Helen McCormack (1807–?)

by Leonie Mickleborough


Helen McCormack was born in Gibraltar Spain about 1807, at which time her father Donald, who was born at Wick, Cathness, Scotland, was serving in Gibraltar in the 2/42nd Regiment of Foot. Donald entered His Majesty’s Regiment on 25 June 1793 at the age of 19, and served 21 years and 122 days. On 4 October 1814 he was ‘wounded at Burgos in the head’, and ‘rendered unfit for further Service’ Private Donald McCormick [sic] was discharged. He was ‘about’ forty years old, 5 feet 8 inches (172.72 cm) tall with brown hair, grey eyes a fresh complexion and ‘by Trade a Labourer’.

In 1831 Donald and Helen were living in Edinburgh, where Helen, aged 26, was a straw hat maker. She was very deaf, able to read but not write, and of the Presbyterian faith. She and her father appeared at the Court of Judiciary Edinburgh on 11 November 1831 following the death of Isabella McCormack (or Stevens), Donald’s wife and Helen’s step-mother on 14 July 1831. They both pleaded not guilty, and said Isabella ‘came by her death through her own drunkenness’.

According to Mrs Mills, a neighbour in the block of flats in which the McCormack family lived in Hope’s Land Cannongate, there had been frequent arguments in the McCormack household. Mrs Mills detailed how, on 1 July 1831 she saw Donald dragging his wife by the hair along the passage and down a few steps of the stairs. To make Donald release his hold, Mrs Mills’ sister struck him on the head with tongs, while another resident, Mrs Sowerby, called him an ‘old villain’ and told him to leave his wife alone. Donald had a handful of hair as he let go, and in reply, he gave Mrs Mills’ sister and Mrs Sowerby ‘a great deal of bad language’. Isabella’s eyes were black, she had a wound behind her ear and was bleeding from her mouth. The bleeding continued for thirteen days, when Isabella told Mrs Mills that her step-daughter, Helen, had struck her the previous day, and she was sure Donald would kill her.

On 13 July, the day before Isabella died, 13-year-old William Harrison, who lived in one of the flats, heard a noise he described as ‘roaring like a man in a rage’ coming from the McCormacks’ house. As the door was ajar, William looked in, and he saw Donald strike Isabella a ‘severe blow’ with his closed hand, following which, Helen immediately struck her step-mother, saying she deserved it as she had such a ‘bad tongue'. Another resident, Isabella Nelson (or Thomson), said she went to the Mrs Cormack’s house the same day, where she found Mrs McCormack ‘very much intoxicated’, and had ‘often seen her the worse of liquor before’, and earlier the same day she ‘missed her feet and fell in the passage’.

According William Nelson Rose, a student of medicine, about 12.30pm on Thursday 14 July he was called by Mrs Sowerby to see Isabella. He found her ‘perfectly insensible, saliva was flowing out of the mouth, pulse quick & strong, after several convulsive fits she died rather comatose between 5 & 6 O’Clock’.  Mr Rose was doubtful about the direct cause of death, but thought the blows might have been inflicted by a ‘stick or other blunt instrument’. The ‘effusion of blood was enough to cause death’, but it was impossible to say whether by violence or natural disease.

Mr Rose also said how he heard Donald describe his wife as an ‘habitual drunkard’ who would pawn anything in order to purchase whisky, and when intoxicated, would strike and abuse both he and Helen. Also, while Donald was holding up his wife’s head, he heard Helen say “you murdering blackguard, you have done for her now”. Donald replied, “Hold your tongue, you have done as much as I have.”

Mr Crawford, representing Donald and Helen, asked the jury to accompany their verdict to the court with a recommendation on the grounds that when Mrs McCormack was sober, her husband was kind. Despite this claim, it was the conclusion of the Lord Chief Justice that it was clear both Donald and Helen were guilty of the ‘most atrocious violence’ committed by a husband on his wife, and by a step-daughter on her step-mother and ‘she more probably died by violence than by natural disease’. Both Helen and Donald were found guilty of the ‘culpable homicide’ of Isabella. They were each sentenced to 14 years’ transportation until which time they were held in custody, where Helen was considered to be very indifferent.

Helen, who was not married, was 5 feet 5¾ inches (166 cm) tall with a ‘swarthy’ complexion and dark brown hair and dark grey eyes. She had six previous convictions for drunkenness, for which she had been gaoled—three times for sixty days and three for thirty days.

Donald, like his daughter was 5 feet 5¾ inches (166 cm) tall, had a dark complexion, a large head and mouth, brown eyebrows and his dark brown hair was turning grey. He was transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Sir Kathleen Forbes, where he arrived on 16 July 1832, and when asked for his crime, Donald responded that he had assaulted his wife who died as a consequence, and he was a widower.

A labourer and soldier aged 58, upon arrival at the River Derwent, Donald was assigned to the police.  Four months later he was charged with being drunk and was fined 10/-. The following day he was drunk on his station, but this time he was dismissed as a constable, and sent to work in a road party for twelve months. Donald received his ticket of leave on 18 January 1839, and his conduct record only indicates one more offence. This was on 16 October when he was admonished for drunkenness. After this he disappears from the records, though it is possible he was the Donald McCormack who was buried on 2 January 1841 at New Norfolk having died at the age of 65.

Helen left Plymouth on 11 April 1832 aboard the Hydery, and arrived at the River Derwent on 10 August, three weeks after her father. In contrast to her father, she had quite an extensive record of misconduct, including being sentenced to the Female House of Correction twelve times, two of which included time in a solitary cell, the first was for one month for being absent from her assignment without leave, and the second time was for 48 hours for misconduct in being out after hours.

Considered by her master Mr Gow as not having the ability to wash, on 26 February 1833 she was ordered to spend one month at the wash tub at the Cascades Female House of Correction. This was a sentence she received another three times, each for fourteen days for disobedience and insolence. Mr McDonald was another master who also considered her incapable of doing her household duties, and she was again sentenced to the wash tub. On 16 January 1835 Mr Gorringe, whose property was in the interior, had Helen returned to the Female Factory because she was ’so far advanced in pregnancy as to be unable to do the Work required of her’.

Despite possibly having a two-year old child, on 17 January 1837, while assigned to Mr Moses, she was sentenced to three months in the Crime Class for cruelty to children, but there is no indication if Helen’s own child was involved. Just four months later she was ordered back to serve six days in a cell on bread and water for being drunk and disorderly—conduct which caused a disturbance in her master, Mr Johnson’s house. Assigned to Mr Fletcher, in October she was again sent to the wash tub, this time for fourteen days for neglect of duty. Sentences continued, even after she received her ticket of leave in August 1839.

On 23 April 1840 Henry Bolton, a convict who arrived on 4 September 1834 aboard the William Metcalfe to serve a seven year sentence for stealing fowls, and whose ticket of leave was approved on 14 November 1838, applied to marry Helen. This was approved, and Henry aged 38, and Helen, named as Ellen, and aged 36, were married at St Peter’s Church of England at Hamilton on 18 May 1840.

After their marriage, apart from the granting of Helen’s conditional pardon in 1842, her free certificate in 1850 and Henry’s free certificate in 1841, they both disappear from the records, and no documentation been located to indicate whether or not the child born to Helen in 1835 survived.

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