for the last month of his life. This begs the question, was it an epileptic fit which overtook George while he and Anne were cavorting in Thainstone Woods? Whatever the case, the axe and the luridly paintedwax cast of George’s unfortunate victim’s skull are now the oldest artefacts in the former Grampian Police Force Museum collection at Aberdeen.
DR FIONA-JANE BROWN is a folklorist and tour operator in Aberdeen, North-East Scotland. Her company, Hidden Aberdeen Tours, specialises in historical walks around the city and runs ghost tours around Halloween. Its website is here and its Facebook is here.