You will be hanged until dead.
Here are a few short stories to whom these words have been uttered but some of them have a bizarre twist.
These have taken a fair bit of research but as research is exciting it doesn’t mean that it was anything like a chore, in fact very enjoyable.
The first one is pretty bizarre and maybe needs a little bit of believing.
The scene is set in Edinburgh in 1724 and it involves a lady, Margaret Dickson.
“You will be taken from this place and to a place of execution and there you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” These chilling words were uttered by the judge at the end of Margaret’s trial for the murder of her baby. These words have not been heard in England since the passing of the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act in 1965 but were commonplace in all the British Courts once upon a time.
The baby had been found dead and floating in the nearby river. Margaret insisted that she was innocent but could not come up with a plausible reason why the baby was dead.
Margaret Dickson heard the death penalty read out to her on the 3rd August 1724. The finality of those words could not be denied, yet, three centuries later those words still echo hauntingly.
The discovery of a new born baby’s body
It was the discovery of a new born baby’s body found in the River Tweed at Maxwellheugh, near Kelso on the 9th December 1723 that started it. It was Margaret Dickson’s child. Having been deserted by her husband, she had left her two other children behind in Musselborough, near to Edinburgh, and then headed south to visit an aunt in Newcastle. She had an extended break in her journey and stayed at the small village of Maxwellheugh and while she was there she obtained employment with a family named Bell. It happened to be one of the Bell’s sons who had made the grim discovery.
After some questioning it soon revealed that the dead baby belonged to Margaret. She had managed to keep her pregnancy secret from everyone except for her father.
She told the story that he was William Bell, another son, who had forced himself on her one night when they were in a drunken stupor. The baby, she claimed was still-born. She had kept the baby out of sight by keeping it in her bed for the past eight days; she had been frantic with worry, before she threw the body into the river. She claimed that she had been driven to distraction.
It certainly was a very plausible story, but, Dickson’s secretive manner told against her. Despite being a decent and God fearing woman, she was charged with the murder of her newly born baby. She was hanged in Edinburgh on the 2nd September 1724.
There was a baying crowd outside; no one had any sympathy with Margaret.
A large crowd witnessed the whole of the hanging scene at the ‘Gallows’ Stone in the Grassmarket. The hangman tugged at her legs for good measure as she swung back and forth.
She twitched a couple of times but after about half an hour the hangman cut her down, placing her in a coffin ready for her relatives to take her away.
The relatives had scarcely left the scene of the hanging when they were attacked by a gang of ‘Body Snatchers,’ some of these were surgeon’s apprentices who needed the body for dissection. The relatives eventually fought the gang off and was able to continue there journey.
They reached the village of Peppermill and, still somewhat shaken by the recent attack, they still stopped there in need of some refreshment.
It was then that two passing joiners heard a strange noise coming from the coffin, a noise not heard by them before. There was a panic as they forced the lid of the coffin off. First, they noticed Margaret’s limbs twitch. They looked at the body astonished. Then Peter Purdie, who was a dear friend of Margaret’s opened a vein, a strange strangled cry screamed ‘oh Dear’ emitted from Margaret’s deathly pale lips.
Return from the dead
On the 6th September 1724, the Sunday after Margaret had been hanged, and looking very well, she attended her local church. The whole congregation stared at her as she entered the church.
She became a great local celebrity and some months later she remarried her former husband.
The Authorities made no attempt to arrest her again as it was deemed the sentence had been carried out according to law.
Fact or Fiction?
Many people thought that it was an ‘Act of God,’ atoning for a crime that she did not commit.
But, in truth it was a slovenly hangman, a loose fitting coffin lid, plus a couple of noisy Joiners and the remarkable resilience of the human body that gave Margaret an incredible second chance.
No one, except for Margaret Dickson ever knew the real truth about the ‘body in the river’ However, everyone said that she was the luckiest woman alive; or should it read dead?
Margaret went on to live another 25 years after her hanging.
In the area where she was hanged there is a public house named after her (Address: The Maggie Dickson Pub, 92, Grassmarket, Edinburgh, EH1 2JR.)
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.
The Hanging of Margaret Dickson – an Edinburgh tale by Alison Butler.
The novel tells the true tale of the Musselburgh fishwife, Maggie Dickson, who was hanged at the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, 1724.
Written by David Rowland OPCM
Special thanks. The Law’s strangest cases by Peter Seddon.
Published in 2001 by Robson Books, London.