2nd September 1724

Half-hangit Maggie comes back to life

Maggie Dickson was sent to the gallows in Edinburgh on 2 September 1724. She’d had a hard life already, having been left by her husband, then becoming pregnant by her employer. This would have been a scandal in the 18th century.

Whether the child was stillborn, or Maggie really did kill it – as was alleged – she disposed of its body in the River Tweed. Unfortunately for her, she did a poor job of hiding it, and when it was found and examined, Maggie was accused of having killed the child. She was taken to Edinburgh and locked up in the Old Tollbooth.

Maggie Dickson’s trial and execution

Maggie was charged with murder, tried, and found guilty. Despite her plea of innocence, which she maintained throughout, she was sentenced to be hanged. A crowd assembled in the Grassmarket to watch her die and, when the deed had been done, a physician pronounced her dead.

Edinburgh's Grassmarket
Edinburgh’s Grassmarket

Normally, that would have been the end of the matter – but not where Maggie is concerned.

Her family collected her body and placed it in a coffin, after which several different accounts variously state that she was woken by the rough passage of the cart carrying it over some cobbles, she started knocking on the lid, or a family member looked inside during her wake. Either way, it was immediately obvious that the physician had made a mistake: Maggie was still alive, and had merely lost consciousness on the gallows.

Half Hangit Maggie lives on

The physician’s mistake was to Maggie’s benefit, for it left the court in a quandary. Here was a woman, still alive, who had been convicted of a capital crime, yet the sentence had already been carried out. Ultimately, the court decided that, as she’d been declared legally dead she couldn’t be hanged again, and thus she was allowed to live. She eventually died 40 years later.

There is much speculation as to why Maggie wasn’t killed on the gallows, and suggestion that she may have made a deal with the hangman or even the ropemaker to ensure she escaped. This long after the event, we will never know for sure.



Other events that occured in September

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.