Published: 03/01/2014 10:16 - Updated: 03/01/2014 10:34

Black deed on the Black Isle


Author Graham Clark
Author Graham Clark

 tale of murder, deception and a killer’s rather mobile afterlife proved too intriguing for local historian Graham Clark to resist.

The retired research scientist first became fascinated by the story of John Adam, the last man to be publicly hanged in Inverness, while writing an earlier book on the history of Redcastle, not far from where army deserter Adam killed his wife Jane in April 1835.

"I made a mental note to write a book about the case because John Adam and his wife came from Angus, like myself," Clark explained.

"I did bits and pieces of research on it from time to time, but in the last year or so I just knuckled down and got writing.

"I thought it was a fascinating case, not just because of the murder itself, which was gruesome enough, but the surrounding events made it different from other murders."

One of these was one of the last instances of the use of a procedure known as the ordeal of the bier.

"It was something that was used around the world, not just in Europe. The Aborigines in Australia had something similar," he said.

"Basically it involved the accused touching the body of the dead person and watching their behaviour."

In the case of John Adam, he was asked by the procurator fiscal to touch his dead wife’s hand and asked if he had ever held her hand before. The procedure was then repeated with her lips and, rather bizarrely, with her breast.

"Apparently John Adam was in quite a state by the time he was put through this ordeal — but then who wouldn’t be?" Clark chuckled.

"This was apparently the last time it was ever used in Scotland."

Adam and his victim, Jane Brechin, knew each other in her home town of Montrose, but she rejected his advances and he joined the army.

It was while he was serving with the army in Derbyshire that he met the third person in what Clark calls "a tangled web", Dorothy Elliott.

Adam deserted the army and the couple walked all the way to Dingwall where they posed as Mr and Mrs Anderson and Adam found work in a local quarry.

However, money remained short and in a bid to improve their finances, Adam returned to Montrose where he courted businesswoman Jane Brechin once again, but more successfully. The couple were married in March 1835, Adam of course neglecting to mention his relationship with Elder, and they returned to the Highlands where he installed Jane in lodgings in Inverness.

"John Adam was walking between the two women regularly across the Black Isle, so he knew the area very well," Clark added.

He put that knowledge to murderous use on Friday 3rd April 1835 when he and Jane crossed the Beauly Firth on the Kessock Ferry and set off in the direction of Milbuie.

A week later a woman’s body was discovered in the ruins of a cottage where the killer had attempted to conceal in underneath rubble. Following an appeal issued through the local churches, the body was identified as Jane Brechin and attention turned to her husband.

"John Adam was a big, tall handsome man of six feet one, so people recognised him," Clark added.

Though Adam protested his innocence, putting forward a claim that Jane may have died when the cottage wall fell on her, the jury found him guilty and he became the last person to be hanged in Inverness.

Since his execution in Inverness on 16th October 1835, Adam has not always been allowed to rest in peace.

"It looks as though after his death, his head was taken off and used for the study of phrenology," Clark said.

Although long since discredited, phrenology was popular in the early 19th century and held that the shape and size of a person’s skull could reveal insights into character and intelligence.

In keeping with common practice, a death mask was also made of Adam’s face and is currently on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

However, it is the fate of the rest of Adam’s body which has continued to attract attention.

The plaque marking John Adam's supposed resting place at Northern Constabulary's former HQ.
The plaque marking John Adam's supposed resting place at Northern Constabulary's former HQ.

One of the directives from the judge was that his remains be buried in the Tolbooth, the town’s jail of the time, and since then, every time the jail and later police station moved, so did Adam’s remains — though there was a tale that the killer’s bones were unceremoniously after the police in Inverness moved from the former Little Theatre in Farraline Park, now the city central library.

The last reported location of his bones, however, was at the regional police headquarters on Old Perth Road.

"But when they built the new Northern Constabulary police HQ at Inshes, they couldn’t find him," Clark said.

"That’s why the plaque there is worded rather strangely, that ‘it is believed’ John Adam’s remains lie below the car park there."

Clark is more confident that he has found the last resting place of Jane, in the graveyard of St Clement’s Church in Dingwall, though confusingly the date on her memorial stone is given as 1837 rather than 1835, the year of her murder.

The delay was the result of a dispute over the £800 she had brought with her from Montrose, where she was a successful businesswoman with a shop of her own, and which seems to have been the motive for her murder.

In accordance with the law of the time, her property was transferred to her husband on their marriage and part of this money was used to pay for Adam’s ultimately unsuccessful defence.

Dorothy Elder, however, had a happier fate. She left Dingwall and returned to her native county of Northumberland where she married a miner, had five of a family and lived to a respectable old age.

John Adam: The Mulbuie Murderer by Graham Clark is published by Umbria Press, priced £9.99.

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