The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds) – Her Words and Summary

This is the final post in a series of five that summarizes the trial of my third great grandmother Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds). Roseannah had been charged with multiple counts of theft by housebreaking in 1877 Glasgow, Scotland. This final post in the series is my transcription of the essential components of Roseannah’s statements to the court. The original public court records are housed in the National Archives of Scotland from which I have obtained copies for a fee.

October 3, 1877 Statement

“My name is Roseann Dowds or Mitchell. I am a native of Ireland, 36 years of age, a hawker, and I reside at 77 Havannah Street, Glasgow.

I deny the charges preferred against me viz (1) of breaking into a house in Malvern Place on or about 24th August last, and stealing therefrom a cloth coat and various other articles of clothing; (2) of breaking into a house on or about 17th September last in Bernard Street Bridgeton and stealing therefrom a lustre dress, and various other articles of clothing; and (3) of breaking into a house in Naburn Street Gorbals, on or about 25th also and stealing therefrom a sateen petticoat and other articles of clothing.

A woman of the name of Joann Walker called upon me on Thursday last. She had a knitted shawl with her and a thing with bugles on it, and two pieces of silk.

She laid these articles on the top of my chest lid and afterwards they were put into my chest. I did not give Mrs. Prentice a suit of black clothes to pawn.

I can’t say if I was in Bernard Street, Bridgeton, on 17th September, for I am hawking about from street to street.

I did not on 26th September pawn with Jack in Burrell’s lane, Glasgow a Thibet petticoat, but a lad named Patrick Blession was sent with a petticoat and a tartan napkin by Joann Walker to pawn. I gave a boy, Robert Smith my own petticoat to pawn. He also got a bundle of clothes to pawn which I got fro Joann Walker.

All which I declare to be truth, and that I cannot write.”

October 24, 1877 Statement

“The declaration emitted by me on 3rd current, which has now been read over to me and is docquetted and subscribed as relative hereto is all correct with this exception that I should have said that Joann Walker called on me on Wednesday last, and not on “Thursday last” as I stated in the Declaration. I wish to say, with reference to the first of the acts of Housebreaking preferred against me as and to which I emitted the Declaration read over, that I fell down the outside stair of my house, and was confined to the house for eight days. I was attended to by the Dispensary doctor at the Hannah whose name I don’t know. I also want to add that a day or two after I got up Joann Walker gave me a black silk dress, a jacket, and another article I don’t remember what it was, and asked me to sell them. I did so to a Mrs. Hanlon in the Bazaar and got £2.3/. Walker gave me the odd 3/ for my trouble. Three weeks after this again, I sold for Walker another dress, but I can’t tell the material. I sold it to the same Mrs. Hanlon, and got 15/ for it which I gave to Walker with the exception of 1/ which she gave me for my trouble. The dress now shown to me with a sealed Label attached, and which is docquetted and subscribed as relative hereto is the dress I sold for 15/.

I deny the charge of having on the 21st September last broken into a house in Victoria Street, Govan, and occupied by Patrick Malley, by means of a false key, and stealing therefrom a pair of trousers, a silk tunic, two merino dresses and a brown skirt. I also deny the alternative charge of resetting these articles or any of them between 20th and 30th September last, in my house in Havannah, or in Bazaar, or elsewhere.

It being now explained by the Sheriff Substitute that the merino dress which the Declarant stated she had sold for 15/ for Walker was one of the articles which she was accused of stealing from Malley’s house by means of Housebreaking on the 21st September last, Declares I repeat my statement that the merino dress now shown to me, and docquetted and subscribed with reference to this Declaration is the merino dress I sold for Walker. The pair of trousers now shown to me with a sealed Label attached, which is docquetted and subscribed as relative hereto is a pair of trousers which I bought some time about the beginning of July last from a tailor’s shop at the head of New Wynd. I bought them for a lodger of the name of Neil McKenzie. I paid 14/6 for them, which McKenzie paid me. He left me owing money, and telling me to get them cleaned, and as McKenzie didn’t come back. I got Joann Walker to pawn them for me. The silk tunic now shown to me with a sealed Label which is docquetted and subscribed as relative hereto, was brought to my house by Joann Walker, and was found by the detectives when they came. I wish to add that I knew Joann Walker was a dealer in the clothes market, and so thought the articles that she had in her possession were honestly come by. I can’t explain why, being a dealer, she asked me to sell certain of the articles. I can’t write.”

November 15, 1877 Statement

“I wish … to say that I was not aware that any of the articles which were in my possession, or which I referred to as being in my possession on 3rd October last were stolen. All of which I declare to be truth, and I cannot write.”


I am amazed that convictions were obtained for each of the charges brought against Roseannah. Upon being convicted for stealing the clothing, Roseannah was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

I recognize that mine may not be seen as the most objective of opinions due to my direct relationship with her but it seems clear that nothing directly tied Roseannah to actually stealing the clothing articles. In a worse case scenario, there could be a possibility that Roseannah could be seen as being in possession of property obtained by crime however she was never charged with that offence. And what of the mysterious Joanna Walker, a woman arrested at the same time and in connection to the thefts but then released as police felt she was a prostitute not a thief. At best it adds up to reasonable doubt.

Perhaps I am applying 21st century thinking to a 19th century circumstance and reading the statements of all the participants is not unlike reading a Dickens novel and while Fagin’s manipulation of Oliver pre-dates Roseannah’s run in with law, it seems that the same societal culture may have survived.

The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds), Part 4

Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds) is my one of my paternal third great grandmothers. Around the beginning of May 2011, I discovered that Roseannah had been charged and convicted in 1877 with several counts of theft by housebreaking. This post, along with the three previous posts, summarize the statements and evidence that was used against Roseannah during the trial held in Glasgow. The original records from the trial are housed in the National Archives of Scotland and, for a fee, I obtained a copy of the records (the NAS provided high quality copies and appear to have been very thorough in ensuring I received everything requested).

Fourth Charge

Mary Ann Malley was a shopwoman who resided at 17 Victoria Street in Govan, near Glasgow, where she lived with her father Patrick, a boot and shoemaker. Mary Ann described their flat (or apartment) as a room and a kitchen, located up one flight of stairs in the building.

According to Mary Ann, on Friday, September 21, 1877, she and her mother left the flat at about noon and locked the flat door. They returned at about 3:00 p.m. and found the door locked just as they had left it. Mary Ann subsequently noticed a little while later that a tunic and dress belonging to her, a dress belonging to her mother, as well as a skirt belonging to her sister were missing. These items, according to Mary Ann’s testimony, had been hanging either in the flat entry or in the one room of the flat. Patrick Malley later reported the theft to the police. In early October 1877, Mary Ann stated she went to the police station and identified some of the missing items that the police had recovered.

Mary Ann’s testimony was corroborated by her mother Bridget Malley (nee Welsh). Mary Ann’s father, Patrick later also identified a pair of trousers belonging to him that Mary Ann had not mentioned in her statement.

Anne Brierton (nee Hanlon) lived at 65 Drygate in Glasgow with her husband Charles, an engineer. Anne worked at her father’s fruit and vegetable stand in the Bazaar at Cowlings in Glasgow. According to Anne’s testimony, sometime near the end of August 1877, Roseannah Mitchell showed her a black silk dress, a jacket and a tunic, asking Anne if she would buy them, a common practise of hawkers at the bazaar. Anne purchased all three items for £2, four shillings and six pence. Anne saw Roseannah on a couple of other subsequent occasions at the bazaar but didn’t purchase anything. Finally, Anne stated that she went to the police station where she again saw Roseannah and the basket Roseannah used to carry her articles for sale but she was unable to positively identify any of the clothing articles.

Anne’s sister, Mary Hanlon lived at 18 North Albion Street in Glasgow and knew Roseannah from seeing her at the bazaar. Mary stated she never purchased anything from Roseannah but had seen both her sister Anne and mother Ann Hanlon buy articles from her in the past. Mary testified that she identified a dress bought from Roseannah and later recovered by the police but added that she had never seen Roseannah with the dress.

Anne and Mary’s mother, Ann Hanlon (nee Brannon) also knew Roseannah from the bazaar. Ann stated that her daughter, Anne purchased a dress, jacket and tunic, for which she had loaned her daughter £2. Later, according to Ann, Roseannah came to their house where Mary Hanlon tried on a dress, found that it fit fine and so it was purchased. Ann did not obtain a receipt for the purchase stating that this was not unusual in dealing with hawkers.

The Police

William Booth was a criminal officer (Detective) with the East District of the Glasgow Police. William was assigned to investigate the thefts from the Cullen and Smith homes. He subsequently arrested Roseannah on September 29, 1877 in High Street, Glasgow. Booth stated he took Roseannah to her Havannah Street home that he then searched. During the search, Booth found a cape and a napkin that Roseannah stated belonged to her. Booth also stated that during the search, he found a key that when tried “easily” opened all the doors to the flats where thefts had occurred.

Booth further testified that he arrested Margaret Prentice (nee Brown) whom he stated denied involvement in the thefts but that when shown the recovered articles, stated that Roseannah had sent her to the pawn shops with the clothing items.

Agnes Grant was a police search woman who stated that she searched Roseannah who was wearing a red flannel petticoat when processed at the police station.

John Anderson was a criminal officer with the Govan Burgh Police. John stated that he saw the recovered clothing articles in the Glasgow police station that “resembled” the articles stolen from the Malley residence. According to Anderson, he took the key found by William Booth and found that it easily unlocked the door to the Malley’s flat.

The Co-Accused

Margaret Prentice (nee Brown) was a widow living at 1 Muse Lane, off Duke Street in Glasgow. Margaret’s statement was clear – “I am entirely innocent.” Margaret stated she had never seen any of the clothing articles that the police showed to her and that the pawnbroker who identified her “must have mistaken me for some other woman” although she did admit that in past she had pawned some articles for Roseannah, the articles she pawned were not the stolen items and she had dealt with a woman at the pawn shop, not a man.

My Opinion

The police admitted in their statements that they had arrested a third woman, named Johanna Walker, when they had arrested Roseannah and Margaret. According to the police, Johanna was known to them as a prostitute, not a thief, so they released her and had been unable to subsequently find her again. In her statement, Margaret Prentice indicated that while she was lodging with the Mitchells for about a three week period, an unknown woman who could have been Johanna Walker did come to the flat on possibly three occasions. Margaret stated she, nor anyone else, ever spoke to the woman so had no idea as to what the stranger wanted.

While it might be at worse case suspicious that Roseannah appears to have been in possession of a key that opened the doors to all of the various flats involved, it is possible that locking mechanisms used at the time and in the homes of the less-than-wealthy families involved, were not sophisticated and overly secure locks. I think it highly unlikely that Roseannah had been able to fashion herself or have made for her a universal “master” key capable of fitting the locks of diverse neighbourhoods and buildings. In addition, no witnesses could place Roseannah at any of the residences at the times of the thefts. Is it possible that Johanna was the thief and Roseannah a subsequently an unwitting victim of circumstance?

The evidence, especially that of Ann Hanlon (nee Brannon) who stated that Roseannah not only sold her some clothing but also offered to purchase some articles from Ann demonstrates the business Roseannah was in – acquiring articles from a wide variety of sources in order to sell them at a hopefully higher price later.

In the next and final post on the trial of Roseannah, I will share Roseannah’s own words from the court records.

The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds), Part 3

My last post was probably overly long in summarizing the witness statements and evidence presented in 1877 at the trial of my third great grandmother, Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds). Roseannah had been charged with multiple counts of theft by housebreaking and her trial was held in December 1877. This post will summarize the witness statements and evidence involved in the next charge against Roseannah.

Third Charge

Barbara Smith was a millworker residing in a ground floor flat at 47 Naburn St., Hutchesontown, Glasgow. Barbara testified that between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 25, 1877, she went up two flights of stairs in her apartment building to the flat of her sister. There she remained until about 3:00 p.m. She stated that when she returned to her flat in the afternoon the door was locked just as she had left it but that once in her flat, she noticed some cloth sticking out of a chest drawer. On further inspection, she found that four petticoats, two jackets, a plaid, a napkin, a tunic and a silk cape were missing.

She reported the theft to the police and over the next few days, she attended the police station to identify three petticoats, the silk cape, the tunic and the napkin that police had recovered. Barbara further testified that she knew Roseannah well as Roseannah was a ‘hawker’ who had been in her building almost daily for the past year even though Barbara stated she had never dealt with Roseannah personally. She had a “strong impression” that she had opened her sister’s flat door to Roseannah but because she saw Roseannah so frequently she wasn’t really sure it was her.

Elizabeth Gray (nee Smith) was Barbara’s sister. She corroborated that Barbara was in her flat between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on September 25, 1877. Barbara left her flat but returned shortly afterwards telling her of the theft. Elizabeth stated that she went with Barbara to the police station when the missing items were identified.

Mary Jack (nee Duncan) was a widow who lived at 33 Duke Street in Glasgow and worked as a pawnbroker at 8 Burrel’s Lane, Duke Street, Glasgow. Mary testified that on September 26, 1877, Roseannah ‘pledged’ a petticoat and was given 5 pence and a pawn ticket. Mary also stated that on September 29th, police arrived and removed the petticoat from the shop. Mary later identified Roseannah as the individual who had ‘pledged’ the item.

Patrick Blession lived with his mother at 1 Muse Lane, off Duke Street i Glasgow. Patrick testified that he took a woolen napkin to McGuire’s pawn shop on September 26, 1877 and that Roseannah had given him the article in her house at Havannah Street. He stated that he received £2, 6 pence and a pawn ticket which he turned over to Roseannah.

Michael McElaney was a pawnbroker’s assistant who resided at Stirling Road in Glasgow. Michael testified that on September 26, 1877, Patrick Blession ‘pledged’ a woolen napkin in McGuire’s pawn shop and was given £2, 6 pence and a pawn ticket. Michael further stated that on September 29th, a woman ‘pledged’ “a pair of trousers” under the name Jane Mitchell and was given 6 pence and a pawn ticket. He later saw Roseannah at the police station but could not identify her as the woman who had ‘pledged’ the trousers explaining that he had been very busy at the time of the exchange so he didn’t remember much of the woman.

Robert Smith resided with his father, Thomas Smith, a shoemaker, at Havannah Street in Glasgow. Robert testified that he knew Roseannah “as she lives below us.” Robert testified that Roseannah asked him to take a petticoat and tunic to a pawn shop for her. He went to Conway’s pawn shop, accompanied by Roseannah who waited outside the shop for him. He received 8 pence and a pawn ticket that he gave to Roseannah. Robert stated that Roseannah paid him a half penny. According to Robert, she told him “to give my own name but I did not do so but gave in her name.”

Finally, the court heard from Edward McKay, a pawnbroker’s assistant at Conway’s pawn shop at 2 Duke Street in Glasgow, resided at 183 George Street in Glasgow. Edward testified that on September 28, 1877, at about 9:00 a.m., a person using the name of John Mitchell of Duke Street ‘pledged’ a petticoat and a tunic and was given 8 pence and a pawn ticket. Edward stated that he later gave these goods to the police when requested. Edward also couldn’t remember nor identify the person in the transaction.

The jury found Roseannah guilty of theft by housebreaking.

My Opinion

As was the case with charges one and two, there doesn’t appear to have been much of a defence, if any, offered on behalf of Roseannah. It might be that Roseannah was possibly in possession of articles that had been reported as stolen in the worst case but even with this, the witnesses were unable to positively identify the persons involved in the transactions that might have then linked back to Roseannah. There can be numerous reasons as to why Roseannah didn’t complete all of the pawn transactions herself. As a ‘hawker’ I suspect she regularly bought, or otherwise received as barter, articles from a range of sources, both honourable and quite possibly dishonourable. Successful ‘hawking’ involved like most entrepreneurial activities, buying low and selling high. Roseannah again appears to have been an easy, expendable target for the charges chiefly on the fact that she daily was in the vicinity of where the theft occurred, the infamous being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Trial of Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds), Part 2

Roseannah Mitchell (nee Dowds) is my third great grandmother. She was also convicted of theft by housebreaking in 1877 in a Glasgow court and was sentenced to eight years in prison. I have obtained the court records, including the statements of the witnesses, for the trial. Without a doubt Roseannah and her husband, James Mitchell, appear to have lived a hard life, scratching out a living in a hard knock world.
The following is a summary of the evidence that was presented to the jury in 1877 on the first two charges.

First Charge

Anna Thomson or Cullen, wife of David Cullen, lived at Malvern Place, Comely Park, Glasgow. She testified that on August 24, 1877, sometime between 10:00 – 11:00 a.m., the following articles of clothing were stolen from her home: a cloth coat, cloth vest, cloth trousers belonging to her husband and a silk dress, jacket, and tunic belonging to Anna Cullen.

Anna stated that she left the house, a second floor flat, at 10:45 a.m., locked the door, and returned at 11:10 a.m. When she returned, Anna states she found the door to flat locked, just as she had left it, and nothing in the flat looked out of place. She didn’t notice the missing articles until about 7:00 p.m. that evening when she was putting other items away in a clothes chest. Anna asked a neighbour to report the theft to the police. Anna later identified the missing articles at the police station. She also testified that she did not know Roseannah Mitchell (Dowds).

David Cullen, Anna’s husband, corroborated his wife’s story and stated that he had been in and out of the house for various periods of time throughout the day. He testified that he reported the theft to the police and did not know Roseannah Mitchell (Dowds).

John McCann was an assistant pawnbroker to Charles Shannon at 4 Saint Joseph’s Place, Abercromby Street, Glasgow. John stated that during the afternoon of August 24, 1877, Margaret Prentice (nee Brown) ‘pledged’ a coat, vest and trousers for which she was given £1 and a pawn ticket. Margaret, according to John, used the name of Mary Stewart for the transaction. John positively identified Margaret Prentice (nee Brown) as the woman who pawned the clothing articles.

Second Charge

Margaret Smith (nee Shearer), was the wife of William Smith, a cotton-yarn dresser, and lived on Bernard Street, Bridgeton, Glasgow. She testified that between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. on September 17, 1877, her house was entered by someone using a ‘false’ key. She further testified that two dresses, two jackets, two napkins, a beaded bertha and a child’s blouse and dress were stolen from her house. Margaret stated that when she returned to her home at about 1:30 p.m. the door to her third floor apartment was still locked and nothing looked out of place. Later in the day, she found the drawer where the clothes were kept to be empty.

Margaret told a neighbour, Mrs. Cree, of the theft. Mrs. Cree in turn told Margaret that a woman had been in the building selling things door-to-door. Margaret reported the theft to the police and later identified the recovered beaded bertha and napkins at the police station.

Margaret’s sister, Matilda McDonald (nee Shearer), testified that she went with her sister to the police station and helped identify the recovered items.

David Cree, Jr. lived next door to the Smiths at 159 Bernard Street in Glasgow. David stated that at about 1:00 p.m. Roseannah Mitchell (Dowds) came to his flat door, selling pinafores. According to David, Roseannah was carrying a canvass bag over her shoulder. He stated he was able to identify Roseannah based on a mark on her face. He also testified that he didn’t know if Roseannah had gone to the door of the Smith flat and he did not hear the door to the Smith flat open after Roseannah had left his door. David further stated that his mother was in bed at the time this occurred so she had not seen the woman.

Betsy Dunn (nee McDougall), the wife of John Dunn, a boilermaker, lived in a flat directly below the Smith flat on Bernard Street in Glasgow. Betsy testified that at about 1:00 p.m. on Monday, September 17, 1877, she saw Roseannah going upstairs in the building. “I took a good look at her, knowing she was a stranger.” Betsy stated that she didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary after seeing Roseannah, including any doors opening, and she did not see Roseannah come downstairs and leave the building. However, Betsy did testify that 15 minutes after Roseannah went upstairs, Mrs. Smith told her that her house had been entered. She then told Mrs. Smith about the “stranger woman” who “was alone and carrying a bag over her arm. There was nothing in it.”

My Opinion

The justice system, then and now, places the burden of responsibility on the prosecution to prove guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Roseannah was found guilty by the jury based on what I think was very flimsy, circumstantial, and at times contradictory evidence. Nothing placed Roseannah near the Cullen home on charge one nor ever in possession of the stolen articles. In fact, the evidence suggests that the stolen clothing articles were in the possession of Margaret Prentice, using the name of Mary Stewart when she pawned them. Margaret Prentice testified that not only did she not steal the clothing, the pawnbroker’s assistant, John McCann, was mistaken when he identified her as the woman who ‘pledged’ the clothing articles in the pawn shop.

On charge two, there were two witnesses, David Cree and Betsy Dunn, who placed Roseannah in the building around the time that the theft of the Smith clothing occurred. Roseannah herself did not refute that she may have likely been there, explaining that as a ‘hawker’ she went from place to place all day long selling various articles to make a living. No one saw or heard anything that directly links Roseannah with the theft of the clothing.

I’m certain that without the benefit of forensic evidence, prosecuting cases may have come down to credibility in ‘he said – she said’ scenarios in the era of these charges being heard by the court. It doesn’t appear however that any substantial defence was put forward for Roseannah that would have pointed out the conflicting timeline offered by Betsy Dunn who stated that Roseannah went upstairs in the building at 1:00 p.m. and that at 1:15 p.m., Mrs. Smith told her about the theft from her flat even though Mrs. Smith’s evidence was that she had not returned home until 1:30 p.m. and didn’t notice the missing articles until later in the day. Betsy Dunn also stated that the bag she saw Roseannah carrying had nothing in it although no one seems to have asked her how she knew it to be empty.

If there is doubt, the accused is to be acquitted but Roseannah was somehow found guilty. I can’t help but feeling that the proceedings were based on ‘marching the guilty party in.’ It seems Roseannah didn’t stand a chance of finding justice and being acquitted – but then I’m a proud great-great-great grandson.