1724: Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson

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.

15 thoughts on “1724: Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson”

  1. Anna, contact Haddington library, the best written piece can be found there, it was written in 1956 by an Alistair Bell. I will help you with any questions and will send you my synopsis.

    Kind regards

    Alison Butler

  2. Hi Alison. I’m doing research project for uni about Margaret Dickson. I found it quiet difficult to find any correct inf about Maggie. I would like to ask you for small help. If you can supply my any books title or any other sources where I can find some true information about her. That will be really helpful! Thanks. Anna

  3. I have studied Maggie’s life now for over 6 years, and hope to publish a book on her life. I can clear up the hazy facts: she was definately hung on Sept 2nd 1724, i have seen JC records at National Archives of Scotland. She became pregnant by the landlords son William Bell who was considerably younger than Maggie. The hanging did not go well, John Dalgliesh the hangman tried to belt her with a stick as she tried to loosen the noose with her hands, the crowd threw stones at him for allowing her hands to become free (he had not tied them tight enough). Amazingly 9/10 months after the hanging she gave birth to a son. If anyone knows a publisher who will publish my book on Maggie Dickson (150,000 words) please contact me via email

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