The murder of John Nisbet, 1910
When cashier John Nisbet was found dead in his railway compartment it was clear robbery was the motive. The search began to find Nisbet's murderer: his fellow passenger John Dickman.
An ill-fated journey
On Friday 18 March 1910, John Nisbet, a cashier of the Stobswood Colliery Company, was travelling on the 10.27 Newcastle train to Alnmouth.
On alternate Fridays he travelled from Newcastle to Widdrington to pay the wages at a colliery near the station. On this particular day Nisbet carried cash to the value of £370 in a small leather bag.
At Newcastle, Nisbet was recognised by a number of people. Charles Raven saw him making for the platform. He was accompanied by another man whom Raven knew by sight but not by name. Two other colliery cashiers, Hall and Spink, who knew Nisbet, saw him walk along the platform with a man wearing a light overcoat and get in the compartment behind them. At the rear of the train, an artist named Hepple saw Nisbet, a stranger to him, pass by his seat with John Dickman, a man he knew.
At Heaton, the second station from Newcastle, Mrs Nisbet normally met her husband and had a brief talk with him before the train went on its way. When Mrs Nisbet eventually found him, she saw another man in the compartment with him. The train had stopped in the shadow of a tunnel but she saw the man's profile and also saw that the collar of his light overcoat was turned up.
At Stannington, Hall and Spink alighted. As he passed Nisbet, Hall nodded in friendly fashion and Nisbet responded. Both Hall and Spink saw that Nisbet was not alone.
Morpeth was the next stop. On arrival a man alighted and handed the ticket collector his ticket. The collector didn’t pay much attention but observed the man was wearing a loose overcoat. The train stood for four minutes at Morpeth to take water and John Grant, a platelayer, joined it as a passenger. He walked past the carriage in which Nisbet had been sitting and said later in evidence that he saw nobody.
Discovery of a body
When the train reached Alnmouth a porter opened the door of Nisbet’s compartment. It appeared empty but he saw three streams of blood oozing across the floor and found under the seat the body of a man, face down. There was a hard felt hat beside the body and a broken pair of spectacles. The porter called the guard and station master. It was Nisbet, with five bullet wounds in his head.
The Stobswood Colliery Company offered £100 reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer. Information reached the police that Dickman had been seen in company with Nisbet.
On 21 March, Inspector Tait of Newcastle City Police travelled to Dickman’s home and ‘invited’ him to the police station where he was interviewed by Superintendent Weddell.
He made a long statement accounting for his movements which did not agree with evidence the police already had. Dickman was charged with Nisbet's murder.
The case against him depended largely on the question of identification. As has been said, Charles Raven knew Dickman by sight but not by name. He knew Nisbet quite well and saw both men walk towards the platform at Newcastle. But he did not see them enter the compartment together.
Hepple, the artist, knew Dickman but did not know Nisbet. He was only able to say he saw Dickman on the platform. Hall, one of the cashiers, knew Nisbet but not the accused.
The bullets found in Nesbit’s head were of two different calibres and at the times and all through the trial, it was assumed that two revolvers had been used by the murderer. It is now known that only one was used and that the murderer had made the smaller bullets fit by packing paper round them. The murder weapon was never found.
Evidence is presented
A professor of medical jurisprudence at Durham University examined the prisoner's clothing. There was a dark stain on the left front of the coat and efforts appeared to have been made to rub it off. The professor could not say whether it was blood or not but there was definite traces of blood on a pair of gloves and inside the pocket of a pair of trousers.
It was obvious that robbery had been the motive. But the prosecution, of course, were under no obligation to prove motive because, as Lord Coleridge said at the trial: “motive, if the facts are clear, is irrelevant.” A month before the trial, a colliery manager found, the bag Nisbet had been carrying on the day he died. The bag was found at the bottom of an air shaft at the Isabella Pit about one-and-a-half miles from Stannington
It had been cut open and the money was missing. The manager had previously spoken to Dickman about the difficulty of working the pit because of water.
When Dickman went into the box on 5 July 1910, he admitted that he knew colliery wages were paid on Fridays and that he had travelled over the route on a previous Friday.
He denied he was wearing the overcoat described by witnesses and produced two others. He said the gloves had not been worn for at least three months but could not explain the comparatively fresh bloodstains. The marks on the trousers, he said, might have occurred when he was cutting his corns and the oil on his coat could have come from his bicycle. He denied that he knew of the existence of the Isabella Pit.
He said that after leaving Morpeth Station he walked for 30 minutes and then had to lie down in a field because he suffered from piles. Dickman made a bad impression on the jury. They took two and a half hours to find him guilty.
Dickman was hanged on 10 August 1910. It was said afterwards that he had been strongly suspected of the murder of a Jewish moneylender at Sunderland in 1909. A year later, it was held that the murder of Nisbet was an accident arising from his employment as a cashier, which involved more than ordinary risk, and that therefore his widow was entitled to receive workmen's compensation.