Beware Those Evil Jeannies

And today’s cautionary tale originates from Aberdeen, Scotland. The time was April 21, 1934. In a cramped and grim tenement building, Agnes Priestly sent her eight-year-old daughter Helen out to buy a loaf of bread at about one-thirty in the afternoon. Helen duly arrived at the bakery, got her bread and then, seemingly, vanished.
Then as now, when Helen didn’t come home as expected, the neighborhood was galvanized. Helen’s description was broadcast over the radio and flashed onto the screen at local movie theaters. That was as close to an Amber Alert and blanket coverage as could be expected at the time. A nine-year-old friend of Helen’s claimed he saw her being forced aboard a tram by an unsavory-looking middle-aged man, and this man’s description was broadcast as well, but to no avail.
Helen’s father John joined the police, neighbors and friends in combing the streets for Helen, but at two A.M. he was clearly exhausted, and Alex Parker, a family friend who lived in the same building, escorted him home, urging him to try to get a bit of sleep before resuming the search in daylight. Parker then went to his own apartment, noticing nothing unusual on the way. He left his flat again three hours later, and this time he saw a blue sack under the stairs. It had definitely not been there before, and it hadn’t been there very long; it was raining heavily but the bag was nearly dry.
Parker opened the sack and predictably, inside was the body of Helen Priestly. She appeared to have been strangled and there seemed to be clear indications of a sexual assault. The hunt was on for a killer.
Almost immediately, the case began to twist in strange directions. The bag was determined to be one originally containing flour imported from Canada, and there weren’t very many of them in Aberdeen. A local baker remembered a woman asking for some of his empties, and he had given her ten. He didn’t know her name, but he provided a good description. The police leaned hard on Helen’s playmate, and the boy eventually broke down and confessed that he had made up the story of seeing Helen forced aboard a tram.
Meanwhile, suspicion was beginning to fall on a neighbor of Helen’s, Alexander Donald. Donald lived downstairs of Helen with his wife Jeannie and their daughter, who was about Helen’s age and was also named Jeannie. The Donalds were conspicuously the only ones in the building who did not join in the search for Helen Priestly.
Alexander Donald was soon eliminated as a suspect when he proved to have been hard at work in a local barbershop at the time Helen disappeared. So now the police focused on Jeannie Donald Senior. The baker’s description of the lady he’d given the empty flour sacks to matched Jeannie to a T.
It became apparent that Helen Priestly, though an attractive and bright child, was also widely regarded as a thoroughly obnoxious little girl. She was known to be naughty, disrespectful toward adults and something of a bully to other children. One of the children she frequently picked on was little Jeannie Donald. She was also rude to the adult Donalds as well, making abusive remarks, rattling the bannister outside their flat and kicking at their door to annoy them.
The Donalds and Priestlys were on bad terms because of Helen’s behavior; the mothers had argued about it frequently, and Mrs. Donald had been seen to shout at Helen more than once.
A search of the bag in which Helen’s body was found turned up a few badly-permed human hairs. DNA technology was of course nonexistent at the time, but the hair bore microscopic similarities to Jeannie Donald’s hair.
The noted forensic scientist Sir Sydney Smith was brought in to examine the bag and the Donald’s apartment. He noted that the house dust found in the flat and in the bag had an identical composition. Marks on the bag were determined to have been made by dishes and pots being placed on it, as if it had been used for a tablecloth. Nine more bags just like it were in the Donalds’ home, and every one of them bore the same marks.
Most damning of all in terms of physical evidence was the presence of human blood traces on a package of soap, a scrubbing brush and some cleaning rags. The blood was of the same type as Helen’s, but that wasn’t all. Helen had had a rare condition that caused her thalamus gland to be enlarged, which left her prone to fainting. It also caused her to produce a particular type of bacteria in her blood. This bacteria was found in the blood in the Donalds’ home.
Little Jeannie Donald added the finishing touch when she mentioned that the loaf of bread they’d eaten on the night of Helen’s murder had been of a different shape than their usual bread. The Donalds and Priestlys shopped at different bakeries, and the loaves made by each shop were shaped differently.
So Jeannie Donald was charged with the murder of her irritating neighbor, Helen Priestly. As best the police could figure, Helen had been on her way home with the bread and had paused to have a little more fun with the Donalds. Nobody knows what exactly was said or done; perhaps she banged on the door again or said something rude. It was surmised that Jeannie had lost her temper and had grabbed Helen, maybe shook or slapped her, and Helen had fainted, as she was prone to doing because of her thalamus condition.
Jeannie then apparently panicked, thinking she had killed Helen, and decided to try and make it appear to be a sexual assault. Accordingly, she brought the unconscious girl into her apartment, injured her with some object like a broom or hammer handle, whereupon Helen came to and resisted. A roofer working nearby thought he had heard a scream around the time of Helen’s disappearance, and somebody else in the neighborhood confirmed the cry.
Jeannie Donald then panicked further and strangled Helen to death. She may not have intended to kill the girl, but the end result was the same.
Jeannie Donald went on trial in July of 1934. She denied everything but was found guilty and sentenced to hang. She did not expect her appeal to be granted, but it was and she was sentenced to life in prison. She proved to be a model prisoner and when her husband became terminally ill in 1944, Jeannie was released to take care of him. After his death, she remained free, living quietly under an assumed name until her death at the age of 80 in 1976.
This case is a marvel of forensic detection, but it also points up a moral that is often forgotten. (Disclaimer: Helen Priestly did not deserve what happened to her. A brat she may have been, and she might well have grown up into a bratty adult, but that doesn’t excuse Jeannie Donald’s final actions upon her.)
In the crowded tenement building where the Donalds and Priestlys lived, there was no escape from the actions of the neighbors. Had Helen’s unpleasant behavior toward others been curbed, tensions between her family and the Donalds would not have escalated as they did. By all accounts, Jeannie Donald was a kindly, good-hearted person, and it was only Helen Priestly’s sustained rudeness and bullying that brought out her anger.
Helen would almost surely have lived a long natural life if she had only been made to treat her neighbors with basic courtesy, especially in that setting, where they could not get away from her.
We often forget in these remote, internet-focused times, that real people have real feelings, real faults, and real limits. No one acts in a vacuum, and right or wrong, fair or no fair, our actions have consequences. And sometimes those consequences are more serious than we could ever imagine.

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3 Responses to “Beware Those Evil Jeannies”

  1. judylaq Says:

    I wish everyone would read this.

  2. ghostscribeGhostess Says:

    So do I. Shake up their complacent little minds a bit.

  3. Stacy Says:

    Timely, ghostscribe. Bullying big thing…freelancing could be option.

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