Archive for January 16th, 2010

1682: Alexander Cockburn, hangman, condemned

Add comment January 16th, 2010 Headsman

Domestic annals of Scotland: from the reformation to the revolution (reporting an item initially recorded by Lord Fountainhall):

1682. Jan. 16. Alexander Cockburn,* the hangman of Edinburgh, was tried before the magistrates as sheriffs, for the murder, in his own house, of one Adamson or Mackenzie, a blue-gown beggar. The proof was slender, and chiefly of the nature of presumption — as, that he had denied Adamson’s being in his house on the alleged day, the contrary being proved, groans having been heard, and bloody clothes found in the house; and this evidence, too, was chiefly from women. Yet he was condemned to be hanged within three suns. One Mackenzie, whom Cockburn had caused to lose his place of hangman at Stirling, performed the office.

Condemned by the evidence of women. How much worse can it get?

There is no report I have been able to locate of Cockburn’s actual hanging date; the “within three suns” sentence was standard for the time.

In days of yore, (says Aubrey) lords and gentlemen lived in the country like petty kings, had jura regalia belonging to the seignories, had castles and boroughs, had gallows within their liberties, where they would try, condemn, and execute; never went to London but in parliament time, or once a year to do homage to the king. Justice was administered with great expedition, and too often with vindictive severity. Pennant informs us that “originally the time of trial and execution was to be within three suns!” About the latter end of the seventeenth century** the period was extended to nine days after sentence; but since a rapid and unjust execution in a petty Scottish town, 1720,† the execution has been ordered to be deferred for forty days on the south, and sixty on the north side of the Tay, that time may be allowed for an application to the king for mercy.

* Not to be confused with barrister Alexander Cockburn (we’ve already met him) … nor, of course, with the late acerbic journalist.

** Specifically, 1695 — well after our day’s hangman had turned hanged man.

† This picturesque over-hasty execution detail appears to me to be folklorish and of questionable reliability. The bottom footnote here attributes the legal change to a cracking yarn about a dancing-master and an officer (here’s the broadside). This source puts it down to a man who committed murder while drunk and was caught, tried, and hanged before he so much as sobered up.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Uncertain Dates

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