14th March 1823

Mary McKinnon stands trial for murder

Mary McKinnon stabbed William Howat with a table knife on 8 February, and he died, 12 days later, at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. On 14 March, Mary was tried for his murder, which had taken place at the inn (and brothel) she ran.

She pleaded not guilty, claiming that she’d been away from the inn when a riot had broken out, and that a drunken Howat had broken into her home there and assaulted the women present. She claimed that she was knocked out upon her return, and had no recollection of what had happened thereafter, and certainly not of stabbing the murdered man.

Evidence given

A land surveyor called Henry Ker was called to give evidence at the trial, and he told the court that Howat had been somewhat drunk after the two had shared a boozy dinner with friends. They had gone back to McKinnon’s inn and ordered a single drink each but, Ker said, the women serving there had locked the doors and insisted that Howat, Ker and their friends ordered more drink and, when they didn’t, started grabbing at them.

Hearing the noise they were making, McKinnon came into the kitchen where Howat was standing and, according to his testimony reproduced in the Inverness Courier of 20 March, “went deliberately to the dresser table, at the back of the door, put both hands into a knife case and took one out… sprang towards [Ker] who parried her hand with his arm and she was instantly seized by several women”. A few seconds later, Ker “saw [McKinnon] strike a blow with the knife at Howat and… immediately sprung forward, seized her by the back of the neck, and knocked her feet from her, and she fell on her back on the floor”.

Howat lived long enough to give testimony from his hospital bed. This was read to the court, which also heard from witnesses who had been there on the night.

Guilty verdict

The jury was unconvinced of McKinnon’s innocence. It returned a majority verdict of guilty, but also recommended leniency when it came to sentencing her. Alas, it was not to be. McKinnon was convicted on the 15th and sentenced to death, after which her body would be given up for dissection, as later happened to William Burke after his execution in 1829. Upon hearing this, she fainted.

McKinnon was executed between eight and nine o’clock on the morning of 23 April after two failed appeals for clemency. The night before her execution, she cut some lockets of her hair so they could be presented to her friends as memories of her.

Mary McKinnon’s execution

Again, the Inverness Courier reported what happened in its edition of the following day. She was led from the lock-up “to the platform at the head of Libberton’s Wynd, about half-past eight o’clock. On the way, Mrs McKinnon recognised some of her acquaintances, to whom she beckoned with her hand, and bade farewell to the bystanders”.

She prayed beside the scaffold, once again protested her innocence, and asked if she could keep her hat on. The executioner refused to allow this, explaining that the crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 that had assembled to watch her die would want to see her face. A few moments later, she was dead, having dropped through the hole in the scaffold and been killed all but instantaneously. As per her sentence, once her body had been removed, it was taken to a lecture room and presented to the professor of anatomy for dissection.

But, even in death, McKinnon had one last surprise to deliver, as it was discovered that she was not called McKinnon at all, but McInness. McKinnon had been a mix-up that she had chosen not to correct almost until the very end.



Other events that occured in March

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