Content Note: This article contains description of a rape.
On the 22nd of September 1853, Superintendent Adams of the Cupar Police received an anonymous letter from an individual styling themselves as “Mr C C.” The contents of the letter were as follows:
I Consider it my Duty to inform you about that femel who was found Droned about a fortnight agoe near Coupar. She was fowled out the Night Before By some young men who mast shamefuly volated hir parson By Rape some of tham holding hir Down until the other acomplashed his Crarnnel Desire
the names of the men ar Wilson and Bard and Kirk and Culbert
thar is a parson the nam of David Baslen in Cupar who wil be abel to tell you about it
Sir I Remain yrs
Mr C C
Two weeks previous, the body of Eliza Eldon had been found on the banks of the river Eden, near the New Mill Dam in the market town of Cupar in eastern Scotland. Eliza was an unmarried millworker, born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1824. When her body was found, police officers were dispatched to make enquiries but found no evidence of foul play, concluding that Eliza ‘had either fallen or thrown herself into the water.’ Eliza was buried two days later, and the case was closed. Yet, the arrival of the anonymous letter changed all that.
The author of the letter explicitly named and implicated several local male youths in an alleged sexual assault on Eliza prior to her death. This letter can be considered a radical object given the chain of events that its reception subsequently provoked. As a direct result of the receipt of this letter by police, the case was reopened. That same day, five local youths – Duncan Culbert, John Baird, Andrew Young, George McLeod, and James Kirk – were arrested and committed to prison, charged with rape, pending further investigation.
They were Cupar natives with working-class occupations as skinners, tailors, and fruit sellers. The oldest of the accused was eighteen years old; the youngest, just fifteen. The paramount importance of the letter’s arrival was highlighted in correspondence between local prosecutors and Edinburgh-based senior legal officials. Writing to the Crown Agent, John C. Brodie, the Procurators Fiscal of Cupar, Alexander Black and William Morrison, stated that ‘a letter without signature was sent to our Superintendent of Police with information which led to the present investigation and the apprehension of the accused. This was the first information we got of the matter.’
The letter explicitly tied the youths to a suspected criminal act, but an anonymised and unsubstantiated allegation was not legally sufficient to prove the charge and successfully prosecute those implicated in the rape. There is no evidence that the police or prosecutors ever identified “Mr C C,” so no formal deposition (a witness’ sworn out-of-court testimony) of the evidence he may have had was taken. Presumably, given the anonymised signature on the letter, this was intended. Further, the authorities considered it ‘impossible’ to gather meaningful medical evidence by conducting a post-mortem examination, given the amount of time that had elapsed between the burial of the body and information reaching the police. Without further evidence, chances of a successful prosecution would likely unravel.
For this reason, the prosecutors, Black and Morrison, advised the Crown Agent that ‘the evidence is insufficient without taking one or two of the accused as witnesses. Culbert who seems the least guilty of the whole is the one who first divulged the whole matter & will make the best witness.’ In short, they were advocating for at least one of the accused youths to ‘turn Queen’s evidence,’ whereby a participant in a crime admitted guilt and testified as a witness for the state against their accomplice(s), often in return for leniency in sentencing or immunity from prosecution. In cases such as this one, where evidence was scant or uncorroborated, persuading an individual to turn Queen’s evidence against his fellow accomplices was a powerful weapon in the prosecutor’s armoury. The Crown Agent agreed. On the 22nd of October, he decreed that:
Culbert will be taken as a witness. It will be necessary to take another of the accused as a witness, either Baird or Kirk. Kirk is the youngest but he admits the rape. The Fiscal will however be better able to judge of this matter, from his knowledge of their character and disposition and he may select which of them he thinks proper.
Culbert and Baird were indeed taken as Queen’s evidence in return for immunity. They adamantly denied having anything to do with Eliza’s death but admitted that all five of them had ‘connection’ with her, that ‘she did not consent,’ and that she ‘cried out Police and Murder’ when they were assaulting her. In their declarations, the five youths revealed that they ‘had never had connection with a woman before’ that evening. At a High Court trial in Perth the following May, the three suspects – Kirk, Young, and McLeod – each pleaded guilty to the crime of ‘assault with intent to ravish.’ They received sentences of fifteen months’ imprisonment apiece.
The apparent leniency of the sentences is explained, perhaps, by aspersions cast by the youths on Eliza’s character and conduct that fateful evening. All five of the accused stated that Eliza was drunk before the assault. According to Culbert, Eliza had initially approached him asking where she could ‘get a glass’ and was so drunk that ‘if we had not had hold of her by the arms she would have fallen.’ Even Eliza’s housemate, Helen Rhind, stated in her witness statement that she ‘took a dram at times’ though added that ‘I did not consider her a girl of loose habits & I never knew of her going with men.’ The actions of the accused may have been ‘shameful’ in the eyes of the anonymous “Mr C C,” but judicial and broader societal responses to male sexual violence in nineteenth-century Scotland were very much influenced by ideas about the conduct, character and ‘respectability’ of the victim.
When considering this letter as an object, the obvious question posed by it is: who was “Mr C C”? In 2020, I was discussing this letter with Dr Louise Yeoman, a historian and broadcaster who produces BBC Radio Scotland’s Time Travels programme. Her immediate reaction when considering the somewhat idiosyncratic spelling contained in the letter was, if “Mr C C” spelled the way he spoke, he was almost certainly not a Scot. Information from the 1851 Census also returned only one individual living in Cupar with the initials, “C. C.” – Charles Cochrane, a 44-year-old labourer from Norfolk, England. If Charles Cochrane was indeed the author of this letter, it is interesting that he signed off the letter with identifiable initials, and that his working-class identity was similar to that of the five youths implicated by him in the crime.
This anonymous letter is a radical object because without it, there would have been no prosecution. The outrages that Eliza was subject to in the hours preceding her death would have stayed secret; the boys who violated her would have escaped justice (however minimal that justice ended up being). Yet, this letter is also radical in what it represents about community – and particularly men’s – attitudes towards male sexual violence. Whoever “Mr C C” was, he was clearly not content with the narrative of this being an episode of “boys being boys.” In the view he expressed in the letter, it was his ‘duty’ to bring the ‘shameful’ assault to the attention of the authorities. Whilst he put no name to his letter, his actions were an expression of male rejection of sexual violence that was – and still is – often normalised and minimised.
Eliza was working-class, Irish-born, unmarried, unaccompanied, and had been drinking: all aspects that would have undermined her status as a “deserving victim”. This dynamic is – infuriatingly – as much at play today as it was in 1853. Too often, episodes of male violence against women result in women being held culpable for actions done to them, especially when they do not fit the near unattainable standards of perfect victimhood. In the wake of reported sexual assaults, questions are asked about why she was drinking, whether her listening to music on her headphones made her less ‘alert’, why she was wearing that outfit: constant reminders of just how entrenched victim-blaming is within our society. Recent, highly publicised episodes of male violence against women in the UK and Ireland have resulted in deeply frustrating “official” responses – advising women “not to go out alone,” to moderate and adapt their lives to stay safe – when the real issue at hand is not female vigilance, but male violence.
To hope for any meaningful societal change, men need to be at the forefront of efforts to challenge and call out toxic masculine ideas and behaviours, misogynistic actions, and male violence. Men must call out other men’s behaviour. This letter, written almost 170 years ago, is radical as a historical example of just that.
Hannah Telling is a historian of gender, crime, and justice in late modern Scotland. She is a postdoctoral researcher based at the University of Glasgow, where she completed her PhD (2020) on judicial and societal responses to male violence in nineteenth-century Scotland. As the 2020-21 Economic History Society Power Fellow, Hannah expanded her focus to explore women’s experience of justice in Scotland. She is writing a book, titled Criminal Types: Violent Crime and Justice in Scotland, 1850-1914. For more information on the case of Eliza Eldon and other fascinating insights into Scotland’s criminal past, visit BBC Radio Scotland’s Time Travels website. Hannah tweets as @Hannah_Telling.