1591: John Dickson, “broken on ane rack”

On this date in 1591, Scotsman John Dickson was condemned to death (which he immediately suffered) for murdering his father.

“The criminal record,” observes this volume of Scottish crime, “contains neither the particulars of the murder, nor the evidence against the prisoner.”

What is particular to this case is the method of execution: the breaking-wheel, or something very similar to it, a tortuous death used throughout continental Europe but that never caught on in the British Isles.

John Dickson, younger of Belchester, being apprehended, ta’en, and brought to Edinburgh, was put to the knawledge of ane assize for the slaughter of his awn natural father [in July 1588], and also for the lying for the said offence at the process of excommunication. [Being convicted, he was] brought to the scaffold, and at the Cross broken on ane rack, [and] worried—where he lay all that night, and on the morn [was] carried to the gallows of the Burgh-moor, where the rack was set up, and the corpse laid thereupon. (Passage from here or here.)

Dickson’s is the first of only two such “breaking” death sentences, in which the doomed is staked out spread-eagled and has his limbs shattered one by one, documented in Scotland. (The other is that of Robert Weir in 1604; an assassin in 1571 “is said, also” to have suffered such a fate, but actual documentation has been lost.)

Sort of like this. (Source)

On this day..

3 thoughts on “1591: John Dickson, “broken on ane rack”

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  2. Good question! Wish I’d thought to notice and research that before. So the whole of my knowledge is what I just now googled on the subject, but per


    … the word roots to “strangle”

    Old English wyrgan; related to Old Frisian wergia to kill, Old High German wurgen (German (er)würgen to strangle), Old Norse virgill, urga rope

    There are at least a couple of sources out there that give this same meaning (“worry” = “strangle”) for, e.g., witches who are worried and burnt. For example —


    I guess if that’s accurate the text reads as if they broke him on the rack but then were nice enough to strangle him off at the end of it instead of leaving him to the lingering death of hours afterwards? Sometimes breaking death sentences enjoyed a merciful coup de grace before all the bone-smashing, but you’d think they would say “worried” before “broken” were that the case here.

  3. [Being convicted, he was] brought to the scaffold, and at the Cross broken on ane rack, [and] worried

    He had reason to be worried, but what part of the ritual does this signify?

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