‘You are to be taken from this place to a place of execution and there you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.’
Those most chilling words, not heard in Britain since the passing of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, were once commonplace in British courts.
Margaret Dickson heard them in an Edinburgh courtroom on 3 August 1724. So did the jury and all others present at the High Court of Justiciary that day. The finality of that pronouncement could not be denied, yet three centuries later those very words still echo hauntingly, still seem to linger on the long-dead judge’s lips, for the case of Margaret Dickson is an odd one indeed.
It was the discovery of a newborn baby’s body in the River Tweed at Maxwellheugh, near Kelso, on 9 December 1723, that started it. It was Margaret Dickson’s child. Having been deserted by her husband, she had left her two other children behind in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and headed south to visit an aunt in Newcastle. She had an extended break in her journey at the small village of Maxwellheugh and there took work with the Bell family. It was one of the Bells’ sons who made the gruesome discovery.
Questioning soon revealed that it was Margaret’s baby and that she had managed to keep the pregnancy secret from all but the father. Her story was that he was William Bell, another son, who had forced himself on her one night in a drunken stupor. The baby, she said, had been stillborn. She had kept it in her bed for eight days, frantic with worry, before throwing it in the river out of sheer distraction.
It was plausible, but Dickson’s secretive manner told against her. Despite her decent and God-fearing Protestant background, she was charged with murder, found guilty, heard the death sentence read, and was hanged in Edinburgh on 2 September 1724.
A baying crowd of thousands witnessed the drop at the Gallows Stone in the Grassmarket. The hangman tugged at her legs for good measure as she swung, and after half an hour she was cut down and placed in a coffin to be taken back to Musselburgh by her friends on a cart.
Scarcely had they left the Edinburgh outskirts before they were attacked by a gang of body snatchers – surgeons’ apprentices seeking booty for dissection. They fought the gang off, but not before the coffin had been disturbed and the lid loosened.
They pressed on as far as the village of Peppermill and, still somewhat shaken, stopped there for refreshment. Only then did two passing joiners hear a noise from the coffin, which was duly opened with haste. First, Margaret Dickson’s limbs twitched. Then Peter Purdie, one of her friends, opened a vein and a strangled cry of ‘Oh dear!’ came from Margaret’s deathly pale lips. Oh dear indeed.
On 6 September 1724, the Sunday after being hanged, and looking remarkably well, considering, she attended church in Musselburgh amid much sensation. She became a great local celebrity and some months later remarried her former husband. Many a man has dreamed of putting new life into his marriage but Margaret’s man surely hit the jackpot.
No attempt was made to arrest her again, as Scottish law deemed the sentence to have been fully carried through. Some said it was an act of God, atoning for a crime she didn’t commit. In truth it was a slovenly hangman, a loose coffin lid, a couple of nosey joiners and the remarkable resilience of the human body that gave her the incredible second chance.
No one except Margaret Dickson ever knew the real truth about the body in the river, but everyone said she was the luckiest woman alive. Or dead, as the case may be.