Thursday, December 12, 2013

The “Infernal Machine” Outrages in Edinburgh

by David Wilson

While writing my novel set in Victorian Edinburgh, there was a case which not only gave me some great historical detail, but seems to have been one which shocked the residents of Edinburgh at the time causing quite a sensation in the newspapers.

On the night of 15th February 1882, at around seven o’clock in the evening, a box measuring about fifteen inches in length and eight inches in breadth was delivered to the home in Hill Place of Mr. Alex McDonald, who was an agent in the Police Court. The box, which was wrapped in brown paper, was decorated with coloured pictures and on first inspection was thought to be a joke Valentine gift. The box was opened by Mr. McDonald’s son and on pulling out what seemed to be a drawer the box exploded, injuring not only himself, but also his mother, a Mrs Smith who was visiting their home, and a four year old girl, all of whom received severe burns to the head and face. To add to the unfortunate circumstance, Mr. McDonald was also returning home just at the moment of the explosion and was knocked down by the force of the blast. Although this was effectively a small parcel bomb, the level of damage caused by the explosion was still considerable. A door was torn off its hinges, a window blown out and the flooring destroyed. In addition a window of the Princess Theatre nearby was also smashed.

In what was clearly a carefully planned assault, at almost the same time as the explosion at the house in Hill Place, a similar box was delivered to a house in South St. James Street. The occupants of the house at that time were a Mrs Barron, a widow, along with her son and daughter-in-law. On the box being opened it immediately exploded and all three of them were seriously burned on the head and face and their clothes set on fire. They ran into the street where they were met by some of the neighbours, who took them to a nearby shop for their injuries to be attended to.

The suspicion immediately fell upon one Charles Costello who had for some time made threats against all of the victims. He was well known to the family of Mrs Barron having harassed them for a considerable period and in being rebuffed he had made threats and had ended up in the Police Court where he was fined. Unable to pay the fine, some of his furniture was sold and it was due to his outrage at the handling of this matter, and his perceived unfair treatment, that Mr. McDonald became the subject of his anger, being the person who had handled the matter.

Unfortunately for Mr. Costello, the amount of evidence gained against him was enough for his arrest and indictment. Not only were there numerous witnesses who could attest to the threats made against the victims, but pieces of wood matching those in the parcel bombs were found at his home.

His trial took place on Monday 22nd May at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh before Lord Justice Clerk Moncrieff and a jury. Costello was charged with attempting to murder, and there was an alternative minor charge of sending a box with explosives with intent to injure, to both of which he pleaded not guilty.

His solicitor, Mr Forrest, objected to the relevancy of the indictment stating that, in order to have a valid indictment in the major proposition, they must have a specific legal crime charged. The crime of attempting to murder was a specific legal crime, but that of sending a box or package with intent was not a valid legal crime. The result of the crime, as stated, was put into the aggravation. It was not specially mentioned as a charge in the indictment.

The judge asked the solicitor, ‘You say that, without intent to kill, it is no crime?’ To which Mr. Forrest replied,

‘Yes, the crime must be complete in itself before it was a valid legal crime.’

The judge did not allow the matter to go any further and ruled that this was what was called an ‘innominate’ offence. It was a charge of attempting to murder and the offence was also charged in the particulars and details of what was done as a crime, and the judge had no hesitation whatever in saying the sending of explosive materials, with the intentions that the person receiving them should so use them as to cause them to explode, was an indictable offence. The objection was therefore repelled.

From the investigation it had been determined that the boxes had been sent from Glasgow by train and had arrived at Waverley Station in Edinburgh on the 3:40 pm train where they were then delivered to the victims. Costello was known to have had made threats that he was going to send bombs but they would be sent not by himself but from Glasgow by one of his chums. On the day of the attacks his employer, who it must be noted was an old acquaintance of 12 years, confirmed that Costello had been at work until five o’clock in the evening.

Evidence to the guilt of Mr. Costello was highlighted by an analyst by the name of John Falconer King, who stated that on the boxes he found nothing but the residue of powder, however, he thought that the powder must have been supplemented by some other more powerful explosive, which very likely was gun-cotton, a substance which did not usually leave any trace of its presence. But, he also stated that Shellac had been used in the construction of the boxes, with the little pieces of wood forming the drawers being cemented together by this means. This tied in with extracts in the scrapbook of the accused which were also stuck down with Shellac.

With this information and the record of threats against the victims, the case against Mr. Costello was seen as being motivated purely by personal revenge rather than any more political motive.

Despite the supposed amateur nature of the crimes, which clearly showed the boxes to have been made by a person who was not an expert in wood working, the ingenuity of the boxes deserves to be laid out in some detail.

William McEwan, a detective inspector in the Edinburgh City Police, gave a description of one of the boxes which was produced. The sides and ends were fixed together roughly with screw-nails, and not dovetailed as a joiner would complete his work. Behind the three small skeleton drawers there were pins, to which were attached strings. These in turn were attached to wedge shaped pieces of wood, on the sides of which were pieces of match paper. At each side of the wood were placed two small bundles of matches so that, when the drawer was opened and the wedge was drawn forward, the matches would be ignited. The centre chamber was connected with another chamber at each side by means of a pipe, and in each pipe was a small touch-hole meant to communicate the fire to the explosive substance in those chambers. The two boxes were identical in construction.

Evidence was completed on Tuesday 23rd May, just one day after commencement of the trial. The jury took a matter of only 33 minutes to find Charles Costello guilty of the charge of sending the boxes with the intention of doing grievous bodily harm to the recipients, a judgement which was met with applause in the court but which was immediately suppressed.

The sentence was passed by his Lordship on the Thursday and was twenty years penal servitude, perhaps a comparatively lenient sentence for the times. As Costello was fifty years of age at the time, it is unlikely he would see the outside of the prison again.


By David Wilson, author of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Edinburgh Haunting and The King’s Park Irregulars.

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  1. Interesting! Thanks for posting Debra.

  2. I had no idea...the first letter bombs perhaps? Thank you for the post. I love learning about specific historical events/people. I just found this blog tonight and added to my reader. Thanks! :)


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