1741: Henry Smith, cad

Add comment March 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1741 ended at Dorchester “a young Man of great Hope, who was of a proper Stature, and of a handsome Personage, of a gentle and winning Disposition, chearful in his Temper, of a noble Nature, a kind and benevolent Mind; he had a pleasant Wit, speaking very gracefully and pertinently that made him pleasant to all Company; of an Industry in Business not to be tired; and what is remarkable, tho’ he spent his Youth among Seafaring People, yet he seldom drank any Thing else but Water of Small Beer, he abhorr’d Drunkenness in others, and could not endure any light or prophane Words, with whatever Sharpness of Wit it was cover’d; in his Engagements in Trade he was regular; in his Promises punctual; to his Servants he was kind; to his Wife very loving, and so courteous and affable to all Men, that he had many Friends, and few Enemies; he preserved a Reputation in his Neighbourhood, and was esteem’d and beloved through the Circle of his Acquaintance.”

Seems like a pretty great guy, except for the part where, concealing his marriage, he debauched and impregnated a serving-girl with the unrealizable promise of wedlock — a promise poor Jane Mew was disabused of by accidentally meeting his wife.

What occurred next is only to be inferred, for the very respectable Smith (or Smythee, as the pamphlet attached to this post has it) denied the circumstantial case against him to the last. Smith directed his lover to a lying-in place to give birth in secret but Jane Mew turned up in a field with her throat slashed en route. Perhaps Smith would have stood a better chance of convincing people that she had fallen as prey to some random highway robber or a desperate suicide had he not taken flight upon the discovery of her incriminating corpse.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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1724: Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson

15 comments September 2nd, 2008 Headsman

Allegedly on this date in 1724, a young woman was hanged at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket for concealing her pregnancy.

Any number of details in this horrible/wonderful story are shaky, including the date: some sources make it 1728, a few say 1723, and only a handful attest a specific calendar date. Nobody seems to doubt the tale in the main, however — and it’s certainly excellent enough lore to deserve even a heavily asterisked entry.

Deserted by her husband, young Maggie Dickson took lodgings at an inn in exchange for work, and became pregnant by either the innkeeper or his son. (Again — details in the various sources available read like a game of telephone.) Since single* pregnant working-class women had about as many employment options as birth control options, Maggie kept quiet about her condition in the interest of keeping her job.

And since male parliamentarians figured their job was to keep young lasses of loose character and modest means on the straight and narrow by criminalizing their options, Maggie’s sleight-of-womb put her in violation of a law against concealing a pregnancy. (The same situation was playing out elsewhere in the British sphere at this time.)

When the resulting infant turned up dead, the trail led straight to Dickson … but the concealment of the pregnancy and birth were capital crimes on their own, making it immaterial whether it had been a miscarried pregnancy, an act of infanticide, or simply one of the many early 18th century babies to die in the cradle. The law was an indiscriminate instrument to prevent women terminating their pregnancies.

Nothing noteworthy about the hanging itself is recorded; it seems to have been one of the routine public stranglings of the age, and even the scuffle over the body between family and medical students hunting dissection-ready cadavers was a normal occurrence.

The family won. And en route to Musselburgh for burial, Maggie started banging on the inside of the coffin, and was forthwith revived. Officials decided the sentence of hanging had already been carried out … and her awestruck neighbors suddenly started seeing Maggie sympathetically

And they all lived happily ever after. This day’s principal, at any rate, gained a foothold in adequate prosperity, bore more children, and answered to the nickname “Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson” all the many more years of her life.

The story passed into legend; the dates, as we’ve alluded, fuzzed. One entrepreneurial English broadside publisher of the 19th century even transported the affair to February 1, 1813 — four years after a Concealment of Pregnancy Act reduced the penalty for Maggie Dickson’s “crime” to penal servitude. And near the site of the not-quite-Passion, should you call sometime in Edinburgh, you can raise Half-Hangit Maggie a pint at Maggie Dickson’s Pub.

I’le crye as fu’ o’ tears an egg,
‘Death, I’ve ae favour for to begg,
That ye wad only ge a flegg,
And spare my life,
As I did to ill hanged Megg,
That graceless wife

-Broadside, ‘The last speech and dying words of John Dalgleish, Hangman of Edinburgh’

* Technically, she was still married but separated.

Part of the Themed Set: Judging Abortion.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Murder,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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