Toronto Sun

Friday, December 7, 2001

Twisted Mother


By MAX HAINES, Toronto Sun

It has always amazed me, sometimes tragically so, that the criminal mind can conjure up enough hate for one individual to take the life of someone that individual loves dearly. Back on June 6, 1976, I wrote in The Sun about one such crime that decades earlier had shocked an entire country.

Come back with me to the Aberdeen, Scotland, of 1934. Let's enter the working-class district of large brick dwellings that stand drab and grey against the overcast skyline of Aberdeen, past imposing City Hospital just off King St. to 61 Urquhart Rd.

It was in this building that events were to occur that would add another chapter to the strange behaviour of the criminal mind.

The pockmarked building had four floors with two flats on each. One of the flats on the ground floor was occupied by Alexander Donald, his wife Jeannie, 38, and their nine-year-old daughter, also named Jeannie. Directly above them lived John Priestly, his wife, and their eight-year-old daugther Helen.

At exactly 1:10 p.m. on April 20, 1934, Mrs. Priestly sent Helen to buy a loaf of bread at the co-op store nearby. All retail outlets kept meticulous records in those days and later the store clerk was to state that the purchase was made by little Helen at 1:30 p.m.

She was handed a receipt by the clerk and started running for home because she was due in school at 2 p.m. Somewhere between the store and her home, she disappeared.

She was immediately missed and the alarm went out. All that afternoon, neighbours and friends searched the old homes and alleys for any trace of Helen. None was found.

An ominous pall descended on the searchers when nine-year-old Dick Sutton told police he saw Helen being dragged onto a tram by a middle-aged man. As a result of this disclosure, the search widened to include other parts of the city.

All through the long night the search for the missing child went on. Strangers and neighbours alike joined in the hunt as a heavy rainstorm made them shiver under their mackintoshes in the cool April night.

One family was conspicuous by its absence in the hunt. The Donalds didn't join in the search.

It seems there was a long-standing feud between the Donalds and the Priestlys. Mrs. Donald and Mrs. Priestly hadn't spoken to each other for five years even though they shared a common front door and passed each other in the hallway almost every day.

It was a strange relationship, but one that does exist from time to time between occupants of the same dwelling. The other members of each family seemed to at least tolerate each other. The husbands spoke to each other and to their opposite number's wife. The two little girls, while not close friends, were often seen talking and playing together.

The day after the disappearance, another neighbour, Mr. Porter, discovered Helen's body under the stairway leading to the second floor of 61 Urquhart Rd., not far from the door of the Donalds' flat.

The house and its hallways had been searched thoroughly as late as 11 p.m. the previous night and the sack with its pathetic contents was not there at that time.

Upon examination, it was found that Helen had been killed by manual strangulation and her sexual organs were in a condition consistent with those of a rape victim. With this revelation, the police concentrated their efforts on the story given by young Dick Sutton.

Now being questioned as the one person who may have actually seen the killer, Dick blurted out that he made up the entire story of the strange man dragging Helen onto the tram.

A closer examination of the body revealed that Helen had been interfered with by means of a foreign object, possibly a stick or poker, to simulate rape. She had definitely not been raped.

Through all the excitement surrounding 61 Urquhart Rd. the Donald family took no active part. On occasion, Donald would inquire about developments, but not a word came from Mrs. Donald. The police decided to search the Donald flat, no doubt with some urgings from neighbours who knew of the "bad blood" that existed between Mrs. Donald and Mrs. Priestly.

Bloodstains were found in the Donald flat, and both were arrested. Alex Donald was soon released as he proved beyond doubt that he was somewhere else at the time the murder took place. Mrs. Donald was charged with murder. The evidence against her was formidable.

Some cinders and hairs were found in the sack that contained Helen's body that were identical to cinders and hair found in the Donald flat. Washcloths containing blood of the same type as Helen's were found in the Donald flat, and no explanation could be given by Mrs. Donald for these discoveries.

As the trial progressed, it became clear that Mrs. Donald strangled Helen and, to divert suspicion from herself, tried to make it appear that a man had committed the crime. She did this by trying to simulate rape. She kept the body in the flat overnight and early the next morning, having deposited it in the sack, she placed it under the stairs.

There are two theories as to Mrs. Donald's motive. It was brought out that Helen taunted Mrs. Donald and called her names. Some criminologists believe she may have struck Helen, accidentally killing her. Knowing she would be suspected, she simulated rape to make it appear a man had committed the crime.

The second theory is one that makes the Priestly murder a classic of its type. It is that Mrs. Donald killed Helen to get at Mrs. Priestly and deprive her of the only daughter. Their five years of silence towards each other may have exploded into the killing of an innocent child to gain revenge on Mrs. Donald's real adversary.

Jeannie Donald was found guilty of murder and received the death sentence, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. She was released on June 24, 1944.

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.