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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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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1765: Alexander Provan, half-handed

Add comment November 7th, 2015 Headsman

A murderer named Alexander Provan was put to death on this date in 1765, the very rare* instance of a Scottish execution enhanced with mutilation.

Provan, who was uncovered as his wife’s murderer when he carelessly poured out her blood from a bottle thinking he was serving his friends an evening tipple, was doomed to have the right hand that authored the horrid deed struck off prior to hanging at Paisley.

But the unusual sentence implied an unpracticed executioner. Visibly nervous, the man missed his aim and instead of severing the evil limb at the wrist, he split Provan right through the palm.

At this the wretched prisoner began shrieking for the halter already fastened around his neck — “the tow, the tow, the tow!” The horrified executioner obliged with all speed, dragging the wailing uxoricide off his feet and past his mortal troubles.

* Unique?

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1677: Five witches at the Gallowgreen of Paisley

Add comment February 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1677, Janet Mathie, Bessie Weir, Margaret Jackson, John Stewart, and Marjory Craig were hanged for having bewitched a Sir George Maxwell of Pollok.

These unfortunates were “sacrificed on the altar of popular superstition”, in the words of a later broadside — one element of that superstition being the belief in the superordinary insight of the deaf-dumb.

God hath taken away the tongue and ear of the dumb, and hath given them a rich gift of knowledge in the room of it; and by this would teach all of us his goodness to his creatures, and that we should study humility and sobriety of mind.

This is a culture working with some embarrassingly primitive forensics to begin with.

So, when the Pollok lord started ailing, the indications by “a young deaf and dumb girl, of unknown origin,” to the effect that a local family was doing him mischief by stabbing a wax effigy, well, that was enough to open a case. When they found a wax effigy right where the girl pointed, “The prosecution wanted no stronger proof.”

So they got the 14-year-old daughter (she was spared execution this date) to confess, and tortured her brother into agreeing that the devil appeared as a cloven-hooved Negro, and our unnamed detective-girl miraculously found not one, not two, but three different effigies all attributed to the diabolical voodoo parties to cinch the condemnation.

It’s rather embarrassing what tripe did then and can still now pass for persuasive indicia of guilt among parties already committed to convicting someone. Like show trial victims, even the condemned were swept into the act of auto-denunciation — one final tenuous strand to link an outcast to her community, even from the stake. At least, some of them were.

John and Annabel exhorted their mother to confess, reminding her of all the meetings which she had had with the devil in her own house, and that “a summer’s day would not be sufficient to relate what passages had been between the devil and her.” But Jennet Mathie was a stern, brave, high-hearted Scotch woman, and would not seal her sorrow with a lie. “Nothing could prevail with her obdured and hardened heart,” so she and all, save young Annabel, were burnt; and when she was bound to the stake, the spectators saw after a while a black, pitchy ball foam out of her mouth, which, after the fire was kindled, grew to the size of a walnut, and flew out into sparks like squibs. This was the devil leaving her. As for Bessie Weir … the devil left her when she was executed, in the form of a raven; for so he owned and dishonoured his chosen ones.

“The dumbe girl, Jennet Douglas, now speaks well, and knows Latine, which she never learned, and discovers things past!” says Sinclair. But she still followed her old trade. She had mesmeric visions, and was evidently a “sensitive;” and some of the people believed in her, as inspired and divine, and some came, perhaps mockingly, to test her. (From E.L. Linton)

Sometimes, at least, these malevolent professional accusers get their comeuppance.

The dumb girl herself was afterwards carried before the great council at Edinburgh, imprisoned, scourged through the town, and then banished to “some forraigne Plantation,” whence she reappears no more to vex her generation. God forgive her! She has passed long years ago to her account, and may her guilty soul be saved, and all its burning blood-stains cleansed and assoilzed!

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