Book: Crime's Strangest Cases

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Catherine Shaw had not been on the best of terms with her father William for some time. Like many before her and since, she found to her annoyance that her choice of young man didn’t meet with Dad’s approval.

William felt strongly that she had ‘encouraged the addresses of a man’ whom he intensely disliked as ‘a profligate and debauchee’. Words passed between father and daughter on many occasions in the tenement flat they shared in Edinburgh, and on one particular night in the winter of 1721 voices were raised to such a pitch that their neighbour, Mr Morrison, could not help but overhear.

Several times he heard the girl cry the chilling words, ‘Cruel father, thou art the cause of my death!’ followed finally by awful groaning, then the unmistakable sound of William Shaw leaving the house.

Morrison alerted neighbours as the Shaw residence fell ominously silent, but they could not gain entry. A constable was called to break in and poor Catherine Shaw was found, barely alive, weltering in blood and with a knife by her side: ‘Has your father killed you?’ they asked. She was unable to speak but seemed to those present to have nodded her head before expiring moments later.

When William Shaw returned he trembled violently as he saw his daughter’s dead body. He turned pale. The small gathering started to put two and two together, and four began to look a pretty conclusive answer when the constable noticed traces of blood on Shaw’s shirt and hands.

He was quickly put before a magistrate and admitted they had had serious quarrels of late over ‘the man business’. But on the night in question, he insisted, he had been in another room and had gone out without harming his daughter in any way. He had himself heard the cries, but dismissed them as mere histrionics. The blood was readily explained: ‘Some days since, I was bled by a barber and the bandages came untied that night resulting in stains on my shirt and hands.’

The prosecution majored on the evidence of Morrison. He was absolutely sure of the words he had heard: ‘Cruel father, thou art the cause of my death!’ Catherine’s implicit nodding of her head in her last moments was surely an added proof.

Against such evidence William Shaw was convicted, sen tenced and executed at Leith Walk in November 1721 with the full approval of public opinion, although Shaw himself maintained his innocence even on the scaffold.

Only in the new year did it emerge that Catherine Shaw was something of a drama queen. The new tenant of Shaw’s flat found a sheet of paper, which had slipped down an opening near the chimney.

Evidently placed originally on the mantelpiece, it was written in Catherine’s hand and addressed to her father. She reproached him in the letter for his barbarity and said she realised she would never marry the man she loved but was determined not to accept a man of her father’s choice. She had decided to end her burdensome existence. The letter finished with a flourish: ‘My death I lay to your charge. When you read this, consider yourself as the inhuman wretch that plunged the knife into the bosom of the unhappy Catherine Shaw!’

With that parting shot she had taken her own life with full histrionic sound effects. William Shaw may well have been an inhuman wretch but he was undoubtedly an innocent man.

The authorities made a noble attempt at damage limitation, removing his emaciated body from the gibbet where it still hung and giving the wronged man a decent burial. Contemporary reports say that ‘a pair of colours was waved over his grave’, but no amount of respect could redress the miscarriage of justice.

Had either the key witness, Mr Morrison, or the court been familiar with the device later used to such good effect by Agatha Christie in a number of her novels, the evidence might have been more closely scrutinised.

A disembodied voice heard from a closed room is not always what it seems. Sometimes even two voices don’t prove a conversation with Christie around. One person posing as two, or even the cunning use of a tape recording in an empty room, has been employed to baffling effect by the Queen of Crime.

But Morrison wasn’t Hercule Poirot. He hadn’t heard the voice of William Shaw but Catherine’s words implied he was in the room with her.

If this unusual case proves anything, it is surely that murders, like children, should be seen and not merely heard.

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Next: 1724 Maggie’s Reprieve