• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Great day out at the gallows

LORD Braxfield, who was Scotland's Judge Jeffries, once confronted a felon who continued to protest his innocence with the words: ''Ye'll be nane the waur o' a hangin, man.'' In nineteenth-century Scotland, some 240 judicial hangings took place and attendance at public executions was, in the absence of competing attractions, a highly popular pastime. Crowds of 30,000 or more would assemble in Glasgow and the whole affair would become something of a gala occasion. Booths would be set up, street buskers would provide entertainment, and no doubt pick-pockets, prostitutes, and vagrants would go about their business, quite undeterred by the grisly prospect of what was to take place. Sentences were notably harsh even for minor offences. People were hanged for horse and sheep stealing as well as robbery and murder. In 1806, Margaret Mason and her lover, John Skinner, were charged with the murder of her husband. Skinner fled abroad and escaped justice. Mrs Mason was found by a jury of midwives to be pregnant and sentence postponed for five months. She appeared later, child in arms, to be sentenced to death. A judge might order dissection of the body after death by a nominated professor of anatomy, but this could go horribly wrong. After Matthew Clydesdale was hanged, in 1818, he was taken to Glasgow University where Professor Jeffray administered a galvanic shock by way of experiment. To the astonishment of the professor and his students, the deceased suddenly shot up. The professor, who was apparently equal to the occasion, is said to have taken his lancet and slashed the jugular of the ''patient'' who fell to the floor ''like a slaughtered ox''. Soon afterwards, circuit judges discontinued the practice of sending bodies for dissection. The demand for bodies led a few years later to the nefarious activities of Burke and Hare, who decoyed their victims to a house in Edinburgh, murdered them and sold the corpses for #10 each for anatomy lessons to Dr Knox at Surgeon's Hospital. Hare turned King's evidence, ensuring Burke's conviction. The Lord Justice Clerk said he had considered ordering Burke's body ''to be exhibited in chains to bleach in the winds, to deter others'' but had decided on a more lenient execution by hanging. Burke was booed all the way to the scaffold by a large crowd, Dr Knox had to flee Edinburgh, and Hare ended his days as a beggar in London's Oxford Street. Warburton's Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to the trade in dead bodies. Resuscitation of a hanged corpse was not entirely unknown. In 1724, ''half hangit'' Maggie Dickson was executed in Edinburgh for concealment of pregnancy but brought back to life by the jolting of the cart over rough ground on the way to her burial at Inveresk churchyard. She later married and had several children. In 1820, a group of weavers facing starvation called for a provisional government in Glasgow in what became known as the Radical Rising. The insurrection collapsed, leaving the ringleaders facing charges of high treason. This was the only treason trial since the Act of Union and it was decided to follow English procedure. The two ringleaders were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. They were duly hanged, and beheaded half-an-hour later. The quartering was dispensed with by order of His Majesty and this barbaric method of dispatch was annulled by abolition of the Forfeiture Act in 1870, although technically still available in Scotland. The last execution for piracy in Scotland, before a crowd of 40,000, was in 1821, when two men were ordered to be taken ''furth of the Tolbooth of Edinburgh to the sands of Leith within the flood mark and there hanged on a gibbet''. Hangmen often wore a black mask or black wig or were otherwise disguised. They were not always very competent. In one case in 1840, the hangman withdrew the wrong bolt from the trapdoor and the drop did not take place. To hisses and groans from the crowd, another official ran up the scaffold, released the proper bolt and ended the victim's sufferings. In 1851, Arnold Hare, a nephew of his more infamous namesake, fell only 2ft after the bolt was withdrawn and was left spinning like a top, vainly trying to seize the rope. Murdoch, the resourceful old hangman, swung himself on to Hare's legs and clung on until death mercifully supervened. In 1868, Mary Timney, a mother of four young children, was condemned to be hanged for the murder of a neighbour in Dumfries. A minute before the bolt was to be drawn a letter was handed up to the prison governor. Unfortunately, it was not the expected reprieve, but a request from a London newspaper for an account of the execution which was duly carried out. In Glasgow in 1853, Hans McFarlane and Helen Blackwood were permitted to exchange their marriage vows on the scaffold. ''Amen,'' intoned the clergyman as the bolt was drawn. The last public execution in Scotland took place in Dumfries in 1868 and the last judicial hanging before the abolition of capital punishment was carried out at Aberdeen Prison in 1963. Scaffolds were progressively removed from all Scottish prisons and, until recently, only one remained - at Perth Prison. Apparently, it was being retained in the event of any further convictions for high treason, the last of which was in 1820. The death penalty for treason was finally abolished in 1998.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

PARCH1.294461