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date: 11 April 2021

Dickson, Margaret [called Half Hanged Maggy Dickson]free

(d. in or after 1753)
  • Barbara White

Dickson, Margaret [called Half Hanged Maggy Dickson] (d. in or after 1753), survivor of execution, is of unknown parentage. She lived in Musselburgh, about 6 miles from Edinburgh, with her fisherman husband, a Mr Dickson, with whom she had several children, and made a living in the town's salt-making industry. After her husband was press-ganged into the navy Margaret had a liaison with a local man, which resulted in pregnancy. All accounts suggest that she feared the humiliation of the punishment, laid down in Scottish law, by which unchaste women were seated in a special place in church on three successive Sundays and rebuked by the minister. Margaret hid her pregnancy and it is unclear whether her child was stillborn or not.

Contesting her innocence to the very end Margaret Dickson was none the less found guilty, under the act of 1690, for concealment of pregnancy. She was sentenced in 1728 to be hanged in the Grassmarket, near Edinburgh Castle. Chambers quotes from an unnamed broadside, printed within days of her execution, which gives minute detail of the proceedings. According to this account Margaret was hanged for the usual length of time, and the public executioner 'did his usual office' of pulling down her legs in order to hasten death. She was then placed in her coffin and the coffin lid nailed down at the gibbet foot. The family had already gained permission for Margaret's body to be removed to her birthplace and interred in the churchyard of Inveresk, near Musselburgh. As the cart carrying Margaret's coffin set off a scuffle broke out between her family and some surgeon-apprentices, the latter presumably wanting the body for dissection. During the affray the coffin lid was damaged, which allowed air to circulate within the coffin, and it was this, combined with the jolting movement of the cart, that was believed to have revived Margaret. For when those entrusted with transporting her body stopped for refreshment about 2 miles into their journey at a small village called Peffer Mill two passing joiners heard noises from within the coffin. When the lid was removed Margaret sat up in a somewhat befuddled state. A phlebotomist, Peter Purdie, was on hand to let blood, which revived Margaret sufficiently for her to be driven to Musselburgh, at the direction of the local magistrate, where she spent the night recovering. The next day she was visited by Robert Bonally, a minister, before being transferred to the house of her brother James, a weaver. The broadside suggests that Margaret was delirious for a couple of days, crying out that she was to be executed on Wednesday, but that she eventually recovered to complain only of a painful neck. The following Sunday she attended church where 'a multitude' of people gathered to see her. Another unnamed account, mentioned by Chambers, suggests that Margaret devoted the following Wednesday, a week to the day of her execution, to solemn fasting and prayer and vowed to do the same every Wednesday for the rest of her life.

Scottish law accepts that once the judgment of the court has been carried out the condemned is exculpated, since the executed person, even if surviving execution, is regarded as dead in law and his or her marriage dissolved. In English law the judgment was to be hanged until dead and so those who survived execution were required by law to be re-hanged. Margaret was therefore at liberty, although the Newgate Calendar claims that the king's advocate 'filed a bill in the High Court of Justiciary against the Sheriff' for not seeing the judgment carried out properly. Margaret's husband remarried her in a public ceremony a few days later. The date of her death is unknown but the Newgate Calendar reports that she was still living in 1753 and that she was a familiar figure around Edinburgh, where she sold salt and was known as ‘Half Hanged Maggy Dickson’.

Sources

  • R. Chambers, Domestic annals of Scotland from the revolution to the rebellion of 1745 (1861)
  • J. L. Rayner and G. T. Crook, eds., The complete Newgate calendar, 3 (privately printed, London, 1926), 44–6
  • J. Atholl, Shadow of the gallows (1954)
  • N&Q, 2nd ser., 11 (1861), 395
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