For thirty years, James Straiton had been a policeman. Born in Stirling in 1884, he worked on the railways before joining the Lanarkshire Constabulary on 4 May 1903. He was posted to Tollcross just beyond the
Glasgow city boundary and when Glasgow annexed the area in 1912, Constable Straiton was absorbed into the Eastern Division of the City of Glasgow Police.
In 1923 he was appointed to the Criminal Investigation Department and reached the rank of Detective Sergeant in 1925, having been commended by the Chief Constable on ten occasions. He retired from the police in 1934 at the age of fifty.
After his retiral, James worked as an investigator for a furniture company, but his period of retirement had been particularly poignant as one of his sons had been killed in Libya during the Second World War. He was pleased when his other son followed in his footsteps into the police.
James lived with his wife in a semi-detached house at 528 Edinburgh Road, Carntyne, on the East Side of Glasgow and was well known and respected in the area. He had not been in good health with heart trouble during the month of February 1946.
At about 8.30pm on the evening of Tuesday 26 March 1946, the couple who lived just two houses away from the Straitons, Mr. and Mrs. Deaken, got off a ‘bus on Edinburgh Road, just opposite their house at No. 524. As they crossed the road, James Deaken asked his wife Annie if she had left the light on in their house when they left earlier that evening. When she said that she had not left the light on, they realised that someone had been in their house during their absence.
Mr. Deaken told his wife to go to No. 528 and ask Mr. Straiton to help them, knowing that he had been a policeman. When Mrs. Deaken came to his door and explained their suspicions, James Straiton did not hesitate. He knew what he had to do and did not flinch, despite his deteriorating health. His wife was at the cinema and he was alone in his house at the time. He fetched his old police baton and went immediately to help his neighbour.
In the meantime, James Deaken had tried his key in his front door lock, but it would not open, confirming his earlier suspicions that the house had been broken into. At that point, Straiton arrived to assist him and Mr. Deaken suggested that he would climb in one of the rear windows and open the door from the inside, while Straiton covered the front.
James Deaken entered by the rear window, switched on the downstairs light and opened the front door. He heard a noise upstairs and on looking up, saw two men at the top of the stairs. Instantly, the men ran down the stairs towards the front door and to his horror Deaken saw that one of the men was carrying two pistols, one in each hand.
As they reached the door, Mr. Deaken tried to block the door, but the armed intruder fired a pistol at him, narrowly missing him. As Deaken and Straiton moved towards the man who had fired, the other burglar ran past. There was a violent struggle and the armed intruder was struck on the forehead by the police baton wielded by Straiton. The blow knocked the intruder to his knees, but as he did so, he fired one of the pistols and the bullet struck the retired detective in the stomach. Both intruders then ran off, leaving Straiton lying, dying, in the garden, but not before firing another shot at Annie Deaken who was by the garden gate. She was uninjured.
It was not until after ten o’clock that same evening that Mrs. Straiton returned from the cinema and saw a large crowd outside her house. She broke down in disbelief when told of her husband’s murder, as she had been worried about his heart condition.
Chief Superintendent William Ewing, the head of Glasgow’s C.I.D., was on the scene without delay and his men
interviewed the witnesses, obtaining detailed descriptions of the two intruders who had brutally murder the former policeman. Circulation of the men’s descriptions also included Glasgow’s hospitals as it was felt that the young man struck by the police baton might seek medical attention.
A search of the garden revealed that the burglars had entered the house by climbing a rone-pipe and one of them had removed his shoes to allow him to climb.
The shoes, three spent .45 cartridge cases from a semi-automatic pistol and other articles were taken away for forensic examination.
Despite the activity of scores of detectives working night and day on the case, five days went by without any positive evidence, which might lead to the identity of the murderer.
During their enquiries, the detectives had become aware of distinctive similarities in two other house-breakings that had occurred in the East-end of the City where the rone-pie method of entry had been used and, crucially, a pistol had been involved. They were:
(1) 18 March 1946 – 2 Whitehill Street – Jewelry stolen and pistol fired at lock of lock fast interior door;
(2) 25 March 1946 – 265 Golfhill Drive – Jewelry stolen and pistol pointed at the householder;
Detective Superintendent Gilbert McIlwrick head of the Identification Bureau suggested another method
which could be employed to increase the possibility of identifying the culprit. He suggested that as there was a lack of forensic evidence, the Modus Operandi index of the Identification Bureau could be searched for a criminals between the ages of twenty and twenty-five who had previously used the method of climbing a rone-pipe before breaking an upper window during their crimes. Fingerprints of those so identified could then be compared to a fingerprint left at the scene of the housebreaking in Golfhill Drive.
It seemed a daunting task and as it was a Sunday, only a skeleton staff was on duty. A total of 450 criminals were selected from the index and the painstaking comparison of their fingerprints began what they thought would be an endless task. After just ten minutes has elapsed, Detective Constable Douglas Hamilton paused, then checked and re-checked a fingerprint card with the Golfhill Drive print…they were identical!
Detective Chief Superintendent Ewing was informed that the thumbprint belonged to John Caldwell, a twenty-year-old absentee soldier, who lived in Fielden Street, Bridgeton, Glasgow. He was arrested at 2 o’clock on the morning of 1 April 1946, by Detective Lieutenant Robert Colquhoun, head of the Eastern Division C.I.D., together with Detective Lieutenant Dow and Detective Inspector McCartney.
Following Caldwell’s arrest, the detectives also arrested a youth of 15 years who was charged with acting along with Caldwell in the house-breakings and subsequent murder of Mr. Straiton. Both young men were taken to the Eastern Police Office in Tobago Street, Glasgow, where, later that morning, they appeared separately at the Eastern Police Court and were remanded in custody. Caldwell’s father James, aged 57, also appeared at the Court on charges relating to receiving large quantities of clothing and jewelry from the house-breakings.
The trial of John Caldwell at Glasgow High Court took place in June 1946, and the public galleries were filled with spectators every day. The 15 years old youth who had been charged with Caldwell had previously been found to have mental issues and committed to Lennox Castle Certified Institution, Lennoxtown, Stirlingshire. Caldwell stood alone to face the capital charges, which he denied.
The fingerprint evidence coupled with the ballistic evidence were the key to the case and fingerprint, forensic and ballistic experts were on hand to give the crucial evidence for the prosecution. The eminent Professor John Glaister, Regius Professor of Forensic Medicine at Glasgow University, had examined James Straiton’s body. He found that he had died from massive hemorrhaging due to the fatal bullet, fired at a distance of between three to eight inches (7.5 – 20cm), penetrating his jacket and the waistband of his trousers.
Dr. Scott of Barlinnie Prison in his evidence, stated that he had observed Caldwell extensively and concluded that there was no evidence of insanity, but he was not ‘normal’. He said that he was more likely to be rash in his actions than a normal person was and not likely to have feelings of remorse for the consequences. He was also, in an emotional sense, below the normal standard and that there was insanity in his family. Mr. Gordon Thomson, K.C., the defence counsel, seized on this evidence and drew a conclusion from Dr. Scott that the blow to the head by Straiton’s baton could have produced a reaction from Caldwell different to a normal person. This ignored the obvious fact that Caldwell had fired the pistol at Mr. Deaken before he was struck on the head by Straiton, thereby indicating his intention to kill to escape if necessary, an observation which was clear for all to see.
In his concluding presentation to the fifteen jurors, Mr. Douglas Johnston, Advocate-Depute, appearing for the prosecution, said that “seldom in this court, where there have been many similar trials, could there have been such an overwhelming body of evidence against an accused person”. In conclusion, he told them to “steel their hearts and do their duty as citizens of Glasgow and return a verdict that the accused is “Guilty”.
The defence counsel, Mr. Thomson, in his concluding presentation asked the jury to consider the medical evidence that had been placed before them and accept that Caldwell was acting under ‘diminished responsibility’ when he committed the crimes.
The Jury was not long in their deliberations and returned a majority verdict of ‘Guilty’ to all charges, although they did add a recommendation for mercy. Notwithstanding the recommendation of the Jury, the trial judge produced the dreaded black cap and placed it briefly over his judicial wig while he passed the sentence of death on John Caldwell. A subsequent appeal for mercy was dismissed by the Criminal Appeal Court in Edinburgh on 23 July 1946.
At two minutes past eight on Saturday, 10 August 1946, John Caldwell was executed at Barlinnie Prison. When the Notice of Execution was posted to the prison door by the Deputy Governor, Mr. A. E. Edwards, only seven men and one woman turned up to read the notice, then walk quickly away. As is the case with executions, evidence of the execution was given before Sheriff Berry at Glasgow Sheriff Court by Bailie Scott Adamson, who said that Caldwell had declined to say anything before the sentence was carried out. Dr. Scott, who had given evidence as to the medical condition of Caldwell at his trial, also gave evidence of his examination of the body before it was buried in the grounds of the prison.
Throughout the investigation and subsequent trial, one thing that stood above the all the forensic and ballistic evidence given was the courage and sense of duty that James Straiton had displayed on the fateful night. Here was a man in his early sixties, in questionable health, who had ‘done his bit’ over a period of thirty years in the police being asked to ‘stand up and be counted’ one more time to assist a neighbour. He could have shrunk back from the challenge and ‘hid behind his pension’, but he was not that kind of man and had not been that kind of policeman. It was the policeman’s sense of duty that James Straiton found irresistible and he paid for it with his life.
© GPHS 2004