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Issue 57 - Cheating the Hangman

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011


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Cheating the Hangman

Annie Harrower Gray recounts the tale of Half-hangit Maggie

The last years of the 17th Century are often described in Scottish History as the ‘ill years’ but as the century turned, the residents of Edinburgh refused to allow hardship and famine to prevent them from enjoying a good public hanging. One such execution though, that of Maggie Dixon in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, left the impoverished spectators feeling disappointed, angry and cheated.
Measures set up by the Parliament of Scotland in 1695 allowed trader and financier William Patterson to set up The Company of Scotland to extend exports to Africa and the Indies. With £400,000 (£45 million in today’s terms) raised by public subscription from all levels of Scottish society, five ships of considerable size set sail from the Firth of Forth loaded with various marketable commodities. On 25th March 1699 news reached Edinburgh that the ships had reached the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) and established a settlement the colonists named New Caledonia. The city churches offered thanks to God and there was much rejoicing in the streets of Edinburgh. Celebrations were premature, for the expedition would turn out to be a disastrous and tragic venture.
William of Orange was concerned the Company of Scotland would damage English trade and did everything in his power to crush it. The English King ordered surrounding colonies, not to buy the colonist’s trinkets or sell them necessary supplies. Agriculture proved difficult and a hot, stifling summer saw many die of fever. Of the 2,500 Scots who set sail for Darien in two expeditions, only a few hundred survived. This cruel disappointment ruined many families, and the repercussions affected even those who were unable to invest in the scheme.
‘The parcel of rogues’ described by Robert Burns, tried to recover their personal losses by selling off an almost bankrupt Scotland for £20,000 in English bribes, thus surrendering Scotland’s hard won independence for their own gains.
As usual the penniless and the homeless suffered most by these economic blows to the country. Many begged from door to door and were drawn to Edinburgh in the hope of making a living.
Edinburgh in the early 1700s was a cramped, stinking city full of all sorts of waste. Methane gas from the Nor’ Loch leaked into the closes of the old town causing hallucinations among the residents. These closes were the earliest ‘high rise’ buildings to be found in the country. The poorer residents were pushed further and further skywards while the wealthier merchants took over the more accessible and spacious accommodation.
After the Acts of Union of 1707, the English government raised Scottish taxes by as much as 400 per cent to support the English economy. The Scots retaliated violently against the excise men, selling smuggled and illegal whisky stills over the border in England for a large profit. Whisky was described in the early 18th century as a ‘spirituous liquor distilled from corn, potatoes or any other vegetable trash that will ferment and enjoyed by the poorer classes’. By the end of the 18th century there were more than 400 unlicensed stills in Edinburgh paying no duty and only eight licenced.
Women enjoyed duty free spirits as much as men but only in the consumption of alcohol were both sexes equal. The Old Town harassed its poverty stricken young women and terrified them into crimes that took them to the gallows. The old were accused of witchcraft and tormented until they confessed to imaginary crimes. If an unmarried woman became pregnant she alone was considered responsible and suffered the consequences. Many unmarried women concealed their pregnancies putting both mother and child at risk. Some were tempted to kill their newborn child to avoid punishment.
In 1690, The Concealment of Pregnancy
Act was passed stating; should a woman hide
her pregnancy and not seek assistance in the
birth and should that child be found dead or missing then the woman shall be deemed the murderer of her own child. It was under this
act that a Musselburgh woman, Maggie Dixon found herself sentenced to death in 1724.
Maggie Dixon was a fish hawker and a married woman who bore her fisherman husband several children before he was press-ganged into joining the Navy. While her husband was at sea, Maggie took lodgings at an inn in exchange for work and became pregnant by William Bell, the landlord’s son. Should the landlord have discovered her pregnancy it would have meant instant dismissal, so Maggie hid her condition for as long as possible. The neighbours refused to believe her denials. It is uncertain as to whether Maggie gave birth to a live child or a stillborn one. The body of a newborn child was found near her home and Maggie was escorted to the tolbooth where she could look forward to a squalid stay.
Infection and outbreaks of disease ravaged the tolbooth, a multi storied slum near St. Giles Cathedral. There were no windows for the prisoner to look out of and no exercise yard. The building played host to a large colony of rats. It conformed to what Scots Law classed ‘squalor carcercis’ literally meaning ‘dirty prison’; the principle being that the awfulness of the prison was a necessary part of the punishment.
At least trials were held fairly quickly after the prisoner was remanded.
Witnesses at Maggie’s trial came forward to tell the court a child was found near her home and the doctor summoned had submerged the child’s lungs in water where they were found to swim. It was a common belief that if no air had been drawn into the lungs they would sink.
The jury pronounced Maggie guilty of murder and sentenced her to death.
On 24th September 1724, Maggie stood on the gallows and admitted to sinning against her husband but denied the murder of her child. To protect the sensibilities of the masses that turned out to enjoy the free entertainment, a bag was put over her head. The noose was then was placed around her neck. She tried to loosen the rope with her hands and John Dalgliesh the hangman hit out at her with a stick. The crowd then stoned him for not tying her hands tightly enough.
Afterwards, Maggie was pronounced dead. Usually the corpses of executed murderers were handed over to the medical schools but in this case the family was allowed to claim the body for burial. The grieving relatives set off with the coffin on a cart, bound for Musselburgh. Halfway along the road they stopped outside an inn for refreshment. One member of the party heard a tapping from within the coffin. On removing the lid, the corpse sat up. Customers at the inn fled, but a doctor remained, bled Maggie and put her to bed.
Having been declared dead, Maggie could not be hanged again for the same offence. The crowd who condemned her on the scaffold now regarded her as a heroine and named her Half-hangit Maggie. She lived for another 29 years, dying of natural causes in 1753. Overlooking the spot in the Grassmarket where the scaffold once stood, stands a public house named in remembrance of Maggie Dixon, the woman who cheated the hangman.