Account of Moses McDonald’s Death

I observed the success my wife, who is a convert, had finding her ancestors’ information using Internet search engines.  Inspired by her success, I Googled “Moses McDonald”and after scrolling through several pages found a journal of a Greenock clerk named James Muir that shocked me.“Friday, June 5th (1812) Moses McDonald was executed at Greenock, for Housebreaking theft.”

At the printing of Ila Maughan’s book there were conflicting theories about where Moses McDonald was born or died.  It was only known that he had children born in both County Down, Ireland and Greenock, Scotland.   Could this be our Moses?  James McDonald was born in County Down Ireland, but his five younger brothers & sisters were all born in Greenock, Scotland before 1812.  No children were born to them after 1812 and the family returned to Ireland prior to 1823.

I found a list of executions of William Calcraft that included executions that ocurred in Greenock, Scotland.  Moses M’Donald 5 June 1822 (same date, but the year is one digit off), and then what was called the Edinburgh Annual Register volume 5 (Left mouse click on the brown, underlined title to read the original document) written by Sir Walter Scott.  It contains a detailed account of the execution of Moses McDonald confirming it occurred on 5 June 1812 at 20 minutes before four o’clock.  It is difficult to comprehend a legal system that imposed capital punishment for stealing food.  The rope actually broke, but those imposing the sentence simply obtained a new rope and hung him again!  Even in the Old Wild West the rope breaking was considered Divine intervention and they were released, but not in 1812 Scotland.

Sir Walter Scott gives a brief description, “Moses McDonald was a stout man, about thirty-five years of age, a native of Ireland, but has resided here for a number of years; he wrought as a jobber about the quays, and furnished ships with ballast.” His sister was at the execution, but his wife, Mary would have been caring for their six children including their one year old baby.

Not long after I had entered the new information on New Family Search I received an email from Jack McDonald asking how I had found Moses’ death date.  He and his brother Steve McDonald had gone to Scotland and found the trial documents including signed statements by Moses McDonald denying he had taken food from a grocery market when it was closed, but admitting helping others move the large quantity of food.  So our ancestor was executed for receiving stolen goods!   This just seems inconceivable, but the Calcraft record of executions listed 2,000 people executed for theft or robbery only.

Jack McDonald made the court documents available so they could be included on this web site.  Now anyone may make elctronic copies of the documents they viewed in Scotland.  Rex & Mary Ann McDonald searched on line and found The National Archives of Scotland file number AD14/12/68 listing the co-defendants Janet Henry Scott, John Gray, Moses McDonald, and Alexander Gibson.   There was no explanation offered as to why Moses alone was executed.  According to the Calcraft document none of his co-defendants were.  The long history of violence in Northern Ireland may account for our Irish born ancestor being treated differently in a British court than his Scottish co-defendants.

The most tragic aspect of this whole affair is that four months after Moses McDonald’s execution, his accusers,  James Jolley and his wife were charged with fraud after the goods they had testified had been taken in December 1811 were discovered along with land they had acquired through selling the goods on the black market.  Moses McDonald testified at his trial he had moved goods he believed were to be sold on the black market.  Four months after he was convicted and hung those who testified they had been victims were charged with fraudulently reporting the crime.  The Jolleys were transported and forfeited their property to the court.  A large sugar production factory was constructed  on the forfeited property.  Moses McDonald’s name was never cleared officially.  But we now know he told the truth and was convicted & hung for “housebreaking”, a crime he did not commit.

How Ila Maughan would have loved to see our time with all that is available to us to research family history in our own homes.   But she is probably still doing family research where she is, interviewing our ancestors, and possibly trying to explain to them why we are not doing more to find them and do their ordinance work.

We don’t have record of James McDonald ever speaking of what must have been difficult life as a ten year old boy who had lost his father.  We do know he was baptised for his deceased father in the Nauvoo Temple.  What joy the Gospel must have brought to James McDonald and his family.  James’ son William wrote an account that painted a vivid picture of his father  step dancing and singing comic Irish songs after working along side of slaves to earn provisions for the trek West.  Tragically James died on the trek also leaving a grieving family.  It makes you realize how fortunate we are to live in this time with all the blessings our ancestors couldn’t even imagine.  Especially that so many of us live long enough to see our children marry and see our grandchildren.