1721: Janet Hutchie, repentant infanticide

Add comment August 30th, 2016 Headsman

The reader can peruse only the first page of the two-page Edinburgh gallows broadside that comprises this post here; the full pamphlet appears to be available only in proprietary databases.

The Last Speech and Dying Words

Of Janet Hutchie, who was Execute in the Grass-market of Edinburgh, upon the 30th of August 1721, for the Murder of her own Child.

JUSTLY now may I to my sad Experience append my Seal with the Holy Man, Job 14.1. Man that is Born of a Woman, is of few Days, and full of Troubles, Psalm 51.5. I was conceived in Sin, and brought forth in Iniquity, and from that Mass of Original Guilt has arrived to such an Height and Pitch of actual Transgressions, that I am hardly to be reckoned among the Society of Christians, but am sentenced and adjudged justly to be cut off from the Body thereof, as an Infectious Member, least it should endanger the whole Body, and justly with the Holy Psalmist to my Bitter Experience, cry out, Iniquities, Iniquities have prevailed, but O purge away my Sin, Psalm 65.3. And as a Bullock unaccustomed to the Yoke, ran on in a Course of Sin, not thinking that God would lay them before my Face, for Reprove me therefore; till at last that Holy Judge of Heaven and Earth, before whom all Things are naked and bare, has in his Holy Providence found me out at last in this my Brutal Wickedness, and am now in a little to lay down my Life for the Unnatural Crime of taking away the Life of the Innocent Fruit of my own Body, and now stands a Monument to Men and Angels upon a Gibbet, ready Erect for that Effect, to receive the Fatal Blow as a Visible Judgment of the Divine Displeasure and Indignation of the Almighty God, against such a Monstruous and Horrid Crime as I have been Guilty of. Oh that now I may be made a singular Monument of the unsearchable Riches and Free Mercy, and Grace of God, through Jesus Chris his only Son my Lord; not having my own Righteousness, which is nothing, but that of his imputed to me, which yet can make me clean before that great Tribunal, for as black as the Devil, Hell and my own Corruptions have made me.

It would be expected I should give some Account of my self, and satisfie the World, as to several Aspersions that passed upon me , and as I am a dying Woman, I shall declare to the World the naked Truth, and it only, so far as my Memory can serve me, and do Justice to Peter Vallance whom I horridly wronged by leasing making on him.

I was Born in the Weems, my Parents coming over to Preston grange while I was a Child, where they lived till they died, which was several Years agoe, and were not wanting to me in my Education, conform to (rather beyond) their Station and Abilities.

I am now going in 30 Years of Age, and declares, I never knew a Man in the World but John Williamson to whom the Child was, alace a married Man, his Wife being my own Commerad while she was unmarried. I intirely free him of the Act of Murder it self, as was alledged; But acknowledges, it was by his Advice and Direction,and he desired me earnestly to do it; and when it was done to put it in some Hole or another, that it might be hid from the Eyes of the World. But Oh! who can hide from the Eye of an All-seeing God, to whom all Things are naked and bare.

I likewise further own, I never knew the said Williamson but once in an Morning, when my Brother and Family were at the Coal-pit, but he has frequently attempted it, but never got his Design perpetuate but that Time, by which I was got with Child by him, and when I found my self with Child, I told him, and he gave me several Things to Cause me Miscarry, but I never took them. I did not Reveal my being with Child to any but to him and one Isobel Guthry, who in a little after died in Child-bed.

I truly own my Guilt in destroying the Child, but not directly, for it was alive when I was delivered, but for want of Help and my Unnaturality in the Birth it soon died, which if it had not, I was resolved to have strangled it, which makes me equally Guilty in the Sight of GOD, as if I had actually done it, and thereafter tyed it in a Codwair, and keeped it three Days in my Chest, into which Codwair I put an big Stone, and threw it in a Mill-dam, where it lay 18 Days before it was found, and knows nothing of its having a Cord about its Neck, as the Witnesses declared, unless it had been the Knitting of the said Codwair, and what Stories Janet Ritchie and Isobel Vint said of my having a Child before is intirely false. I own I was among the Crowd when an Highland Boy found the Child when the Dam was run out, by seing the white Codwair, as I told before; and upon its being found, The Minister and Elders made search through the Town, and I was found to have Milk in my Breast, and said I had lately parted with Child before Mr. Horsburgh and an other Minister, and said it was to Peter Vallance. God forgive me for wronging him, for I never knew him, only he convoyed me one night from Tramant Home, from which I took Occasion to say the Child was to him, and owned it in his Face before the two Ministers aforsaid. I beg God Pardon for that Sin, for I added one Sin to cover another. Oh that I was so brutally Blind-folded.

I had several Offers of Marriage even beyond my Station, and did in a solemn Manner Promise to one William Stewart, but basely broke, and was disingenous, he is now Abroad, and sent me several Tokens, and that even since I came to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. God Bless him, and forgive me for so rashly making, and thereafter basely breaking such a solemn Vow, as I ingaged my self with to him.

I own the Justness of my sentence, and the Return of the Verdict, and the Witnesses Depositions, only they wronged me as to the Cord being about its Neck, as aforsaid, the Reflection of which makes me now Shrink and Tremble, to think I could hide from an All-seeing God, to whom being the very inward Thoughts and Imaginations of the Heart ly naked and bare, and that one of his Prerogatives, To search the Heart, and try the Reins, and Jerusalem as with light Candles.

I likewise ow, I was much addicted to the horrid Sin of Lying and Profanation of the Lord’s Holy Day, and neglect of his Ordinances, letting light of them and the Offers of Peace and Salvation through Jesus Christ made to them therein, the Contempt of which, and neglect thereof, now lyes Heavy on me and Grieves me, now to the Soul to think how light I left of that which now I see to be so valuable and precious, and that I then trampled upon, now to be the only Sanctuary and City of Refuge, that I must run unto, least the Avenger of Blood overtake me in the Way, and I perish, which Blood, and whose Offers, if rightly applied, can yet make me clean from all my others Sins, and even from that of Blood Guiltiness. O! monstrous Wickedness, not to be named; and I believe scarcely known to the Heathen World it self.

I likewise own, I was adicted to the Sin of Tipling and Drunkenness, which is an inlet to all Vice, for what Sin is in a Drunk Man, yea rather in a Woman, capable of Refuse, yea ready to fall into. The Head full of Fumes Nature overcharged, and out of its ordinary Course, and the Hands ready to commit. But alace! I cannot say that of my self, for what I did was deliberate, and of a long Time premeditate, and resolved upon by the Advice of that Wretch Williamson, to whose Measures I too too easily condescended unto. God forgive him for advising, and me for consenting to that Unnatural, yea worse than Brutal Wickedness, for the Brutes themselves endanger their own Lives for the Preservation of their own young, as we daily see. Oh that I should be more Brutish than a Brute; I whom God has created a Rational Creature after his own Image, and indowed with a reasonable Soul to Act, as if I had no Soul at all, and to be Guilty of a Crime, that the Brutes themselves are not Guilty of, who are under no Law or Government, and knows nothing of a future State or a World to come.

I likewise own, very much Ignorance of God and the Way of Salvation, through Jesus Christ his Son, who came to save that which was lost, which yet I think intitles and gives me Ground to apply to him and his Righteousness, that the Shame of my Nakedness may not appear in that Day.

I own, I have been much obliged to the Ministers of Edinburgh, who were not wanting to me in their Visits, their praying with me and for me, shewing me the dreadful Nature of Sin and Way of Salvation. God reward them for their Pains.

I desire the Help of the Prayers of all the Spectators here, to join with me in this my last and greatest Extremity, now when I am ready to drop into a World of Spirits, from whence there is no returning, and as the Tree falls so it must ly; let me be a Warning to you all to take Care of Sin, and the fatal Consequences thereof, and Dedicate and Devote your selves to God in your younger Days, which is a noble Season, and give not louse Reins to your selves, but Check Sin in its Bud, least it break forth to a Cockatrice, and be much in Prayer, to the Exercise of which I have been an intire Stranger, hardly knowing what it was to Bow an Knee, and beware of Sabbath-breaking, the Contempt of God’s Holy Ordinances, the Sin of Lying and Drunkenness, and that of Uncleanness, which has at last crowned the Work with me to all, which I have been too much adicted. I die in Peace with all Men, and forgives as I Expect to be forgiven at the Hands of a Merciful God, who Rejoices in Mercy, and whose Mercies are above all his other Works; God Sanctifie this Dispensation to my Poor afflicted Brother and his Family, and support them under it, and grant them Grace to improve it to the best Advantage, and unto that Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity. God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I recommend my Spirit.

O Save me my Redeemer.

EDINBURGH: Printed by Robert Brown in the middle of Forrester’s-Wynd. 1721.

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1688: James Renwick, to end the Killing Time

Add comment February 17th, 2016 Headsman

Though none of the crowd that thronged Edinburgh’s Grassmarket this day in 1688 could know it, that date’s execution of minister James Renwick would make an end to the Killing Time, the great 1680s persecutions that scattered martyrs’ bones across Highland and Lowland.

Renwick, at any rate, was the last of many Covenanters who submitted to the public executioner; only a few months yet remained when officers in the field were empowered to force an oath of abjuration upon suspected dissidents, on pain of summary death in the field. By year’s end, the absolutist Catholic King James II — with whose brother and predecessor the movement had such a tortured history — fled to exile as the Glorious Revolution brought the Protestant William of Orange to power: royal recognition of Scottish Presbyterianism ensued.*


Monument to Renwick at his native Moniaive. (cc) image by Scott Hill.

The son of a village weaver, Renwick manifested a martyr’s uncommon zeal for the faith early in life and matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. There in 1681 he witnessed the hanging of Covenanter preacher Donald Cargill. Here, muses the hagiography, “the mantle of Elijah fell upon young Elisha.”

After studying — and ordination — abroad in the Netherlands Renwick returned to his native soil in 1683. He managed some five years of secret ministering in hidden homes and conventicles, and all the while the law sought him ever closer. By the time it finally hunted him to ground in 1688, so many of the faith’s august champions had already taken their martyrs’ crowns that at age 25** Renwick was among the biggest game remaining.

How often cowled on ghostly moors by torchlight had the young reverend rehearsed the steadfast refusal he might one day deliver to his persecutors? Had he prayed that the weakness of flesh would not betray his spirit with an unbecoming attachment to his own life? “I cannot own this usurper as the lawful king, seeing both by the word of God such an one is incapable to bear rule, and likewise by the ancient laws of the kingdom which admit none to the crown of Scotland until he swear to defend the Protestant religion, which a man of his profession cannot do,” he declared to his captors when pressed for the formula of abjuration.

Renwick passed this test but little could even he have imagined how speedily would be fulfilled his gallows prayer:

Lord, I die in the faith that Thou wilt not leave Scotland, but that Thou wilt make the blood of Thy witnesses the seed of Thy church, and return again and be glorious in our land. And now, Lord, I am ready.


Condemned Covenanters on Their Way to Execution in the West Bow, Edinburgh. Artist unknown. (Source)

James Renwick has enjoyed tender biographical treatment from posterity; see here and here for some longer-form examples.

* While good news for the Presbyterians, this put many an Episcopal and Catholic in a tight spot of their own, setting up decades of bloody tragedy for Jacobite loyalists … but this is a subject for other posts.

** The captain who finally caught Renwick is supposed to have exclaimed at seeing his youth, “Is this the boy Renwick that the nation has been so much troubled with?” The outlaw minister turned 26 two days before his execution.

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1784: James Andrews, the last to hang in the Grassmarket

Add comment February 4th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1784 was the last occasion Edinburgh’s Grassmarket hosted a public execution.

One of 15 marketplaces in Edinburgh by 15th century royal decree, the Grassmarket was then and remains today a rectangular plaza flattened between the imposing Edinburgh Castle to the north, and George Heriot’s School for orphans to the south.


Edinburgh Castle seen from the western edge of the Grassmarket.
(cc) image from Jan Brünemann.

(In 1783, teenage outlaw James Hay had managed to escape from prison shortly before his hanging and hide out in the environs of Heriot’s school — of which he was an alumnus. Puckish schoolboys secretly brought morsels to their fugitive chum for six weeks, until the heat had died down enough for Hay to successfully escape Scotland.)

For more than a century, since the Restoration, the Grassmarket’s east end had doubled as a public execution theater — although other executions also continued to take place at different Edinburgh venues such as Mercat Cross. But the Grassmarket came online for the gallows just in time to lodge that site in the nation’s memory for martyring an hundred or more Covenanters during the Killing Time. The Duke of Rothes would crack of one such believer who preferred death to reconciliation, “Then let him glorify God in the Grassmarket.” Many did so.


Covenanters Memorial at the onetime site of the Grassmarket’s gallows. (cc) image from Kim Traynor. Just to the right (north) of this view one would find overlooking the memorial the pub named for Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson, who survived her execution in the Grassmarket in 1724.

To these souls of these saints was attached a more profane passion in 1736 when a mob incited by an unjust execution rampaged through the Grassmarket and lynched the captain of the city guard who fired on the populace — the real-life events recalled in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian.

As was the case with London’s nearly simultaneous retirement of the Tyburn tree, the milestone occasion dignified the sufferer far more than the other way around. James Andrews was a forgettable minor criminal who hanged for a robbery in the Meadows.

The city’s next execution was fully 14 months later. It took place outside the western facade of the Tolbooth prison, which now took over from the Grassmarket as Edinburgh’s definitive public execution site.

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1765: Patrick Ogilvie, but not Katharine Nairn

Add comment November 13th, 2015 Headsman

“So great a concourse of people has perhaps not been seen”* at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket as assembled on this date in 1765 for the execution of Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie.

It was, naturally, scandal that brought them out of the woodwork. Lt. Ogilvie’s older brother Thomas in January of that same 1765 had married a young woman named Katharine Nairn. She had barely half of Thomas’s 40 years.

Katharine soon took a shine to the more age-appropriate sibling, just back from his dashing adventures in the East Indies. Within weeks of the marriage, the two people closest to Thomas were making a fool of him in his very own home. Their eventual indictment charged Katharine and Patrick with “yielding to your inordinate desires … in the months of January, February, March, April, May, and June … at different times, and in one or other of the rooms of the house of Eastmiln, and in the out-houses adjacent thereto,” not to mention (we’re guessing during the warmer spring weather) “in the fields.”

Thomas himself seems to have been wise to the cuckoldry rather early on, but either from weakness or inclination made only token attempts to abate it. Great was the astonishment of the neighbors that Patrick wasn’t banned from the house or Katharine disallowed his company.

At length, Thomas died of poison. The suspicions were only natural.

In fact, maybe they were a little bit too natural.

It has been suspected that the true author of Thomas’s destruction and the lovers’ too was not their own unnatural passion but the greed of yet another party in the nest of family vipers living under the eldest brother’s roof: Anne Clark.

The lover of the youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, Anne was known as a woman of easy virtue, but she had regardless her sexual continence a potentially compelling motive to be rid of Thomas, or rid of Patrick, or both: as both Thomas and Patrick were childless, the family scandal figured to pour all the family’s estates into the puckish hands of her own man. Patrick and Katharine tried vainly to impugn her at trial as a malicious witness

So when Anne supplied a story that the lovers had openly quarreled with Thomas and even vowed in her presence to murder him — and when Anne plied the court with lurid accounts of creeping up the stairs to listen in on Patrick and Katharine romping in his alcove bed — do we hear the voice of a master villain? That reputed prostitute gave bodice-popping evidence at very great length against her incestuous would-be family —

Mrs. Ogilvie was frequently in a room by herself with the Lieutenant … upon Sunday the nineteenth day of May last, all the family went to church, excepting the two pannels and the deponent [Clarke] … the two pannels left the deponent in the low room, and went up stairs together to the east room above stairs … [and Clarke] in order to discover what was passing, went up the stair, and as the bed in the Lieutenant’s room was an alcove ed, the back of which came to the side of the stair, and there was nothing betwixt the bed and the stair, but a piece of plaster and the timber of the bed, so that a person standing in the stair could hear distinctly what passed in the bed, she stood and listened; and from the motions that she heard, is positive that they were in bed together, and abusing their bodies together, by which she means, they were lying carnally together.

You can read the whole of Anne Clark’s testimony among 130-odd pages of details from the proceedings here.

Ogilvie would hold to his innocence through multiple royal reprieves and all the way to the gallows. When the rope slipped on the first hanging attempt, he was not so daunted by the proximity of the eternal that he feared to repeat the claim: “I adhere to my former confession [profession of innocence], and die an innocent man.”

He also died alone.

His former paramour and possible confederate Katharine had delayed her hanging by pleading her belly — truthfully so, for it seemed that her many springtime frolics had in fact quickened her womb.

She delivered early in 1766 and was bound for execution a few weeks later. But Katharine’s wit supplied what crown sentiment would not and she slipped out of prison in the wardrobe of an old family servant one evening.** She had such a considerable head start before her absence was noted the next day that she reached London, hired a boat to the Netherlands, was blown back to Old Blighty by a gale, and hired another boat for Calais before anyone could catch up to her. She alit on French soil, and vanished into the safety of historical obscurity.

“Such were the different fates of two people, who, as far as we can judge of the affair, appear to have been involved in the same crime,” remarks the Newgate Calendar in an expansive vein. “The one dies, avowing his perfect innocence; the other escapes the immediate stroke of justice, which was suspended over her by the most slender thread.

“Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and, in the language of Scripture, ‘past finding out;’ but it is for mortals humbly to submit to all its dispensations.”

* London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1765.

** Hanoverian gaols had a major security hole where cross-dressing escapees were concerned.

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1684: John Dick, Covenanter

Add comment March 5th, 2015 Headsman

Covenanter John Dick was hanged at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on this date in 1684. He had been condemned for rebellion just the day before.

This divinity student had been due to swing the previous September, but broke out of Canongate Tolbooth with 24 others. Upon his re-arrest, the existing sentence was simply reinstated by the judges; Dick had only a single night between that sentence and his execution.

From the time the Protestant Reformation had launched 160-odd years prior to Dick’s death, the customary prerogative of the condemned to make a rostrum of the scaffold had become contested territory. Where once condemned thieves and murderers would make a last reconciliation with their fellows, now heretics made of their own deaths blazing confessional placards by seizing the language of martyrdom. (Paul Friedland addresses this phenomenon as part of the evolution of the execution “spectacle” in his excellent Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France. We previously interviewed Friedland here.)

Scottish Covenanters too had this tradition — and likewise the authorities that put them to death the tradition of silencing the wrong message. All the more true given the intense partisan-religious alignments on the eve of the Glorious Revolution; the Whig party name derives from the Whiggamores — Covenanter raiders, whose association was meant to smear that faction.*

Dick, according to a friend who visited him in jail on the day of his hanging, was asked if he would pray at his gallows. “Yes, if ye permitt [sic] me,” he replied.

“You must not reflect upon authority in your prayers, so as there may be no offence taken,” one of Dick’s gaolers replied.

“I will pray no limited prayers; I will pray as Christ has taught me.”

Upon this response, there was a debate among Dick’s keepers. “Some were for suffering him to pray, and stopping him if he pleased them not,” our observer recorded, “but that was not thought fit, so he prayed none there [at the gallows].”

Although Dick had to be circumspect at his hanging, his fellow Presbyterians’ alignment with the soon-to-be-triumphant side in the Glorious Revolution would soon make Covenanter martyrologies a hot publication.

The 1714 A Cloud of Witnesses for the Prerogative of Jesus Christ, or The Last Speeches and Testimonies of Those Who Have Suffered for the Truth in Scotland since 1680 celebrates dozens of Presbyterian martyrs.


Illustration of Covenanter punishments (not Dick’s specifically) from A Cloud of Witnesses.

In Dick’s entry, we have a firm of heart last letter to his father penned on the morning of the devout youth’s execution.

Dear Sir, —

This hath been one of the pleasantest nights I have had in my lifetime. The competition is only betwixt it and that I got eleven years ago at Nesbit in Northumberland, where and when, in a barley ridge upon the Saturday’s night and Sabbath morning before the last communion I did partake of in Ford Church, the Lord firmly laid the foundation-stone of grace in my heart, by making me with my whole soul close with Him upon His own terms, that is, to take Him to be my King, Priest, and Prophet, yea, to be my all in all ; to renounce my own righteousness, which at best is but rotten rags, and to rest upon His righteousness alone for salvation; as also, to give myself entirely, without reserve, in soul, body, heart, affections, and the whole faculties of my soul and powers of my body, to be by Him disposed at His pleasure for the advancement of His glory, and the upbuilding of my own soul, and the souls of others; inserting this clause (being conscious to myself of great infirmity) that the fountain of free grace and love should stand open for me so long, and so oft as my case should call for it.

This my transaction with my ^whole soul, without the least ground of suspicion of the want of sincerity, which I found had been amissing in endeavours of that nature formerly, now my blessed Lord helped me to, or rather made in me, and solemnised that night and morning ere I came off that ridge.

I confirmed it no less than ten or twelve times, and the oftener I reiterated, the gale continued so fresh and vigorous, that I was forced to cry, Hold, Lord, for the sherd is like to burst: so that I hope my dearest Lord is now a-coming, and that the hands of Zerubbabel, who hath laid this foundation, is now about to finish it ; and, indeed, He is building very fast, for which my soul blesseth Him, desiring you may join with me in so necessary a work.

I hope, ere long, the copestone shall be put on, the result of all which shall be praises and shouting to Him that sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb throughout all the ages of eternity, of long-lasting eternity.

This, with my earnest prayers while in the body, that the Lord would help you to mind His glory, and your own soul’s eternal welfare, is all the legacy you can expect from him who is both,

Your affectionate son and Christ’s prisoner,

John Dick.

P.S. — I hope, ere I come home, to get another sight of you. Let none see this till I be in my grave. The Lord gave me to you freely, so I entreat you, be frank in giving me to Him again, and the more free this be, the less cause you shall have to repent.

* “Tories” comes from a word for an Irish (and Catholic) outlaw, and was conferred by the Whigs as a reciprocal calumny. It is not accidental that each term throws a non-English shade.

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1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian

Add comment April 14th, 2012 Headsman

“The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe.”

-Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian

Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.

Worthy fodder indeed for Scott’s pen.

That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)

Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.

A great, and tense, crowd turned out for the occasion. The poet Allan Ramsay was present among them.

[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.

This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.

He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”

Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.

After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, 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. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.

There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.

Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.

We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.

Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …

In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.

Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.


It was not until 1973, with “all passion spent”, that this memorial stone was erected for John Porteous in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (cc) image from Kio Stark.

The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.

Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.


The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.

Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.

The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Scotland,Theft

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1682: Alexander Cockburn, hangman, condemned

Add comment January 16th, 2010 Headsman

Domestic annals of Scotland: from the reformation to the revolution (reporting an item initially recorded by Lord Fountainhall):

1682. Jan. 16. Alexander Cockburn,* the hangman of Edinburgh, was tried before the magistrates as sheriffs, for the murder, in his own house, of one Adamson or Mackenzie, a blue-gown beggar. The proof was slender, and chiefly of the nature of presumption — as, that he had denied Adamson’s being in his house on the alleged day, the contrary being proved, groans having been heard, and bloody clothes found in the house; and this evidence, too, was chiefly from women. Yet he was condemned to be hanged within three suns. One Mackenzie, whom Cockburn had caused to lose his place of hangman at Stirling, performed the office.

Condemned by the evidence of women. How much worse can it get?

There is no report I have been able to locate of Cockburn’s actual hanging date; the “within three suns” sentence was standard for the time.

In days of yore, (says Aubrey) lords and gentlemen lived in the country like petty kings, had jura regalia belonging to the seignories, had castles and boroughs, had gallows within their liberties, where they would try, condemn, and execute; never went to London but in parliament time, or once a year to do homage to the king. Justice was administered with great expedition, and too often with vindictive severity. Pennant informs us that “originally the time of trial and execution was to be within three suns!” About the latter end of the seventeenth century** the period was extended to nine days after sentence; but since a rapid and unjust execution in a petty Scottish town, 1720,† the execution has been ordered to be deferred for forty days on the south, and sixty on the north side of the Tay, that time may be allowed for an application to the king for mercy.

* Not to be confused with barrister Alexander Cockburn (we’ve already met him) … nor, of course, with the late acerbic journalist.

** Specifically, 1695 — well after our day’s hangman had turned hanged man.

† This picturesque over-hasty execution detail appears to me to be folklorish and of questionable reliability. The bottom footnote here attributes the legal change to a cracking yarn about a dancing-master and an officer (here’s the broadside). This source puts it down to a man who committed murder while drunk and was caught, tried, and hanged before he so much as sobered up.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Uncertain Dates

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