Hated Edinburgh gendarme Captain John Porteous was lynched on this date in 1736.
September 7 was the date of Porteous’s own scheduled hanging, for triggering a mob scene at a previous execution we have already visited: Porteous, commanding the guard detail at that hanging, reacted insanely when
some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body.
Nowadays Porteous might cite officer safety and be back on the job in a week’s time. Edinburghers in 1736 gave their law enforcement a bit less latitude, and the city magistrates were obliged to box Porteous up in the Tolbooth lest a baying mob “would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices.”
Five months remained to Mr. Porteous, a span in which he must have died a thousand deaths as he watched fortune toss his prospects to and fro from within his dungeon. The temper of the city would admit no other result than his conviction and death sentence but officers of the law have strings to pull with the state their muskets uphold. With King George II out of hand,* Queen Caroline granted Porteous a reprieve (not yet an outright clemency) from an intended September 8 date with his own hangman. That intervention was soon overruled by a higher sovereign, for as the Newgate Calendar puts it, “when the populace were informed, such a scheme of revenge was meditated as is perhaps unprecedented.” This was no sudden spasm of public rage; five calculating days had elapsed from the arrival to Edinburgh of the queen’s mercy when
On the 7th of September, 1736, between nine and ten in the evening, a large body of men entered the city of Edinburgh, and seized the arms belonging to the guard; they then patrolled the streets, crying out, ‘All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.’ They then shut the gates and placed guards at each.
Illustration of the Porteous mob, from Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian — which dramatizes the lynching.
The main body of the mob, all disguised, marched in the mean time to the prison; when finding some difficulty in breaking open the doors with hammers, they immediately set fire to it; taking great care that the flames should not spread beyond their proper bounds. The outer door was hardly consumed before they rushed in, and, ordering the keeper to open the door of the captain’s apartment, cried out, ‘Where is the villain, Porteous?’ He replied, ‘Here I am, what do you want with me?’ To which they answered, that they meant to hang him in the Grass Market, the place where he had shed so much innocent blood.
His expostulations were all in vain, they seized him by the legs and arms, and dragged him instantly to the place of execution.
On their arrival, they broke open a shop to find a rope suitable to their purpose, which they immediately fixed round his neck, then throwing the other end over a dyer’s pole, hoisted him up; when he, endeavouring to save himself, fixed his hands between the halter and his neck, which being observed by some of the mob, one of them struck him with an axe, which obliging him to quit his hold, they soon put an end to his life.
When they were satisfied he was dead they immediately dispersed to their several habitations, unmolested themselves, and without molesting anyone else.
Such was the fate of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of qualifications which, had they been properly applied, might have rendered him an honourable and useful servant of his country. His undaunted spirit and invincible courage would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But being advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of his fellow citizens, he was detested and hated by all who knew him. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will he a caution to those who are in power not to abuse it; but, by a humane as well as diligent discharge of their duty, to render themselves worthy members of society.
Porteous did get a solemn memorial stone in Greyfriars Kirkyard once passions cooled … 237 years later.
* The Hanoverian king spent most of 1736 away taking a visit (quite unpopular with his English subjects) back to the family’s namesake German principality, which George II also ruled in a personal union.