My fifth book, Dancing the Hangman's Reel, was published in October 2017.
As with my first four books, it is a collection comprising in the main a number of intriguing but relatively little-known cases, with one or two more-celebrated ones.
Grahame Farrell's fifth true-crime collection follows the theme of 'A Gallows Guest List', with detailed accounts of some gripping but less well-known murder cases from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
The society in which these events took place, and the personalities of those involved, are vividly brought to life in a collection that will keep the reader enthralled.
The decision by the Scottish Government, like turkeys voting for Christmas, to abolish the sovereignty of their state in 1707 and to unite it with England and Wales, has been thoroughly recorded and analysed by historians. Three decades later there were still many in Scotland who were unhappy with the decision, not just in the Jacobite-leaning highlands but also in Edinburgh.
One of the ways in which that hostility to union manifested itself in the capital was in the opposition to the administration of the taxation system imposed by English representatives of the British Government. Worse, the number of taxes in Scotland, as well as the rigour with which they were collected, had increased since the end of independence, and indeed had been an integral part of England's demands before the treaty of union was signed. As the number and size of the taxes grew, so did the frequency of smuggling.
Gradually, when the Government decided they could be trusted, Scots were recruited to the ranks of the tax collectors; in contrast to Glasgow, which had grown richer, which accepted the Hanoverian polity, and which duly paid its new taxes, much of the Edinburgh populace viewed the Scottish-born taxmen as nothing more than traitors.
Feeding off this opposition was a feeling of admiration for the tax evaders who smuggled foreign goods into the east of Scotland at ports all along the coast; the contraband goods were cheaper, naturally, but the smugglers were seen as not just doing it for their own enrichment – they were doing it for Scotland.
There was a third factor, again with a political dimension; smuggling both in Scotland and England was interwoven with sympathy for the Jacobite cause, with many smugglers in both countries openly supporting the Old Pretender and drinking the health of the Jacobite movement. Many of them ferried Jacobite agents in and out of Britain, and some smugglers acted as Jacobite spies.
The London Government and its representatives in Edinburgh were determined to come down heavily on the smugglers. No matter how much support and sympathy they received from the ordinary citizens of the Scottish capital, the smugglers, if arrested and convicted, would hang.
For these reasons, and with Jacobite sentiment still strong in much of the country, the question of revenue collection and anti-smuggling policy on the east of Scotland had become, by the 1730s, as much a political issue as a fiscal one.
Andrew Wilson of the village of Pathhead, about twelve miles from the centre of Edinburgh, was one of the more notorious of the smugglers whose contraband found its way to the capital. He had a large fan-base there; his activities were to the financial advantage of the poor as well as symbolising resistance to the heavy weight of English Government control over Scotland, especially as manifested in the hated excise laws. He was also known to the authorities, but he had no fans among them, only enemies. In February 1736, he became their chosen target for extreme retribution.
Wilson was known to have a grudge against James Stark, the customs duty collector for East Neuk, a collection of coastal and inland villages in the Kingdom of Fife, north east of Edinburgh and across the Firth of Forth. Stark had seized some of Wilson's smuggled goods and had imposed fines on him; Wilson wanted revenge and the recuperation of his losses.
With the assistance of George Robertson, a young stable hand from Bristo Port in Edinburgh, and William Hall from the same city, he burgled Stark's lodgings in the Fife village of Pittenweem. They emerged with two hundred pounds – a good day's burgling.
With the authorities aware of his past, Wilson was a prime suspect straight away. A manhunt was launched, and all three men were arrested in the village of Anstruther within three days. At their trial on 2nd March, 1736, each was condemned to death, Hall's sentence later being commuted to transportation to America for life. While Hall prepared himself for a long period of slave labour in the colonies, Wilson and Robertson sat in the condemned hold of the dreaded Tolbooth Prison (which can be considered as Edinburgh's answer to Newgate) awaiting their execution date, 14thApril, 1736.
Andrew Wilson, a man of enterprise and daring that had won the admiration of the Edinburgh citizenry, cast around for a means of escape. Soon he had a plan.
He and Robertson somehow availed themselves of a spring saw, a knife with a thick blade bearing a toothed edge capable of cutting through metal. Two horse thieves incarcerated in the cell directly above them stole into their cell, and with their help the two smugglers sawed through the iron bars of their cell window, while, at a pre-arranged signal, the other Tolbooth prisoners drowned out the sound of the sawing by breaking into the singing of psalms. Soon the bars had been removed.
First through the gap was one of the horse stealers, followed by Andrew Wilson, and here it all went wrong.
Wilson was a bulky, stocky man, and he got stuck half way through the opening, unable either to go back or to force himself forwards to freedom. Robertson and the remaining horse thief had no option but to call for a guard.
With the bars replaced and the saw confiscated, Wilson sat in dejection; he had lost his chance of escape, but the worst part of it from his point of view was that he had brought disaster on the head of young George Robertson. Resigning himself to his own inevitable hanging, he vowed that he would find another means whereby his accomplice could escape the gallows. Before long, with five days remaining until execution day, Plan B had formed in his mind.
Three days before the fateful day, he and Robertson, in line with penal custom, were escorted by three guards to the nearby St. John's Church, known as the Tolbooth Church, for Sunday service.
No sooner had proceedings come to a close and the two condemned men ordered to stand up, than Wilson seized two of the guards and fastened his teeth on the uniform of the third while blocking his path so that Robertson was out of his reach. Wilson was strong, and able to retain his hold on all three. In the ensuing melee, George Robertson seized his chance and ran like the devil out of the Church, up the President's Steps, and into the freedom of the Cowgate. Back in the church, Wilson was finally overpowered, but he had repaid his debt.
Edinburghians who watched as Robertson fled through the city made no attempt to apprehend him; as a smuggler, he was never in any such danger. George Robertson got clean away.
Andrew Wilson, of course, was doomed. He would hang, and the prison authorities would see to it that he made no more attempts at escape. But his selfless action on behalf of young Robertson had only made his popularity in Edinburgh greater yet. The mood of the city was such that the authorities feared an attempt to rescue him on hanging day, to seize him from the hangman's grip and to whisk him to safety among the crowd. Extra precautions would have to be taken.
The maintaining of public order in the capital was vested in the City Guard, or, to give it its full title, His Majesty's Company of Foot Within the Town of Edinburgh, an armed militia in a uniform of pale red. Despised and feared by the populace, they were more commonly known by the nickname ‘the Toun Rats‘. They were the militarised policemen of the capital.
One of the three captains of the Guard, John Porteous, was instructed to have his detachment of twenty-five men in position and ready to quell any sign of disturbance among the large and hostile crowd of spectators that was expected on the day of Wilson's execution. The entire detachment was to be mustered, well-armed and with a plentiful supply of powder and shot.
Forty-one years old, of medium height, stocky, thick-necked, a cross between a Scotsman and a Staffordshire bull terrier, Captain Porteous took his duties seriously, to the point of officiousness, as well as a degree of harshness and bullying that made him a hate-figure among the local populace. Many of those involved in public disturbances would arrive in court with injuries inflicted personally by the over-zealous captain. One of these, a respectable churchgoer, had subsequently died of his injuries.
Born in Peeblesshire to the south of the capital, the son of Stephen Porteous, an Edinburgh tailor, he had been wild and profligate in his youth, contemptuous of, and abusive towards, his parents, and unable to be controlled by them. Leaving home, he had served in the Scots Brigade, a Scottish regiment of the Dutch army with a long and honourable history – though not an entirely successful one – of fighting for the Dutch Republic against its Spanish masters, after which, in 1716, he returned to Edinburgh and eventually joined the City Guard as a member of the rank and file.
His promotion to captain in 1726 was payment for services rendered to the Lord Provost, John Campbell – he had married the Provost's mistress in order to enable that official to get the troublesome woman off his august back, for which the lady, whose initial impression of Porteous was not a flattering one, received a five-hundred-pound bribe, much of which was soon squandered by Porteous. As an egotist and a petty tyrant ready to use more force than was necessary, John Porteous – hated and feared by the people, and unpopular even with his own men – was the least suitable man to undertake the politically sensitive task of guarding Andrew Wilson at his execution.
Worse, he had an actual grudge against Wilson, having viewed the latter's part in George Robertson's dramatic escape as a personal slight against his own authority – he had afterwards led his men on a fruitless hunt for Robertson – and would relish his significant role in ensuring that the hanging went smoothly, whatever the cost. His mood was not helped by what he saw as a second personal insult – from the city authorities this time – namely, the decision by the magistrates to draft a detachment of one hundred and fifty Royal Welsh Fusiliers as back-up and to give the Welshmen a high-profile role in Princes Street to police the crowds there. The power-fixated and easily-offended Porteous was beginning to see himself as mere bridesmaid at somebody else's wedding.
He took his anger out on Andrew Wilson, brutalising him on the day of the execution as Wilson was led to the scaffold. The sombre mood of the large crowd of spectators in the Grassmarket, as they watched Porteous's physical maltreatment of their hero, gave a clear indication of the delicacy of the situation and the degree of diplomacy, even sensitivity, that was required if things were to go smoothly. A rumour, almost certainly true, had spread that Wilson had been tortured by Porteous during his incarceration. It was also evident that the captain, a well-known tippler, was half-drunk.
As the crowd stood in silent protest, with its wealthier members (who had paid for the best view) leaning out of the upper windows of shops and houses, Andrew Wilson was hanged without disturbance. The city authorities seemed to have got away with it and a major thorn in their side successfully disposed of.
The sight of Wilson's body dangling from the rope after he was turned off changed the crowd's mood irrevocably from sombre hostility to overt anger; this was no way for a man of such popularity to come to his end, left on display as a public spectacle. Immediately, stones and street detritus were thrown in the direction of the nearest symbol of authority – the Edinburgh City Guard. The hangman, struck by a stone, ran for his life.
Suddenly, the crowd was pushing forward and advancing on the scaffold, ready to cut Andrew Wilson down before the legally-stipulated time and to end his posthumous humiliation.
Knowing that he was a likely target of the crowd's wrath, Captain Porteous gained safety by concealing himself among his men. But, seeing the steady movement towards the gallows, his simmering anger boiled over. As Charles Husband, a young man at the front of the crowd, took out his knife and cut down Andrew Wilson's body to take it for an attempt at resuscitation, or, failing that, for a Christian burial, Porteous, interpreting this, in his typical fashion, as contempt for his own authority, took a musket from one of his underlings and fired, felling Husband immediately.
Now he ordered his troops to open fire with warning shots over the heads of the spectators. When this failed to stop the advance, Porteous ordered them to fire into the crowd. They hesitated, and Porteous, frantic and angry now, repeated his order, threatening them with disciplinary charges if they continued to refuse. Reluctantly, they levelled their muskets. Three spectators fell dead, and twelve fell wounded, as well as several of the wealthier onlookers, including a young boy, who were still at the windows overlooking the scaffold and who had played an entirely passive role. Momentarily discomposed, the crowd below stopped in its tracks, allowing Porteous to order a retreat along the West Bow. Recovering its momentum, the crowd followed. Now a chase was on.
With space between his troops and the mass of citizens, Porteous ordered his men to turn around, stand their ground, and fire again, directly into the crowd. Three more spectators fell dead to the ground, and many more were injured. Order had broken down, and a full-scale riot was in progress as the crowd surged forward, determined now to get its hands on the hated Porteous.
Quickly the City Guard reached the sanctuary of the Guardhouse, and Porteous braved ambush to run to a local tavern in order to make his report to the city magistrates, who were conducting a meeting there. It was only now that Captain Porteous realised how isolated he had suddenly become. His hasty decision to shoot first and ask questions afterwards, and his orders to his troops to take direct aim at the spectators, were met with outrage on the part of the magistrates. He was now safe from mob justice, but there was widespread condemnation of him throughout the city, with hardly a single voice in support of him, and what few there were felt it wise to keep their counsel.
In total, six people had been killed outright and three more had later died of their wounds. About twenty had been injured or permanently maimed. An enquiry into the incident was held, resulting in Lord Provost Campbell issuing an order for the arrest of Captain Porteous on charges of maiming, manslaughter, wounding, and murder.
The trial took place at Edinburgh's High Court of Justiciary on 5th July 1736, and lasted four days. Admitting to the deaths of six people and the wounding or maiming of others, Porteous pleaded self-defence.
Tried not only by the court but by the Scottish press, and with a large and hostile crowd camped outside the court, Porteous never stood a chance of an acquittal. The authorities had been taken by surprise at the extent of local hostility to their captain of the City Guard, and this, combined with their own horror at his actions on the day of Andrew Wilson's execution, resulted in an inevitable, but legally questionable, verdict of Guilty, more for the court's safety than for the principles of Scottish law. Porteous was sentenced to death by hanging. The execution was set for 8th September 1736. The hangman, still in fear for his life after the execution of Andrew Wilson, was given protective custody.
The public mood in the capital quietened once the verdict became news. But it did not last. In contrast to the Edinburgh magistrates, most members of the Government in London felt that Porteous's actions had been justified. Influential friends of the captain petitioned Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and Queen Caroline, acting as regent while King George II was out of the country, to grant a reprieve of six weeks as a preliminary to the granting of a full pardon.
News of the reprieve and its likely consequences stirred up public anger again, and the political implications – suggesting Government and royal indifference at the killing of Scottish civilians – soon increased the temperature to boiling point.
The Edinburgh city authorities now displayed torpor and inaction at a crucial time. Another of the three captains of the City Guard, Captain Lind, tried to convey his concerns at the likelihood of mass protest to the Lord Provost, who was commander-in-chief of the Guard; Campbell insisted that Lind's fears were groundless and failed to give him any orders.
The fear among the people of Edinburgh that Porteous would not only be pardoned but whisked to safety out of Scotland led to the forming of a well-co-ordinated plan by a group of Edinburgh men to mete out summary vigilante justice to John Porteous. They deliberately let it be known that they intended to take action on 8th September (the date originally scheduled for his now-postponed execution), but again the authorities did nothing, and Porteous himself, sitting in his prison cell, was contemptuous of the threats.
But he and the magistrates had miscalculated the city's mood. To defend it against English invasion or civil war, Edinburgh was a walled city, with several gates (called ports) along the perimeter; the ports were closed every night at about ten o'clock. Extra armed guards were placed in the Tolbooth Prison to protect Porteous from the expected assault.
But the ringleaders had outfoxed the authorities – they came a day early. At about 9.30 in the evening of 7th September, a large group of men began a march from Portsburgh outside the walls, through the West Port and into the city proper. Nailing the gates of the port shut, they continued along the Cowgate to the Cowgate Port where another group, as pre-arranged, waited to join them. Soon their numbers had swelled to four thousand and came from all classes of society, high and low. The Cowgate, Bristo and Porterrow Ports were fastened shut, and finally the Netherbrow Port in order to prevent the Welsh Fusiliers, billeted in the Canongate beyond the walls, from entering the city, in the event of their receiving orders to do so.
With the castle garrison unaware of the situation and the Welsh Fusiliers in the Cannongate equally so, Edinburgh was now unguarded and in the hands of this ever-increasing horde. While a small contingent from the mob was delegated to remain guarding the Canongate, the rest headed for the Tolbooth Prison and John Porteous.
After breaking into the unmanned City Guardhouse, seizing its entire stock of weaponry, and guarding St. Giles' Church to prevent the magistrates from ringing its bell to call for assistance, the host reached the Tolbooth. When the city magistrates came to remonstrate with them, they were sent packing by men placed on guard in the High Street. The Tolbooth Prison was suddenly at the mercy of the crowd, who now devoted their energies to breaking down its sturdy main door. The magistrates, having been sent homewards to think again, desperately looked around for anyone who would take their written orders for help to the garrisons quartered in Edinburgh Castle and the Canongate; no-one brave or foolhardy enough could be found.
It took a full hour for the crowd to force the Tolbooth door open, ingress finally being gained by lighting a fire and burning it down. At 11.30 p.m. they poured in and, after forcing the jailer to hand over his keys, headed for Porteous's cell, releasing all other prisoners on their way.
The disgraced former City Guard captain was dragged from his cell and down the steps, banging his head on each step as the descent was made to the High Street. He was given a taste of the medicine he had administered to Andrew Wilson, being punched and kicked as the crowd pushed him on through the streets to the intended destination – the Grassmarket and its execution site.
The gallows were portable, and had been stowed away. A dyer's pole, twenty feet long, was requisitioned as a substitute, and a suitable rope was chosen from a pile looted from a rope maker's shop, for which a sum of money was left as recompense. The rope was attached to the top of the pole, the quickly-fashioned noose was fastened around the hapless Porteous's neck, the base of the pole was pushed into the stone slot that normally supported the gallows, and he was hauled up.
After three minutes he was let down again, gasping for air, only to be hauled up again with his nightshirt tied around his head as an intended humiliation. The process was repeated several times for upwards of an hour, each descent leading to more punches and kicks, as well as skin-burns from torches. His hands had not been tied, and he was able at first to struggle with the rope to ease the pressure, whereupon a member of the crowd, carrying a Lochaber axe looted from the Guardhouse, had smashed Porteous's right arm and shoulder to prevent him from loosening the noose again. As midnight approached, when he was lowered yet again after another three minutes in the air, it was apparent that he was dead.
His body was hoisted up a final time, the rope secured, and he was left swinging, while the crowd, which had seemingly first assembled in a mere instant, dispersed and disappeared just as rapidly. For over two hours they had been masters of Edinburgh.
In London, the Government was in a state of virtual apoplexy at the news. Like the magistrates, they had misjudged the mood of the citizens of Edinburgh. Concerned, now, that this was just the start of a wider popular uprising in Scotland, they ordered the Edinburgh magistrates to conduct a full enquiry and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The resulting enquiry was a half-hearted affair, doomed to failure. The magistrates, aware now of the full extent of local feeling, were unsurprised when, despite an offer of a £200 reward for information and a promise of immunity from prosecution to anyone involved who would turn King's Evidence, they were met with complete silence. Save for two individuals who were obviously innocent (one had been blind drunk at the time) and who were found Not Guilty at their respective trials, no-one in the entire city was prosecuted for the murder of John Porteous.
What, then, were the consequences of the riot?
Edinburgh itself received what the Government felt was condign punishment for the riot – a fine of two thousand pounds, to be paid to Porteous's widow Isobel, to supplement the pension awarded to her earlier by the city magistrates. Soon afterwards, she quit Edinburgh for good, relocating across the border in Northumberland. Lord Provost Campbell, singled out for his ineffectual handling of the incident, was dismissed from his post. And an order was issued by the Government instructing all Scottish clergymen (many of whom in 1707 had declared in church their opposition to the Act of Union) to announce from their pulpits a threat to arrest and prosecute anyone who aided, abetted, or harboured any individual who had taken part in the riot. About half of all Scottish clergymen refused to announce it.
What emerged as obvious from the incident was that, despite the union of the two kingdoms thirty years previously, Scotland was not yet seen by Westminster as thinking or behaving like a model partner to its wealthier and more powerful southern neighbour. It would take another decade, and the disaster of Culloden, before the British Government could boast to itself that Scotland was truly pacified.
John Porteous, half culpable villain, half official scapegoat, had paid a high price for his abuse of his power at a time of political uncertainty in Scotland and when the imposition of taxes on imported goods was seen as exploitation by a still-alien power. Edinburgh, in turn, had suffered from the consequences of the authorities' failure to rein him in as well as for ignoring the warnings of Captain Lind.
Not lacking in courage, and with a strong sense of duty, Porteous had turned himself into the bête noire of Edinburgh. His unpopularity was a direct result of his failure to prevent power and authority from going to his head. Even in death, he remained a hate-figure for many years to come; whenever Edinburghians passed the site of his lynching, many would spit on the very spot.
John Porteous's mortal remains lie in Greyfriars Kirkyard in the city. In order to make it inconspicuous so as to prevent desecration, the headstone was unusually small, and bore only the inscription ‘P 1736’. In 1973, this was replaced by a headstone of normal size bearing the words ‘John Porteous, Captain of the Edinburgh City Guard. Murdered 7th September 1736. All passion spent. 1973’. Edinburgh had finally made its peace with Captain Porteous.
The City Guard, however, survived the blemish on its reputation, and remained the custodians of law and order in the capital until 1817, when its functions were taken over by the newly-established city police force. In the same year, the hated Tolbooth Prison was demolished. Edinburgh was slowly ringing the changes.
Finally, what became of George Robertson, whose assisted escape the previous April had stirred fury in the breast of Captain Porteous and led to the latter's rash maltreatment of the condemned Andrew Wilson?
Young George was given local help to slip out of Edinburgh, and out of Scotland, fetching up in the Netherlands, beyond the reach of British law. Abandoning his smuggling career, he became a respected landlord of a Rotterdam tavern – and a paid informer for Scottish customs officers in their daily battle with smugglers! Having escaped a hanging, the leopard had changed his spots, and was doing very well out of it.
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