His very first client was a fellow named John Reid, accused in 1766 of rustling 120 sheep from a Peebleshire farm. Boswell, clever lad, beat the charge,** and John Reid lived to shear again.
In 1774, Reid was accused again — and this time, all Boswell’s rhetorical genius could not save him: the Edinburgh Advertiser (Aug. 2, 1774) saluted the “masterly and pathetic manner” of Boswell’s summation, “which did him great honour both as a lawyer and as one who wished for a free and impartial trial by jury.”
It did not do John Reid the honour of an acquittal.
Even beaten in court, our libertine diarist went to extraordinary lengths to defend Reid; his personal passion for saving Reid’s life bleeds out of lengthy diary entries — 70-odd pages’ worth over the seven weeks from conviction to execution, quoted here from Boswell for the Defence. He strongly believed Reid innocent of the crime — that he had received the sheep apparently legitimately from a man named William Gardner, who was the real thief. (Gardner was transported for theft before Reid’s execution.)
Boswell worried at the Earl of Rochford, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Duke of Queensberry with imprecations to intervene for a royal pardon. He found himself checked by the judge, equally determined to hang Reid: “The King was certainly disposed to transport, but the judge’s report was too strong,” Lord Pembroke wrote him afterwards. “Indeed, I never read anything more so, or so positive.”
Balked of royal mercy, Boswell even went so far as to lay plans to snatch Reid’s body immediately after hanging and have it whisked away for an attempted resuscitation. As a client, you can’t ask for more zealous representation than that. (Boswell was talked off the scheme only the day before the hanging.)
It is still true today that many death row attorneys give much more of themselves to their clients than mere legal scholarship, as they find themselves shepherding in the valley of death. Boswell met often with Reid, and Reid’s wife; he solicited family history, had Reid sit for a portrait, and bore the delicate burden of keeping Reid’s spirits up even while apprising him day by day of his ever darkening situation. When they spoke of making ready for death, Boswell found Reid much better possessed than was he himself.
The barrister’s diary entries for these days are among the longest and most anguished that Boswell ever wrote. (I have here elided from the September 20 entry a good deal of Boswell’s logistical preparations for, discussions with potential collaborators about, and grudging final resolution against, the mooted resurrection attempt.)
TUESDAY 20 SEPTEMBER. I was now more firmly impressed with a belief of John Reid’s innocence … I really believed he was condemned on insufficient evidence, and, from his solemn averments of his innocence, thought him not guilty of the crime for which he was condemned; such averments being in my opinion an overbalance not for positive, or even strong circumstantial, evidence, but for such evidence as was brought against him, which I thought could produce no more than suspicion.
When I came to the prison I found that John Reid’s wife and children were with him. The door of the iron room was now left open and they were allowed to go and come as they pleased. He was very composed. His daughter Janet was a girl about fifteen, his eldest son Benjamin about ten, his youngest son Daniel between two and three. It was a striking scene to see John on the last night of his life surrounded by his family. His wife and two eldest children behaved very quietly. It was really curious to see the young child Daniel, who knew nothing of the melancholy situation of his father, jumping upon him with great fondness, laughing and calling to him with vivacity. The contrast was remarkable between the father in chains and in gloom and the child quite free and frolicsome. John took him on his knee with affection.
WEDNESDAY 21 SEPTEMBER. John Reid’s wife called on me before breakfast and told me that Mrs. Walker said she was welcome to the best room in her house for the corpse; but that afterwards her landlord had sent to her that she must quit his house if she allowed such a thing. I said that there would be no occasion for any place. The mob would not trouble the corpse; and it might be put directly on the cart that she expected was to come for it. After breakfast Mr. Nasmith came, and was pleased to find that the scheme of recovery was given up … We walked backwards and forwards in the Grassmarket, looking at the gallows and talking of John Reid. Mr. Nasmith said he imagined he would yet confess; for his wife had said this morning that he had something to tell me which he had as yet told to no mortal.
We went to the prison about half an hour after twelve. He was now released from the iron about his leg. The Reverend Dr. Webster and Mr. Ritchie were with him. We waited in the hall along with his wife, who had white linen clothes with black ribbons in a bundle, ready to put on him before he should go out to execution. There was a deep settled grief in her countenance. She was resolved to attend him to the last; but Richard whispered me that the Magistrates had given orders that she should be detained in the prison till the execution was over. I dissuaded her from going and she agreed to take my advice; and then Richard told her the orders of the Magistrates. I said aloud I was glad to hear of it. The Reverend Dr. Macqueen, who afterwards came in, told her it would be a tempting of Providence to go; that it might affect her so as to render her incapable to take care of her fatherless children; and Mr. Ritchie said that the best thing she could do was to remain in the prison and pray for her husband. Dr. Macqueen said to me he was so much impressed with the poor man’s innocence that he had some difficulty whether he ought to attend the execution and authorize it by his presence. I said he certainly should attend, for it was legal; and, besides, supposing it ever so unjust, it was humane to attend an unhappy man in his last moments.
“But,” said Dr. Macqueen, “I will not pray for him as a guilty man.”
“You would be very much in the wrong to do so,” said I, “if you think him not guilty.” Dr. Webster and I had no conversation as he passed through the hall except inquiring at each other how we did.
John’s wife then went up to him for a little, having been told both by me and Mr. Nasmith that she could not hope for the blessing of Providence on her and her children if by her advice John went out of the world with a lie in his mouth. I followed in a little, and found him in his usual dress, standing at the window. I told him I understood he had something to mention to me. He said he would mention it. He had since his trial in 1766 stolen a few sheep (I think five), of which he never was suspected.
“John,” said I, “it gives me concern to find that even such a warning as you got then did not prevent you from stealing. I really imagine that if you had now got off you might again have been guilty, such influence has Satan over you.” He said he did not know but he might. Then I observed that his untimely death might be a mercy to him, as he had time for repentance. He seemed to admit that it might be so. He said that what he had now told me he had not mentioned even to his wife; and I might let it rest. I called up Mr. Nasmith, with whom came Mr. Ritchie. I said he might acknowledge this fact to them, which he did. I asked him, if I saw it proper to mention it as making his denial of the theft for which he was condemned more probable, I might be at liberty to do so? He said I might dispose of it as I thought proper. But he persisted in denying the theft for which he was condemned. He now began to put on his white dress, and we left him.
Some time after, his wife came down and begged that we would go up to him, that he might not be alone. Dress has a wonderful impression on the fancy. I was not much affected when I saw him this morning in his usual dress. But now he was all in white, with a high nightcap on, and he appeared much taller, and upon the whole struck me with a kind of tremor. He was praying; but stopped when we came in. I bid him not be disturbed, but go on with his devotions. He did so, and prayed with decent fervency, while his wife, Mr. Nasmith, and I stood close around him.
He prayed in particular, “Grant, Lord, through the merits of my Saviour, that this the day of my death may be the day of my birth unto life eternal.” Poor man, I felt now a kind of regard for him. He said calmly, “I think I’ll be in eternity in about an hour.” His wife said something from which he saw that she was not to attend him to his execution; and he said, “So you’re no to be wi’ me.” I satisfied him that it was right she should not go.
I said, “I suppose, John, you know that the executioner is down in the hall.” He said no. I told him that he was there and would tie his arms before he went out.
“Ay,” said his wife, “to keep him from catching at the tow [rope].”
“Yes,” said I, “that it may he easier for him.” John said he would submit to everything.
I once more conjured him to tell the truth. “John,” said I, “you must excuse me for still entertaining some doubt, as you know you have formerly deceived me in some particulars. I have done more for you in this world than ever was done for any man in your circumstances. I beseech you let me be of some use to you for the next world. Consider what a shocking thing it is to go out of the world with a lie in your mouth. How can you expect mercy, if you are in rebellion against the GOD of truth?” I thus pressed him; and while he stood in his dead clothes, on the very brink of the grave, with his knees knocking together, partly from the cold occasioned by his linen clothes, partly from an awful apprehension of death, he most solemnly averred that what he had told concerning the present alleged crime was the truth. Before this, I had at Mr. Ritchie’s desire read over his last speech to him, which was rather an irksome task as it was very long; and he said it was all right except some immaterial circumstance about his meeting Wilson with the six score of sheep. Vulgar minds, and indeed all minds, will be more struck with some unusual thought than with the most awful consideration which they have often heard.
I tried John thus: “We are all mortal. Our life is uncertain. I may perhaps die in a week hence. Now, John, consider how terrible it would be if I should come into the other world and find” (looking him steadfastly in the face) “that you have been imposing on me.” He was roused by this, but still persisted. “Then,” said I, “John, I shall trouble you no more upon this head. I believe you. GOD forbid that I should not believe the word of a fellow man in your awful situation, when there is no strong evidence against it, as I should hope to be believed myself in the same situation. But remember, John, it is trusting to you that I believe. It is between GOD and your own conscience if you have told the truth; and you should not allow me to believe if it is not true.” He adhered.
I asked him if he had anything more to tell. He said he had been guilty of one other act of sheep-stealing. I think he said of seven sheep; but I think he did not mention precisely when. As he shivered, his wife took off her green cloth cloak and threw it about his shoulders. It was curious to see such care taken to keep from a little cold one who was so soon to be violently put to death. He desired she might think no more of him, and let his children push their way in the world.
“The eldest boy,” said he, “is reading very well. Take care that he reads the word of GOD.” He desired her to keep a New Testament and a psalm-book which he had got in a present from Mr. Ritchie and which he was to take with him to the scaffold. He was quite sensible and judicious. He had written a kind of circular letter to all his friends on whom he could depend, begging them to be kind to his family.
Two o’clock struck.
I said, with a solemn tone, “There’s two o’clock.” In a little Richard came up. The sound of his feet on the stair struck me. He said calmly, “Will you come awa now?” This was a striking period. John said yes, and readily prepared to go down. Mr. Nasmith and I went down a little before him. A pretty, well-dressed young woman and her maid were in a small closet off the hall; and a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience, being placed as spectators in a sort of loft looking down to the hall.
There was a dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.
When he stepped into the hall, it was quite the appearance of a ghost. The hangman, who was in a small room off the hall, then came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow to the prisoner. John bowed his head towards him. They stood looking at each other with an awkward uneasy attention. I interfered, and said, “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.” “I only do my duty,” repeated the hangman. “I have no resentment against him,” said John. “I desire to forgive all mankind.” “Well, John,” said I, “you are leaving the world with a very proper disposition: forgiving as you hope to be forgiven.” I forgot to mention that before he left the iron room Mr. Ritchie said to him, “Our merciful King was hindered from pardoning you by a representation against you; but you are going before the King of Heaven, who knows all things and whose mercy cannot be prevented by any representation.”
The hangman advanced and pinioned him, as the phrase is; that is, tied his arms with a small cord. John stood quiet and undisturbed. I said, “Richard, give him another glass of wine.” Captain Fraser, the gaoler, had sent him the night before a bottle of claret, part of which Richard had given him, warmed with sugar, early in the morning, two glasses of it in the forenoon, and now he gave him another. John drank to us.
He then paused a little, then kissed his wife with a sad adieu, then Mr. Ritchie kissed him. I then took him by the hand with both mine, saying, “John, it is not yet too late. If you have any thing to acknowledge, do it at the last to the reverend gentlemen, Dr. Macqueen and Dr. Dick, to whom you are much obliged. Farewell, and I pray GOD may be merciful to you.” He seemed faint and deep in thought. The prison door then opened and he stepped away with the hangman behind him, and the door was instantly shut His wife then cried, “O Richard, let me up,” and got to the window and looked earnestly out till he was out of sight. Mr. Nasmith and I went to a window more to the west, and saw him stalking forward in the gloomy procession.
I then desired his wife to retire and pray that he might be supported in this his hour of trial. Captain Fraser gave her four shillings. It was very agreeable to see such humanity in the gaoler, and indeed the tenderness with which the last hours of a convict were soothed pleased me much.
The mob were gone from the prison door in a moment. Mr. Nasmith and I walked through the Parliament Close, down the Back Stairs and up the Cowgate, both of us satisfied of John Reid’s innocence, and Mr. Nasmith observing the littleness of human justice, that could not reach a man for the crimes which he committed but punished him for what he did not commit.
We got to the place of execution about the time that the procession did. We would not go upon the scaffold nor be seen by John, lest it should be thought that we prevented him from confessing. It was a fine day. The sun shone bright. We stood close to the scaffold on the south side between two of the Town Guard. There were fewer people present than upon any such occasion that I ever saw. He behaved with great calmness and piety. Just as he was going to mount the ladder, he desired to see his wife and children; but was told they were taken care of. There was his sister and his daughter near to the gibbet, but they were removed. Dr. Dick asked him if what he had said was the truth. He said it was. Just as he was going off, he made an attempt to speak. Somebody on the scaffold called, “Pull up his cap.” The executioner did so. He then said, “Take warning. Mine is an unjust sentence.” Then his cap was pulled down and he went off. He catched the ladder; but soon quitted his hold. To me it sounded as if he said, “just sentence”; and the people were divided, some crying, “He says his sentence is just.” Some: “No. He says unjust.” Mr. Laing, clerk to Mr. Tait, one of the town clerks, put me out of doubt, by telling me he had asked the executioner, who said it was unjust. I was not at all shocked with this execution at the time. John died seemingly without much pain. He was effectually hanged, the rope having fixed upon his neck very firmly, and he was allowed to hang near three quarters of an hour; so that any attempt to recover him would have been in vain. I comforted myself in thinking that by giving up the scheme I had avoided much anxiety and uneasiness.
We waited till he was cut down; and then walked to the Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters whom Mr. Nasmith and I paid, no cart having come for his body. A considerable mob gathered about the office. Mr. Nasmith went to Hutchinson’s to bespeak some dinner and write a note to The Courant that there would be a paragraph tonight giving an account of the execution; for we agreed that a recent account would make a strong impression.
I walked seriously backwards and forwards a considerable time in the churchyard waiting for John Reid’s wife coming, that I might resign the corpse to her charge. I at last wearied, and then went to the office of the prison. There I asked the executioner myself what had passed. He told me that John first spoke to him on the ladder and said he suffered wrongfully; and then called to the people that his sentence was unjust. John’s sister came here, and returned me many thanks for what I had done for her brother. She was for burying him in the Greyfriars Churchyard, since no cart had come. “No,” said I, “the will of the dead shall be fulfilled. He was anxious to be laid in his own burying-place, and it shall be done.”
I then desired Richard to see if he could get a cart to hire, and bid him bring John’s wife to Hutchinson’s. Mr. Nasmith and I eat some cold beef and cold fowl and drank some port, and then I wrote a paragraph to be inserted in the newspapers. Mr. Nasmith threw in a few words. I made two copies of it, and, both to the printer of The Courant and Mercury, subjoined my name to be kept as the authority. Richard brought John’s wife and daughter. “Well,” said I, “Mrs. Reid, I have the satisfaction to tell you that your husband behaved as well as we could wish.” “And that is a great satisfaction,” said she. We made her eat a little and take a glass, but she was, though not violently or very tenderly affected, in a kind of dull grief. The girl did not seem moved. She eat heartily.
I told Mrs. Reid that I insisted that John should be buried at home; and as I found that as yet no carter would undertake to go but at an extravagant price, the corpse might lie till tomorrow night, and then perhaps a reasonable carter might be had.
Mr. Nasmith went to The Courant with the paragraph, and I to The Mercury. I sat till it was printed. It was liberal in Robertson, who was himself one of the jury, to admit it; and he corrected the press.
It was now about eight in the evening, and gloom came upon me. I went home and found my wife no comforter, as she thought I had carried my zeal for John too far, might hurt my own character and interest by it, and as she thought him guilty.† I was so affrighted that I started every now and then and durst hardly rise from my chair at the fireside. I sent for Grange, but he was not at home. I however got Dr. Webster, who came and supped, and he and I drank a bottle of claret. But still I was quite dismal.
Boswell spent several days more in tying up affairs, and in a sense reconciling both his own self to the reality of what has occurred, and regaining an equilibrium with friends and colleagues who doubted Reid’s innocence (and/or played some part in Reid’s conviction).
Boswell was around the midpoint of his manhood at 33 years of age, with two more decades ahead to make a glorious mark. But on September 21, 1774, John Reid’s story was done.
“After this defeat, though he would labor at the law for many years more, Boswell made a critical emotional swerve,” writes Gordon Turnbull — away from law and towards the literary exertions that define him for posterity. “Part of Boswell died with Reid: it was defeat in this cause which, in Frank Brady’s words, ‘crystallized his distaste for the Scottish bar’ and ‘destroyed his momentum as a lawyer.'”
* Among other things, Dr. Johnson bequeathed us the aphorism that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concenrates his mind wonderfully.” When Johnson said it, it concerned a real person whose hanging was really imminent … and it was a 100% bullshit cover story for a faked enhancement of mental faculties said man had not, in fact, evinced.
** Boswell’s friend and fellow Scottish Enlightenment big wheel Andrew Crosbie helped in the 1766 Reid case … but not the 1774 one.
† With a defter feel for the diplomatic considerations Boswell had ignored in his exertions, the barrister’s wife reminded him a few days afterwards “that John Reid was now gone, but that his jury, fifteen men upon oath, were alive. By my speaking strongly of the injustice of the sentence, I did John no good and in some measure attacked them.” She quoted him a passage from John Home’s tragedy Douglas:
The living claim some duty; vainly thou
Bestow’st thy care upon the silent dead.