The execution of Margaret Dickson
A popular story in Edinburgh is that of Margaret Dickson, a fishwife from Musselburgh who was hanged in the Grassmarket in 1724 for murdering her illegitimate baby shortly after birth. After the hanging, her body was taken back to Musselburgh on a cart. However, on the way there she awoke. Since, under Scots Law, her punishment had been carried out, she could not be executed for a second time for the same crime (only later were the words “until dead” added to the sentence of hanging). Her “resurrection” was also to some extent seen as divine intervention, and so she was allowed to go free. In later life (and legend) she was referred to as “half-hangit Maggie”. There is now a pub in the Grassmarket named after her.
In 1775, the young advocate James Boswell’s first criminal client, John Reid from Peeblesshire, was hanged in the Grassmarket for sheep-stealing. Boswell, convinced of his client’s innocence and citing Maggie Dickson’s miraculous recovery, hatched a plan to recover Reid’s corpse immediately after execution and have it resuscitated by surgeons. He was finally dissuaded from this course of action by a friend who warned him that the condemned man had become resigned to his fate and might well curse Boswell for bringing him back to life.
Sir Walter Scott described his memory of the Grassmarket gibbet in his novel The Heart of Midlothian published in 1818.
The fatal day was announced to the public, by the appearance of a huge black gallows-tree towards the eastern end of the Grassmarket. This ill-omened apparition was of great height, with a scaffold surrounding it, and a double ladder placed against it, for the ascent of the unhappy criminal and the executioner. As this apparatus was always arranged before dawn, it seemed as if the gallows had grown out of the earth in the course of one night, like the production of some foul demon; and I well remember the fright with which the schoolboys, when I was one of their number, used to regard these ominous signs of deadly preparation. On the night after the execution the gallows again disappeared, and was conveyed in silence and darkness to the place where it was usually deposited, which was one of the vaults under the Parliament House, or courts of justice.