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People Who Survived Execution : Maggie Dickson of Edinburgh in 1724

Updated on June 10, 2016

People Who Survived Execution : Maggie Dickson of Edinburgh in 1724

If you are ever in Edinburgh and passing the pub in the Grassmarket called Maggie Dickson's you may wonder who she is.

Well, she isn't the current landlady or the name of some famous barmaid that worked in the place. It isn't even a corporate invention tapping into some pseudo-traditional leitmotif for the unaware.

The truth is far more interesting than that.


The story of Maggie Dickson's fame took place in Edinburgh in the early 18th century. She was a fish hawker from the town of Musselburgh in East Lothian just a few miles outside of the capital city.

The fallen woman

Her downfall came when she got pregnant and tried to conceal the fact.

Her husband had deserted her to work in the Fisheries in Newcastle in Northern England.

Consequently she had to leave Edinburgh and moved to Kelso in the south of Scotland.

Whilst there she had an affair with an innkeepers son.

As the Innkeeper was her employer she felt compelled to keep the pregnancy quiet as she would lose her job. Tragically the baby died after being born prematurely and she decided to dispose of the body. She intended to cast it into the River Tweed but instead left it on the riverbank. It was soon found and the authorities quickly determined that Maggie was the mother.

The punishment

At that time such an action in Scotland contravened the 'Concealment of Pregnancy Act' of 1690 which made it tantamount to murder.

As quoted in a broadside publication in 1813 on the execution:

"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

The legal and religious institutions were severe on women concerning matters of their pregnancy.

Even the natural occurrences of miscarriage or still-born infants could incur the wrath of the law.

Therefore she was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. The execution took place on the 2nd September 1724 in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh. This was the favoured location for hangings at that time and normally took place on market day to ensure a sizeable crowd.

The journey home

Her body was then taken in a coffin for burial to the town of Musselburgh which was east of Edinburgh. Apparently this was only after an unseemly scuffle between her family and local medical students keen for a young body to dissect. The corpses of the condemned were regularly passed to the Schools of Anatomy in the name of science in the 18th century.

The family had their way and took possession of Maggie's remains for burial. They set off on the journey and on the way stopped off at a pub for some refreshments in the Peffer Mill area. All of a sudden there came a knocking and banging on the coffin lid from the inside. Astonished, they opened up the coffin to discover that she was not dead.

Miraculously it seemed that Maggie Dickson had not succumbed to the gallows but had cheated death at the hands of the law. She was alive and well as confirmed by a local gardener on the scene who cut a vein to check for a flow of blood. After spending a night to recover Maggie actually walked back to Musselburgh the next day.

The response of the Law

But what would happen next? As the death certificate had already been issued it was impossible to re-execute Maggie.

This was because Scots Law is based on Roman Pandects and in this case it prohibited further action. Therefore the King's Advocate could not pursue the matter any further.

Instead he filed against the Edinburgh Sheriff in the High Court of Justiciary for not efficiently conducting the public execution.

The ruling also meant that as Maggie was technically dead then her marriage was dissolved.

Furthermore, the prevailing opinion amongst people in Edinburgh considered her survival to be the result of divine intervention. Local people believed it had been 'God's will' that had spared her from an early grave.

Rumours persist that she actually seduced the ropemaker and convinced him to make the noose weak enough not to kill her. We will probably never know if that's the truth.

Happy ever after

Whatever the facts of her hanging Maggie lived for another 40 years and had many children. Her husband remarried her despite that fact that she now sported rope burns and her neck was permanently crooked for the rest of her life. She also ran an alehouse in Musselburgh so the naming of the Edinburgh pub has a historical resonance indeed.

Such was her celebrity and fame around the Edinburgh area that locals gave her the nicknamed of 'Half Hangit Maggie'



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    • daydreams profile image

      Marianne Sherret 5 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Some women at this time did kill their own infant children - out of desperation- we don't know for sure whether Maggie Dickson did, or didn't. She was one of several women brought before the Scottish courts and sentenced to death for this crime during this period.

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

      I love these little historical tales. Bring on some more please.

    • profile image

      Ginger Ruffles 5 years ago

      Rock on Maggie! I'd like to think we have come a long way since then but in the US we are seeing cases all to like Maggies being prosecuted right now!

      Would love to read about your witches too Shinkicker!

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      There's no place like home amillar :-)

      Those Border lads are a game bunch indeed

      Thanks for reading

    • amillar profile image

      amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

      A very interesting tale Mr Shinkicker. I'm not surprised she got into trouble in Kelso. I wouldn't trust that shower as far as I could throw them.

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      Hi miakouna

      Like the best stories it's true, stranger than fiction. Thanks for stopping by

    • miakouna profile image

      miakouna 6 years ago

      Interesting story. Great read!

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      That's right GClark, the pub 'The Last Drop' is next door to 'Maggie Dicksons' bar as the gallows were just outside. The alleged witches were indeed drowned in Edinburgh. It was in the Nor' Loch which is now Princes Street Gardens.

      Thanks for reading and voting up

    • GClark profile image

      GClark 6 years ago from United States

      Voted Up on this interesting hub. There are a number of macabre tales you can hear about Edinburgh's history; i.e., a well-known pub in Edinburgh named "The Last Drop" which refers to a time when public hangings were carried out as entertainment in an area across from the aptly named pub. Note: Princes Park downtown in Edinburgh, originally was a loch where witches were drowned during the famous witch hunts. When the loch was drained there were many bones found. GClark

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      Hi diogenes

      And how terrible women were treated too. I won't go in to how woman suffered in Scotland during the witch-hunts. Much worse than many other places in Europe.

      But maybe I'll write a Hub about it LOL

      Thanks for stopping by

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 6 years ago from UK and Mexico

      What a wonderful yarn! It sickens me to read of how the poor and misguided were persecuted in these damnable isles back when.

      Loved it!!


    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      Cheers Ron. A great tale it is and all the more interesting because it's true

    • zzron profile image

      zzron 6 years ago from Houston, TX.

      This was really wild, I have never heard of this lady. Interesting story thanks for the history lesson.