The Gamekeeper Murders
On the 20th of December 1883 an article appeared in our local newspaper. It contained a few lines relating to an incident on the near lands of Lord Rosebery. The headline was in capital letters draped in black print. It read MURDEROUS ATTACK ON GAMEKEEPER. Poaching has been a way of life around this neck of the woods for the lifetime of us all. Miners found a way to challenge and contact nature or to furnish a bite for the table. It was not in common for people to be charged with the crime and suffer its penalties. To those who constantly avoided capture somehow earned a unimportant reputation for skill and stealth. But to kill or injure for game was alien to our very nature and negated any standing in our community.
On a early Saturday morning two armed men fired at three of Lord Roseberry 's Gamekeepers near the Mansion House (right) some five miles from the small village of Gorebridge. The gamekeepers were ambushed and shot bodily one after the other. Unfortunately one man was seriously wounded and soon became in despe rate need of medical attention.
Previously James Grosset head keeper and John Fortune had both suspected a spout of night poaching and to curtail this they met on a Friday night. At an arranged rendezvous they met up with a well known rabbit trapper John McDermid and made their way in complete dark. The three men headed towards the type of land and cover enjoyed by the pheasants within the estate.
Around three in the morning after a seemingly long wait, a gun shot was heard. The sound indicated it was fired approximately a mile away and to the gamekeepers and fellow trapper just what they had hoped for. Making their way on a heavy moonlight night when the ground was strewn with patches of grey frost could not have been better. About a half mile taken at a steady pace they heard a second round reverberate through the night. But this time it was quite near and the game party moved forward to find cover in some bushes. There they could see two men armed with guns sauntering in their direction. It may have entered the head game keepers mind they had only sticks to use in defence and had arrived in this situation without their usual pack of dogs. Without hesitation they met them head-on and challenged the armed men.
One of the poachers cried out " Stand back" while the other pointing a finger to the left of the keepers said " Take that one and I'll do for the one on the right". The first shot of the engagement rang out and found t he right arm of Mc Dermid who on impact fell to the ground. The next shot struck Grosset on the shoulder as he turned to help the fallen man.
A following blast hit Fortune in the lower abdomen and as he sank to the ground he heard his companion Grosset ask if he had also been hit. Fortune replied "Right through the heart". On hearing the noise omitted by the keepers a poacher aimed his gun at Grosset and fired. The shot luckily missed its mark. The other poacher shouted to his friend "Load again quick and don't let that ******* away". With some presence of mind Grosset seeing the seriousness of the situation ran for help, at the same time hearing they would get him at the bridge not far from this place. Grosset now aware of their plan changed direction, and soon found cover in the woodland leading to Edgelaw Farm. (below left)
In the dark the two poachers looked down on the shot men and were satisfied they had done their work, one exclaiming, "The ******* are dead enough", before moving off toward the bridge to ambush Grosset.
On arriving at the farm Grosset gained the assistance of three workers and returned to the place of ambush, taking with them a cart for the wounded. They found the poachers had gone. Mc Dermid had made slow progress towards the Head game keepers house. Fortune had managed to crawl 200 yards but his inj uries were such they carried him rather than use the cart. While carrying him he began to talk in a drowsy fashion saying, " You know me; we've had a dram together; and you wont shoot me". Fortune while being attended by h is wife hours later told her, "It was not Innes who shot me."
But he didn't say who had at that time, yet his son John telling his father of the two men in custody , his father responded by saying, it was not Innes who shot but the other man.
A local farmer sped to alert Dr Spalding, who made all haste to the house where the injured had taken refuge. Caring for the wounded men Dr Spalding was astonished to find Fortune appeared to sustain less injury than expected as his pocket watch had taken the force of the blast. The watch had been protected by a German silver case cover that had been completely shattered and subsequently saved the life of Fortune. But with only a few pellets removed and 52 pellets still in his side he was nevertheless in a critical condition. The local constabulary informed Edinburgh police headquarters, who sent officers to assist in the affair. On questioning Grosser they found he recognised one of the men responsible for the shooting. It transpired he wa s a coal miner called William Innes of Stobhill known to many as a poacher. He had that very day been shot in his own home accidentally and had been transported to Edinburgh Infirmary soon after.
Police officers were sent to investigate the wounded man. The theory banded by the police was Innes panicking at a knock on the door jumped into bed wi th his gun and shot himself under the right jaw. The second person involved was a Robert Vicars a miner from Gorebridge who had been seen in the company of Innes not long before in a local public hou se. He was arrested in the early hours of Sunday morning after searching his house and finding a double barrelled shot gun. Grosser recognised Vicars as one of the poachers, but this could not be confirmed by Fortune as his conditio n could not allow this. Alas on Tuesday morning at five forty five Fortune died of the injuries he received from the guns of Innes and Vicars.
Vicars was constantly under surveillance during his stay in hospital by the staff of Calton Prison and later taken to Rosebery House where he was identified as one of the two poachers involved in the incident. Consequently both Poachers were charged with Night Poaching and the more serious crime of Murder. Both Grosset and Mc Dermid seemed to have recovered from their injuries enough for McDermid to identify Vickers as the one who shot him and Fortune, certain sure. During the cross examination Mc Dermid had been show two different men and he immediately stated that those were not the men. Mc Dermid had suffered 38 pellet wounds on his right arm during a dressing of the wounds he began bleeding despite all the doctor could do he died. Innes and Vicars we re again charged this time with a double murder.
Vicars admitted he had not wanted to go poaching that night but was influenced by a drunken Innes who was quite prepared to shoot. This confess ion was shown to Innes who in turn confessed but had stated he had not intended to seriously injure the Game keepers. The confession was signed by the prison Chaplin. Charged with Night Poaching Murder and Assault, by discharging loaded firearms.
Andrew Bernard had gone down the mine in the same cage as Innes and his son . A man named Neilson Fowler a blacksmith saw two men hurrying along a public road towards Gorebidge Village at half past five in the morning but could n ot identify them as the accused although he was acquainted with them. The prosecution averred the action of the men was concerted with the intention of discharging their weapons at the Gamekeepers, unarmed men and could only ask for one verdict that of guilty. The evidence by the witnesses for the accused was considered not effective as the shooting had occurred at two in the morning.
Both condemned men were brave enough to admit their crimes through confessions. A reprieve was hoped for by a petition to the Home Secretary due to the number of uncertainties in the case against them and they be given the benefit of the doubt. The petition failed.
The trial ended in a majority verdict yet it could be said a very thin one where many disagreed with that stance. The judge addressed the prisoners. "I will not use unnecessary words. The jury has found you guilty. In the way prescribed by law between the hours of eight and ten on the 31st instance be hanged by the neck by the common executioner and may God have mercy on your souls."
Meanwhile near Old Bridgewell the scaffold was being prepared in a place of seclusion for later transportation to the prison. On the night before their execution Vicars deeply regretted his actions and the trouble it had brought his family. One of the things he talked about was a warning to those who would carry a gun and the terrible consequences. But it was too late for him and Innes. After shaking hands with every one present on the day of their execution the prisoner sat down, within a few minutes the executioner tapped Vickers shoulder and took him to be pinioned, Innes soon after. The scaffold was not far from the condemned cells where the men could see the executioners wearing white masks. Both were hanged according to the Majesty of the law the ropes straining only an inch or so. Hardly a tremble was seen only the expression of two faces staring upward. They were buried within the grounds of the prison with their cloths on and covered with quicklime to dispose of the evidence of judicial homicide.
It should be remembered around 1,500 memorials in total were sent to the Home Secretary in the hope of a reprieve. Both denied they had intentions to seriously injure the game keepers and to wait ambush at the bridge for Grosser, to kill him.
Innes apparently had a habit of priming his shot gun and carelessly leaving it around the house where on one occasion his children were caught playing near it in a primed state. Vickers wife and children swore said he had not been out that night. Both Vickers and Innes were considered to be harmless according to one witness. In a letter to the Editor of a prominent news paper it said, I am inclined to think game would be safer without keepers as with them.
We must leave it to the reader to look into the case and draw their own conclusions, as there are so many facets to the story and trial. Although we cannot wear 1884 spectacles we can read and build a picture of the past.
A post-mortem examination revealed Fortune had died of Peritonitis and Mc Dermid from loss of blood.