Posts tagged ‘excisemen’

May 8, 2019

Poor Lexy Campbell, Lord Byron and the man who could raise the dead

Lexy Campbell was very young when she caught Lord Byron’s eye on a visit to his former nurse, Agnes Gray, in the village of Woodside, close to Aberdeen. Agnes and her husband, Alexander Melvin, lived in a first floor flat at 177 Barron Street, its back to the old turnpike road to Inverurie, as was the tradition. Following his visit the tenement was tagged ‘Byron Hall.’

A young George Gordon, Lord Byron, admirer of Lexy Campbell

I don’t know when that was but reckon she was around fourteen or fifteen, ten years younger than Byron; known in Aberdeen by his mother’s family name, George Gordon.

Lexy, Alexandrina Campbell was five foot three, fair with light brown hair and hazel eyes with a little mole on her right cheek. She lived near Agnes in Printfield, in the flat of a ‘very respectable spinster, called Nelly Calder. It was subsequently reported that poor Lexy’s reputation suffered following the attentions of George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose reputation is well-known but on this occasion he appears to have been innocent – well fairly innocent for she might have been tainted by the whiff of scandal that always hung about the poet and ‘Poor Lexy lost caste by this affair, and her subsequent history was unfortunate.’

When she was 30 years old Lexy Campbell was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) Australia along with 99 other prisoners from Britain on the ship, Harmony. Why? Well, it all started like this –

Lexy Campbell became the housekeeper, tutor to his children and perhaps mistress of the notorious Black Malcolm Gillespie. Dark haired with a dark complexion Gillespie was a gauger, an exciseman – employed by the government to collect taxes, for the purposes of this account we’re concerned with the whisky tax imposed on the spirit in Scotland by the British government eager to control the smuggling of foreign spirits and illegally produced whisky in Scotland – illegal in the sense of not paying the government’s tax. Originally from Dunblane, Gillespie worked in various districts including Collieston, Stonehaven and later went to live at Crombie Cottage at Skene, west of Aberdeen. He was a very successful gauger and for 28 years he was a scourge of local whisky smugglers, well-informed and knowledgeable on the whereabouts of stills and routes taken by smugglers. He’s credited with seizing 410 gallons on a single occasion and over his time as an exciseman he captured 22,751 gallons of spirits, 165 horses and 82 carts.

It appears the government didn’t pay their gaugers very much for Gillespie felt the need to make a bit more besides to maintain the lifestyle he thought should be his. But I’ll come back to that.

One of Black Gillespie’s adversaries was entrepreneur whisky man, John Duff – a prolific whisky maker and smuggler. One day with 40 gallons of whisky concealed in his house ready to be carted to Aberdeen for sale he was dismayed to spot the approach of the exciseman, Gillespie. Time was too short to shift the barrels of whisky so Duff frantically thought how he might prevent Gillespie searching his property.

Landseer’s romantic image of an illicit whisky still

This was a time when itinerant craftsmen took their skills around the countryside rather than folk going to them in a village or town. It so happened that a travelling tailor was at Duff’s house ‘whipping the cat’ i.e. engaged on making up clothes there.

This particular tailor was a Highlander although that probably has little relevance to his insatiable thirst for whisky. And no, he wasn’t persuaded to drink 40 gallons of the stuff in the time it took Gillespie to arrive.

‘There’s Gillespie, we maun try to save the drink. Will ye render assistance, Tam?’ John Duff asked the tailor.

The tailor agreed to help Duff when he was promised he would be paid as much whisky as he could drink in a week but on discovering the plan involved him playing dead Tam the tailor was less enthusiastic for as a Highlander he had sufficient respect for religion to worry about playing with fate and death.

However, he agreed and lay down on the long table with a napkin tied under his chin and a cloth spread over his face – every inch a corpse.

Gillespie marched straight into the house and was surprised to be greeted by a body laid out in front of the window and Duff and his relatives seated about in a state of mourning – their faces wet with tears and bibles in their hands as they sang a Psalm.

‘Oh, Mr Gillespie! Ye hae come to a hoose o’ mourin’. As ye see, we hae just been askin’ Divine aid to sustain us in this sair dispensation, but come inbye! Come inbye,’ invited Duff.

The two men talked a little about the dead man who Duff claimed was his brother newly returned home from America. Gillespie was well-informed about the people in the community he policed and was certain Duff had no brother. Suspicious, he enquired what the man had died from. Duff was dumfoundered and thinking fast thought it best to say it was something highly infectious to encourage Gillespie to leave but his mind went blank. He dropped his gaze and his eyes fell on the open bible in his lap. And he read the first words he saw.

‘’Nae ither than leprosy,’ he said.

‘Leprosy, did you say?’ cried an astounded Gillespie.

The gauger was more suspicious than ever and asked to see the corpse. Duff warned him he was taking his life in his hands but to go ahead.

Gillespie stepped up, ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s much danger, for I am not very liable to infection.’ He lifted the cloth and was sure he recognised the man laid out who didn’t look very dead or diseased. It came to him that this was none other than the wandering and often drunken tailor he had seen weeks earlier. From his pocket he took out his snuff box and taking a pinch of the stuff pushed it into the nostrils of the ‘streekit’ man. The corpse sneezed, again and again, and sprung to his feet, tearing off the cloths around his face while the Duff family looked on aghast and Gillespie smiled.

‘What the devil gar’d ye stap yer langnailed fingers up my nose?’ demanded the risen corpse.

‘Man, I think you have reason to be thankful that I did so. If I had not, our friend here might have buried you alive. If you ever again fall a victim to the leprosy you now know the cure. Just try the effects of a pickle snuff,’ said Gillespie.

Then turning to Duff he told him he had just witnessed one of those miracles he read about in the bible.’ As for raising the dead Gillespie insisted he couldn’t do that but had come close, ‘for I have at least raised the ninth part of one… you thought the body only remained, and that the spirit was fled: you see you are mistaken. After such an error I could never pardon myself if I departed without searching the house. It is not known what further discoveries I may make. I may even find spirits absent from the body.’

And so it was that John Duff’s store of whisky spirit was discovered and confiscated and Duff dealt with by the courts which put a stop to his whisky smuggling career.

When it came to his turn Gillespie’s own court appearances must have raised a wry smile and a slàinte mhath or two around the straths and townships of Aberdeenshire.

In 1827 Malcolm Gillespie and George Skene Edwards were charged with forgery to obtain money. On his arrest Gillespie uttered, ‘Good God, I am a gone man. You must allow me to disappear and this will be all settled.’ He appealed to have the charges removed which was rich given his ruthless approach to those he apprehended. Before his arrest when he became aware the game was up on his forgeries he told one witness against him, ‘for God’s sake good woman, don’t do that, for, if the fiscal got notice of that, I might as well cut myself in pieces, or blow out my brains.’

The man with a craving for high living, or as high as a gauger cum fraudster could expect, who forged Treasury bills went on to try to defraud two insurance companies.

The home he and Lexy lived in, Crombie Cottage, he insured for £530 with one insurer and £300 with another. One or two others shared the house and all were implicated in Gillespie’s plot to burn down the house and claim insurance money on it. Gillespie took himself off to Edinburgh, presumably to give himself an alibi, leaving the others to arrange the fire by smearing the furniture with rosin, inflammable solid pine resin, jamming more resin between roof joists, pouring turpentine around and sprinkling gunpowder over surfaces. Coils of dry ropes were brought into the house to help it burn and one part of the thatch was cut to prevent a single area go up in flames.  On the night of 21 February 1827 all the participants took a dram of whisky then Lexy took a lit candle into the cellar and set it alight while another ignited the dry ropes.  

It was an elaborate plan and it worked. The house burnt down good and proper or in Gillespie’s words it was ‘genteelly done.’

On 30 April Gillespie was apprehended for his claim on the insurance companies. He, Lexy and the rest were held in Aberdeen’s tolbooth. By a majority verdict Gillespie was declared guilty of forgery and told to expect no mercy in this world. He bowed to both bench and jury. Gillespie retained hopes of a reprieve to near the end for he was much respected as guardian of the law of taxation by many a landed gentleman and MP but when that didn’t come the gauger became introspect and dejected. At the last moment he admitted his forgeries, protesting he acted honestly. He was executed on 16 November. When he stepped up to the scaffold he looked towards the west – supposedly towards Skene. Following his hanging he was cut down and transported back to Skene and buried there.  

The type of convict ship Lexy sailed on to Van Diemen’s Land

As he had been convicted on the capital offence of forgery Gillespie was not tried on fire-raising to defraud. His accomplices faced that charge but it was accepted by the court that Gillespie had been behind the plan so they were shown leniency – seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land – which is why Byron’s early love, fair Lexy Campbell, at the age of thirty found herself in the company of 99 others on a convict ship, Harmony, bound for Australia on 9 September 1828. Her fate there? I don’t know.

PS Thanks to John and Lesley who responded to the initial blog with links to information about Lexy. I had read previously she was from Ross-shire (like me) but dismissed this as it mentioned a place called Haries (which doesn’t exist) however it must mean Harris in the Western Isles which is in Easter Ross.

I didn’t find out much more about Lexy post-transportation other than she was described as well-behaved and married a man called Bryan. Grateful to readers and https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/about-convict-lives/about-convict-lives for this information and anymore is welcomed.