1567: Captain William Blackadder, Darnley patsy

Add comment June 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1567, the Scottish soldier Captain William Blackadder (or “Blacketer”) died a scapegoat at Edinburgh.

Being dragged on a hurdle to Mercat Cross where he was hanged and quartered, and his remains nailed up in Scotland’s principal cities, was undoubtedly the worst thing that ever happened to Captain Blackadder but posterity finds his severed tendons and ruined viscera only a lesser subplot in the psychodrama of that august future Executed Today fixture Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary’s famously terrible marriage to the monstrous Lord Darnley produced the eventual King James VI and I, at the cost of utterly ruining Mary’s reign. Please reference the great many more learned and erudite sources that will dwell on the innumerable faults of this grasping English lord who immediately upon achieving wedlock began maneuvering against his wife for power in Scotland. He’s notorious as a drunk, a lech, a murderer, and in general an obnoxious and arrogant shit.

Until, 18 months and change into the marriage, a huge explosion rocked Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh … and when the debris cleared, there lay the bodies of the obnoxious consort and his servant. Strangely they were dead in a nearby orchard, suspiciously unsinged by the Gunpowder Plot-like pyrotechnics.


Drawing of the crime scene made for the English Secretary of State William Cecil

The particulars of Darnley’s murder have puzzled posterity for the ensuing 450 years, precipitating as it did Mary’s own fall from her throne — a moment manifested by Mary’s humiliating surrender when her dwindling and dispirited supporters melted away instead of fighting at the “Battle” of Carberry Hill. Mary had the humiliation in that June of 1567 of being led through Edinburgh by rebel lords to imprisonment, under the jeers of a hostile crowd.

But since these rebels were rising against Mary’s post-Darnley fling, putatively in the name of Mary herself, they also proceeded to conduct a disingenuous search for Darnley’s assassins in these days, landing on this luckless son of a declining house who had presented himself under Mary’s colors at Carberry Hill. Nobody since and probably nobody then really thought he had “art and part” in Darnley’s death; nevertheless, the diarist Birrel noted, “the 24 day of Junij Captane Villiam Blacketer was drawn backward, in ane cairte, from ie Tolbuith to the Crosse, and ther wes hangit and quartred, for being on the King’s Murther.”

We could not in good conscience miss the opportunity afforded by this distinctive name to cite topical-to-us content from the BBC sitcom Blackadder.

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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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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 and of 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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1620: Thomas Dempster condemned

Add comment April 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1620, Thomas Dempster was condemned by a Scottish assize to execution for counterfeiting. No documentation specifying the execution date appears to be available but such sentences were commonly implemented almost immediately — either directly from the courtroom or within a couple of days.

The Dempster family of Muresk were baronial landowners who owed both privilege and surname to the hereditary rank of dempster. This curious office of “dooms-man” connects etymologically with judging (“deem”), the successor to a Gaelic position called the judex that once projected royal authority into the courtroom.

Over the centuries-long term, this pre-Norman holdover was on a downward trend towards obsolence; the dempster transitioned to being the pronouncer of the court’s sentences and “ultimately became the common hangman.”* (Source)

Nevertheless, in our man’s time the Muresk Dempsters had estate enough to squander, and the quarrelsome Thomas did yeoman work in that respect, blowing the family fortune on clan feuding that extended even to a violent rivalry with his own son, James.** The assize record would note him “altogidder sensles of that his miserable cairage, nawayis being movet thairwith, bot rather resolveing to rwn heidlongis in all godles and cruiket courses.”

Having been found in this degraded state guilty of forgery, he was condemned by the court “to be tane to the Castell-hill of Edinburgh, and thair his heid to be strukin frome his body; and all his moveable guidis and geir pertening to him to be escheit to his Maiesteis use, &c.”

* The office of the dempster was abolished in 1773.

** James and his team ambushed and injured the father in a rivalry over a woman, driving James to a life of banditry. Another son — James’s younger brother, confusingly also named Thomas Dempster — was snatched away from this noxious family atmosphere by a kindly uncle who gave him a continental education; this other better-favored Thomas Dempster grew up to become a noted ecclesiastical historian.

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1830: Robert Emond

Add comment March 17th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1830, at Libberton’s Wynd in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Emond or Edmond was hanged for the brutal murders of his sister-in-law, Catherine Franks, a fifty-year-old widow, and her teenage daughter, Magdalene. They had lived in a village called Abbey, near Haddington.

The story of the killings is told in Martin Baggoley’s book, Scottish Murders. It’s a sad but familiar tale of family trouble and domestic violence.

The victims had been discovered by concerned neighbors on the afternoon of October 28, 1829. Neither of them had been seen for days, and Catherine’s pig was squealing continually from hunger in its sty.

Two men went to the Franks cottage to investigate and found Catherine’s body lying in the pigsty. Her throat had been slashed and, as the Newgate Calendar records, her rings, earrings and watch were missing. The neighbors’ first thought was for Magdalene, and they rushed inside the cottage through the open back door and found her in the bedroom. The girl had been beaten to death; there were eight distinct injuries to her head and her skull had been fractured several times.

The doctor who examined the bodies determined Catherine and Magdalene had probably been killed on either Sunday night, October 25, or early Monday morning. The house had been ransacked, drawers had been pulled out of and their contents dumped on the floor, and the floor was covered with blood, including distinct bloody footprints.

The police didn’t have to look far for a suspect: a neighbor told them Catherine had recently accused her brother-in-law of stealing from both her and his wife, the latter also named Magdalene. Robert had then obliquely threatened her, saying, “If you won’t keep away from here and your sister, who are you are making as cross-grained as yourself, I won’t answer for the consequences.”

Although Robert Emond was of “respectable” parentage, had a good education and had been honorably discharged from the Army, he had a reputation for violence even as a youth and the neighbor kids called him “the fiend.”

The Emonds had been married for less than three years by the time Catherine and Magdalene Franks were murdered, but already the relationship was breaking on the rock of Robert’s violent temper and dissatisfaction with his life.

Unusually for that time, Magdalene Emond owned her own successful business and was of independent means, but Robert had had several financial failures and resented his wife’s success. He also resented Catherine because he felt she was continually criticizing him to everybody and making his marital problems worse.

A broadside about the crimes and Emond’s execution noted,

He seems to have brought himself to think that he was utterly despised by Mrs. Franks and his wife, and on being opposed by them in any of his foolish speculations in trade, although for his own ultimate good, was considered by him as resulting from that deep-rooted [antipathy], as he thought, they treated him with.

Guy B. H. Logan, in his 1928 book Dramas of the Dock: True Stories of Crime, described Robert as “a morose, sullen man, given to brooding over real or fancied wrongs, which, in his warped mind, became intolerable injuries,” and suggested he might have been mentally unbalanced, pointing out that there was a history of mental illness in his family.

When police went to Emond’s home in North Berwick, neighbors there told them Robert and his wife had had a violent, screaming argument after she refused to lend him money, and he’d beaten her and tried to throw her down the garden well. During their quarrel, the witnesses said, Magdalene had screamed that she knew Robert had taken money from her and her sister.

When questioned, Robert’s wife admitted the argument had taken place. Magdalene said they’d slept in separate rooms since their fight, and she kept her bedroom door locked from the inside at night.

Catherine Franks’s younger daughter, who was also named Catherine, lived with her aunt and uncle to maximize the reader’s confusion: we’ve got Catherine and Magdalene as victims, survived by Magdalene and Catherine in the killer’s household. The latter Catherine reported that she’d tried to go into Robert’s room at eight o’clock on Monday morning to give him a cup of tea, but found the door shut from the inside.

Magdalene became worried that her husband had “done himself some mischief” and summoned two men, who got a ladder and looked in the bedroom window. Robert wasn’t there and the bed had not been slept in. When he returned several hours later, he was dishelved and agitated.

The little girl would later testify at the trial, “He was wild-like, and trembling a lot. His eyes were fixed and staring.” He wouldn’t say where he’d been. His boots and stockings were wet and little Catherine saw him cleaning them later.

Suspicious, police searched the house and found Robert’s vest and pants, which were damp and bloodstained. They also found a shirt which had a bloody handprint on the fabric in spite of someone’s attempt to clean it. They also confiscated his boots.

Under arrest on two counts of murder, Robert Emond steadfastly maintained his innocence. He wrote the following letter to his wife while in custody:

My dear wife,

I am now confined in Calton Jail charged with the murder of your sister and daughter, of which I declare to you I am perfectly innocent, though I have done as much as deserves the gallows.

My dear Magdalene, I am sorry and even wish to take my own life when I think upon what I have done to you. I can’t rest night or day. I can’t rest night or day. I confess that I am a great sinner and nothing hurts me more than to think that I am suspicion of the crime of murder. I assure you that I am perfectly innocent of the crime laid to my charge and I hope God Almighty who sees into all things will be my advocate on the day of the trial.

I am aware the people are inveterate against me, because the proof, in their opinion, is so much against me. I again, my dearest Magdalene, declare I am innocent, although at this time my mind is so much affected that I hardly know what I say.

I have been examined before the Sheriff of Edinburgh several times but I think they can’t prove nothing against me. The public are aware I understand of the iron heels of my shoes corresponding with some marks at Mrs. Frank’s [sic] house and with a bloody shirt found in my house, which you can prove was occasioned by the bleeding of my knows, or you know better by the blood that flowed from your head the Sunday preceding that most horrid murder. I understand that the authorities in Edinburgh are anxious to discover my old coat, but I hope they never shall.

My dearest wife, my name has been branded in Edinburgh by illiterate stationers and I suppose that even in North Berwick is held in as much dread as the notorious murderers Burke and Hare. I must allow suspicions are against me that is nothing. I again implore you to banish from your mind the idea [that I am] a murderer of your sister and niece.

My love to all your friends, for friends I have none. Would that God take me to himself.

Robert Emond

Robert was tried in February. The prosecution argued that he’d killed Catherine Franks to get revenge, and Magdalene Franks because she was a witness, and then tore the house apart and stole Catherine’s jewelry to make it look like a robbery.

Some local witnesses who saw Robert on October 26 testified, reporting that he had “blood about his mouth, both above and below,” and that he complained that Catherine Franks was ruining his marriage and said, “This is a terrible business. I am so confused I don’t know what I am doing.” He told a friend that “the devil had been very busy with him.”

Robert pleaded not guilty and claimed the blood on his clothes came from a nosebleed, the injuries his wife sustained when he beat her, or a chicken he’d killed. The coat he mentioned in his letter never did turn up, but one witness testified that he’d seen Robert wearing it shortly after the murders and it had a “wet, reddish stain” on the sleeve.

But there wasn’t a lot he could say about the bloody footprints at the crime scene: a local cobbler testified and said he’d compared the prints to Robert Emond’s boots and “it was a most unusual design and they matched the heels of Emond’s boots perfectly.”

The jury deliberated an hour before convicting him, and after his conviction he finally confessed. In spite of several attempts at suicide while in jail, Robert lived to be hanged five weeks later. On the scaffold he admitted his crime and said he deserved to die. His body was dissected at the University of Edinburgh, as per the custom.

* Line breaks have been added to this letter for readability.

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1663: Alexander Kennedy, forger of false bonds and writts

March 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1663, Alexander Kennedy was hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh for forging false bonds and writs, whose particulars we discover in The Records of the Proceedings of the Justiciary Court, Edinburgh, 1661-1678.


Edinbr. 24 feb. 1663. Deput Cuningham pt.

Alexander Kennedy, sometimetime Porter in the Castle of Edr., now prisoner, dilated and accused for the crime following, viz. for that notwithstanding of the common, municipall Laws and constant practise of this kingdome, the forgers, Counterfeiters and Devisers up and Users of false Bonds, obligations and other Writts, are to be punished be tinsell of their lives and moveable estate and especially by the 22d Act, 23 Parl. Ja. 6, it is statute and ordained, that whosoever makes any false writ or is accessory to the making thereof shall be punished with the pains due to the Committers of falsehood, which by the constant practise of this kingdome is the pain of Tinsell of Life and moveable estate, and that it shall not be but that after Tryall of the Writt quarrelled it be found false the passing from or Declaration of the Party that he will not use the same shall no ways free him from the punishment due to the committers of falsehood as at more length is contained in the said Acts whereupon it is subsumed that the Pannell has forged, feinzied, counterfeited and made up the six Bonds, Obligations, and Contracts under written, four of the which Bonds are alledged granted by the decast John Renton of Lamberton, therein designed Constable of the Castle of Edinbr., to the deceast Dame Agnes Renton, Countess of Levin, all dated 17 Octor. 1648, by each of which four Bonds, the said umq John Renton granted him to have borrowed (here follows the contents of the Bonds as they are made payable to the Lady and her Daughter, then follows the tenor of a Contract made up by the Pannell betwixt himself and Lamberton, be which he is obliged to pay 3000£ to the Pannell upon his delivery of him of the forsaid six Bonds by the Lady Leven’s warrand, and Alexr. upon receipt of the forsaid sum is obliged to deliver tye Bonds and the Lady’s warrand, and subsumes that the Pannell is the forger of all these Writts, or airt and part, and that the Lo: of Session has found so by a Decreet of Improbation, dated 22 July last, and finds that the Pannell is an infamous and perjured person, and has remmitted him to be criminally tryed, and ordained the King’s Advocate to process him, which being found by an Assize, he ought to be punished with the Tinsell of Life and moveables, to the terror and example of others.

Mr. And. Birnie, Pror. for the Pannell, alledges the Dittay is not relevant, because it does not condescend wherein the Pannell is forger of the Writts lybelled, whether in the Subscription of the principall party, granter, or Subscriptions of the Witnesses, or date, or some other substantiall head. 2d. Nonrelevat accessory or user because by the Act of Parliat. the User of a false Writte unless he byde by it is not liable to the punishment of falsehood. Neither is Accession relevant unless the way of his accession be condescended upon, frae which Condescendance a Defence may result. 3d. The Lybell non relevat in so far as it concludes Tinsell of Life and Goods, because the Act of Parliamt. lybelled on does not express the Punishment, but referrs to prior Acts, and it is clear both from K. Jas. the 5th and Q. Mary‘s Acts that the Punishment is restricted to Imprisonment, Banishment, etc. which is placed in Arbitrio Judicis.

My Lo: Advocate to all this oppones the Dittay as it is lybelled, and the Act of Parlt. whereupon it is founded bearing the punishment of falsehood to be inflicted on such as are forgers and users of false Writts, or art and part thereof, and both the Act of Parliament and custom of the Justice Court has determined the pain to be loss of Life and Moveables.

Duplys Birnie to the last part of the Advocate’s Alledgiance, that it is to be understood only as to falsifying Writts that can proceed only from authority, and oppones the Act of Parliament.

The Justice Depute ordains the Dittay, notwithstanding of the Answer, to pass to the Tryall of an Assize. The Assize being sworn, the King’s Advocate produces the Lo: of Session’s Decreet of Improbation per modum probationis, and thereupon the Assize finds the Pannell guilty as art and part, accessory and user of the false Writts mentioned in the Dittay, conform to the Decreet of Session. Vide sentence 12th instant.

I repeat here my Observe which I made on Birnie’s sentence day of 1662. [I’m unsure what this alludes to -ed.]

Edinbr 12 March 1663. Deput Cuningham.

Alexr. Kennedy convict ut supra of falsehood, sentenced to be hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh.

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1591: Agnes Sampson, North Berwick witch

1 comment January 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Agnes Sampson, the “Wise Wife of Keith”, went to the stake at Edinburgh during the North Berwick Witch Trials.

Perhaps Scotland’s most notorious witch hunt, the 1590-1591 sweep caught up something approaching 70 supposed sorcerers thanks to the king’s security panic after dangerous North Sea storms had beset the sea voyages uniting King James VI of Scotland and his new wife Queen Anne of Denmark. An inquisition in Denmark had made witches the culprit, and the young James — amusingly described by one commenter as “a superstitious and distrustful poltroon”* — opened an inquiry of his own as soon as he returned to native heather. His subsequent obsession with witchcraft is one of the signal characteristics of his reign, immortalized in literature via Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

James turned 24 in the summer of 1590, his short life already buffeted by fratricidal court politics (his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, lost her head; the regents who subsequently jostled over control of James had a frightening tendency to violent death). However misplaced upon magicians, his fear was well-founded; James’s cousin Lord Bothwell, himself escaped from arrest during the North Berwick scare, openly plotted against James throughout the early 1590s — one occasion coming “with fire to the king’s door, with hammers to the queen’s door” and on another surprising him in a vulnerable position during his morning toilet, causing the king to exclaim, “Came they to seek his life? let them take it — they would not get his soul.”

Peril to life and soul everywhere stretched into James’s world from the world beyond. “Our enemie is over craftie, and we over weake,” James would write in his remarkable 1597 disquisition on black magic, Daemonologie: Satan’s earthly minions so mighty that “They can rayse stormes and tempestes in the aire, either upon Sea or land.”


In an illustration from Daemonologie, James personally interrogates witches.

A woman named Geillis Duncan, maid to the deputy mayor of a small town near Edinburgh, was the fountainhead of the the North Berwick trials, when her suspicious master tortured her into admitting to witchcraft. King James personally joined the ensuing interrogations which saw her denounce several dozen Edinburghers as fellow necromancers, among them our day’s principal — a matronly widow named Agnes Sampson, who was a respected “wise woman” and folk healer much in demand among Edinburgh’s elites.

In Duncan’s involuntary narration, this woman “was the elder Witch” and when she “stood stiffely in the deniall of all that was laide to her charge” they dragged her to prison and put her to torture, also shaving her hairless in search of the inevitable small disfigurement that would be prejudicially construed her witches’ mark — “and forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath latelye beene found that the Deuill dooth generallye marke them with a priuie marke, by reason the Witches haue confessed themselues, that the Diuell dooth lick them with his tung in some priuy part of their bodie, before hee dooth receiue them to be his seruants, which marke commonly is giuen them vnder the haire in some part of their bodye.”

We’re quoting here the 1591 pamphlet Newes from Scotland, one of the key primary sources (and justifications) of the witch trials which was issued from a pen very near to the king’s own hand. Having endured the cruel torture of having her hair wrenched (“thrawn”) by ropes for an hour, Newes from Scotland reports, Sampson broke down when an incriminating wart was discovered upon her bared pudenda.

the said Agnis Tompson confessed that the Divell being then at North Barrick Kerke attending their comming in the habit or likenes of a man, and seeing that they tarried over long, he at their comming enjoyned them all to a pennance, which was, that they should kisse his Buttockes, in signe of duetye to him: which being put over the Pulpit barre, everye one did as he had enjoyned them: and having made his ungodly exhortations, wherein he did greatlye enveighe against the King of Scotland, he received their oathes for their good and true service towards him, and departed: which doone, they returned to Sea, and so home againe.

At which time the witches demaunded of the Divel why he did beare such hatred to the King, who answered, by reason the King is the greatest enemy he hath in the worlde: all which their confessions and depositions are still extant upon record.

Item, the saide Agnis Sampson confessed before the Kings Majestie sundrye thinges which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars, wherat she answered, she would not wishe his Maiestie to suppose her woords to be false, but rather to beleeve them, in that she would discover such matter unto him as his majestie should not any way doubt off.

And therupon taking his Majestie a little aside, she declared unto him the verye woordes which passed betweene the Kings Majestie and his Queene at Upslo in Norway the first night of their mariage, with their answere eache to other: whereat the Kinges Majestie wondered greatlye, and swore by the living God, that he beleeved that all the Divels in hell could not have discovered the same: acknowledging her woords to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest which is before declared.

One can see the work this tract — circulated as its title implies in England, where James was already being set up to inherit rule from the aging Queen Elizabeth — effects as propaganda: James as “the greatest enemy [the Devil] hath in the worlde”; James as the savvy and thorough interrogator too worldly to be taken by Agnes Sampson’s crazy stories until she proved them with a conveniently unfalsifiable private conference. Definitely no superstitious poltroon! Why, it was only by his superlative faith that James earned the divine favor required to overcome his adversaries’ weather machinations.

She confessed that she tooke a blacke Toade, and did hang the same up by the heeles, three daies, and collected and gathered the venome as it dropped and fell from it in an Oister shell, and kept the same venome close covered, untill she should obtaine any parte or peece of foule linnen cloth, that had appertained to the Kings Majestie, as shirt, handkercher, napkin or any other thing which she practised to obtaine by meanes of one John Kers, who being attendant in his Majesties Chamber, desired him for olde acquaintance betweene them, to helpe her to one or a peece of such a cloth as is aforesaide, which thing the said John Kers denyed to helpe her too, saying he could not help her too it.

And the said Agnis Tompson** by her depositions since her apprehension saith, that if she had obtained any one peece of linnen cloth which the King had worne and fouled, she had bewitched him to death, and put him to such extraordinary paines, as if he had beene lying upon sharp thornes and endes of Needles.

Moreover she confessed that at the time when his Majestie was in Denmarke, she being accompanied with the parties before specially named, tooke a Cat and christened it, and afterward bound to each parte of that Cat, the cheefest partes of a dead man, and severall joynts of his bodie, and that in the night following the saide Cat was conveied into the midst of the sea by all these witches sayling in their riddles or Cities as is aforesaide, and so left the saide Cat right before the Towne of Lieth in Scotland: this doone, there did arise such a tempest in the Sea, as a greater hath not beene scene: which tempest was the cause of the perrishing of a Boate or vessell comming over from the towne of Brunt Iland to the towne of Lieth, wherein was sundrye Jewelles and riche giftes, which should have been presented to the now Queen of Scotland, at her Majesties comming to Lieth.

Againe it is confessed, that the said christened Cat was the cause that the Kinges Majesties Ship at his comming foorth of Denmarke, had a contrary winde to the rest of his Ships, then being in his companye, which thing was most strange and true, as the Kings Majestie acknowledgeth, for when the rest of the Shippes had a faire and good winde, then was the winde contrarye and altogither against his Majestie: and further the saide witche declared, that his Majestie had never come safelye from the Sea, if his faith had not prevailed above their ententions.

Moreouer the said Witches being demaunded how the Divell would use them when he was in their company, they confessed that when the Divell did receive them for his servants, and that they had vowed themselues unto him, then he would Carnallye use them, albeit to their little pleasure, in respect of his colde nature: and would doo the like at sundry other times.

The History of Witchcraft podcast does a deep dive on the North Berwick trials in episode 9 which indulges detail (from about 25:40) on the logistics of witch-burning executions. This episode is part of a whole series on witchy King James that also compasses episodes 7, 8, and 10.

* Ray Defalque and A.J Wright, “In the Name of God: Why Agnes Sampson and Eufame McCalyean were burned at the stake” in Bulletin of Anesthesia History, July 2004. The interest in the case from this unusual-to-Executed Today source is that the charges against Sampson included those of witcherous midwifery, to wit, “remov[ing] Lady Hirmestone’s pain and sickness the night of her labor” and doing the same for Eufame McCalyean. As a result, “several authors have suggested that obstetrical analgesia started in Edinburgh in 1591,” an interpretation that Defalque and Wright, both anesthesiologists, reject.

** Newes from Scotland puts this part of the confession into the mouth of a more historically elusive woman called “Agnis Thompson”: many scholars believe that Sampson and Thompson are the same person.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1702: David Myles, incestuous

2 comments November 27th, 2016 Headsman

Broadside via the National Library of Scotland:

THE LAST
Words and Confession
of
DAVID MYLES

Who was Executed for Incest, at Edinburgh, on the 27 Day of November, 1702.

David Myles, having commited Incest with his Sister Margaret Myles, both were Condemn’d to be Hanged: the Woman upon the Twentieth and the Man upon the twenty Seventh of November; She Dyed very obduredly [sic] and Obstinately, and gave little or no satisfaction to the Spectators; But he (a young man, not 20 years) dyed very Seriously and Christianly; for when he was brought to the place of Execution, Mr. James Heart Exhorted to Repentance, and now at his last Hour to confess, what he had to say, concerning his Crime before the People.

Whereupon he went to the Eastern end of the scaffold, and said, Good People, give ear a while, I now confess before you all, That I was a very bad Liver, and a great Sabbath breaker, and not only a Sabbath breaker, but also a Swearer and Blasphemer of the Holy Name of GOD; and Guilty both of Incest and Fornication. I got a very ill Example from my Parents; Therefore I desire all you that are Parents to give a good Copy to your Children and desire that you would all pray to GOD for me; Whereupon the Auditors cryed out, Lord have Mercy upon his Soul; And Mr. Heart Prayed to this purpose, viz. That God would give him a sight of his Sins, and open a Door of Mercy to him and that the infinit [sic] Goodness might speedily prevent him, &c. Then he sung the first 4 Verses of the 51 Psalm: which being done, he went to the Western end of the Scaffold, and earnestly prayed to GOD, to pardon all his sins, to wash him, and cleanse him from all his Iniquities, thro’ his mercy, and with the Blood of Jesus Christ his Saviour: and that he was unworthy to come before so holy a GOD, for he was a great Sinner and Transgressor: His Sins were great and many, but tho’ he was weary and heavy laden, yet hoped he would find Rest; and tho’ his Body suffered upon the Gibbet, yet he hoped his soul would go to Glory, &c.

Then he went up the Ladder, and weeping sore, entreated the Spectators to take warning by him, and avoid Sin, lest they fall in the same snare. Then he said, O ye that are Parents of Children, God grant ye may cast them a better Copy than ever I got; And all ye that are young folk, who have your Years before your hands, seek God, and fly all Sin, for one Sin brings on another.

O all of you that see me this day, Take warning by me, and put up your petitions to God for me. Then Mr Heart prayed earnestly for him again; who, when be had done, enquired at him if he was willing to dye? He answered, Ay, ay, I am very willing: my Offence is great, very great: I do not deserve nor desire to live, for I deserve both Torment here, and Torment hereafter: I am very weary of my Sins.

Being enquired at, if he thought his Sentence just? or if he pardoned the Judges? He answered, My Sentence is very Just, I forgive the Judges, and all the World, and God forgive them. Mr. Heart asked him, what hope he had of his going to Heaven, or which of the promises of the Bible he could lippen to, or rely upon. He answered, many, many, but the particular places do not Strik [sic] me in the mind, at present.

Mr. Heart said, you told me in prison, of that in the 11 of Matthew, Came unto me all ye that Labour, and are heavy Laden, and I will give you rest. Whereupon he said, I indeed am in Labour, and am heavy laden, but I hope God will give me rest, and receive my Soul in Glory. He confessed again, that he had been a great Sabbath breaker: After which Mr.Heart recommended him to GOD.

A podcast about the trial — and the subsequent dissection — is available from BBC Radio Scotland, here.

Part of the Themed Set: Sexual Deviance.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Scotland,Sex

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1440: The Black Dinner

Add comment November 24th, 2016 Headsman

Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.

-Sir Walter Scott

On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.

Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.

On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.

Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.

This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.

Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.

After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡

* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” said Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.

** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.

† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.

‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Scotland,Summary Executions

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1736: Captain John Porteous, riotously lynched

Add comment September 7th, 2016 Headsman

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.


(cc) image from Kio Stark.

* 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.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Rioting,Scotland

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