Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

The Pollockshaws murderer

This post continues Dr Halliday Sutherland’s reminiscences of his Glasgow childhood. His father, John Francis Sutherland, was medical officer to the Barlinnie Gaol, Glasgow.

Outside the north wall of the prison, new houses had been built for the governor, the doctor, and the chaplain. I watched the building of the houses and, before the boards of our dining room floor were nailed down, placed a sealed cocoa tin on the rubble beneath the flooring. In that tin is a map showing the position of treasure buried on an island in the Caribbean Sea. This map was invented and I hope that one day it would be found, and an expedition started.

The attic windows at the back of our house overlooked the high prison wall. Beyond this, we could see the small barred windows of cells on the upper storey of the north wing of the prison. At certain times of the day, my sister and I used to wave handkerchiefs to prisoners, and from behind the bars, some wave to back. This went on until one day workmen came to the house, replaced the plain glass of the attic windows with clouded glass, and screwed down the windows so that the lower sash could not be raised. This seemed a drastic method of stopping the way the waving of handkerchiefs, but that was not the reason. Sounds of hammering came from out of the prison. Our attic windows would have overlooked a scaffold.

The Pollokshaws murderer was going to die. The trial was never mentioned at home, but boys at school had told me about it. The crime was terrible, because the victim’s body had been dismembered by her paramour. He afterwards cut his throat, but recovered in the prison hospital. My father appeared as a witness for the defense, which was that the crime was culpable homicide. In the frenzy of drink and of a quarrel over money, the man had struck the woman without intending to kill. She fell backwards on a grate and fractured her skull. He left the room, and returned to find her dead. He dismembered her dead body. Had the woman being alive, there would have been blood on the walls. If a main artery be severed in a living room in a living body, the blood squirts twenty feet. The man fled into the neighboring country, and in a wood cut his throat.

Cross-examined about the man’s threats to “do her in,” of which there was evidence, my father said that this was not the language of the slums every Saturday night. It did not of necessity mean intention to kill. Asked if he thought drunkenness would rank with insanity as a plea, my father said a drunk man was a picture of insanity. Lord Young, the judge, asked me if any other alienist in Scotland agreed with this. “My lord,” said my father, “I have a letter in my pocket from Sir Arthur Mitchell, the Senior Commissioner in Lunacy, who——” “Leave the box, sir,” ordered the judge. My father’s sense of justice was stronger than his sense of law. Nevertheless after the trial the judge invited him to lunch.

On the morning of the execution, my father went to the prison at seven-thirty and returned at a quarter-past eight. The rest of that day he stayed in bed. Never afterwards would he allow at his table any discussion about executions.

Many people have a morbid in interest in executions. If these were public spectacles thousands would come on foot, in charabancs, and in motor cars to witness them. One section of the Press does its best to make up for the lack of publicity by enlarging on what little they know of life in the condemned cell. In all probability many sensitive persons reading these imaginative articles suffer more mental distress than the one who is to die. Those who have attended the condemned in their last days and hours of life say that once death is accepted as inevitable the mind may attain an almost posthumous calm. A priest of the Roman Church could do little for the guilty until their final appeal was dismissed. Then they changed, and died with a disposition towards God and man which anyone might envy.

From A Time to Keep (1934) by Halliday Sutherland.

Photo credit: Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels

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This entry was posted on 2 May 2020 by in A Time to Keep, Early life, Glasgow.

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