A tale of greed and murder has unfolded. A man upset with his annual stipend, in debt and attracted to a local girl is urged on by his own thoughts to commit the ultimate crime. We will introduce want and temptation. We will take you back to a small hamlet in Scotland. The story could very well play out today. Yet, this happened five hundred years ago. Allow us to introduce John Kello.
Our story begins in Linlithgow, Scotland. This is where John Kello was born. He was the son of Bartholomew Kello. He was educated and had an ordinary background. He decided to enter into the Presbyterian Church. Kello was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister while attending the first General Assembly. The first General Assembly, after the Scottish Reformation, was held in Edinburgh on December 20th 1560.
In the year 1567, Kello became the Minister in the parish of Spott, East Lothian. He was diligent with his pastoral duties. He was well liked and quite respected. He was married to Margaret Thomson. Margaret was not a troublesome wife. She was loyal and honest. Margaret brought a small dowry with her. She was also a small woman. John was not cruel to his wife but he did not treat her all that well. The couple would have three children together.
John Kello was also quite ambitious. Kello wished to speculate in land, as to better his social standing. His little income from his post would not allow him to do this. Margaret’s dowry however would go towards purchasing land. He bought land and the land did not turn a profit when worked. He found himself in debt.
Kello was stressed about the debt. He was also in disagreement with the Kirk regarding his pay. The Church provided little financial reward for its Ministers. This created turmoil in a man who was zealous. John began to have thoughts. He began to wonder what it would be like to be single. He thought that he could exist easier on his parish income if he were without a wife.
His fervid mind began to wander. If he were single, he could marry someone whom could further his career. His eyes were bemused by a local laird’s daughter. Temptation entered into the minister’s mind. It did not take long for John to make the leap from leaving Margaret to having Margaret die.
Once murder came into Kello’s mind, it did not leave. In July of 1570, after meticulously planning what he would do, his ambition overtook his conscience. One night, John poisoned Margaret’s stew. He thought that she would die overnight and it would look natural. Margaret survived. In fact, she was in great health. The poison did not work.
A more direct approach was needed. He began to tell friends and family that his wife was in “ill spirits”. Margaret was not depressed but Kello made sure that the parishioners thought she was. For two months, the rumour spread. He would now have to make a murder look like a suicide.
One day John got ill from anxiety that built up inside him. He was visited by another minister from neighbouring Dunbar by the name of Andrew Simpson. During the visit, John relates a disturbing dream to Simpson. Andrew puts it aside as the ramblings of a feverish man. Kello quickly recovered.
On Saturday September 23, 1570, John Kello installed a hook into the ceiling of his bedroom. He gathered a rope and a towel, hiding them from Margaret. That evening, life in the Kello household was boringly normal.
The next morning Margaret was on her knees praying in the bedroom of the manse. John grabbed the towel, snuck up upon her and wrapped it around her neck. He did the deed while the bells rang for church. Margaret could not struggle and it did not take long for the tiny woman to die. Kello then took the rope and hung it through the hook he implanted the night before. He removed the towel and wrapped the rope into a noose. He slid the noose around Margaret’s neck and began to hoist her up. Margaret was now hanging from a beam.
With that John went to the door and locked it from the inside, leaving the key in the lock. Kello then slipped out the window of the manse. He headed toward his church as his flock began to arrive there.
John Kello made his way toward the pulpit. It is at this time, Kello gave a very passionate sermon on the topic of sin. After the sermon, John ate a meal with his parishioners. He then delivered a second sermon. At the end of that service, Kello asked some of his parishioners to come home with him. The reason he gave to the guests were that their visit would lift his wife’s spirits.
When they got to the manse they found the door locked. The men in the party had to break the door to enter into manse. When the party entered inside, Kello called for his wife. After a moment they found Margaret’s lifeless body hanging in the bedroom. Silence and gloom quickly came over the room.
John Kello now had the perfect alibi. The parishioners immediately began to react. Kello’s thoughts had now become a reality. He was now a single father. He could play the grieving husband well. John thought that he could court again in a few months’ time. Sympathies began to pour in. As far as the hamlet was concerned, Margaret committed suicide. With the exception of one person, John’s character prevented suspicion from being placed on him.
The first glimmer of any remorse came when John realized that his wife’s reputation was now tainted. Scotland had a detestation towards people who commit suicide. He never wished Margaret’s reputation to be destroyed. A few days later, John traveled to Dunbar to see fellow clergyman Andrew Simpson, wishing to be comforted.
Kello was in for a surprise. Andrew Simpson was suspicious of John Kello. Soon after the murder, Simpson remembered the dream that John had. He had concluded that the dream was a sign of a guilty mind. He deduces that Margaret might not have died by her own hand. Instead of comfort, John received condemnation by the clergyman. Simpson reasoned that the only way Margaret and Kello would ever receive salvation would be by confessing to her murder.
John briefly considered what his next move would be. He thought of running away and he thought about staying and dealing with the consequences. His decision would come easily. Andrew Simpson was correct. He had killed his wife for greed and debt. He now felt remorse and despair. By the end of September 1570, John Kello was on his way to Edinburgh.
Once there Kello seeks out a judge and some clergymen. John Kello came to confess to the murder of his wife. His confession was heard and accepted. He then stayed at the Tolbooth, the local jail in the legislative building. The confession travelled quickly and no one would think that such an act would cause a great sensation in the city. Once he unburdened himself with his confession to the authorities, his judgement would come quite swiftly.
On October 4, 1570, Kello is tried by a judge. The gallery was full of fellow clergyman. John was sentenced to death by hanging and his body to be burnt. Kello was taken to the gallows on Shrubhill that day. A gibbet was installed on the field called Gallows Lee on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Once upon the scaffold, John Kello gave his last sermon. He spoke of his regret and accepted his punishment. He then was hung by the neck until dead. His body was then removed from the structure and his body burnt at the base of the scaffold. His ashes were scattered.
With all the chaos that was created with the murder and trial, it is unclear whether Margaret was buried traditionally or under the dreadful manner they buried people who commit suicide. On October 5, 1570, Queen Elizabeth I made a gift of escheat to the three children of John, returning the confiscated land and items of John’s to them. John’s son Bartholomew grew up and became a “Minister of God” in Leith Edinburgh. He married. He does not follow his father’s murderous footsteps.
John Kello’s confession was published by Robert Lekprevik in Edinburgh in 1570 shortly after Kello’s execution. The confession is the basis for this tale. A preacher who was upset with the Church, infatuated with the young lady next door and was in debt murdered his wife. Ten days later, the preacher is deceased as well. Three children are left orphaned. A parish was disillusioned. A glimpse into a tragedy, found within brief entries on official registers and as told by John himself.