Reported to have been born sometime between 1893 and 1895, Susan McAllister was one of 13 children belonging to Peter McAllister, an itinerant tinsmith and his wife Janet, both of whom were thought to have spent their entire lives travelling, settling only occasionally to earn a living or to add to their ever growing brood.
Sometime before the outbreak of war Susan was said to have married a man called Robert McLeod, to whom she delivered a baby daughter, Janet, in 1915. Seven years later, her first husband was dead and Susan McLeod was reported to have married John Newell, who by reputation was a womanising drunk and a less than adequate provider for his short-tempered wife and her young eight-year-old daughter.
By the end of May 1923 the Newell family were thought to have recently moved into new lodgings at 2 Newlands Street, Coatbridge, the building being owned by a widow called Mrs Annie Young. It is entirely likely that the Newell’s had moved there, having been given notice to quit by their previous landlord and given the reported volatility of the relationship between Susan and John Newell this was probably a regular occurrence.
Within three weeks of having moved into their new home their stormy and noisy relationship had already brought their landlady to the limits of her patience and almost inevitably around the middle of June 1923 she told the family that they would have to leave. This announcement just simply sparked even more resentment and recriminations between the warring couple and eventually John was said to have had enough and basically abandoned his wife and her daughter while he went off to find some peace and quiet. It would later transpire however, that even then the highly irascible wife was not content to sit at home and wait for him to return, but instead tracked him down and demanded that he return home immediately. When he refused to come back, the combative wife was reported to head-butted him before storming off back to their lodgings at Coatbridge.
The 20th June 1923 found Susan Newell and her daughter Janet still inside their lodgings, penniless and still facing the prospect of having to find new accommodation for themselves. Undoubtedly, her tenuous situation and the violent argument with her erstwhile and still absent husband had pushed her to the brink of reason, but even that was a poor excuse for the events which were to follow.
Thirteen-year-old John Johnson was said to helping a friend sell newspapers when he made the fatal mistake of knocking on Susan Newell’s front door at around 6.50 pm that evening. Although the full details of the killing were only ever known to the victim and his murderer, it was later speculated that the young paper boy had objected to Newell taking one of his papers without paying for it and that either through a remark or threat made by John, the extremely irate woman had first beat the boy to the floor before strangling him to death.
With the murdered boy’s body lying on her apartment floor, Newell did not seem to panic about her situation, but calmly set about picking up the lifeless John Johnson before laying his corpse on the family’s couch. When her young daughter Janet returned from playing with friends, her mother simply called on her landlady Mrs Annie Young and asked if she had a box that she could use to pack up some of her belongings, in readiness for the family leaving the property. Although Mrs Young had seen the newspaper boy call at her lodger’s door, she just assumed that he had subsequently left the building and no mention was made of him by Mrs Newell.
Having had a brief conversation with her landlady Susan Newell was then said to have returned to her rooms, before going out with her daughter to a local bar to fetch a jug of beer. Janet McLeod would testify at her mother’s trial that they had gone out to the local bar, where she had to wait outside, while her mother went inside to buy a jug of beer. Having got her drink, the couple then returned to their rooms where Susan was reported to have sat down and got drunk, staring at the lifeless body of the newspaper boy, before finally covering his face with a pair of her husband’s drawers.
By the following morning and with the crime still undiscovered, the murderous housewife had finally devised a method to remove the boy’s body from her rooms and she quickly set her plan in motion. With the help of young Janet she was said to have wrapped John’s body in a bed quilt and placed it in an old pram that had been left standing in the hallway and finally having sat her daughter atop the deadly bundle, she set off to dispose of the problem. Fortunately for her, she had just left her rooms to begin her journey when landlady Mrs Young came out of her apartment to fetch her morning milk, noticing only that the Newell’s front door had been left ajar, before she went back in to begin her daily chores.
As Newell hurriedly pushed the heavy load along the main road in Coatbridge, a local lorry driver called Thomas Gibson noticed the woman and her daughter and stopped to offer them a lift into the city. The woman asked to be dropped at Duke Street in Glasgow and having arrived there he tried to help her off-load the pram containing the bundle, but she curtly refused his offer and manhandled it onto the pavement alone.
What the lorry driver had failed to notice, was that the bundle in the pram had loosened as a result of it being jostled and John Johnson’s head and one of his feet had been exposed, although were quickly covered over again by the seeming unflustered Newell. Unfortunately for her, a local woman Helen Elliot was far more observant than Gibson and had seen the extremities of the boy exposed and quickly located a local policeman to tell about the woman with a body in her pram.
Perhaps to get off the main thoroughfare, Susan Newell had chosen a small close to dispose of the body and as she made her way back, found herself confronted by the policeman who had first been alerted by Helen Elliot. Taking hold of the nervous woman, the officer began a search of the general area and quickly discovered the body of young John Johnson and immediately arrested the woman on suspicion of his murder. Taken to Tobago Street Police Station, Susan Newell then set about trying to implement her backup plan, which was deliberately designed to implicate her entirely innocent husband John in the murder, leaving her as the dutiful wife and mother who had accidentally become involved in the disposal of the body, but was entirely innocent of any part in the crime itself.
She calmly told the investigating officers of the previous night’s events, of how the young newspaper boy had called at the apartment while she and her husband were arguing and how John Johnson had cried out when her husband had struck her. She then recalled her horror as her husband took hold of the boy and throttled him until “his face was black”, leaving his lifeless body on the floor of their lodgings. Purely to save her spouse’s life she had decided to dispose of the body, somewhere away from their rooms, so that no suspicion could be attached to her family.
When the Police questioned the only other potential witness to the crime, Newell’s eight-year-old daughter Janet, she corroborated her mother’s story, of how John Newell had killed the boy and she and her mother were simply moving the body so that they wouldn’t be blamed. Susan Newell had evidently coached her daughter well enough to fool the Police in the short term, with them quickly issuing an arrest warrant for the missing John Newell, but ultimately the young girl’s fabricated tale soon began to unravel and before long she was telling Detectives the true story of the night before.
In the meantime, the Police had contacted John Johnson’s father, who had reported his son missing the night before. Leaving work early, the emotionally shattered Robert Johnson was asked to attend Glasgow Central’s Police Mortuary where he had to perform the grim task of formally identifying the body of his 13-year-old son John, before going home to tell his distraught wife that their beloved son was dead.
The grieving father would later tell officers of the previous day’s events, of how his boy had gone out to help a pal sell some newspapers and that when he failed to return home, he and his wife had simply assumed the John and his friends had gone to the pictures. However by 10.30 pm, when the pictures had closed and his son had still not come home Robert had become increasingly worried about his son. He had reported the matter to the Police and then spent the rest of the evening and early hours of the next morning wandering the streets trying to find his son, stopping only to return home, to see if the boy had turned up in the meantime.
Within days of the discovery of the boy’s dead body and with the story having been carried by all of the local and national newspapers, the missing husband, John Newell, presented himself at a local Police station and was promptly taken in for questioning. The undoubtedly shocked man was able to tell detectives that he had in fact left the family home some days before the murder and had not returned there since. He related how a few days before the crime, he and his wife had been given notice to quit their accommodation by their landlady, how he and Susan Newell had had a blazing row and how he had subsequently abandoned her and Janet simply to visit relatives and get some peace and quiet.
A couple of days after leaving Susan, he was visiting friends in Parkhead when his wife managed to track him down, demanding that he return at once to Coatbridge to support her and Janet. However, when he refused to go back with her, his wife had head-butted him in the face before storming off and presumably returning to the family home. On the 20th June, the day of the murder, he told the interviewing officers, he had been at a bar in the East End of Glasgow before visiting his sister and then the following day he had travelled to the East Lothian area where he intended to stay for a while. It was only after he had read about the boy’s death and the fact that he was a wanted man that he decided to return home to help the Police with their enquiries.
Detectives were pretty quickly able to substantiate John Newell’s record of his movements before, during and after the murder, so inevitably began to focus their full attention on the only other logical suspect that could have committed the crime, Susan Newell. By carefully questioning eight-year-old Janet, the only other potential witness to the night’s events, Detectives soon began to reveal the true sequence of events that had taken place in the Newell’s apartment and exposing the supposedly innocent wife as the true killer.
Both John and Susan Newell were arraigned for trial at the Central Court House, Glasgow on the 18th September 1923, but almost immediately evidence was put before the court proving John’s innocence and the Judge ordered him discharged, at the same time publicly criticising the prosecution services for having put the entirely guiltless man in the dock in the first place. As he stepped down to his freedom, it was noted by many in the court that the falsely accused man deliberately avoided looking at his estranged wife who now sat in the dock facing the charge alone.
Perhaps perversely, the main prosecution witness who would testify against Susan Newell was the very person who she had hoped would help her escape any sort of suspicion, her own daughter Janet. Her truthful recollections of the nights events, allied to the testimony of the many other witnesses who were called, painted the picture of a woman who seemed to have lost all reason, both through natural temperament and possibly through intoxication, which allowed her to kill an entirely innocent young boy for the cost of a daily newspaper.
With no alternative motive or reason to put forward, Newell’s defence counsel T. A. Gentles KC tried to plead that his client had committed the act while she was insane, pointing out that there was no evidence of premeditation or indeed motive. However, the prosecution’s own psychiatric expert told the court that he had examined Newell while she was held on remand and had found no evidence of mental incapacity and in his opinion she was perfectly sane.
At the end of a trial which had gripped and horrified the public imagination, the jury were sent out by the judge to consider their verdict, only to return some 37 minutes later with a unanimous decision of guilty. However, there was also a unanimous plea for clemency from the juror’s, suggesting that most, if not all of them, believed that there were extenuating circumstances which needed to be taken into account and that perhaps Susan Newell was indeed suffering from some sort of mental illness.
Regardless of the jury’s plea however, the judge was not so easily convinced or inclined to spare a woman who had taken the life of an entirely innocent youngster and perhaps shocked many in the court be imposing the maximum sentence, the death penalty. As for Susan Newell herself, later reports seemed to suggest that on receiving the sentence she was indifferent to it and simply turned on her heels and calmly walked down the steps of the dock to the waiting cells below.
In the subsequent days and weeks following the outcome of the trial there was an extensive and fairly high profile campaign to have Susan Newell’s death sentence commuted. Unfortunately for Newell and her supporters her case became embroiled in a political debate, focusing on the implementation of the law in both England and Scotland and in which the Secretary of State for Scotland found himself inextricably involved. Less than a year before Newell’s case, Edith Thompson had been executed in England for her part in the murder of her husband, although grave doubts still exist to this day, as to her actual guilt. Nonetheless, the fact that the English Home Secretary had refused to spare Thompson from the gallows, inevitably put pressure on his Scottish counterpart to adopt a similar hard-line approach to those people found guilty of a capital crime in Scotland. Possibly as a direct consequence of these political considerations, eventually the Scottish Secretary decided that Susan Newell should die for the murder of 13-year-old John Johnson, becoming the first woman executed in Scotland for 50 years.
On the morning of the 10th October 1923, John Ellis and his assistant Robert Baxter entered Newell’s condemned cell at Duke Street Prison in Glasgow and set about pinioning the doomed woman’s arms to her sides. Whether through haste or lack of concentration, Ellis had not tightened the wrist straps properly and having led her to the gallows, placed the rope around her neck, he then covered her head with the traditional white hood. Suddenly, Newell struggled free from her wrist restraints and pulled the hood from her head, telling the undoubtedly startled executioner “Don’t put that thing on me”. The unexpected interruption does not appear to have prevented Ellis from completing his task however and he quickly removed the retaining pin, pulled the lever and sent a bare-faced Susan Newell into the waiting void below and to an almost instantaneous death.
Although she was never reported to have admitted her guilt for the murder of John Johnson, Susan Newell was almost certainly the person responsible for the killing of the 13-year-old newspaper boy. That having been said, it seems equally clear that she committed the crime while she was in a rage, rather than in a deliberate or cold-blooded state of mind and as her counsel argued there was little evidence to suggest premeditation or indeed motive in her actions. In other circumstances and with a different political climate Susan Newell may well have had her death sentence commuted to a custodial sentence, however given her highly irascible and violent nature it seems extremely unlikely that she would have gone on to live a peacefully anonymous life.