Margaret Dickson was Executed, Survived, and Pardoned

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 sent to sea aboard a warship.

Margaret Dickson rising from her coffin.

Margaret Dickson rising from her coffin. Public domain.

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.”[1]

Margaret Dickson worked as a domestic and while her 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 obvious signs that she was pregnant. As her delivery date drew near, Dickson attempted to conceal her pregnancy and then 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 at church. Dickson also related that she had committed fornication, but at the same time, she denied that she had killed her child and claimed that the baby was still-born.

During the trial, evidence was given that proved she was pregnant and that she 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,”[2] which indicated that the child had been born alive.

Margaret Dickson and a false report about her death.

False report about Margaret Dickson that dates her death at 1 February 1813. Public domain.

Despite the weak evidence and Dickson’s denial, the jury ultimately found Margaret Dickson guilty and sentenced her to death. Varying dates exist as to when she was executed. Some people say it was 1723, 1728, 19 June 1729, and one publication even falsely reported it happened 1 February 1813, the same year that Madame Récamier‘s friend, Madame de Staël, died. However, it appears that Dickson was taken to the gallows on 2 September 1724 even though she denied all the way that she had killed her child. One published report stated:

“September 3. Yesterday Margaret Dickson suffered in the Grass-market pursuant to the sentence emitted again her for the murder of her own child. She was cut down some time after thrown over, and put into a bier in order to be transported to Musselburgh, to be buried with her people. A soldier in Kirk’s regiment, observing that the execution had left a part of the halter upon the gallows after cutting the woman down, jumped upon the ladder, seiz’d the rope, and fell a unnoosing it with his teeth; which his serjeant perceiving, fell upon him with his cane severely drubb’d him for his pains.”[3]

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, Margaret Dickson suddenly sat up. The men were so shocked and frightened they bolted.

Margaret Dickson rising from the dead

Margaret Dickson rising from the dead. Public domain.

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, she had 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.”[4]

Another Scottish law was that any executed person was dead, which also meant a person’s marriage was automatically dissolved. Thus, both these laws applied to Dickson.

As Margaret Dickson had been executed and was considered dead, she could no longer be charged with a crime. This upset the king’s advocate and he 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 after her miraculous recovery she became extremely popular prompting a report on 15 October that read:

“Tuesday last the famous Margaret Dickson (who so cannily outwitted John Dalgleish in the Grass-market) came to town from Musselburgh. Peoples curiosity was such, to see a hanged woman appear in the streets … that she’d infallibly been trode down or stifled in the crowd, but that she got into the house of John Hood, (one of the keepers of the tolbooth and a Gospel Relation of hers who conveyed her off by a back-door.”[5]

Dickson died some 25 years later always denying that she killed her child.

*Sometimes written as Margret Dickson.

References:

  • [1] Annals of Crime, Issues 1-53, 1833, p. 57.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 58.
  • [3] The Scots Magazine, 1808, p. 905.
  • [4] Annals of Crime, p. 58.
  • [5] The Scots Magazine, p. 906.

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