Margaret Dickson was executed, survived, and pardoned, and because of it she was nicknamed “ill hangit Maggy Dickson.” Her story begins with her birth in Musselburgh, Scotland, near Edinburgh in 1702. When she was an adult, she married a fisherman and together they had several children. However, Dickson found herself practically single because her husband was impressed and went to sea aboard a warship.
In Scotland, at the time, any woman who committed fornication was punished publicly. The punishment occurred over three Sundays with the fornicator seated in the most conspicuous place in church and receiving a public rebuke from the minister. This spectacle resulted in people attending church who never attended just so that they could see offenders shamed. Female offenders found the punishment so embarrassing, some “destroyed the fruits of their amours, rather than be made a spectacle to all the inhabitants of the parish.”
Dickson worked as a domestic and while Dickson’s husband was gone, she became friendly with one of the sons in the household where she worked. Unfortunately, she soon found herself pregnant, and it did not take long before some neighbors accused her of being pregnant. Because Dickson was worried about being punished, she denied she was pregnant, despite it being obvious that she was pregnant. As her delivery drew near, Dickson attempted to conceal her pregnancy and finally gave birth.
Whether the child was born alive or is unclear. What is clear is that Dickson was apprehended on suspicion of killing her child and committed to the Edinburgh goal. During her imprisonment, she was said to be extremely penitent. She said that she was afraid to admit she was pregnant because of fear of being punished publicly at church. Dickson also related that she had committed fornication, but at the same time, she also denied that she had killed her child and claimed that the baby was still-born.
During the trial, evidence was given that Dickson was pregnant and that she had denied being pregnant. There was also evidence that the dead child was found in the River Tweed at Maxwellheugh, near Kelso and that she delivered the child herself. In addition, a surgeon inspected the dead child to determine whether the child was alive at the birth. The surgeon reported that “when the lungs of the child were put into water they swam,” which indicated that the child had been born alive.
Despite the weak evidence and Dickson’s denial, the jury ultimately found Dickson guilty and sentenced her to death. Varying dates exist as to when Dickson was executed. Some people say it was 1723, 1728, 19 June 1729, and one printer even falsely reported it happened 1 February 1813. Allegedly, Dickson was taken to the gallows on 2 September 1724.
Dickson denied all the way to the gallows that she had killed her child. However, despite her denials, she was hanged. After the execution, her body was cut down, put into a coffin, and taken to Musselburgh for internment. During the trip to Musselburgh, the day was extremely hot. The men transporting her body stopped to have some refreshments and while they were having a drink, one of them heard a noise coming from the coffin. He went to the cart, moved the lid off the coffin, and to his surprise, Dickson suddenly sat up. The men were so shocked and frightened they bolted.
A gardener who was also having a drink, saw what happened. He went to the coffin and opened Dickson’s vein and bled her. Within an hour, she revived and was able to get out of the coffin. Moreover, the next day, Dickson was recovered enough that under her own power, she walked home to Musselburgh. At the time, a Scottish law existed that stated:
“Every person, upon whom the judgment of the court has been executed, has no more to suffer, but must be for ever discharged.”
Another Scottish law was that any executed person was dead. This also meant a person’s marriage was automatically dissolved. Thus, both these laws applied to Dickson.
As Dickson could no longer be charged with a crime, the king’s advocate, filed a charge against the sheriff claiming that he had not performed his job properly as Dickson was still alive. Her husband, who was a good fellow, remarried her within a few days, and until the day she died (25 years later), Dickson denied that she killed her child.
- Annals of Crime, Issues 1-53, 1833
- The Scots Magazine, 1808