Read an Excerpt
The Measure of GodHistory's Greatest Minds Wrestle with Reconciling Science and Religion
By Larry Witham
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Larry Witham
All right reserved.
The Sandyford Mystery
How the Gifford Lectures Began
In the Summer of 1862, when the United States was embroiled in its second year of the Civil War, the Scottish city of Glasgow was enthralled by its own bloody episode. On July 4, the maid at the prosperous Fleming household at Sandyford Place was brutally murdered.
The Sandyford Mystery had "everything requisite to a great criminal drama," a crime writer said, especially its two unlikely suspects, a debauched grandfather and a sailor's wife. Old James Fleming lived with the corpse for three days while his family summered at their coastal villa up the Clyde, the river that had made Glasgow a hub of trade and shipbuilding. When investigators eventually arrived, they found that Jessie McLachlan, a twenty-eight-year-old mother who was a friend of the maid and a former employee at the house, had left three bloody footprints behind.
By modern standards, this was not exactly the high-stakes criminal drama of an O.J. Simpson murder trial. But for 1860s Scotland it came close enough. There was wealth, class, politics, and, as could happen only in Scotland, a bit of metaphysical philosophy mixed in as well.The Flemings' spacious flat in Sandyford, scene of the murder, was just one token of Glasgow's growing affluence. Old Fleming, who at eighty-seven was a hunched and balding figure with sideburns and a hooked nose, was a rustic who had turned to textile manufacture. Now his son headed an accounting firm and had joined the nouveau riche. From Glasgow to Edinburgh, not a few clerks and lawyers had become rich by managing the new commercial vitalitylawyers such as Adam Gifford, who would be the chief prosecutor of Jessie McLachlan.
But if commercial times set the mood in the 1860s, the legalities of Scottish law would turn the trial into an extraordinary controversy. Old Fleming's son had "intimate" ties to the chief investigator. While that must have smiled on the fate of the elder Fleming, who collected rents for his son and attended church twice the Sunday after the murder, he also had Scottish law on his side. Scots Law is perhaps most famous for its third courtroom verdictbesides "guilty" or "not guilty" a jury may declare "not proven" and set a suspect free. Yet Scottish law also had a unique emphasis in its prosecution of murders: although all parties to a murder shared equal guilt, a suspect turned prosecution witness was guaranteed total immunity. In the end, Old Fleming was made legally white as snow: once a prime suspect with blood spattered on his nightshirt, the old man became the Crown's chief witness in the murder and robbery trial of the hapless Mrs. McLachlan.
In those ballad-like days of "the trial of Jessie McLachlan," the law, prosperity, and much else about Scotland could still be traced to the single most important political event for the nation: the Union of 1707. In that year Scotland abolished its parliament, and while keeping its legal system and established Presbyterian church, the nation merged with a single British parliamentary system. Even though it was a difficult political bargain, the historical windfall was great, for now Scotland dramatically expanded trade with England. By the time of the McLachlan trial, Scotland was called "the workshop of the empire," a world of looms, ships, bridges, and train systems, financed in turn by tobacco, coal, steel, textiles, and banking.
Before the Union of 1707, Scotland had exported its native philosophy here and there, but after the political union, Scottish ideas became something of a world commodity. Over at the University of Glasgow, the moral philosophy professor Adam Smith began his musings on this project. To compensate for Scotland's loss of political independence, Smith believed, the nation should dominate the world with its ideas. The nation had already begun to export its inventions, tackle foreign explorations, and show the muscle of sheer commercial tenacity. In addition to that, an event called the Scottish Enlightenment would blossom between 1740 and 1790, and now Scotland had its ideas to export as well, a joint venture of tough-minded clergy, libertine literati, and stern philosophers.
Although the ships left mostly from Glasgow, Edinburgh played its role, and it soon became known as the "Athens of the North," both for its rocky cliffs with neoclassical architecture and for its learning. From this Scottish period came the skepticism of David Hume of Edinburgh and the Christian realism of Thomas Reid of Aberdeen. Adam Smith offered a historical mode of thinking, known for its four stages of civilization, rising up from the primitive hunter-gatherer to, of course, the Scottish professor. Having watched the shipping trade in Glasgow as he taught moral philosophy, Smith proffered the idea of joining free markets with moral sympathies. The idea was published as The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the year of the American Revolution. More than a century later, Winston Churchill claimed of Scotland that no "small nation" besides Greece had contributed so much to human progress.
In September of 1862, however, even the academic rumblings of a "second" Enlightenment paled next to agitation over the McLachlan murder trial. 1 It was "the topic not only of the hour, but of the year," said crime writer William Roughead. Newspaper circulations had grown fivefold, and while the Glasgow Herald sided with Fleming as "the old innocent," the others railed at the court." It was manifestly impossible that the accused could have a fair trial in Glasgow," they editorialized.
Down at Jail Square, where the Glasgow Green sat alongside the River Clyde, legal teams had to fight their way through crowds to enter the court. Dozens of witnesses testified; floorboards with a bloody footprint, ripped up as evidence, were displayed before a rapt audience of fashionable ladies, reporters, and even city officials. McLachlan sat stoical in her white straw bonnet with ribbons and veil, her hands tucked under a black woolen shawl. As advocate-depute for the Crown, Adam Gifford wore black robes and a wig. On the final day, he disclosed his own "deep feeling of anxiety and responsibility" as he dispensed the final measure of Scots Law."
Excerpted from The Measure of God by Larry Witham Copyright © 2006 by Larry Witham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.