Posts filed under 'Scotland'

1832: Elizabeth Jeffery, Carluke poisoner

Add comment May 21st, 2019 Headsman

This broadside comes from the National Library of Scotland’s vast collection of print ephemera, “The Word on the Street”.


Account of the Execution of Elizabeth Nicklson, or Shafto, or Jeffrey, when was Executed in front of the Jail, this morning, for a Double Murder, 1st, with administering, on the 4th October last, to Ann Newal or Carl, residing in Carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with meal and water and whisky, in consequence of which she died; 2d, with having administered to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at’ carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with porridge; and Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

It will be recollected that the unhappy woman who has this day justly forfeited her life to the offended laws of God, and of man, was tried at our last Assizes. The indictment against the prisoner ran thus —

You the said Elizabeth Nicklson or Shafto or Jeffrey, lately residing at Carluke, are charged with administering on the 4th of October, last, to Ann Newal or Carl residing in Carluke, a quantity. of arsenic, which you mixed up with meal and water and whisky, and which you pretended was a medicine for her benefit and the said Ann Newal or Carl having drank there of, became violently ill, and died next day in consequence of having swallowed the said mixture.

You are also charged with having on the 28th of October last, administered to to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at Carluke, and lodging with you, a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with porridge and the said Hugh Munro having partaken of the porridge became ill and, continued so the two following days. You are likewise accused of having on the 30th, October last, administered to the said Hugh Monro a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with rhubarb and the said Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

The prisoner pleaded Not Guilty, and the trial proceeded. Never before was there so connected and convincing a chain of circumstancial evidence developed in a Court of Justice. The following is a sort of summing up of the facts of the case, as they were sworn to on the trial. It appeared the no suspicion had been excited against the prisoner amongst the villagers of Carluke, on the death of the old woman, Carl, who resided next door to the prisoner — but that when her lodger Munro died in excruciating agony about four weeks after, and was buried by request of the prisoner, (as indeed Carl was also) in a great hurry, reports not favourable to her began to be openly made, and to such a length did the matter go, that both bodies were raised from their graves, and certain portions of the stomachs extracted for medical examination. It afterwards appeared from the evidence of the two surgeonss at Carluke as well as from that of two highly experienced chemists in Edinburgh, to whom portions of the matter found in the stomach s has been transmitted, that minute quantities of arsenic, but quite sufficient to cause death, had been discovered in each of the stomachs. It was also proven that the prisoner had purchased arsenic at two different times, by the hands of another person, for the ostensible purpose, as was alleged, of killing rats, by which she said her house was infested, although none of the witnesses on that spot had ever seen a rat about the premises. These purchases, be it observed, were made immediately preceding the death of Carl and Munro. Add to this it was proven that the prisoner mixed up the dose for the sick woman Carl herself and also made the porridge by which her lodger Munro was poisoned. With regard to this poor highlander, it appeared that he came home on a Saturday, in as good health and high glee as ever he was in his life, looking forward, no doubt to a happy meeting he was soon expecting to have with his friends in Skye, and that having partaken of some porridge made by the prisoner, he was soon after seized with dreadful thirst and pain, in this state the continued for two days when she again tendered him mixture of rhubarb as she alleged; soon after which she expired in great agony. The prisoner owed Munro five pounds, which she could not pay, and this seemed to be the only cause she had for committing so diabolical a crime. About the period of the murder, Jeffrey used many ineffectual tricks to makevthe friends of the deceased believe that she had accounted on the money to the deceased, but it came clearly out that she had not paid a farthing of it. With regard to the murder of the old woman, Carl, the Depute-Advocate’s theory was, that the prisoner had tried her hand on her to discover how much poison it would take to kill the young man, Munro, but the villagers say the houses were very scarce at Carluke, and that the prisoner wished to make room for a more productive lodger. There were many other facts came out in detail, all tending to criminate the prisoner, who after a trial of 18 hours, was found Guilty, and sentenced to be executed this day, but recommended to mercy by the Jury — for what reason, or on what grounds, was not mentioned. On this recommendation the prisoner had great hopes until Thursday, when an answer to an application to Lord John Russell, from a few Quakers and other eccentric individuals in this City, was refused; These characters say it was a mighty piece of unheard-of cruelty to execute BURKE!

But we have no patience with them — their maukish ravings are an outrage on nature and common sense, how humane, and kind, and charitable they are to the cold blooded murderer — while not a sigh is given to the innocent butchered victims!

When the prisoner understood there was no hope, (Which had been so unproperly raised) she betook herself to her devotions, and has continued almost since, engaged in prayer. The crowd, this morning, around the, scaffold was large. After some time spent in earnest prayer with the clergymen who assisted her; she gave the signal, when the drop fell, and in a minute she ceased to exist. The crowd then left the ground in good order.

Muir, Printer, Glasgow.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1683: John Nisbet the Younger

Add comment April 14th, 2019 Headsman


Marker located at the entrance to the Burns Mall from Kilmarnock Cross. (cc) image from @mafleen.

John Nisbet was hanged on this date in 1683 for having participated four years prior in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge that shattered the Covenanter rebellion.

“Here lies John Nisbet, who was taken by Major Balfour’s party, and suffered at Kilmarnock, 14th April, 1683, for adhering to the word of God and our Covenants,” reads his grave.

Come, reader, see here pleasant Nisbet lies,
His blood doth pierce the high and lofty skies;
Kilmarnock did his latter hour perceive,
And Christ his soul to heaven did receive.
Yet bloody Torrence did his body raise,
And buried it in another place;
Saying, ‘Shall rebels lye in graves with me?
We’ll bury him where evil-doers be.’

Nisbet, we learn from Robert Wodrow, “sang the 16th Psalm, from the 5th verse to the close, with a great deal of affection and joy; and then read the 8th chapter to the Romans, and prayed again.”

When he had delivered his bible to his uncle, he made himself ready for the executioner, not expecting to get leave to say any thing to the specattors; but essaying to speak, and not being interrupted, he continued a good while in an extemporary discourse, pressing them to godliness, and recommending religion to them, from his own feeling and experience. He notices, that this is the first execution of this kind at that place, and is of the opinion, it is not like to be the last; he tells them, death is before them all, and if it were staring them in the face, as nearly as it was him at present, he doubts not there would be many awakened consciences among them; but as for himself, though death be naturally terrible, and a violent death yet more terrible, yet the sting of it is taken away, and he can say, he reckons every step of the ladder to be a step nearer heaven.

He’s not to be confused with his more famous uncle, John Nisbet of Hardhill, who suffered as a Covenanter martyr in 1685. (He surely cannot be the uncle referenced by Wodrow.) The Nesbitt Nisbet Society has more on this family’s role in the Covenanter movement.

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1726: Margaret Millar, infanticide

Add comment February 10th, 2019 Headsman

This broadside hails from the National Library of Scotland’s wonderful archive of such documents, and the curator notes that as a “coal-bearer” — the backbreaking work of toting mined coal from the business end of the mine up and out the shaft — it’s unlikely that Millar was as educated as implied by the prose style that publishers put to her name.

The last Speech and dying Words of Margaret Millar, Coal-bearer at Coldencleugh who was execute [sic] 10. February I726 at the Gibbet of Dalkeith, for Murdering her own Child.

My Friends,

The present Age is so degenerate into Vice and Immorality, That they have the Ascendant over Godliness and Vertue; whereas Religion and Piety are run down by manifest Profanity, Dissimulation and Hypocrisy: So the Sin of unnatural Murder (while one Relation barbarously embrues their cruel Hands in the innocent Blood of another)[.] The Parents theirs in the Blood of their tender Children, the Children theirs in that of their dutiful and affectionate Parents: And in short, That of the Inhuman and cruel Servants (for the love of Money) barbarously butchering their kind and obliging Masters and Mistresses[.] That all these horrid Actions and abominable Sins, are the ready Means to bring down the heavy and just Judgments of GOD upon a People, or Person, who avowedly do commit the same, and whatever Secrefy may be gone about, in the Perpetration of any of these, yet the all-seeing Eye of the Almighty will bring the hidden Things of Darkness to Light, That the guilty Offenders may by the Hand of Justice be brought to condign Punishment, for a Terror and Example to others, who shall or may be guilty of the like Crimes.

Dear People, since I am by the just Sentence of the Law, condemned to suffer this Day a shameful and cursed Death, for that unnatural and cruel Fact, it will be expected by you all, to hear something from me, as to the course of my frail Life, which is now near to a Period.

The place of my Birth was at Dysert in Fife. My Father John Millar was a Salter under my Lord Sinclar there, and I being in my Nonage left to the Care of an Uncle, who put me to the Fostering, and after being wean’d from the Breast, was turn’d from Hand to Hand amongst other Relations, when my Friends being wearied and neglecting me, I was obliged to engage with my Lord Sinclar’s Coalliers to be a Bearer in his Lordships Coalheughs: So being unaccustomed with that Yoke of Bondage, I endeavoured to make my Escape from such a World of Slavery, expecting to have made some better thereof: But in place of that I fell into a greater Snare; which was in a Millers House near unto Lithgow, where my Masters Son and I fell into that Sin of Uncleanness, and I brought forth a Child unto him; which Child was fostered, and lived until it was three or four Years of Age, and died in the small Pox.

After which Time, I came from the foresaid Service into this Place, where I engaged in the Coalcheugh of Coldencleugh, under the Service of Christian Lumsden, which I most solemonly regrate this Day, and which was my Misfortune, she reduced me to great Extremities, by not paying up of my Wages, so duely as I was needful of it, to buy me Cloaths to go to the House of GOD upon his Day, which made me to ran into an Hurry of Dispar, my Land-Lady and others in the Coalheugh suspecting I had an Ear with George Lauder Coal-grieve there, began to make Reflections upon me, which prompted me to greater Vice, as most unhappily hath now fallen out: Which Vice hath brought me to this unhappy and untimely End; he having had that Opportunity of inducing me into that horrid Sin of Adultry, and after which Time I came to be with Child to him, I acquainted him thereof, and when the Time of Birth came, I finding no Subsistance from him, I did most unnaturally imbrue my Hands in the innocent Blood of the Fruit of my Womb.

I must own, that even in my younger Years I was addicted to all Vice, such as neglecting Duty towards GOD, Breach of his Sabbath, and neglecting of his Ordinances: Now I desire that all Persons take a warning of me this Day who am but an Ignorant, or a Castaway, That they be not Breakers of the Sabbath, Despisers of his Ordinances left that their End be such an untimely one as mine.

F I N I S

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1685: James Algie and John Park, Paisley Covenanters

Add comment February 3rd, 2019 Headsman

From The Covenanter, vol. 5. The footnote appears in the original.


Paisley — Its Antiquities, Manufactories, Martyrs, Theological Seminary, Social and Religious Condition.

Paisley, which I visited on the 28th of September — having left Kilmarnock the day before — was once a flourishing place, and notwithstanding its adversities, still holds an important place among the manufacturing towns of Britain. It occupies the site of an old Roman camp — a ridge some two or three hundred feet high, some half-mile in length, and half as much in breadth, lying nearly north and south, steep on its western side and northern end, less so on the east, where, and on the south, with the plains at their foot, lies the body of the town, and tapering off towards the south until it is lost in the beautiful valley, extending far to the south-west: the western side still retaining its precipitate outline. From the summit of the hill — a vacant green, once the actual site of the Roman encampment — the vision ranges over a wide and varied scene, in every direction, except on the east, where it is soon arrested by spurs shot out by the great central plateau. On the west and south lie the rich plains of Renfrew and Ayr; in the far distance are seen the bare and lofty peaks of the high mountain summits of Arran, often capped with clouds: on the north and north-east, the mountains of Bute and Argyle, with the Gowrie hills. In all, eleven counties are represented in this panorama, which the venerable Professor, whose dwelling is but a few steps distant, takes great delight in exhibiting to the inquiring stranger.


Panorama of Paisley, as seen from Barshaw Park. (cc) image from the city’s community website.

Paisley is not without its objects of interest. I have already mentioned, in a previous letter, the Wallace oak and mansion, two miles distant on the south, in the quiet vale of Ellerslie. There is no doubt of their identity. The tree is, however, in the last stages of decay. The dwelling still remains — a substantial stone edifice, some forty feet in length, two stories high, with projecting wings of equal length: evidently built in times when every man’s house was literally his castle. Part of it is still inhabited. In the town itself, near the banks of the Cart, is an ancient abbey, erected, probably, in the 14th century, but most of it still in excellent preservation — indeed, a portion of it, the southern extremity of the old, double church, is still used as a place of worship; the northern portion being the only part of the abbey building that has gone entirely into ruins, enough only remaining to show its original extent and form. The other portions of the abbey, consist of ranges of high buildings, enclosing a square, these in the olden time having been occupied as the residence of the monks and their retainers — on some occasions, furnishing a temporary place of sojourn to the Kings of Scotland. In the Sounding Aisle, so called from its prolonged and rolling echoes, is a tomb, said to be of Margory Bruce, the ancestor of the fated house of Stuart. And, in the church itself, as in many of the ancient chapels and all the cathedrals, are any number of tombs and tablets, and slabs, marking the last resting-place of the great, in their day. What a mockery do most of the inscriptions appear. 1. A name — some title — and, then, “here they lie!” The oldest of these that I noticed was 1433.


Paisley Abbey. (cc) image from @ArchHist.

Leaving the abbey, we passed over to the factories. Of these, we visited but one — Kerr’s — where sewing cotton is spun and prepared for the market. It is a large establishment, employing, in all, nearly three hundred hands, two hundred and fifty of whom are females, who, when working by the day, earned about 6s. and 8d. sterling ($1,64) per week; working by the piece about 8s. and 6d. or 9d. sterling ($2,16) per week: out of this, of course, meeting all their expenses. The work is not, now, oppressive, the law having limited the time employed in factory work to, I think, twelve hours. Those that we saw appeared to be generally healthy. They were dressed very much alike, in dark dresses, sufficiently neat and comfortable, and manifested no want of cheerfulness. I made inquiry, however, and found that spitting of blood was not at all uncommon, and do not doubt that in many instances close confinement, in a heated atmosphere — many of them, moreover, sitting at their work — is followed by the very worst consequences as to health.*

Paisley had its martyrs. James Algie and John Park, I quote from Dr. Symington,

who were executed at the market cross, Feb. 3d, 1685; and were ignominiously buried in the Gallow-green. On the enlargement of the town some fifty years ago, their remains were exhumed, and transferred, most respectfully, to a new burying ground in West Broomlands, which had recently been laid off in the view of erecting a new parish and a parish church to accommodate the increasing population. The scheme of a new erection was not carried into effect, and, after a few interments, the ground was abandoned as a place of burial, went into neglect, and became nearly obscured by surrounding buildings. The inscription on the slab at the graves had become, by time and weather, nearly illegible. A few friends, sympathizing with similar movements in other parts of the country, suggested the erection of a simple and durable monument; and the suggestion was promptly and liberally responded to, and funds realized for carrying it into effect. A chaste and elegant obelisk is now erected on the spot where the ashes of the Martyrs repose. On the east side of the pedestal is engraved the original epitaph:

Here lie the corpses of James Algie and John Park, who suffered at the cross of Paisley, for refusing the oath of Abjuration.

February 3d, 1685.

Stay, passenger, as thou go’st by,
And take a look where these do lie,
Who for the love they bare to truth,
Were deprived of their life and youth;
Tho’ laws made then caus’d many die,
Judges and ‘sizers were not free,
He that to them did these delate,
The greater count he hath to make,
Yet no excuse to them can be;
At Ten condemned, at Two to die,
So cruel did their rage become,
To stop their mouth caus’d beat the drum;
This may a standing witness be
‘Twixt Presbyt’ry and Prelacy.

On the north side of the pedestal is an inscription stating the time and circumstances of the removal of the remains from the Gallowgreen.

The stone containing the Epitaph, transcribed on this monument, was erected over the grave in the Gallow-green, the place of common execution; and on occasion of the grounds being built upon, it was removed near to this spot along with the remains of the Martyrs, by order of the Magistrates,

JOHN STORIE, JOHN PATISON, and JOHN COCHRANE.
MDCCLXXIX

On the south side is the following inscription:

ERECTED

By the contributions of Christians of different denominations in and about Paisley, to renew and perpetuate a memorial of the respect and gratitude with which posterity still cherish the memory of the Martyrs of Scotland.

MDCCCXXXV

And on the west side are inscribed the following truthful and beautiful lines from Cowper:

Their blood is shed
In confirmation of the noblest claim,
Our claim to feed upon immortal truth,
To walk with God, to be divinely free,
To soar and to anticipate the skies.
Yet few remember them. They lived unknown,
Till persecution dragged them into fame,
And chas’d them up to heaven.

The sequel is remarkable. We again use the Dr.’s language:

During the recent movements in the extension of church accommodation an elegant structure was erected, in the immediate vicinity of the tomb, having a burying-ground attached to it, and appropriately designated Martyr’s Church. The graves of the two martyrs, though adjacent, were not within the boundaries of the church-yard, and the obelisk stood outside of the wall. The plan, however, of enclosing extensive grounds in the neighbourhood for a new and spacious cemetery was formed, and the ground where the obelisk stood came in course to be included, and the remains, formerly buried in ignominy, now lie in one of the finest burying-places in the country; the erection now marking the spot forming one of its most interesting objects.

* Paisley is not now in a flourishing state. There has been a gradual decline, I was told, for twenty-five years past.

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1666: James Blackwood and John M’Coul, two Covenanter martyrs

Add comment December 31st, 2018 Headsman

From The Homes, Haunts, and Battlefields of the Covenanters. The martyrs in question, who were among many of that profession in these years, were executed by a condemned fellow-Covenanter who days before in Ayr had miserably consented to turn hangman in order to save his own life. We’ve previously covered that tragedy in these pages.

STOP PASSENGER
THOU TREADEST NEAR TWO MARTYRS
JAMES BLACKWOOD & JOHN M’COUL

who suffered at IRVINE
on the 31st of December 1666
REV xii. 11th

These honest Country-men whose Bones here lie
A Victim fell to Prelates Cruelty;
Condemn’d by bloody and unrighteous Laws
They died Martyrs for the good old cause
Which Balaams wicked Race in vain assail
For no Inchantments ‘gainst Israel prevail
Life and this evil World they did contemn
And dy’d for Christ who died first for them
‘They lived unknown
Till Persecution dragged them into fame
And chas’d them up to Heaven’ [Cowper lines -ed.]

Erected by Friends to Religious Liberty -31st Dec. 1823.

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1853: Hans McFarlane and Helen Blackwood, married on the scaffold

Add comment August 11th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1853, Hans M(a)cFarlane and Helen Blackwood were hanged before a crowd of some 40,000 souls in Glasgow, Scotland.

It wasn’t the only civic ceremony the couple would participate in that day.

McFarlane and Blackwood had been convicted of murdering Alexander Boyd, a ship’s carpenter with the merchant navy. On June 11 of that year, they drugged his whiskey, hit him over the head with the chamber pot, stripped him down to his pants and socks and threw his body out the third-floor window.

McFarlane, Blackwood, and two alleged accomplices, Ann Young and Mary Hamilton, were arrested immediately. Although they tried to make Boyd’s death out to be an accident, two children in the room, whom the killers had thought were asleep, had witnessed the whole thing and told on them.

In the end, the case against Hamilton was ruled not proven. Young was convicted, but her death sentence was commuted to transportation. Blackwood and McFarlane had to swing.

Douglas Shelton, in his book Deadlier Than The Male: Scotland’s Most Wicked Women, records,

While in Duke Street Prison, McFarlane asked for permission to marry his lover, Blackwood. Permission was refused but they were determined to be man and wife. As they stood on the scaffold near to Glasgow’s South Prison on the site of the present-day High Court, McFarlane announced to the woman — and the 40,000-strong crowd there to see them hang — “Helen Blackwood, before God in the presence of these witnesses I take you do be my wife. Do you consent?”

The woman replied, “I do.”

McFarlane then said, “Then before these witnesses I declare you to be what you have always been to me, a true and faithful wife, and you die an honest woman.”

The minister officiating the hanging then said, “Amen,” the bolt was drawn and the newly married pair fell to their deaths.

Helen Blackwood was the second-to-last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland. This broadside was sold to commemorate her and her husband’s deaths.

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1681: Donald Cargill, Covenanter rebel

Add comment July 27th, 2018 Headsman

Scottish Covenanter Donald Cargill ascended his Edinburgh gallows on this date in 1681 with the undaunted last words, “The Lord knows I go on this ladder with less fear and perturbation of mind, than ever I entered the pulpit to preach.”

This Cameronian radical had been a fugitive for many years, ever since he darkened a thanksgiving service for King Charles II’s restoration by voicing from the pulpit of his Glasgow parish what many feared in their hearts: that Presbyterians were about to get the rough end of the restoration pineapple.

We are not come here to keep this day upon the account for which others keep it. We thought once to have blessed the day wherein the king came home again, but now we think we shall have reason to curse it; and if any of you come here in order to the solemnising of this day, we desire you to remove.

That was the end of Cargill’s career as a licensed preacher. His remaining years were illicit services, ducking arrests, and a flight to the Netherlands; he was wounded in service of the Covenanter cause at the 1679 Battle of Bothwell Bridge.

Back in Scotland by 1680, Cargill’s Queensferry Declaration* dared an open case for rebellion in pursuit of “the overthrow of the kingdom of darkness, and whatever is contrary to the kingdom of Christ,” for

now it cannot be called a government, but a lustful rage, exercised with as little right reason, and more cruelty than beasts; and they themselves can no more be called governors, but public grassators, and public judgements, which all ought to set themselves against, as they would do against pestilence, sword and famine raging among them.

The grassators finally got him the following year.

There’s a short biography of our man, The Life of Donald Cargill, available in the public domain which remarks (discount accordingly for hagiographical perspective), that Cargill was memorialized by an associate as

affectionate, affable, and tender-hearted to all such as he thought had anything of the image of God in them, sober and temperate in his diet, saying commonly, ‘It was well won that was won off the flesh,’ generous, liberal, and most charitable to the poor; a great hater of covetousness, a frequent visitor of the sick; much alone, loving to be retired, but when about his Master’s public work, laying hold of every opportunity to edify; in conversation still dropping what might minister grace to the hearers. His countenance was edifying to beholders; often sighing with deep groans; preaching in season and out of season upon all hazards; ever the same in judgment and practice. From his youth he was much given to the duty of secret prayer for whole nights together wherein it was observed that, both in secret and in families, he always sat straight upon his kneesk with his hands lifted up; and in the posturel as some took notice, he died with the rope about his neck.

* The thrust of this militant manifesto is similar to the Sanquhar Declaration issued by Cargill’s ally Richard Cameron, also in 1680.

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1530: Johnnie Armstrong, border reiver

Add comment July 5th, 2018 Headsman

Scottish “border reiver” John Armstrong of Gilnockie was hanged on this date in 1530 with his followers at Caerlanrig, without benefit of trial.

The job description of the border reiver was to, well, reave the border. These mounted raiders exploited the wide gaps in sovereignty that opened along the ill-controlled England-Scotland border throughout the 16th century (their heyday) and indeed for centuries prior. They plundered vulnerable* farmers both north and south of the notional line. Sometimes the prize was livestock; other times, the “black rent” due your basic protection racket would suffice.

Their presence left an indelible imprint on the Anglo-Scottish marches, from the farmhouse fortresses called bastle houses to provisions in the “March Law” governing the manner of permissible counter-raiding.

Nettlesome as they were, they also stood useful mercenaries hired out for a number of the era’s battles; notably, English-hired reivers held off a much larger Scottish incursion in 1542. Only with the union of the crowns under James VI of Scotland/James I of England were the reivers finally suppressed.**

Johnny/Johnnie Armstrong, the younger brother of Thomas, Laird of Mangerton, is perhaps the most lasting legend among them — thanks to the signal boost he would later receive from Sir Walter Scott. Chief of a reiver band 160 strong, Armstrong made himself enough of a headache for English-Scottish diplomacy that the Scots king James V resorted to treachery to eliminate him. Having dialed up the frontier “prince” for a meeting, James simply had the sharp-dressed marauder arrested and summarily hanged when the reiver came to call. Thirty-six of his fellow reivers died with him.

Johnny Armstrong is the subject and the title of a notable child ballad (no. 169) whose lyrics can be perused in their entirety here; several renditions of its climactic third chapter can be found in the usual places.

John murdred was at Carlinrigg,
And all his galant companie;
But Scotlands heart was never sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die.

Because they savd their country deir
Frae Englishmen; nane were sae bauld,
Whyle Johnie livd on the border-syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hald.

* “Vulnerable” mostly meant, not in the ambit of a powerful protector or of the reiver’s own clan.

** A subsequent echo of the border reivers — in the same vein and the same region, but clearly distinct from them — emerged later in the 17th century in the form of the moss troopers.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Scotland,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1661: Archibald Campbell

Add comment May 27th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1661, Presbyterian lord Archibald Campbell, the first Marquess of Argyll, lost his head at Edinburgh.

Once a privy councilor to King Charles I, “Red Argyll” had been in the 1640s a great champion of Scottish national liberty and a leader of the Presbyterians in the many-sided wars that tore apart the British Isles.

Scotland’s Presbyterians — who favored bottom-up church governance as opposed to the crown-controlled selection of bishops that’s known as episcopacy — made an initial alliance with English Parliamentarians to support one another in their mutual hostilities with King Charles I. And in Scotland’s civil war in the mid-1640s, Argyll’s Presbyterians defeated the Earl of Montrose‘s royalists.

But the failure of Oliver Cromwell‘s similarly victorious Parliament to deliver on its covenant fractured the Presbyterian party and drove Argyll to the political sideline.

Argyll’s own opposition to other Presbyterians’ attempted engagement with the imprisoned Charles I became untenable when, to the horror of his countrymen, Charles was beheaded by Parliament. As his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Charles’s execution “completely upset his calculations, which had all along been founded on a close union between the parliaments of Scotland England … the results of his safe and prudent policy were ruthlessly annihilated … [and] Argyll lost his presence of mind, and therefore his control of events in this stupendous conjuncture, and became as much a puppet in the hands of contending factions as was Charles II.” His growing ranks of foes derisively nicknamed him the “Glaed-Eyed Marquis”, attributing an obvious metaphorical import to his imperfect eyesight.

“Myself encountered so many difficulties that all remedies that were applied had the quite contrary operation,” he later wrote of those years when his influence waned. “[I was] a distracted man of a distracted subject in a distracted time wherein I lived.” It did not wane all at once: Argyll had the honor of crowning King Charles II at Scone on the first of January, 1651, and even tested the king with dynastic marriage inquiries for his daughter. (No dice.)

But as events ran away from him he fell into debt, disgrace, and irrelevancy.

When Charles II resumed the throne in 1660, Argyll presented himself at the court of his would-be father-in-law, and was surprised to find himself immediately thrown in the Tower. Like the Presbyterian cause itself, he was permanently and tragically alienated from both factions of the English Civil War: Cromwell always suspected Argyll a royalist for that whole crowning-the-king thing, and Charles always resented Argyll for his part in the destruction of his father.

The Glaed-Eyed Marquis found himself shipped off to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason. Although records of the trial are lost, it’s said that he was on the verge of total acquittal when Cromwell’s former commander in Scotland, George Monck, delivered a packet of incriminating letters. This story might be apocryphal but Argyll lost his head all the same, on Edinburgh’s distinctive Maiden.

Peruse here Argyll’s tart and downright comical last will and testament, satirizing many of the surviving figures of the day and bidding his heirs to lay his body “so shallow, that at the next trump of sedition, it may by the same raise-devil directory [i.e., Parliament] be conjured up again, and meet my exalted head, that bound-mark of Presbytery, its ne plus ultra, ‘Hitherto shall you go and no further.'”


Memorial to Archibald Campbell in Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral with the epitaph “I set the Crown on the King’s Head. He hastens me to a better Crown than his own.” (cc) image from Kim Traynor.

Argyll’s son and heir, also named Archibald Campbell, was himself executed in 1685 for organizing a Scottish “Argyll’s Rising” against King James II in alliance with the Duke of Monmouth. Their descendants still maintain the rank of Duke of Argyll to this day.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Gallows Humor,History,Maiden,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Treason

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