Margaret ‘Maggie’ Dickson was hanged in Edinburgh on the 2nd of September, 1724.
Margaret Dickson’s birth was anonymous and unremarkable, but her ‘resurrection’ has become the stuff of legend and her story is used to ‘scare the living daylights’ out of tourists visiting Edinburgh. She was born in early 18th Century Scotland, most probably in Musselburgh, and made a living as a hawker of fish or seller of salt, both of which were common occupations. Like many local folk, she would have brought her wares to the City and ‘called’ them through the streets of Edinburgh. In 1723, Maggie found herself without her husband, who was a fisherman. Around that time, he had either been press-ganged on board a man o’ war or was working away in the fisheries at Newcastle or had simply deserted her. Regardless of the details, twenty-two years old Maggie ended up working for an innkeeper and, once again, details are murky as that job was either in Kelso or in Edinburgh. Whether in the Borders or in Auld Reekie, Maggie became pregnant by the landlord’s son. He was called William Bell and was considerably younger than Maggie, so you may question who did the seducing.
Of course, Maggie needed to conceal the pregnancy. On her own, albeit still married, and as a young lassie of dubious character and modest means, Maggie had about as many employment options as she had for birth control. She couldn’t afford to be sacked. In those days, social and religious conventions meant that illegitimate or adulterous pregnancies were big problems. She was accused by some neighbours of being pregnant, but fear of being publically shamed in the Kirk led her to deny it, although the symptoms must have become fairly plain. Eventually, the baby was born, but whether it was born alive or stillborn, isn’t known. The fact is that the child was found dead and Maggie had tried to hide its body. She was charged with contravention of the Concealment of Pregnancy Act and as concealment of pregnancy and birth were capital crimes, it was immaterial whether it had been a miscarriage, infanticide, or a tragic 18th Century stillbirth. In her defence, she said that she went into labour prematurely and was in such pain that she was unable to get help. She also claimed that the birth left her in a state of insensibility to such an extent that she couldn’t say what became of the baby. Maggie was taken to Edinburgh where she was tried. Some reports suggest that a surgeon performed an experiment on the lungs of the child to see if they floated in water, which was taken as a sign of its having breathed. It’s not clear what difference that might have made, but in any event, puir Maggie was sentenced to be hanged.
According to JC records at the National Archives of Scotland, her execution took place on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, on Wednesday the 2nd of September, 1724. It seems not to have been a routine public strangling as the hangman, John Dalgliesh, had to belt her with a stick as she tried to loosen the noose with her hands. He hadn’t tied them tight enough and the crowd even threw stones at him for allowing her hands to get free. In the end, she was ‘turned off’ – a quaint expression – and ‘hanged for the usual length of time’. Afterwards, she was taken down and given up to her family. A bit of a stushie broke out as her friends and relatives had to fend off the usual ‘grave robbing’ representatives of the medical profession wanting her body for dissection, but eventually, she was carted off in the direction of the Kirkyard of Inveresk.
The funeral party stopped for a wee dram at a village called Peffermill, about two miles from Edinburgh, and left the cart outside the public house, near the door. They must have thought they’d consumed a dram too many as all of a sudden they could hear banging and chappin’ from inside Maggie’s coffin. A couple of passing joiners helped to lift off the lid and there was Maggie, sat bolt upright and doin’ the resurrection shuffle, giving a’body “the fleg o’ their lives.” No doubt Maggie got a rare auld fleg hersel’. A phlebotomist was apparently on hand to let blood and the creatur was visited by a Minister before being let home to the house of her weaver brother, James. Even if she hadn’t been deeply religious beforehand, reports of her devoting every Wednesday for the rest of her life to fasting and prayer can be believed.
Now, much of Scottish Law is built on Roman Pandects and accordingly, once the judgment of a Court has been carried out, the condemned is exculpated. The individual, even if they survive an attempt at execution, is regarded as dead in law and, unlike in England, Maggie could not have been re-hanged. Another maxim is that Maggie’s marriage was then considered to have been dissolved, because of her being officially dead. So, Maggie was set at liberty and despite being a non-person, was able to remarry her husband who had, in the meantime, returned to the fold. Amazingly, Maggie lived for another thirty years or so and went on to have several children. The first of those was a son; born a mere nine or ten months after the hanging. The date of Maggie’s eventual death is unknown, but the Newgate Calendar reports that she was still living in 1753.
Margaret Dickson became a familiar figure around Edinburgh, where she returned to selling salt and was known as ‘Half-Hangit Maggie’.