Archive for September 2nd, 2008

1724: Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson

15 comments September 2nd, 2008 Headsman

Allegedly on this date in 1724, a young woman was hanged at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket for concealing her pregnancy.

Any number of details in this horrible/wonderful story are shaky, including the date: some sources make it 1728, a few say 1723, and only a handful attest a specific calendar date. Nobody seems to doubt the tale in the main, however — and it’s certainly excellent enough lore to deserve even a heavily asterisked entry.

Deserted by her husband, young Maggie Dickson took lodgings at an inn in exchange for work, and became pregnant by either the innkeeper or his son. (Again — details in the various sources available read like a game of telephone.) Since single* pregnant working-class women had about as many employment options as birth control options, Maggie kept quiet about her condition in the interest of keeping her job.

And since male parliamentarians figured their job was to keep young lasses of loose character and modest means on the straight and narrow by criminalizing their options, Maggie’s sleight-of-womb put her in violation of a law against concealing a pregnancy. (The same situation was playing out elsewhere in the British sphere at this time.)

When the resulting infant turned up dead, the trail led straight to Dickson … but the concealment of the pregnancy and birth were capital crimes on their own, making it immaterial whether it had been a miscarried pregnancy, an act of infanticide, or simply one of the many early 18th century babies to die in the cradle. The law was an indiscriminate instrument to prevent women terminating their pregnancies.

Nothing noteworthy about the hanging itself is recorded; it seems to have been one of the routine public stranglings of the age, and even the scuffle over the body between family and medical students hunting dissection-ready cadavers was a normal occurrence.

The family won. And en route to Musselburgh for burial, Maggie started banging on the inside of the coffin, and was forthwith revived. Officials decided the sentence of hanging had already been carried out … and her awestruck neighbors suddenly started seeing Maggie sympathetically

And they all lived happily ever after. This day’s principal, at any rate, gained a foothold in adequate prosperity, bore more children, and answered to the nickname “Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson” all the many more years of her life.

The story passed into legend; the dates, as we’ve alluded, fuzzed. One entrepreneurial English broadside publisher of the 19th century even transported the affair to February 1, 1813 — four years after a Concealment of Pregnancy Act reduced the penalty for Maggie Dickson’s “crime” to penal servitude. And near the site of the not-quite-Passion, should you call sometime in Edinburgh, you can raise Half-Hangit Maggie a pint at Maggie Dickson’s Pub.

I’le crye as fu’ o’ tears an egg,
‘Death, I’ve ae favour for to begg,
That ye wad only ge a flegg,
And spare my life,
As I did to ill hanged Megg,
That graceless wife

-Broadside, ‘The last speech and dying words of John Dalgleish, Hangman of Edinburgh’

* Technically, she was still married but separated.

Part of the Themed Set: Judging Abortion.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Murder,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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Themed Set: Judging Abortion

2 comments September 2nd, 2008 Headsman

Abortion and the death penalty have never struck the Headsman as especially similar matters, but they’re interconnected as “life” issues for many.

Whether or not one conceives them as part of a seamless garment, the judgments one makes about abortion are as juridically charged as they are emotionally charged: if abortion is murder, one might punish it by death.

The next two dates’ executions reflect the seemingly intractable ethical and practical uncertainties entailed by extending the concept of “life” into the womb … and the different parties to whom the fatal result of the severest moral calculus might be charged.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Themed Sets


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