Margaret Dickson was hanged on the 2
September 1724 at Edinburgh. Her crime was that of infanticide,
namely that she had murdered her newborn baby. She worked as a
domestic and it was her story that she had become pregnant by one
of the sons of the household, a common enough occurance. So that
she would not lose her job she concealed the fact she was pregnant
and gave birth in secret.
According to her the child was born dead and so
she had disposed of the body on the banks of the local river
Tweed. The small body was discovered later that same day.
Investigations led back to Margaret Dickson and when questioned
she admitted the baby had been hers but maintained that it had
already been dead and her only crime was in the way in which she
tried to conceal the body.
She was tried at Edinburgh and although the
evidence was weak was found guilty and sentenced to death by
hanging. As was usual in those days a large crowd gathered to
witness the passing of Margaret Dickson and were not disapointed.
She was hanged and her body left suspended for the customary 30
minutes. Her body was cut down and taken away in a coffin on a
cart to be buried several miles away. At one stage the driver of
the cart had stopped for a break and thought he heard noises
coming from the coffin. He was right, for some unknown reason
Margaret was not dead and had revived and was now trying to get
out of the coffin.
This was perhaps seen as devine intervention
and she was given a full pardon, she went on to live another 25
The Hanging of Margaret
The true tale of a womn who survived a public
By Alison J. Butler
In an age when women are expected to know their
place, be submissive, dutiful and chaste, Maggie Dickson, a
Musselburgh fishwife, is often in trouble. She’s outspoken,
promiscuous and vituperative. While her husband’s at sea she sells
her fish, sleeps with men for pleasure or money, and looks after
her two bairns’. In time, her husband abandons her. Maggie quits
Musselburgh and heads for Newcastle to stay with relatives.
During the winter of 1723, a fisherman finds
the dead body of a naked, baby boy. Fingers are soon pointing in
the direction of a stranger working in a local tavern, a woman
recently estranged from her mariner husband. It is rumoured that
she’s been having a passionate affair with the innkeeper’s young
son, William Bell, and that he is the father of the dead child.
Maggie is arrested and taken to Edinburgh
tollbooth to await trial, she is found guilty and sentenced to
death. The news spreads like wildfire, and as Maggie languishes in
jail the whole city speculates whether or not she killed her
child. Will she take her secret to her grave? The Hanging of
Maggie Dickson is a heartrending tale of sexual obsession, and
unrequited love. Synopsis Maggie Dickson is a free spirit, with a
love of life and a love of men, in particular, young, handsome
men. There are two obstacles. The year is 1723, and Maggie is a
married mother of two children.
The Hanging of Margaret Dickson is based on the
true story of a hanging gone wrong in Edinburgh, Scotland on
September 2nd 1724. It highlights the plight of peasant
fisherwomen and their admirable ability to survive. Tough,
resourceful, indisputably feminine, Maggie’s voice speaks to us
across the centuries with shocking familiarity. Coastal Scotland
and the bleak life of fishery folks are the cultural setting for
this incredible tale. Maggie Dickson, a flawed character of great
drama, courage and lustful heart, is born to an alcoholic,
philandering father and a disillusioned mother. On her wedding day
she swears that she will be mastered by no man, not even her
Her fisherman husband goes to sea and leaves
her alone with two children to a starving subsistence. Maggie has
no option but to use her considerable charms and looks to survive.
One day when she is selling her fish at market, she discovers a
new and licentious source of secret income in nearby Edinburgh,
and embarks on a career of vice and debauchery. When her husband
is press- ganged into the navy she abandons her children to a
friend and begins her calamitous journey. She heads from
Musselburgh to relatives in Newcastle to find her husband.
With an adventurous spirit she discovers a new
feeling of freedom and seeks her decadent destiny. After almost
freezing to death along the way she ends up in a tavern in Kelso.
The landlady likes her and asks Maggie to work there for board and
lodgings. The life of a tavern wench suits her well and Maggie
thrives for months until she develops a sexual obsession for
innkeeper’s son, William Bell. She is swept away into to a deep
and all-consuming love by the tall and attractive young man,
yearns for him and finally begs for his attention. In the heat of
the moment there is one passionate interlude that tears her world
apart. The young man walks away knowing she is married and off
limits. Her forbidden love festers to the point where Maggie
completely loses her mind.
She finds herself pregnant with William's child
and contrives to conceal her condition. Risking her own life she
delivers the secret child prematurely. After a few days, hidden
under her bed, the baby dies. Heartbroken, Maggie determines to
throw the baby in the river Tweed, to avoid implicating William,
but loses her nerve and places it at the water’s edge. A local
fisherman discovers the body and notifies the magistrate.
Maggie is arrested and taken to Edinburgh for
trial, found guilty and sentenced to death. She dwindles away in
the most horrible prison conditions, common to the time, chained
to a rail with the dead and dying. After her dramatic trial,
Maggie is hanged by executioner, John Dalgliesh, and death is
pronounced by the attending doctor. Her body is cut down and
placed in a coffin.
The funeral party in charge of the corpse stop
at a tavern for refreshments, leaving the coffin and cart outside.
Meanwhile, two passing joiners hear noises coming from inside the
coffin and inform the father and friends. When the lid is taken
off the corpse rises, alive! Spectators run for their lives but
her father, Duncan, holds her in his arms. She is taken to
Musselburgh and recovers full health where she is reunited with
her husband. He forgives her and marries her for second time. They
have a son, James Spence, ten months after her trial. True to
form, the infamous and shameless Margaret Dickson remains
unrepentant and runs an alehouse in Berwick, Scotland where she
lives until as late as 1753.
The novel is now published and tells the true
story of her remarkable life:
1724: Half-Hangit Maggie
Allegedly on this date in 1724, a young woman
was hanged at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket for concealing her
Any number of details in this
horrible/wonderful story are shaky, including the date: some
sources make it 1728, a few say 1723, and only a handful attest a
specific calendar date. Nobody seems to doubt the tale in the
main, however — and it’s certainly excellent enough lore to
deserve even a heavily asterisked entry.
Deserted by her husband, young Maggie Dickson
took lodgings at an inn in exchange for work, and became pregnant
by either the innkeeper or his son. (Again — details in the
various sources available read like a game of telephone.) Since
single pregnant working-class women had about as many employment
options as birth control options, Maggie kept quiet about her
condition in the interest of keeping her job.
And since male parliamentarians figured their
job was to keep young lasses of loose character and modest means
on the straight and narrow by criminalizing their options,
Maggie’s sleight-of-womb put her in violation of a law against
concealing a pregnancy. (The same situation was playing out
elsewhere in the British sphere at this time.)
When the resulting infant turned up dead, the
trail led straight to Dickson … but the concealment of the
pregnancy and birth were capital crimes on their own, making it
immaterial whether it had been a miscarried pregnancy, an act of
infanticide, or simply one of the many early 18th century babies
to die in the cradle. The law was an indiscriminate instrument to
prevent women terminating their pregnancies.
Nothing noteworthy about the hanging itself is
recorded; it seems to have been one of the routine public
stranglings of the age, and even the scuffle over the body between
family and medical students hunting dissection-ready cadavers was
a normal occurrence.
The family won. And en route to Musselburgh for
burial, Maggie started banging on the inside of the coffin, and
was forthwith revived. Officials decided the sentence of hanging
had already been carried out … and her awestruck neighbors
suddenly started seeing Maggie sympathetically
And they all lived happily ever after. This
day’s principal, at any rate, gained a foothold in adequate
prosperity, bore more children, and answered to the nickname
“Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson” all the many more years of her life.
story of Maggie Dickson
Maggie Dickson lived in the Early Eighteenth
century as a fish hawker and would certainly have remained an
anonymous figure had she not been the subject of a public hanging.
Her misfortune began when her husband deserted
her in 1723 forcing her to leave the city and move further south
to Kelso near the Scottish Borders. Here, she worked for an
inkeeper in return for basic lodgings.
Soon after she started an affair with the Innkeeper’s son which
led to her becoming pregnant, not wanting the innkeeper to
discover this as it would surely lead to her instant dismissal she
concealed her pregnancy as long as possible. However the baby was
born prematurely and died within a few days of being born. Still
hiding the baby's existance she planned to put the baby into the
River Tweed, but couldn't bring herself to and finally left it on
The same day the baby was discovered and traced
to Maggie. She was charged under the contravention of the
Concealment of Pregnancy Act and she was taken back to Edinburgh
for Trial and execution – the latter taking place in public in the
Grasssmarket on the 2nd September 1724.
After the hanging she was pronounced dead and
her body was bound for Musselburgh where she was to be buried,
however the journey was interrupted by a knocking and banging from
within the wooden coffin.
The lid was lifted to the sight of Maggie,
quite alive. The law saw it as God's will and she was freed to
live for a further forty years. She became something of a local
celebrity and the locals gave her the nickname 'Half Hangit'
Some said that she had seduced and manipulated
the ropemaker, to engineer a weaker noose.
A pub in the Grassmarket is named Maggie
Dickson's after her memory, which means her name and story will be
remembered for some time yet.
Particulars of the Life,
Trial, Character, and Behaviour of MARGARET DICKSON, AGED 22, Who
was executed at Edinburgh, on Monday, Feb. 1, 1813, For the MURDER
of her Bastard Child.
MARGARET DICKSON was born at Mugsleburgh, about
five miles from Edinburgh, and brought up by parents in a strict
attendance on the worship of God, and taught early the duties of
that station, in which was most probable Providence would place
her, namely, a laborious one.
It is necessary to observe, that the people in
the town, where she lived, are either fishermen, gardeners, or
those who are employed in making salt; and as Edinburgh is
supplied with those articles from that place, most of the mens
wives are employed to get their living, by carrying the different
articles thither, which they cry about the streets.
When Margaret Dickson grew up, she was married
to a fisherman, but there being a demand for seamen he was
impressed on board one of the ships of war.
During the time he was abroad, she became
acquainted with a man in the same neighbourhood, who seduced her,
and the consequence was, that she became with child, in
Scotland every woman who was guilty of fornication, was obliged to
sit on a seat in the most conspicuous place in the church, three
different Sundays, when she received a public rebuke from the
minister, and so much were the women intimidated at the disgrace,
that many of them destroyed the fruits of their amours, rather
than be made a spectacle to all the inhabitants of a parish ; for
nothing was more common than for these, who would not come to
church to hear a a sermon in seven years, would go to hear the
shame of one of her own sex.
Margaret Dickson was accused by some of her
neighbours with being pregnant, but the fear of shame induced her
to deny it, although the symptoms were very plain.
As the time of her delivery drew near, she
endeavoured to conceal it the more, and at last the child was
born, but whether alive or not, cannot be certainly known ; only
that she was apprehended on suspicion, and committed to Edinburgh
Gaol. The surgeon, who examined the body of the child, made the
usual experiments, by putting the lungs into water, but according
to the opinion of some eminent physicians, that experiment is not
always to be depended upon, it is impossible for men to know every
thing; and it often happens, that gentlemen, who have made the law
their study, and obtained seats on the bench, are obliged, in
taking evidence, to abide by the opinion of a surgeon. Indeed,
where cases are plain, such as a wound with a weapon, that must of
course prove mortal, no doubt can remain ; but then, when the life
of a person depends upon the opinion of two or three surgeons
concerning a disputed point, we think that both the court and the
jury ought to lean to mercy. In the course of the evidence
produced against Margaret Dickson, it appeared from the
depositions of several witnesses, that she had been apparently
pregnant, although she continued to deny it. It also appeared,
that a child was found dead near the place where she lived, and
there were to be seen about her all the appearances of a delivery.
The surgeon deposed, that when the lungs of the
child were put into water they swimmed, so that it was their
opinion that it had breathed ; for as they said, unless a child
has breathed, so as air could be drawn into the lungs those parts
of the body will not swim. Upon the whole the evidence was
believed by the jury, who found her guilty, and she received
sentence of death.
While she lay in confinement she was extremely
penitent, and acknowledged that she had in many instances,
neglected her duty, and likewise that she had been guilty of
fornication ; but to the last denied murdering the child, or that
she had the least intention of so doing. Her reason for concealing
the birth of the child was for fear of being made a public example
in the church, and a laughing-stock to all her neighbours. She
said she was suddenly taken in labour, sooner than she expected,
and her agonies not only prevented her from getting assistance,
but also left her in a state of insensibility, so that what became
of her child she could not say.
When she was brought to the gallows she behaved
in the most penitent manner, but still denied her guilt, after
which she was turned off, and hung the usual time.
When cut down her body was given to her
friends, who put her into a coffin, in order to carry it to
Musselburgh, for interment; but the men who had charge of the
corpse stopped at a village, called Pepper Mill, about two miles
from Edinburgh, in order to get some refreshment, leaving the cart
with the body near the door. While they were drinking one of the
men thought he saw the lid of the coffin move, and going towards
the cart, uncovered it, when he could perceive the woman to move,
and she arose upright in her coffin; upon which he and others took
to their heels, almost killed with fear. A gardener who was
drinking in the house went up to the coffin, and had the presence
of mind to open a vein, and within an hour afterwards she was so
well recovered as to be able to go to bed. Next morning she walked
home to Mussleburgh. It is necessary to observe that much of the
Scottish law is built on Roman Pandects, and according to them
every person upon whom the judgment of the court has been
executed, has no more to suffer, but must be for ever discharged.
Another maxim in the same institution is, that the executed person
is dead law, so that the marriage is dissolved. This was the case
with M. Dickson, for the King's advocate could not pursue her any
further, but filed a bill in the High Court of Justicary against
the Sheriff, for not seeing the judgment executed, and her husband
being a good-natured man, was married to her a few days after. She
still continued to deny that she had committed the crime. From her
example, and the uncertainly of her guilt, it is to be hoped that
juries will be cautious how they find a verdict where the case may
This remarkable affair happened at Edinburgh.
Wilkins, Printer, Derby.