Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Wooden Beetle or Mallet, Tattie Basher or Murder Weapon?

In early April 1862 Mary Reid or Timney faced trial for murder at Dumfries in South West Scotland. The weapon alleged to have been used in the attack on her neighbour, 40 year old Ann Hannah, was crucial to the case. It was a wooden mallet or beetle commonly used in Victorian kitchens, or in Mary's case her one room cottage, for washing clothes and also bashing neeps and tatties. The mallet produced in evidence was said to belonged to the 27 year old mother of four who was known to have a fiery temperament and an equally volatile relationship with the older woman who was her nearest neighbour - her family owned the farm and the cottage north of St John's Town of Dalry in the Glenkens where the Timneys lived. 

Following Ann's death on the evening of the attack, the local police officer, John Robson from New Galloway, searched the Timney's cottage before arresting Mary for the murder. He discovered the mallet behind a meal barrel but replaced it not realising that it would be vital to the case. There was no reason for him to realise the importance of the mallet as two weapons had been discovered next to the dying woman, a butcher's knife and a poker. They were both covered in blood and had clearly been involved in the incident. 

It was only when the post mortem revealed that neither of these items could have caused the serious head injuries suffered by the poor woman, that the officer remembered the mallet. When the cottage was searched again in daylight by John Johnstone, the Chief Constable for the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and two further officers drafted in from Dalbeattie and Carsphairn, they discovered the beetle again and, casting further suspicion on Mary, there had clearly been an attempt to hide it as it was discovered underneath a dresser. 

Mary strenuously denied that the implement was hers, and in a statement her husband Frank also claimed that the item shown to him did not belong to the family. Frank was not called to give evidence during the trial and his statement was not produced either. After being found guilty, as Mary was awaiting her execution, which was to be the last public hanging in Scotland, she confessed that she had been the cause of her neighbour's death but as the result of a fight between the two women. She continued to insist that the beetle belonged to Ann Hannah and the woman had first attacked her with before dropping it on the floor. Mary claimed she had then picked it up and in a blind fury carried out a series of blows that would lead to the woman's death. Mary's eldest children, two little girls who were compelled to give evidence during the trial despite being aged only nine and seven, had, however, stated that they believed it belonged to their mother. 

The judge, Lord Deas, was clear in his mind that the weapon belonged to Mary and that she had carried it with her on that January morning, meaning that she had gone with intent to kill. Although there was controversy about this and Dumfries MP William Ewart, a trained barrister himself, would later argue that Lord Deas had misled the jury as there was no evidence that Mary had taken the mallet with intent to murder, an appeal to the Queen failed. 

In my book, Mary Timney, The Road to the Gallows, I deliberately chose not to include a picture of a wooden beetle or mallet. Although the implement was produced in court it has since gone missing and as it was such a common item no one thought to give a detailed description of it during the precognition process or even in the newspaper reports. Such washing or bashing tools varied a great deal in size and shape and I didn't want to mislead the reader by showing an example that may be nothing like the one used in the crime. The only clue as to its size and shape came from the statements of Susan and Maggie, they said that they had used the beetle as a doll. It is horrific to think that this mallet, used as a simple toy by these young children who were living in poverty, should be the cause of a brutal and bloody death to the woman who lived fifty yards along the road. 

This photograph shows a wooden beetle or mallet belonging to a friend, it's been in her family for generations and it is easy to imagine how two little girls in 1862 could have used something similar as a doll. 


  1. Ah - I am so pleased to see a picture of this as I really wanted to be able to imagine the beetle when I was reading your book, but couldn't, as I had no idea what it looked like!

    1. Thanks for that Becky. I was reluctant to put an image in the book because they can differ such a lot in size and shape but perhaps I should consider using this image as an example in future editions.