Three months jail for blackmail plot
It was, said the Observer of 100 years ago, a case of an extraordinary nature revealing a “sad depth of depravity” in a miner, married man and discharged soldier.
At its centre was ex-member of the Royal Scots Frederick McDonald and a bizarre blackmail bid by an apparently sinister organisation called ‘The Black Thirteen’.
McDonald, of Lower Craigs, Stirling, appeared before the town’s Sheriff Court charged with stealing on October 26, 1917, from the house at 9 Lower Craigs, tenanted by Mrs Margaret Letham, a gramophone, 52 records, a man’’s jacket and overcoat, bedding and other items.
He was also alleged on October 17, 1917, on road leading to Taylorton Farm, occupied Robert Cunningham, to have handed to Mr Cunningham’s daughter Bessie a letter signed by ‘The Back Thirteen’ stating they were short of money and demanding £15.
The letter continued: “We are a rough gang and unless we get the money we have made up our minds to deal with your three daughters (who) cycle daily to school.
“We have kept a close watch on your farm for weeks and will have a special watch tonight. It will be an easy matter dealing with three children so if you have any love for them you know what to do.”
The Black Thirteen boasted in the letter they had deceived the police for nine months and the letter added: “If you dare give us away we can assure you it won’t be good for you or your family. The one who delvers this note will be the first to be kidnapped.”
Cash was to be handed over at the “double hedges” and Mr Cunningham was told not to come along with back-up as the The Black Thirteen member picking up the payment would be “well armed with a six chamber”.
However, the bizarre plot came to nothing and McDonald was snared when he was identified by witnesses at the County Buildings where he was being held after being arrested in connection with the break-in at Mrs Letham’s home.
The court was told that 21-yearold McDonald, who admitted the offences, served with the Royal Scots for two years and was in France for 21 months.
He was wounded during the Battle of Somme and returned to Britain in August 1916 before transfer to the Army Reserve. His conduct in the Army was good and he was a first offender.
McDonald said he had been in the habit of cycling near to the Cunningham’s farm on his way to the pits and he dismissed the blackmail bid as a “bit of a lark”.
He got the idea from a film he had seen at the pictures and approached Bessie with the letter after making a mask from the lining of his cap.
Fiscal Mr Waugh accepted the letter was “foolish” but thought it also alarming as Mr Cunningham’s three daughters cycled to and from Stirling every day.
McDonald’s lawyer, Mr TJY Brown said McDonald was “more like a simple young fellow than a wicked one.
“His wound broke out on certain occasions, leaving him unfit for work and when the theft by house breaking occurred, he and his wife were starving,” added the lawyer.
Sheriff Substitute Dean Leslie could “scarcely believe” McDonald imagined he could get money from the scheme. He was sentenced to three months’ jail.
* Thanks to Stirling Council archivist Pam McNicol who discovered that the film ‘The Black Thirteen’ showed at the Olympia Picture Palace, Stirling, in 1915.
How the Observer reported the outcome of the court case 100 years ago (above) and below, film listings at the Olympia featuring Black Thirteen
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