by Ashley Weaver
The judge has passed the death-sentence upon you. The sorrow of your dead child weighs upon your soul. The eyes of your neighbors linger upon you as you mount the scaffold. You say the words you believe will be your last. The floor drops beneath you. You struggle against the rope that tightens around your neck. And then…darkness
In life, death is certain. How would you feel if you were sentenced to a gruesome death in penance for a violent crime you did not commit? Whether or not you were resigned to your fate, you knew the ending was inevitable: you would die this day.
But what if you didn’t?
In the 18th century, cases that accused mothers like Margaret Dickson of infanticide were common. However, back then not many knew about the complications that caused death to infants that were no fault of the mother’s, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or stillbirths. Whether or not Margaret was actually guilty of infanticide or her child was simply victim to the health risks that afflicted babies of the day, still remains a mystery. However, what remains a greater mystery was how she survived her execution for this alleged crime.
Margaret worked at a tavern in Edinburgh, Scotland around the year 1720. Some sources state her husband left her and her two small children while others, like one 1800’s Derby newspaper, claims that he was a fisherman away on business. By either account, Margaret remained estranged from her husband and rumor had it that she fancied the tavern-keeper’s young son, soon becoming pregnant with his child.
Not long after Margaret had given birth, villagers found the body of a baby boy in the nearby River Tweed. Many suspected that Margaret drowned her illegitimate child. At her trial, she was found guilty under the Concealment of Pregnancy Act . While modern thinkers believe her baby was stillborn, some doctors at her trial argued the child had been alive before being placed in the river, thus supporting the claim that the child had been killed.
Avoiding her friends and family while she was pregnant showed that she did intend to hide her pregnancy. However, evidence of her upbringing would support the belief that she was innocent of murdering her child. Raised in a God-fearing home, she probably wanted to hide her pregnancy to avoid public humiliation and judgment from her God-fearing peers. Although she showed unyielding penitence for her adultery, she strongly maintained her innocence against the crime of purposely killing her child.
On September 2nd, Margaret mounted the scaffold at Grassmarket in Edinburgh with as much dignity as she could. The rope was placed around her neck, she said her last words, and dropped as the trapdoor fell out from beneath her feet. Some onlookers claimed that her hands had not been tied, so her hands gripped the rope as it strangled her, which prevented her neck from breaking. It took a half hour for her to lose consciousness and many spectators bellowed curses at the executioner, assuming he was the cause of this poor mother’s slow death.
On the way to Musselburgh, where Margaret’s body would eventually be interred, the ride was jostled and bumpy. This, along with dragging a heavy wooden coffin on the back of a cart, made the trip a long one for the gravediggers. So, naturally, they stopped for some rest at a nearby inn. Upon their return to the cart and coffin, they nearly jumped out of their skin at a tapping noise coming from under the coffin lid. After freeing it from the nails that held it closed, the sight of Margaret Dickson sitting upright in her own coffin sent them fleeing.
After much rest in the comfort of her own home, Margaret eventually regained her full strength. Since she had already technically been executed, she was soon acquitted of her crime. She eventually reunited with her husband and lived for forty more years.
Regardless of the truth to her innocence, the legend of “Half-Hangit Maggie” is one that lives on in the present-day imagination. A pub stands today not far from the place of her execution named Maggie Dickson’s Pub, a homage to the woman who survived her own hanging. Her story also inspired later novels like The Hanging of Margaret Dickson, by Alison J. Butler.
What is even more amazing is that she was not alone. Other cases were reported over the centuries where executions failed, a few of them also linked to infanticide. Such was the case of Anne Green who in the 17th century had a stillborn child by her master’s grandson and after surviving her own hanging, also survived a medical dissection. In 1885, one man named John Babbacombe Lee was tried and sentenced to hanging on three separate occasions, but the trapdoor failed to deploy each time.
Were these acts of divine providence, or were these people just lucky?
Many maintain that due to Margaret Dickson’s innocence, the hand of God prevented her death while others claim that her executioner, John Dalgleish, was rather lenient toward her case and sought not to kill her…at least entirely. Apparently, on his deathbed, he uttered the words:
I’ll cry as fu’ o’ tears an egg,
‘Death, I’ve ae favour for to beg,
That ye wad only ge a flegg,
And spare my life,
As I did to ill hanged Meg,
That graceless wife.
Whatever circumstances led to the haunting tale of “Half-Hangit Maggie’s” miraculous fate, there is one truth we may glean from her story: in life, death is not always certain.
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