John Baird Accused

On Wednesday the 2nd of October, 1889, Mrs Margaret Smith was attacked when she went out to use the communal ashpit, which was situated at the back of her dwelling in Brechin Road, Arbroath, in Scotland.

An ashpit was the privy, or toilet, that was used by several households, and so the following story takes on an added “eewwwwww” factor when you consider that, not only did the attack take place in this unwholesome location, but that the perpetrator of the attack, had spent several weeks sleeping in various ashpits around Arbroath.

A sketch of a Victorian backyard.
A Typical Backyard Of The Type Described In The Story.


The story is also of interest in that it demonstrates how, even as late as October, 1889, almost a year after what is now believed to have been the last murder by Jack the Ripper, that of Mary Kelly, on 9th November, 1888, people all over the country were still willing to attribute any attack to the unknown miscreant who had carried out the Whitechapel atrocities over the previous autumn.


The Aberdeen Evening Express broke the story of the attack in its edition of Thursday, 3rd October, 1889:-

“Last night great excitement prevailed in Arbroath in connection with a rumour which gained widespread currency that “Jack the Ripper” had been captured in the town.

Although the rumour, as might have been expected, turned out to be untrue, the excitement was not altogether without cause.

The details of the affair cannot be fully published, but the subjoined facts speak of extraordinary conduct on the part of the person implicated.


During the past few days rumours have been in circulation throughout the town that a man had on several occasions been seen hiding in ashpits in various localities after darkness had set in, and on more than one occasion it is stated that women have been terrified after nightfall by the conduct of this individual.

Last night, shortly after seven o’clock, a woman residing in Brechin Road had occasion to go to a closet situated behind her dwelling house, and adjoining which there was an ashpit.

A minute or two after she had entered the place, her husband was alarmed by hearing his wife screaming, and, rushing out, he saw a man getting out of the ashpit.

He seized hold of the fellow, who, however, after a brief struggle, managed to escape.


An alarm was raised, and a number of persons being about, chase was given.

It happened also that Constable Mackenzie was in the immediate neighbourhood, and, hearing what had occurred, he joined in the pursuit.

The fellow was fleet of foot, and the chase extended over a mile before the constable managed to secure his man at Ward Mill Hill.

By this time, the crowd had swelled to considerable dimensions, and intense excitement was manifested.

In passing along the streets to the Police Office the crowd further increased, and loud shouts were raised to lynch the prisoner, who was supposed to be “Jack the Ripper.”

The prisoner, however, was ultimately landed safe in the Police Office.


He gives his name as John Baird, and says he is a seaman, 32 years of age, and unmarried, and a native of London.

He further says that he was a common sailor on board the ship Mount Carmel, that he came to Arbroath about a fortnight ago, went back to Glasgow, and subsequently returned to Arbroath on Thursday last.


He gives no explanation of his extraordinary conduct.

It may be mentioned that he had in his possession several yards of thin waxcloth and a number of sheets of stout brown paper, which, he says, he intended to use to protect his clothes from being soiled in the ashpit.

The prisoner will, we understand, be brought up at the Police Court on a charge of indecently assaulting the woman referred to.”


The Edinburgh Evening News, on Friday, 4th October, 1889, published a brief report concerning John Baird’s court appearance:-

“The man, John Baird, whose insane conduct caused so much excitement in Arbroath on Wednesday evening, was yesterday charged with assaulting a married woman.

After some hesitation, the accused pleaded guilty, and was sent to jail for twenty days.

The woman who was assaulted received such a shock to her nervous system that she is confined to bed, and was unable to attend the court.

The prisoner adhered to his statement that he is a native of London, but a seaman’s discharge, found in Baird’s possession, gives Kilmarnock as his birthplace.”


The Dundee Courier, on that same day, Friday, 4th October, 1889, provided readers with a far more detailed account of the court experience:-

“On Thursday the eccentric seaman, John Baird, whose doings were noted that day in The Courier, was brought before Bailie Whyte at the Police Court, and charged with having, on October 2nd, at an ashpit in the rear of a house in Brechin Road, occupied by George Smith, mechanic, assaulted Margaret Easson, his wife, by indecently seizing hold of her with his hand and kicking her, etc.. to the injury of her person.

Being asked to plead, the prisoner said that he was guilty of being where he was found, but, as for kicking or even touching anyone, he was not guilty.

A plea of not guilty was then recorded.

Mr M’Neill moved an adjournment, as Mrs Smith, the complainer, was not able to appear.


In answer to the bench, Mr M’Neill said the accused had not been examined by a doctor. It appeared to be a mania he was labouring under. There did not seem to be anything else wrong with him.

The Prisoner was then removed.


A few minutes later he expressed a wish to be tried, and, to enable this to be done without witnesses, he was to plead guilty.

As the Magistrate and other officials had not left, the Court was reopened, Bailie Whyte again on the bench, when the charge being again read over, the accused pled guilty.


The Bailie said it was a strange charge to be admitted.

He had confessed to acting like a lunatic. His appearance was that of a man not sound.

He certainly seemed sober, and drink had never been alluded to in what he had heard, but he suspected he had previously been drinking away his senses.

Such conduct as he was said to have been pursuing of late could not be tolerated. Here was a woman so frightened by his mad conduct the previous night that she was unable to appear that day. It might have caused her death.


He trusted that the accused was sorry for what he had done.

The Prisoner said that he was very sorry for what he had done, but he had not touched or hurt anyone, as God was his judge.

The Bailie, after some admonition as to his future conduct, passed a sentence of twenty days’ imprisonment.

He was subsequently sent off to Dundee, his departure being witnessed by a large crowd of youngsters who consider him the real “Jack the Ripper.”


The history of this case is a singular one.

He says that though born in London he rather belongs to Kilmarnock, where he lived longest. It appears he lodged in a house in Ladybridge Street, and his landlady was paid the balance of what was due her on Thursday out of the funds in his possession, and with the prisoner’s consent.

He had a fancy to get married, and had taken a house at the east end of East Newgate.

On Tuesday he called at a shop in Market Place and purchased two bags of oat chaff to fill a bed with, for which he paid, and the bags were sent to his house.

Who the bride is we have not heard.


It was on Saturday night last that he was discovered in an ashpit in Kinnaird Street. The man who found him was so alarmed that he ran for assistance and came back in a few minutes, but the bird was flown.

The bed was there, consisting of some sheets of thick brown paper, and on top was a piece of new waxcloth.

The next case was similar, the scene being laid in Glover Street or its vicinity.


Nothing more was heard publicly till Tuesday night, when Mrs Smith, the complainer, who resides in Brechin Road, had occasion to visit her ashpit between seven and eight o’clock, and was alarmed at seeing a man in it.

She screamed, and her husband ran out, and also some neighbours, who seized the intruder.

It is said, however, that he got out of their grips and ran away, getting west as far as the Brothock, which he waded through, then doubled and had got up to Guthrie Hill, where he was captured, a constable having joined in the chase.


Of course, there will be no end of stories afloat about his other doings, as the subject affords facilities for their multiplication.”