Half-Hangit Maggie - The woman who survived her own hanging.
[image: The National]
The tale of Half-Hangit Maggie, the woman who survived her own execution, is well known in Edinburgh.
The most popular version of the story goes that Margaret Dickson was born in Musselburgh around 1702. It is unclear when she married her fisherman husband, however all variations of the story agree that Maggie was a young woman who had recently been abandoned by her husband. Some versions indicate he was forcibly enlisted into the Navy, whilst others give no reason for his abandonment. The role of women in the early 1700s was characterised by marriage, family and housework. It was the responsibility of the man to provide for the household, though women could supplement the main wage with small amounts earned from laundering or needle work. Thus, Maggie found herself in a precarious position in which her survival depended on her ability to find a job. She moved from Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders, where she took a job as a Domestic Servant in an Inn.
It is also unclear how long Maggie had worked in the Inn prior to falling pregnant, however it is alleged that the son of the Innkeeper had made advances towards Maggie, and he was the father of her illegitimate child. Like many women in her position, Maggie hid her pregnancy out of fear and desperation. The threat of losing her job at a time when Maggie's predicament would have been viewed as adultery was very real.
Once her child was born, there are more variations in Maggie's tale. Some versions claim the baby was stillborn, others claim that the baby was born sickly and died of natural causes days after its birth, whilst other versions maintain that Maggie murdered her child, for fear of the retribution she would face at having born a child that was not her husbands. Unable to bury her baby without being questioned, Maggie took her baby and laid its body at the edge of the River Tweed where it flowed through Kelso. Later that same day, the body was found.
It is uncertain how the baby was linked back to Maggie Dickson, only that it resulted in Maggie being hauled back to Edinburgh and put in front of a judge. She was tried for, and charged with concealing her pregnancy. She was further charged with homicide and sentenced to hang at the gallows, in Edinburgh's Grassmarket.
(Image:wiki - The River Tweed at Abbotsford)
Maggie was hung around September 2nd 1721. Her body was taken down from the gallows, checked by a physician who declared her dead, and placed in a paupers coffin - a shoddily built wooden box. Her family then arranged for her coffin to be taken to Musselburgh, where she was to be interred. At her wake, there was a gentle knocking on the coffin lid. The lid was quickly removed revealing Maggie who, though likely worse for wear, was definitively alive.
Legally, the courts were tied. The possibilities of divine intervention were argued and discussed at length. Technically sentence had been carried out. She had 'died' by hanging no matter how briefly. Maggie was off the hook. The cause of her apparent resurrection has been debated. It is generally thought that the poorly made coffin would have been letting in enough air for Maggie to breathe, whilst the jostling about she would have experienced on her journey was enough to bring her to consciousness. Local legend also claims that Maggie survived through seducing her executioner, who ensured the noose was just loose enough to ensure her survival.
The rest of Maggie's life is less documented. Wherever he had been, Maggie's husband returned. It was decided they were technically no longer married (till death do us part) they remarried. Her strange story made her relatively well-known and The Scots Magazine reported she was nearly 'stifled' by crowds eager to see the woman who had survived death. All that is really known of her personal life after the events of 1721 was that she had more children, and lived until the 1760s.
The Pub 'Maggie Dickson's' stands on the popular Edinburgh Grassmarket, the area which its namesake's failed hanging took place. The Grassmarket, nearby Edinburgh Castle, became the official site for public executions in 1660 and remained so until over 100 years later.
In Scotland, the preferred method of execution appears to have been hanging, though there were times when other methods came into vogue (during period of witch trials death by fire was the preferred method of execution).
Maggie's story, though strange is not totally unique in Scottish History. There have been multiple legends, stories and retellings of victims of 'premature burial'. This was when, accidentally, a person who had been presumed dead but was very much alive, was buried. In some instances this reanimation was followed by several more years to decades of life, though not every case was so lucky. One such legend is that of Margaret Erskine, or 'The Lady with the Ring'. The legend goes that Maggie Erskine was presumed dead and buried wearing several valuables, including an expensive ring. Grave Robbers heard tale of this and dug Maggie up. However they found it near impossible to remove the ring from her finger, and decided it would be less challenging to remove her finger, taking the ring with it. Whilst attempting to remove the ring, Maggie woke, shouting in pain and clutching her hand. The robbers, understandably, fled. The legend goes on that Maggie walked home, and lived for several more years. Though it has been debated whether or not Maggie Erskine's story can be called credible, it is perhaps important to note that there are versions of this story found all over Europe, including in Germany, England, Italy, France, Ireland and Scandinavia. This may give some indication as to the tale's credibility.
Tales of Premature Burial remain popular among tourist trap tours, and it is not hard to see why. Whilst some find the stories more scary than interesting, they can be an interesting look into societal practises at the time. It is unclear as to how and why 'Half-Hangit Maggie' survived her botched execution, but she certainly serves as an intriguing story told to tourists and locals alike.