(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1818 in Edinburgh, Scotland, 22-year-old Robert Johnston faced capital punishment for the robbery of a candlemaker. The authorities were nothing if not zealous: that day, Johnston would be hanged no less than four times.
Alex Young, in his book The Encyclopaedia of Scottish Executions 1750 to 1963, provides an account of the gruesome debacle that was Robert Johnston’s execution:
After praying and shaking hands with the clergymen, he mounted the scaffold and looked boldly around him, before helping the executioner adjust the rope, and giving the signal.
The drop fell – but the excessively short length of rope enabled him to stand on the platform. As the Magistrates ordered carpenters to cut a wider opening, cries of “Murder” came from the crowd.
The cries were followed by a shower of stones, which sent the Magistrates and the carpenters to the shelter of the Tolbooth Church doorway, through which they passed into the police office.
Almost every window glass in the church suffered from the stones, as did Johnston who had been abandoned on the platform.
“Cut him down—he’s alive!” rang out, as the crowd took possession of the scaffold. Johnston, despite hanging many minutes, was alive, and after taking the rope from his neck and arms and the cap from his head, he was carried off towards High Street. The scaffold structure proved too robust, but Johnston’s waiting coffin was broken up and thrown through the church windows.
The police and military combined forces to wrest the hapless Johnston from his would-be saviors and took him, unconscious, to the police office, where a surgeon bled him until he was determined fit to be re-hanged.
This time Johnston was carried by six men and the scaffold, surrounded by soldiers.
Again the executioner made a bungle of it. The rope was now too long and Johnston had to be lifted while the rope was shortened by winding it around the hook.
Again, shouts of “Murder!” and “Shame! Shame!” rang out, and only the military presence prevented another riot. Johnston struggled for many minutes before passing into eternity.
The next day, the Magistrates fired both the master of works and the executioner, who was named John Simpson. They also issued a fifty-guinea reward for information leading to the identification of Johnston’s rescuers. It went unclaimed.