Today, The Courier’s leader comments have mellowed but that 1869 quote from the paper, in the headline above, articulated an exasperation and disgust at a wave of crime and vice that had been exposed in Dundee. The Courier’s thundering leader was published after a William Fawcett was found guilty of robbery in a house of ill repute.
He was found not guilty of garrotting his victim in a trial that heard he intimidated witnesses and even urged a prostitute called Ginger to poison a fellow prostitute to prevent her giving evidence.
The victim was a bumbling sailor called James Davidson of Gellatly Street. His ship had docked and he wasn’t short of cash. Late on a May evening in 1868, Davidson fell in with street girl Catherine McGowan.
She took him to Ann Andrew’s house in Butchart’s Close, Murraygate, but this tryst didn’t end well. A disturbance attracted the police who saw William Fawcett garrotting Davidson and throwing him down the outside stairs. There, two constables witnessed two women rifling his pockets.
Fawcett was remanded pending trial and while in jail he starting plotting. He was a streetwise crook who had spent 10 years in America. Fawcett managed to get a letter from jail smuggled to his brother.
In it, the slang of the time revealed, he told his brother to “sweeten the block, put the gloves on him.” Block was slang for a man who visited street girls and he was imploring his brother to silence him.
He then instructed his brother to get Ginger to poison the “moll” whose evidence could convict him. However, the letter fell into the hands of the authorities and was used as evidence in Fawcett’s trial.
His tactics had worked. The victim made himself scarce and did not give evidence and the prostitutes told the court they had seen nothing untoward. A jury still found Fawcett guilty of robbery but not of garrotting. He got five years in jail.
The Courier’s indignation at this light sentence has to be viewed in the context of the time. The Fawcett case was the latest in a string of outrages that undermined the security of law-abiding citizens.
An underclass of criminals had been waging war against police and respectable society. Anyone walking the streets at night was liable to be robbed and there had been break-ins where the perpetrators resorted to fire-raising to cover their tracks.
“It shows what an abyss of evil is hidden from the common gaze,” stated The Courier. “Under the smooth surface of our civilisation there are horrors and depths of wickedness of which ordinary people little dream.
“Unhappily of late, the people of Dundee have seen and heard a good deal of the night side of our town life.”
The leader finished: “They ought to be lashed until they howl and longer for the cowardly rascals are ready enough to cry out when they feel the cat on their backs.”