This post is to accompany the Hallowe’en Video & offer up some extra information & sources for the information related therein.
– Steps up to Mary King’s Close & the High Street from the Edinburgh Dungeons
– Plan of the City & Castle of Edinburgh, William Edgar, 1765.
Sawney Bean & Family:
“Among Captain Johnson’s Scottish ruffians, there is a certain Sawney Beane, an anthropophagist, the patriarch of an extensive clan or progeny – for they were all descended from himself – who lived in a vast cavern, and fed on human flesh. The memoir is accompanied with an appropriate plate, representing Sawney at the mouth of his cavern, looking abroad for victims, while a female descendant conveys two human legs within the cavern to be put in pickle. The gang, it appears, were not discovered until the extent of their appetites produced a sensible effect on the national census. “
– ‘Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland’ (1852), Proceedings Against the Clan Gregor, Footnote 13.
St Jerome, who visited Gaul in his youth, about the year 380, has the following passage in one of his works:- … he learned that the Attacotti, the people of the country now called Scotland, when hunting in the woods, preferred the shepherd to his flocks, and chose only the most fleshy and delicate parts for eating. This reminds us extremely of the late reports brought home by M. de Chaillu regarding the people of the gorilla country in Western Africa. Gibbon, in adverting to it, makes it the occasion of a compliment to Scotland. ‘If,’ says he, ‘in the neighbourhood of the commercial and literary town of Glasgow, a race of cannibals has already existed, we may contemplate, in the period of the Scottish history, the opposite extremes of savage and civilized life. Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas, and to encourage the pleasing hope that New Zealand may produce, in a future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere.’
There is reason to fear that cannibalism was not quite extinct in Scotland even in ages which may be deemed comparatively civilized. Andrew Wyntoun has a grisly passage in his rhyming chronicle regarding a man who lived so brief a while before his own day, that he might easily have heard of him from surviving contemporaries. It was about the year 1339, when a large part of Scotland, even the best and most fertile, had been desolated by the armies of Edward III.
‘About Perth thare was the countrie
Sae waste, that wonder wes to see;
For intill well-great space thereby,
Wes nother house left nor herb’ry.
Of deer thare wes then sic foison [abundance],
That they wold near come to the town.
Sae great default was near that stead,
Than mony were in hunger dead.
‘A carle they said was near thereby,
That wold set settis [traps] commonly,
Children and women for to slay,
And swains that he might over-ta;
And ate them all that he get might:
Chrysten Cleek till name be hight.
That sa’ry life continued he,
While waste but folk was the countrie.’
Lindsay of Pitscottie has a still more dismal story regarding the close of the reign of James II. (about 1460), a time also within the recollection of people living in the epoch of the historian. He says: ‘About this time there was ane brigand ta’en, with his haill family, who haunted a place in Angus. This mischievous man had ane execrable fashion, to tak all young men and children he could steal away quietly, or tak away without knowledge, and eat them, and the younger they were, esteemed them the mair tender and delicious. For the whilk cause and damnable abuse, he with his wife and bairns were all burnt, except ane young wench of a year old, wha was saved and brought to Dundee, where she was brought up and fostered; and when she cam to a woman’s years, she was condemned and burnt quick for that crime. It is said that when she was coming to the place of execution, there gathered ane huge multitude of people, and specially of women, cursing her that she was so unhappy to commit so damnable deeds. To whom she turned about with an ireful countenance, saying, “Wherefore chide ye with me, as if I had committed ane unworthy act? Give me credence, and trow me, if ye had experience of eating men and women’s flesh, ye wold think it so delicious, that ye wold never forbear it again.” So, but [without] any sign of repentance, this unhappy traitor died in the sight of the people.’
IN 1753 we discover the first symptoms of vitality in Edinburgh after the Union, when the pitiful sum of £1,500 was subscribed by the convention of royal burghs, for the purpose of “beautifying the city,” and the projected Royal Exchange was fairly taken in hand.
If wealth had not increased much, the population had, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the citizens had begun to find the inconvenience they laboured under by being confined within the old Flodden wall, and that the city was still destitute of such public buildings as were necessary for the accommodation of those societies which were formed, or forming, in all other capitals, to direct the business of the nation, and provide for the general welfare; and so men of taste, rank, and opulence, began to bestir themselves in Edinburgh at last.
Many ancient alleys and closes, whose names are well-nigh forgotten now, were demolished on the north side of the High Street, to procure a site for the new Royal Exchange. Some of these had already become ruinous, and must have been of vast antiquity. Many beautifully-sculptured stones belonging to houses there were built into the curious tower, erected by Mr. Walter Ross at the Dean, and are now in a similar tower at Portobello. Others were scattered about the garden grounds at the foot of the Castle rock, and still show the important character of some of the edifices demolished. Among them there was a lintel, discovered when clearing out the bed of the North Loch, with the initials I.S. (and the date 1658), supposed to be those of James tenth Lord Somerville, who, after serving long in the Venetian army, died at a great age in 1677.
On the 13th of September, 1753, the first stone of the new Exchange was laid by George Drummond, the Grand Master of the Scottish Masons, whose memory as a patriotic magistrate is still remembered with respect in Edinburgh.
MARY KING’S Close was long a place of terror to the superstitious, as one of the last retreats of the desolating plague of 1645. “Who Mary King was is now unknown, but though the alley is roofless and ruined,” says one, writing of it in 1845, “with weeds, wall-flowers, grass, and even little trees, flourishing luxuriantly among the falling walls, her name may still be seen painted on the street corner.”
For some generations after the plague – in which most of its inhabitants perished – its houses remained closed, and gradually it became a place of mystery and horror, the abode of a thousand spectres and nameless terrors, for superstition peopled it with inhabitants, whom all feared and none cared to succeed. “Those who had been foolhardy enough to peep through the windows after nightfall saw the spectres of the long-departed denizens engaged in their wonted occupations; headless forms danced through the moonlit apartments; on one occasion a godly minister and two pious elders were scared out of their senses by the terrible vision of a raw head and blood-dripping arm, which protruded from the wall in this terrible street, and flourished a sword above their heads; and many other terrors, which are duly chronicled in ‘Satan’s Invisible World;’ ” yet it was down this place that the wild young Master of Gray dragged the fair Mistress Carnegie, whom, sword in hand, he had abducted from her father’s house at the head of twelve men-at-arms, and took her by boat across the loch the rippled at the foot of the slope.
In Drummond of Hawthornden’s poems, published by the Maitland Club, there is an epigram on Mary King’s “pest:”-
“Turn, citizens, to God; repent, repent,
And pray your bedlam frenzies may relent;
Think not rebellion a trifling thing,
This Plague doth fight for Marie and the King.”
An old gentleman, says Wilson, has often described to us his visits to Mary King’s Close, along with his companions, when a schoolboy. The most courageous of them would approach these dread abodes of mystery, and after shouting through the keyhole or broken window-shutter, they would run off with palpitating hearts; the popular superstition being, that if these long-deserted abodes were opened, the deadly pest imprisoned there would once more burst forth and desolate the land.
Mr. George Sinclair, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood in Renfrewshire, by the publication, in 1685, of his work, “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” did much to add to the terrors of Mary King’s Close, by his account of apparitions seen therein, and recorded “by witnesses of undoubted veracity” – a work long hawked about the streets by the itinerant sellers of gingerbread. The last, or northern portion of the close, with its massive vaulted lower storeys, was an open ruin in 1845; the south, or upper, had fallen into ruin after a fire in 1750, and was in that condition when a portion of the site was required for the west side of the Royal Exchange, three years after.
It would appear from the Professor’s narrative, that Mr. Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law agent, whose legal business had begun to flourish, took a better style of house in Mary King’s Close. Their maid-servant was, of course, duly warned by obliging neighbours that the house was haunted, and in terror she gave up her situation and fled, leaving Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart, to face whatever they might see, alone.
Accordingly, it came to pass that, when the lady had seated herself by the bedside of her gudeman, who, being slightly indisposed on the Sunday afternoon, had lain down to rest, while she read the Scriptures, chancing to look up, she saw to her intense dismay a human head, apparently that of an old man, with a grey floating beard, suspended in mid-air, at a little distance, and gazing intently at her with elvish eyes. She swooned at this terrible sight, and remained insensible till the neighbours returned from church. Her husband strove to reason her out of her credulity, and the evening passed without further trouble; but they had not been long in bed when he himself espied the same phantom head by the fire-light, floating in mid-air, and eying him with ghostly eyes.
He lighted a candle, and betook him to prayer, but with little effect, for in about an hour the bodyless phantom was joined by that of a child, also suspended in mid-air, and this was followed by an arm, naked from the elbow, which, in defiance of all Coltheart’s prayers and pious interjections, seemed bent on shaking hands with him and his wife!
In the most solemn way the luckless lawyer conjured these phantoms to entrust him with the story of any wrongs they wished righted; but all to no purpose. The old tenants evidently regarded the new as intruders, and others came to their aid, for the naked arm was joined by a spectral dog, which curled itself up in a chair, and went to sleep; and then came a cat, and many other creatures, but of grotesque and monstrous forms, till the whole room swarmed with them, so that the honest couple were compelled to kneel on their bed, there being no standing room on the floor; till suddenly, with a deep and awful groan, as of a strong man dying in agony, the whole vanished, and Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart found themselves alone.
In those days of superstition, Mr. Coltheart – if we are to believe Professor Sinclair – must have been a man of more than ordinary courage, for he continued to reside in this terrible house till the day of his death, without further molestation; but when that day came, it would seem not to have been unaccompanied by the supernatural. At the moment he expired, a gentleman, whose friend and law agent he was, while asleep in bed beside his wife, at Tranent, ten miles distant, was roused by the nurse, who had been terrified “by something like a cloud moving about the room.”
Starting up with the first instinct of a Scot in those days, he seized his sword to defend himself, when “the something” gradually assumed the form and face of a man, who looked at him pale and ghastly, and in whom he recognised his friend Thomas Coldheart.
THE garden wherein St. David budded trees and cultivated such fruits and flowers as were then known in Britain is a place of flowers and shrubs again, save where it is intersected by the prosaic railway or the transverse Earthen Mound; but those who see the valley now may find it difficult to realise, that for 300 years it was an impassable lake, formed for the defence of the city on the north, when the wall of 1450 was built; but the well that fed it is flowing still, as when David referred to it in his Holyrood charter. Fed by it and other springs, the loch was retained by a dam and sluice at the foot of Halkerston’s Wynd – the dam being a passable footway from the city to the northern fields.
In the royal gardens a tournament was held in 1396, by order of Annabel Drummond, queen of Robert III., at which, according to Bower, the continuator of Fordun, her eldest son, David, Duke of Rothesay, the same prince who perished so miserably at Falkland, presided when in his twentieth year.
In 1538, prior to committing the effigy of St. Giles to the flames, the Reformers ducked it in the loch – it being the legal place for sousing all offenders against the seventh commandment.
In 1562 the Town Council enacted that all persons of loose life should be ducked in a certain part of the loch, wherein a pillar and basin were formed for the purpose; but this not having the desired effect, all such persons were ordered to be committed, without distinction, to the iron room of the Tolbooth, to be kept therein for a month on bread and water, and to be then whipped out of the city at a cart’s tail. The deacon of the fleshers having fallen under this law, the crafts, deeming it an indignity to their order, assembled in arms, broke open the prison, and released him.
Anecdotes of Suicide Attempts in the Nor’ Loch:
It was also the frequent scene of suicide, and on this point one or two droll anecdotes are related. A man was proceeding deliberately to drown himself, when a crowd of the townspeople rushed down to the water-side, venting cries of horror and alarm at the spectacle, yet without actually venturing into the water to prevent him from accomplishing the rash act. Hearing the tumult, the father of the late Lord Henderland threw up his window in James’s Court, and leaning out, cried down the brae to the people: ‘What’s all the noise about? Can’t ye e’en let the man gang to the deil his ain gate?’ Whereupon the honest man quietly walked out of the loch, to the no small amusement of the lately appalled neighbours.” There a lady was saved from suicide by her hoop-petticoat.
Nor’ Loch Wildlife:
The loch must have abounded in some kind of fish, as the Council Register refers to an eel-ark set therein, at ten merks yearly, for the benefit of the Trinity Hospital; and in February, 1655, Nicoll records that in consequence of the excessively stormy weather, some thousands of dead eels were cast upon its banks, “to the admiration of many.”
Edinburgh’s Market (Mercat) Cross & the Executions there:
A battlemented octagon tower, furnished with four angular turrets, it was sixteen feet in diameter, and fifteen feet high. From this rose the centre pillar, also octagon, twenty feet in height, surmounted by a beautiful Gothic capital, terminated by a crowned unicorn… From the side of that venerable shaft royal proclamations, solemn denunciations of excommunication and outlawry, involving ruin and death, went forth for ages, and strange and terrible have been the scenes, the cruelties, the executions, and absurdities, it has witnessed…
Under the shadow of that cross have been transacted many deeds of real horror, more than we can enumerate here – but a few may suffice. There, in 1563, Sir James Tarbat, a Roman Catholic priest, was pilloried in his vestments, with a chalice bound to his hands, and, as Knox has it, was served by the mob with “his Easter eggs,” till he was pelted to death. There died Sir William Kirkaldy, hanged “with his face to the sun” (as Knox curiously predicted before his own death), for the execution took place at four in the afternoon, when the sun was in the west (Calderwood); and there, in time to come, died his enemy Morton. There died Montrose and many of his cavalier comrades, amid every ignominy that could be inflicted upon them; and the two Argyles, father and son. An incredible number of real and imaginary criminals have rendered up their lives on that fatal spot, and among the not least interesting of the former we may mention Gilderoy, or “the red-haired lad,” whose real name was Patrick Macgregor, and who, with ten other caterans, accused of cattle-lifting and many wild pranks on the shores of Loch Lomond, when brought to Edinburgh, were drawn backwards on a hurdle to the cross, on the 27th of July, 1636, and there hanged – Gilderoy and John Forbes suffering on a higher gallows than the rest, and, further, having their heads and hands struck off, to be affixed to the city gates…
Here culprits underwent scourging, branding, ear-nailing, and nose-pinching, with tongue-boring and other punishments deemed minor. As a specimen of these exhibitions we shall take the following from the diary of Nicoll verbatim:-
“Last September, 1652. Twa Englisches, for drinking the King’s health, were takin and bund at Edinburgh croce, quhair either of thame resavit thretty-nine quhipes on thair naiked bakes and shoulderis; thairafter their lugs were naillit to the gallows. The ane had his lug cuttit from the ruitt with a razor, the uther being also naillit to the gibbet had his mouth skobit, and his tong being drawn out the full length, was bound together betwixt twa sticks, hard togedder, with an skainzie-thrid, for the space of half one hour thereby.” Punishments of this cruel kind were characteristic of the times, and were not peculiar to the Scottish capital alone.
The trying of witches was reduced to a system, and had its laws and regulations for the more effectual discovery of such as had sold themselves to the Evil One. One was, finding private marks on their bodies, which King James in his “Demonology” calls “finding of their mark, and trying the insensibleness thereof.” Another was, weighing the suspected person against the Church Bible. An elderly woman was accused of bewitching her neighbour’s spinning wheel, she was conducted to the church, stript of all her clothes, and weighed against the Bible, when to the no small mortification of her accuser, she outweighed it, and was honourably acquitted of the charge. A third method was forcing the accused to weep; for the modern Solomon, in the work above mentioned, says that “witches cannot even shed tears, though women in general are like the crocodile, ready to weep on every light occasion.” But the most popular and effectual mode of trying a witch was swimming her in water. She was stripped naked and cross bound, the right thumb to the left toe, and left thumb to the right toe. In this state she was cast into a pond or river, in which, if guilty, it was thought impossible for her to sink. “This test,” King James observes, “God hath appointed for a supernatural signe of the monstrous impietie of witches, that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptism, and wilfully refused the benefit thereof.”
The following example of the confession of a witch, and of the horrible tortures which were endured, will suffice to convey to the reader some adequate idea of the delusions and cruelties of the reign of witchcraft.
Agnes Sampson’s Tale:
In the remarkable account of witches of Scotland, about 1591, reprinted in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1779, is the following:- “Agnes Sampson confessed that, at the time when his Majesty (James Vi.) was in Denmark, she, accompanied by parties before specially named, took a cat and christened it, and afterwards bound to each part of that cat the chiefest parts of a dead man, and several joints of his body; and that in the night following the said cat was conveyed into the midst of the sea by all these witches sailing in their riddles or sieves, as is aforesaid, and so left the said cat right before the town of Leith in Scotland; this done, there did arise such a tempest in the sea, as a greater hath not been seen; which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a boat or vessel coming over from the town of Burnt Island to the town of Leith, wherein were sundrie jewels and rich gifts, which should have been presented to the now Queen of Scotland, at her Majesty’s coming to Leith. Again, it is confessed that the said christened cat was the cause that the King’s Majesty’s ship, at his coming forth of Denmark, had a contrary wind to the rest of his ships, these being in his company; which thing was most strange and true, as his King’s Majesty acknowledgeth.”
The said Agnes Sampson, in the course of her confession, implicated one Doctor Fiar, master of the school at Saltpans, and was put to the torture, and confessed that “he was registrar to the devil, and sundry times preached at North Baricke kirke to a number of notorious witches; the very persons who are said to have pretended to bewitch and drown his Majesty in the sea coming from Denmark.” He was committed to prison, when he escaped, but was afterwards retaken and brought before his Majesty, when, horrible dictu, the following scene took place:- “His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument, called in Scottish a turkas, which, in England, are called a pavre of pincers, and under everie naile there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heades. Then was he with all convenient speede, by commandment, convaied again to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blows in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.” After undergoing these and other tortures, too harrowing to mention, the poor schoolmaster of Saltpans was soon afterwards strangled and then burned on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh (January, 1591.)
“The said Agnes Sampson was after brought again before the king’s majestie and his council, and being examined of the meetings and detestable dealings of those witches, she confessed, that upon the night of All-Hallow-even she was accompanied, as well with the persons aforesaid, as also with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundred, and that all they together went to sea, each one in a riddle, or sieve, and went in the same very substantially, with flaggons of wine, making merrie and drinking by the way in the same riddles, or sieves, to the Kirk of North-Berwick, in Lothian, and that after they had landed, took hands on the land, and danced this reil, or short daunce, singing all with one voice,
‘Cummer, goe ye before, cummer, goe ye;
Gif ye will not goe before, cummer, let me.’
At which she confessed that Geillis Duncan did goe before them, playing this reil or daunce upon a small trump, called a Jew’s harp, until they entered into the Kirk of North-Berwick. These made the king in a wonderful admiration, and he sent for the said Geillis Duncan, who upon the like trump did play the said daunce before the king’s majestie, who, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, took great delight to be present at their examinations.”
… These disgraceful proceedings were not without their parallel in other families of note of the day. Euphemia Macalzean, daughter of an eminent judge, Lord Cliftonhall, was burned at the stake in 1591, having been convicted, if not of witchcraft, at least of a long career of intercourse with pretenders to witchcraft, whom she employed to remove obnoxious persons out of her way – tasks which they accomplished by the very simple means of poisoning, where they did accomplish them at all. The jury found this violent and abandoned woman, for such she certainly was, guilty of participation in the murder of her own godfather, of her husband’s nephew, and another individual. They also found her guilty of having been at the Wise Woman of Keith’s great witch-convention of North Berwick; but every witch of the day was compelled to admit having been there, out of compliment to the king, to whom it was a source of agreeable terror to think himself of so much importance as to call for a solemn convocation of the powers of evil to overthrow him. Euphemia Macalzean was “burnt in assis, quick, to the death.” This was a doom not assigned to the less guilty.
Within twelve months from August 1661, commissions were issued for the trial of one hundred and sixty-six persons, without taking into account some twenty or thirty more who were indicted before the High Court. The numbers, indeed, lead us to expect a return to the barbarities of the time of James VI., but this was far from being the case. On the contrary, there are many signs that the Council were glad of any excuse for mitigating the cruelty with which suspected witches had formerly been treated. In February 1662, James Welsh was whipt through Edinburgh and put in the House of Correction for a year for falsely accusing several persons. Three months later, John Kincaid, the ‘pricker’ or witchfinder of Tranent, whose fame in Scotland had at one time emulated that of his English analogue Matthew Hopkins, was imprisoned by the Council for presuming to ‘prick and try’ witches on his own responsibility, and was only released on giving bail for his amendment. And during the same month a proclamation was issued prohibiting anyone from apprehending persons suspect of witchcraft without authority from the Council, the sheriffs of counties, or their deputes, – a rule which was thereafter adhered to with tolerable strictness. But that which most clearly shows the humaner intentions of the Council is the clause henceforth appearing in their commissions to the effect that no confessions shall be used to extract confessions, and that the sanity of all confessants shall be enquired into before sentence. This last step seems to have been taken in consequence of the complaints against Mr. James Gillespie, the minister of Rhind, who was charged before the Council with having obtained false confessions by means of tortures, pricking, and keeping several women from sleep; on which confessions ‘the innocent had suffered death.’ After 1662 no judicial torture was used, although it is to be feared that the clergy continued the pricking and waking when they thought they could do so with impunity.
As it is the proverbial privilege of the grave to level distinctions and reconcile enemies, there is little occasion to wonder that the same burial-ground contains the body of Sir GEORGE MACKENZIE, the legal officer whose duty it was for a considerable time to prosecute those patriots to the death. This eminent and erudite person, however, had also his panegyrists, and the inscription upon his very beautiful mausoleum describes him as an ornament of his age, and a man kind to all “except a rebellious crew, from whose violence, with tongue and pen, he defended his country and king, whose virulence he stayed by the sword of justice, and whose ferocity he by the force of reason blunted, and only did not subdue.” Popular feeling, however, has taken a very different turn respecting the tomb of Mackenzie, from what it manifests regarding the lowly graves of “the martyrs.” The boys till a late period entertained the idea that the sprite of this great persecutor remained restless in its superb but gloomy tenement, and used to deem themselves very heroic, if, in a still summer evening, they could venture up to the place and cry – immediately after, running away –
Bluidy Mackingie, come out if ye daur,
Lift the sneck and draw the bar!
It is curious to reflect, that a peculiarity of political and religious feeling should have subjected to such an epithet the most learned and polished man of his time, the friend of Dryden, and the first cultivator of polite English literature in Scotland.
Thomas Aikenhead the last man executed for Blasphemy:
Thomas Aikenhead, a youth of eighteen, ‘son to the deceest James Aikenhead, chirurgeon in Edinburgh,’ was now tried by the High Court of Justiciary for breach of the 21st act of the first parliament of Charles II., ‘against the crime of blasphemy,’ which act had been ratified by the 11th act of the fifth session of the parliament of the present reign. It was alleged in the indictment that the young man had, for twelvemonth past, been accustomed to speak of theology as ‘a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense,’ calling the Old Testament Ezra’s Fables, and the New the history of the Imposter Christ, further ‘cursing Moses, Ezra, and Jesus, and all men of that sort.’ ‘Likeas,’ pursued this document, ‘you reject the mystery of the blessed Trinity, and say it is not worth any man’s refutation, and you also scoff at the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ… as to the doctrine of redemption by Jesus, you say it is a proud and presumptuous device… you also deny spirits… and you have maintained that God, the world, and nature are but one thing, and that the world was from eternity… You have said that you hoped to see Christianity greatly weakened, and that you are confident it will in a short time be utterly extirpat.’
Aikenhead, though impenitent at first, no sooner received this indictment in prison, than he endeavoured to stop proceedings by addressing to the Lords of Justiciary ‘a petition and retraction,’ in which he professed the utmost abhorrence of the expressions attributed to him, saying he trembled even to repeat them to himself, and further avowing his firm faith in the gospel, in the immortality of the soul, in the doctrine of the Trinity, and in the divine authority of Scripture.
The jury nevertheless unanimously found it proven ‘that the panel, Thomas Aikenhead, has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord, the second person, of the holy Trinity.’ They further found ‘the other crimes libelled proven – namely, the denying the incarnation of our Saviour, the holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.’ Wherefore the judges ‘decern and adjudge the said Thomas Aikenhead to be taken to the Gallowlee, betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, upon Friday the eighth day of January next to come, and there to be hanged on a gibbet till he be dead, and his body to be interred at the foot of the gallows.’
Invention of Anaesthesia in the form of Chloroform:
In No. 52 [Queen Street] lived and died one of the most illustrious citizens of Edinburgh – Professor Sir James Young Simpson, Bart., who came to Edinburgh a poor and nearly friendless student, yet in time attained, as Professor of Midwifery in the University and as the discoverer of extended uses of chloroform, a colossal fame, not only in Europe, but wherever the English language is spoken. He obtained the chair of midwifery in 1840, and seven years after made his great discovery. In 1849 he was elected President of the Edinburgh College of Physicians; in 1852 President of the Medico-Chirurgical Society; and in the following year, under circumstances of the greatest éclat, Foreign Associate of the French Academy of Medicine. In 1856 the French Academy of Sciences awarded him the “Monthyon Prize” of 2,000 francs for the benefits he conferred on humanity by the introduction of anæsthesia by chloroform into the practice of surgery and midwifery.
THE Prussian Government has issued a proclamation, in which it humanely recommends all sailors employed in the Prussian Navy to take, before going to sea, five or six drops of chloroform, in a wineglassful of barley-water, as it is considered an admirable preventative against the horrors of sea-sickness.
For nearly thirty years, from 1800, had this nefarious traffic flourished, when a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to investigate the matter. In reply to the following question: ‘Does the state of the law actually prevent the teachers of anatomy from obtaining the body of any person, which, in consequence of some peculiarity of structure, they may be particularly desirous of procuring?’ Sir Astley Cooper stated: ‘The law does not prevent our obtaining the body of an individual if we think proper; for there is no person, let his situation in life be what it may, whom, if I were disposed to dissect, I could not obtain.’ In reply to another question, Sir Astley Cooper said, ‘The law only enhances the price, and does not prevent the exhumation: nobody is secured by the law, it only adds to the price of the subject.’
The profession had for many years been anxious to devise some plan to prevent the exhumation of bodies; but it was thought too hazardous to attempt the enactment of laws on the subject, in consequence of the necessary publicity of the discussions upon them. The horrible murders committed at Edinburgh, under the system of Burking, and exposed in the year 1828, at last rendered it peremptorily necessary for the Government to establish some means of legalizing dissection, under restrictions regulated by the ministers of the Crown. An inspector was appointed, to whom the certificate of the death of the individual, and the circumstances under which he died, were to be submitted before the body could be dissected, and then only in the schools in which anatomizing was licensed by the Government; and this new system has much raised the characters of those who are teaching anatomy, as well as the science itself, in the estimation of the public.
The Resurrectionists mostly came to bad ends. There were but few regulars; the others being composed of Spitalfields weavers, or thieves, who found the disguise of this occupation convenient for carrying on their own peculiar avocations. One was tried, and received sentence of death, for robbing the Edinburgh mail, but was pardoned upon the intercession of the Archdukes John and Lewis, who were much interested by finding the criminal at work in his cell, articulating the bones of a horse; he left the country, and was never after heard of. Another Resurrectionist, after a long and active career, withdrew from it in 1817, and occupied himself principally in obtaining and disposing of teeth. As a licensed suttler, in the Peninsula and France, he had drawn the teeth of those who had fallen in battle, and had plundered the slain: with the produce of these adventures, he built a large hotel at Margate, but his previous occupation being disclosed, his house was avoided, and disposed of at a very heavy loss: he was subsequently tried, and imprisoned for obtaining money under false pretences, and was ultimately found dead in a public-house near Tower-hill. It is credibly reported of one body-snatcher, that, at his death, he left nearly £6000 to his family. One, being captured, was tried and found guilty of stealing the clothes in which the bodies were buried, and was transported for seven years. A man who was long superintendent to the dissecting-room at St Thomas’s Hospital, was dismissed for receiving and paying for bodies sent to his employer, and re-selling them at an advanced price, in Edinburgh; he then turned Resurrectionist, was detected and imprisoned, and died in a state of raving madness.
In Tanner’s Close, a narrow and filthy alley on the north side of the West Port, and in its most unsavoury quarter, was the abode, or den, of those terrible Irish Thugs, William Burke and William Hare, whose murders – roughly stated to average between sixteen and thirty, for the number was never precisely known – in 1827, startled all Europe – crimes on which a vivid light was first thrown by the powerful articles in the Caledonian Mercury for that year, from the pen of James Browne, LL.D.
Burke was born in the parish of Orrery, in the county of Cork, in 1792; his countryman, William Hare, was a native of Londonderry; both were vagabonds from their birth, and both came to Scotland as labourers; and the former, abandoning his wife and family in Ireland, associated himself with an infamous woman, named McDougal, with whom he became acquainted when working on the Union Canal at Mediston. Hare was also a labourer on the same canal, and used to work at the loading and unloading of boats at Port Hopetoun. Here he become acquainted with a man named Log, whose widow he afterwards married, or with whom he lived, at all events.
After the canal work was ended he became a travelling huckster, with an old horse and cart, selling fish or crockery, or bartering them for old clothes, old iron, &c. He quarrelled with Log, who expelled him from the low Irish lodging-house he occupied in Tanner’s Close; but when Log was dead and buried, he returned to the close, where he assumed all the rights of a landlord over the seven bed-rooms of the so-called lodging-house, as well as the privileges of a husband, though Mrs. Log was never called by his name.
Always addicted to intoxication, the miserable drawings of twopence or threepence nightly from the wretched and obscure Irish tramps who sought quarters at Log’s lodgings made him more drunken and dissolute than ever. Though no pugilist, he was always ready to fight, and Mrs. Log, also a drunkard, was ready to encounter him at any time; thus rows, quarrels, oaths, and noise of all kinds, perpetually prevailed in Tanner’s Close; and such was the life led by this couple when Burke and McDougal, two congenial spirits, came to live with them, the former calling himself a shoemaker.
The place which went by the name of Log’s lodging-house was situated near the foot of Tanner’s Close. The entry from the West Port Street to the alley begins with a descent of a few steps, and is dark from the superincumbent mass of building. On proceeding downwards you came – for the house, as an accursed place, has been rased to the ground – to a small self-contained dwelling of one flat, containing three apartments, and ticketed, “Beds to Let,” an invitation to the passing vagrants, so many of whom were destined never to leave those fatal beds alive. “The outer apartment was large, occupied all round by those structures called beds, composed of knocked-up fir stumps and covered with a few grey sheets and brown blankets, among which the squalid wanderer sought rest, and the profligate snored out his debauch under the weight of nightmare.”
There was a small closet, the window of which overlooked a dead wall and pig-stye, into which were introduced all those who were doomed to death. The character of the house, the incessant rows and “shindies,” real or pretended, always proceeding there, caused no surprise or alarm when actual cries of murder and suffering rang out upon the night, while the extraordinary mode in which the assassins extinguished life enabled them to pursue their terrible traffic for the dissecting-rooms without exciting suspicion.
Neither Burke nor Hare was a resurrectionist, but their cupidity was first excited, and their diabolical trade suggested, by the sum paid to them by a distinguished anatomist for the body of a poor old pensioner, named Donald, who died in their hands, a short time before his pension became due. Hare, who expected to be reimbursed for £4 owing to him by Donald, was exasperated by the loss, and filling the coffin with bark from the adjacent tannery, it was buried, while the corpse in a sack was carried alternately by Burke and Hare, through College Street, to Surgeon Square, and sold for seven pounds ten shillings, to Dr. Knox and his assistants.
The money so easily won seemed to exert a magnetic influence over the terrible quaternion in Tanner’s Close. The women foresaw that other lodgers might die, and hoped to flaunt in finery before the poor denizens of the Portsburgh; and the steady and studied career of assassination began, and was continued, by Burke’s own confession, from Christmas, 1827, to the end of October, 1828. – (Weekly Journal, Jan. 6th, 1829.)
The modus operandi was very simple: the unknown and obscure wayfarer was lured into the “lodging-house,” weary and hungry, perhaps, then generally well dosed with coarse raw whisky, preparatory to strangulation, glass after glass being readily and cordially filled in contemplation of the value of the future corpse, as in the case of one unfortunate creature named Mary Haldane. Then, “all is ready – the drooping head – the closing eye – the languid helpless body. The women get the hint. They knew the unseemliness of being spectators – nay, they were delicate! A repetition of a former scene, only with even less resistance. Hare holds again the lips, and Burke presses his twelve stone weight on the chest. Scarcely a sigh; but on a trial if dead a long gurgling indraught. More is not required – and all is still in that dark room, with the window looking out on the dead wall.” By twelve the same night the body of Mary Haldane was in the hands of “the skilled anatomist,” who made no inquiries; and as the supply from Log’s lodgings increased, the value for each subject seemed to increase also, as the partners began to get from £12 to £14 for each – nearly double what they had received for the body of the poor Highland pensioner.
The attempt to rehearse in detail all the crimes of which these people were guilty, would only weary and revolt the reader. Suffice it to say, that the discovery of the dead body of a woman, quite nude, and with her face covered with blood, among some straw in an occupied house of Burke and another Irishman named Broggan, caused the arrest of the four suspects. Hare turned King’s evidence, and on the 24th December, 1828, amid such excitement as Edinburgh had not witnessed for ages, William Burke and Helen McDougal were arraigned at the bar of the Justiciary Court, charged with a succession of murders! Among these were the murder of a very handsome girl named Mary Paterson in the house of Burke’s brother, Constantine Burke, a scavenger residing in Gibb’s Close, Canongate; that of a well-known idiot, named James Wilson (“Daft Jamie”), at the house in Tanner’s Close; of Mary McGonegal, or Docherty, at the same place. These were selected for proof as sufficient in the indictment; but the real list was never known or exhausted. Among the cases was supposed to be that of a little Italian boy named Ludovico, who went about the city with white mice. Two little white mice were seen for long after haunting the dark recesses of Tanner’s Close, and in Hare’s house a cage with the mice’s turning-wheel was actually found. Of this murder Burke was supposed to be guiltless, and that it had been a piece of private business done by Hare on his own account. The libel contained a list of a great number of articles of dress, &c., worn or used by the various victims, and among other things were Daft Jamie’s brass snuff-box and spoon, objects which excited much interest, as Jamie was a favourite with the citizens, and his body must have been recognised by Dr. Knox the instant he saw it on the dissecting table. The presiding judge of the court was the Lord Justice-Clerk Boyle; the others were the Lords Pitmilly, Meadowbank, and McKenzie; the prosecutor was Sir William Rae, Lord Advocate. The counsel for Burke was the Dean of Faculty; that for McDougal the celebrated Henry Cockburn. The witnesses were fifty-five in number – the two principal being Hare and the woman Log, received as evidence in the characters of socii criminis.
When all had been examined, and the cases were brought fatally home to Burke, while his paramour escaped with a verdict of “not proven,” a loud whisper ran through the court of “Where are the doctors?” as it was known the names of Knox and others were placed on the back of the indictment as witnesses; yet they could scarcely have appeared but at the risk of their lives, so high was the tide of popular indignation against them.
Burke was sentenced to death in the usual form, the Lord Justice-Clerk expressing regret that his body could not be gibbeted in chains, but was to be publicly dissected, adding, “and I trust that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.” So the body of Burke was sent appropriately where he had sent so many others; and his skeleton now hangs in the Museum of the University. The Parliament Square rang with reiterated cheers as if the city held jubilee, when sentence was pronounced; but the people were greatly dissatisfied with the verdict of “not proven” in the case of McDougal; and had Hare not effected his escape secretly by the mail home to Ireland, the people would infallibly have torn him limb from limb. In prison, and with death before him, Burke’s thoughts were ever recurring to earth. Once he was observed (says Alexander Leighton) to be silent and meditative, and a pious attendant took it as a sign of contrition; but Burke said suddenly – “I think I am entitled to and ought to get that five pounds from Dr. Knox, which is still unpaid, on the body of the woman Docherty.”
“Why,” replied the astonished pietist, “Dr. Knox lost by the transaction, as the body was taken from him.”
“That was not my business,” said Burke; “I delivered the subject, and he ought to have kept it.”
He confessed in the lock-up house that he “had participated in many more murders than those he had been indicted for; and said that after his mind was composed he would make disclosures, which would implicate several others, besides Hare and his wife, in the same crimes for which he was doomed to die. He was asked how did he feel when pursuing his horrible avocation? He replied, that in his waking moments he had no feeling, but that when he slept he had frightful dreams, which previously he had been unaccustomed to. The fact is,” continues the editor of the Weekly Journal, “that the wretch, when awake, by means of ardent spirits steeped his senses in forgetfulness… At night he had short fits of sleep, during which he raved, but his expressions were inarticulate, and he ground his teeth in the most fearful manner.”
In the morning he was removed to the Calton gaol, and secured by a chain to the massive iron gaud. On the 27th January he was unchained and conveyed to the lock-up in Liberton’s Wynd, at the heap of which the gallows was erected. He was attended by two Catholic priests and two Presbyterian ministers, for his ideas of religion were somewhat vague and cloudy. When his heavy fetters were removed and they fell with a clank on the floor, “So may all earthly chains fall from me!” he exclaimed, but went to die evidently with the hopeless secret feeling “that he was too deeply sunk in crime even to think of the infinite mercy of Heaven.” Yet was he eager to be dead, and ascended the scaffold with his eyes half closed, as if anxious to be beyond the roar of the vast assemblage that thronged the great thoroughfare far as the eye could reach, and filled every window, roof, and foot of vantage ground. The deep hoarse roar of voices rose into a terrible and prolonged yell, on which he threw around him a fierce glance of desperate defiance and hatred; and again rose the prolonged yell of disgust and half-glutted vengeance when, after hanging the usual time, the body was conveyed to the College.
The sight of the execution instead of allaying the passions of the justly-excited people, inflamed them with a desire to drag his body out and tear it to pieces; but a grand public exhibition was arranged for the morrow, and the white, naked corpse, so loathed, was laid on the black marble table of the theatre, and displayed to thousands who streamed through the entire day.
Burke was cut up and put in strong pickle and in small barrels for the dissecting-table, and part of his skin was tanned.
The woman McDougal after the execution had the daring effrontery to present herself in Tanner’s Close again; but the people of the Portsburgh rose, and she only found in the watch-house a narrow escape from an infuriated mob, according to the Weekly Journal. “In the den of murder occupied by Burke,” continues the paper, “several objects strengthen the general persuasion that many other wretches had fallen a sacrifice under the same roof. The bloody straw in the corner, a heap of bloody clothes on the floor, and a pile of old boots and shoes, chiefly those of females, amounting to several dozens, for which the pretended trade of a shoemaker never can account, furnish ample food for suspicion! The idea suggests itself that the clothes and shoes belonged to the unfortunate girls whom this monster decoyed to his house, intoxicated, and murdered, as he did the poor old wanderer… The two houses which were inhabited by this gang were well chosen for the purpose to which they were put. Burke’s dwelling, in which he has only resided since June last, is at the end of a long passage, and separated from every other house except one. After going through the close from the street there is a descent by a stair to the passage, at the end of which is to be found this habitation of wickedness. It consists of one apartment, an oblong square, at the end of which is a miserable bed, under which may still be seen some straw in which his murdered victims were concealed. The house of Hare is in a more retired situation. The passage to it is by a dark and dirty close, in which there are no inhabitants, except in the flat above. Both houses are on the ground floor.”
Tanner’s Close still exists, but the abodes of those two wretches – the most cold-blooded criminals in history – are now numbered, as we have stated, among the things that were.
Major Thomas Weir of Kirktown was a native of Lanarkshire, where the people believed that his mother had taught him the art of sorcery, before he joined (as Lieutenant) the Scottish army, sent by the Covenanters in 1641 for the protection of the Ulster colonists, and with which he probably served at the storming of Carrickfergus and the battle of Benburn; and from this force he had been appointed, when Major in the Earl of Lanark’s Regiment, and Captain-Lieutenant of Home’s Regiment, to the command of that ancient gendarmerie, the Guard of Edinburgh, in which capacity he attended the execution of the great Montrose in 1650.
He was a grim-featured man, with a large nose, and always wore a black cloak of ample dimensions. He usually carried a staff, the supposed magical powers of which made it a terror to the community. He pretended to be a religious man, but was in reality a detestable hypocrite; and the frightful story of his secret life is said to have furnished Lord Byron with the plot of his tragedy Manfred; and his evil reputation, which does not rest on obscure allusions in legendary superstition, has left, even to this day, a deep-rooted impression on the popular mind.
A powerful hand at praying and expounding ” ‘he became so notoriously regarded among the Presbyterian sect, that if four met together, be sure Major Weir was one,’ ” says Chambers, quoting Fraser’s MS. In the Advocate’s Library; ” ‘at private meetings he prayed to admiration, which made many of that stamp court his converse. He never married, but lived in private lodging with his sister Grizel Weir. Many resorted to his house to join with him, and hear him pray; but it was observed that he could not officiate in any holy duty without the black staff, or rod, in his hand, and leaning upon it, which made those who heard him pray, admire his flood in prayer, his ready extemporary expression, his heavenly gesture, so that he was thought more an angel than a man, and was termed by some of the holy sisters, ordinarily Angelical Thomas.’ “
“Holy sisters,” in those days abounded in the major’s quarter; and, indeed, during all the latter part of the 17th century the inhabitants of the Bow enjoyed a peculiar fame for piety and zeal in the cause of the National Covenant, and were frequently subjected to the wit of the Cavalier faction; Dr. Pitcairn, Pennycook, the burgess bard, stigmatised them as the “Bow-head Saints,” the “godly plants of the Bow-head,” &c.; and even Sir Walter Scott, in describing the departure of Dundee, sings:-
“As he rode down the sanctified bends of the Bow,
Ilka carline was flying and shaking her pow;”
and it was in this quarter that many of the polemical pamphlets and sermons of Presbyterian divines have since been published.
Major Weir, “after a life characterised externally by all the graces of devotion, but polluted in secret by crimes of the most revolting nature, and which little needed the addition of wizardry to excite the horror of living men, fell into a severe sickness, which affected his mind so much that he made open and voluntary confession of all his wickedness.”
According to Professor Sinclair, the major had made a compact with the devil, who of course outwitted his victim. The fiend had promised, it was said, to keep him scatheless from all peril, but a single “burn;” hence the accidental naming of a man named Burn, by the sentinels at the Nether Bow Port, when he visited them as commander of the Guard, cast him into a fit of terror; and on another occasion, finding Libberton Burn before him, was sufficient to make him turn back trembling.
His sick-bed confession, when he was now verging on his seventieth year, seemed at first so incredible that Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, who was Lord Provost from 1662 to 1673, refused for a time to order his arrest. Eventually, however, the major, his sister (the partner of one of his crimes), and the black magical staff, were all taken into custody and lodged in the Tolbooth.
The staff was secured by the express request of his sister, and local superstition still records how it was wont to perform all the major’s errands for any article he wanted from the neighbouring shops; that it answered the door when “the pin was tirled,” and preceded him in the capacity of a link-boy at night in the Lawnmarket. In his house several sums of money in dollars were found wrapped up in pieces of cloth. A fragment of the latter, on being thrown on the fire by the bailie in charge, went up the wide chimney with an explosion like a cannon, while the dollars, when the magistrate took them home, flew about in such a fashion that the demolition of his house seemed imminent.
While in prison he confessed, without scruple, that he had been guilty of crimes alike possible and impossible. Stung to madness my conscience, the unfortunate wretch seemed to feel some comfort in sharing his misdeeds with the devil, yet he refused to address himself to Heaven for pardon. To all who urged him to pray, he answered by wild screams. “Torment me no more – I am tortured enough already!” was his constant cry; and he declined to see a clergyman of any creed, saying, according to “Law’s Memorials,” that “his condemnation was sealed; and since he was to go to the devil, he did not wish to anger him!”
When asked by the minister of Ormiston if he had ever seen the devil, he answered, “that any fealling he ever hade of him was in the dark.”
He and his sister were tried on the 9th of April, 1670, before the Justiciary Court; he was sentenced to be strangled and burned [the usual punishment for witchcraft in Scotland], between Edinburgh and Leith, and his sister Grizel (called Jean by some), to be hanged in the Grassmarket.
When his neck was encircled by the fatal rope at the place of execution, and the fire that was to consume his body – the “burn” to which, as the people said the devil had lured him – he was bid to say, “Lord, be merciful to me!” But he only replied fiercely and mournfully, “Let me alone – I will not; I have lived as a beast and must die like a beast.” When his lifeless body fell from the stake into the flaming pyre beneath, his favourite stick, which (according to Ravaillac Redivivus) “was all of one piece of thornwood, with a crooked head,” and without the aid of which he could perform nothing, was cast in also, and it was remarked by the spectators that it gave extraordinary twistings and writhings, and was as long in burning as the major himself. The place where he perished was at Greenside, on the sloping bank, whereon, in 1846, was erected the new church, so called.
If this man was not mad, he certainly was a singular paradox in human nature, and one of a kind somewhat uncommon – outwardly he exhibited the highest strain of moral sentiment for years, and during all that time had been secretly addicted to every degrading propensity; till eventually, unable to endure longer the sense of secret guilt and hypocrisy, with the terrors of sickness and age upon him, and death seeming near, he made a confession which some at first believed, and on that confession alone was sentenced to die.
If Weir was not mad, the ideas and confessions of his sister show that she undoubtedly was. She evidently believed that her brother’s stick was one possessed of no ordinary power. Professor Sinclair tells us, that on one of the ministers returning to the Tolbooth from Greenside, she would not believe that her brother had been burned till told that it had perished too; “whereupon, notwithstanding her age, she nimbly, and in a furious rage, fell upon her knees, uttering words horrible to be remembered.” She assured her hearers that her mother had been a witch, and that when the mark of a horse-shoe – a mark which she herself displayed – came on the forehead of the old woman, she could tell of events then happening at any distance, and to her ravings in the Tolbooth must some of the darkest traditions of the West Bow be assigned.
She confessed that she was a sorceress, and among other incredible things, said that many years before a fiery chariot, unseen by others, came to her brother’s house in open day; a stranger invited them to enter, and they proceeded to Dalkeith. While on the road another stranger came, and whispered something in the ear of her brother, who became visibly affected; and this intelligence was tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army, that very day, at Worcester. She stated, too, that a dweller in Dalkeith had a familiar spirit, who span for her an extraordinary quantity of yarn, in the time that it would have taken four women to do so.
At the place of execution in the Grassmarket a frenzy seized her, and the wretched old creature began to rend her garments, in order, as she shrieked, that she might die “with all the shame she could!”
Undeterred by her fate, ten other old women were in the same year burned in Edinburgh for alleged dabbling in witchcraft.
The reverend Professor who compiled “Satan’s Invisible World,” relates that a few nights before the major made his astounding confession, the wife of a neighbour, when descending from the Castle Hill towards the Bow-head, saw three women in different windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. She passed on, and when abreast of Major Weir’s door, she saw a woman of twice mortal stature arise from the street. Filled with great fear, she desired her maid, who bore a lantern, to hasten on, but the tall spectre still kept ahead of them, uttering shouts of “unmeasurable laughter,” till they came to the narrow alley called the Stinking Close, into which the spectre turned, and which was seen to be full of flaming torches, as if a multitude of people were there, all laughing merrily. “This sight, at so dead a time of night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all that they saw to the rest of the family.”
“For upwards of a century after Major Weir’s death he continued to be the bugbear of the Bow, and his house remained uninhabited. His apparition,” says Chambers, “was frequently seen at night, flitting like a black and silent shadow about the street. His house, though known to be deserted by everything human, was sometimes observed at midnight to be full of lights, and heard to emit strange sounds, as of dancing, howling, and, what is strangest of all, spinning. Some people occasionally saw the major issue from the low close at midnight, mounted on a black horse without a head, and gallop off in a whirlwind of flame. Nay, sometimes the whole inhabitants of the Bow would be roused from their sleep at an early hour in the morning by the sound of a coach and six, first rattling up the Lawnmarket, and then thundering down the Bow, stopping at the head of the terrible close for a few minutes, and then rattling and thundering back again; being neither more nor less than Satan come in one of his best equipages to take home the major and his sister after they had spent a night’s leave of absence in their terrestrial dwelling.”
Scott also tells us in his “Letters on Demonology,” that bold indeed was the urchin who approached the gloomy house, at the risk of seeing the major’s enchanted staff parading the desolate apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel which procured for his sister such a reputation as a spinner.
About the beginning of the present century, according to the author above quoted, when Weir’s house was beginning to be regarded with less superstitious terror, an attempt was made by the luckless proprietor to find one bold enough to become his tenant, and such an adventurer was procured in the person of a dissipated old soldier named William Patullo, whose poverty rendered him glad to possess a house at any risk, on the low terms at which it was offered; and the greatest interest was felt by people of all ranks in the city, on its becoming known that Major Weir’s house was about to have a mortal tenant at last!
Patullo and his spouse felt rather flattered by the interest the excited; but on the first night, as the venturesome couple lay abed, fearful and wakeful, “a dim uncertain light proceeding from the gathered embers of their fire, and all being silent around them – they suddenly saw a form like that of a calf, which came forward to the bed, and setting its fore-feet upon the stock, looked steadfastly at the unfortunate pair. When it had contemplated them thus for a few minutes, to their great relief it took itself away, and, slowly retiring, vanished from their sight. As might be expected, they deserted the house next morning; and for another half century no other attempt was made to embank this part of the world of light from the aggressions of the world of darkness.”
But even the world of spirits could not withstand the Improvement Commission, and the spring of 1878 saw the house of the wizard numbered with the things that are no more in this quarter of Edinburgh, and to effect the removal of which the Commissioners gave freely the sum of £400,000.
… Chessel’s Court, numbered as 240 [Canongate], exhibits a very superior style of architecture, and in 1788 was the scene of that daring robbery of the Excise Office which brought to the gallows the famous Deacon Brodie and his assistant, thus closing a long career of secret villainy, his ingenuity as a mechanic giving him every facility in the pursuits to which he addicted himself. “It was then customary for the shopkeepers of Edinburgh to hang their keys upon a nail at the back of their doors, or at least to take no pains in concealing them during the day. Brodie used to take impressions of them in putty or clay, a piece of which he used to carry in the palm of his hand. He kept a blacksmith in his pay, who forged exact copies of the keys he wanted, and with these it was his custom to open the shops of his fellow tradesmen during the night.”
William Brodie, Deacon of the Wrights and Masons of Edinburgh, was the son of Convener Francis Brodie, who had an extensive business as a cabinet maker in the Lawnmarket; and in 1781 the former was elected a Deacon Councillor of the city. He had unfortunately imbibed a taste for gambling, and became expert in making that taste a source of revenue; thus he did not scruple to have recourse to loaded dice. It became a ruling passion with him, and he was in the habit of resorting almost nightly to a low gambling club, kept by a man named Clark, in the Fleshmarket Close, He had the tact and art to keep his secret profligacy unknown, and was so successful in blinding his fellow-citizens that he continued a highly reputable member of the Town Council until within a short period of crime for which he was executed, and, according to “Kay’s Portraits,” it is a singular fact, that little more than a month previously he sat as a juryman in a criminal case in that very court where he himself soon after received sentence of death.
For years he had been secretly licentious and dissipated, but it was not until 1786 that he began an actual career of infamous crime, with his fellow-culprit, George Smith, a native of Berkshire, and two others, named Brown and Ainslie. He was in easy circumstances, with a flourishing business, and his conduct in becoming a leader of miscreants seems unaccountable, yet so it was. In and around the city during the winter of 1787 there were committed a series of startling robberies, and no clue could be had to the perpetrators. Houses and shops were entered, and articles of value vanished as if by magic. In one instance a lady was unable to go to church from indisposition, and was at home alone, when a man entered with crape over his face, and taking her keys, opened her bureau and took away her money, while she remained panic-stricken; but as he retired she thought, “surely that was Deacon Brodie!” But the idea seemed so utterly inconceivable, that she preserved silence on the subject till subsequent events transpired. As these mysterious outrages continued, all Edinburgh became at last alarmed, and in all of them Brodie was either actively or passively concerned, till he conceived the – to him – fatal idea of robbing the Excise office in Chessel’s Court, an undertaking wholly planned by himself. He visited the office openly with a friend, studied the details of the cashier’s room, and observing the key of the outer door hanging from a nail, contrived to take an impression of it with putty, made a model therefrom, and tried it on the lock by way of experiment, but went no further then.
On the 5th of March, Brodie, Smith, Ainslie, and Brown, met in the evening about eight to make the grand attempt. The Deacon was attired in black, with a brace of pistols; he had with him several keys and a double picklock…
The office was shut at night, but no watchman came till ten. Ainslie kept watch in Chessel’s Court, Brodie inside the outer door, when he opened it, while Smith and Brown entered the cashier’s room. All save the first carried pistols, and Brodie had a whistle by which he was to sound an alarm if necessary. In forcing the second or inner door, Brown and Smith had to use a crowbar, and the coulter of a plough which they had previously stolen for the purpose. Their faces were craped; they had with them a dark lantern, and they burst open every desk and press in the room. While thus engaged, Mr. James Bonnar, the deputy-solicitor, returned unexpectedly to the office at half-past eight, and detection seemed imminent indeed! “The outer door he found shut, and on opening it a man in black (Brodie) hurriedly passed him, a circumstance to which, not having the slightest suspicion, he paid no attention. He went to his room up-stairs, where he remained only a few minutes, and then returned, shutting the outer door behind him. Perceiving this, Ainslie became alarmed, gave a signal and retreated. Smith and Brown did not observe the call, but thinking themselves in danger when they heard Mr. Bonnar coming down-stairs, they cocked their pistols, determined not to be taken.”
Eventually they got clear off with their booty, which proved to be only sixteen pounds odd, when they had expected thousands! They all separated – Brown and Ainslie betook themselves to the New Town, Brodie hurried home to the Lawnmarket, changed his dress, and proceeded to the house of his mistress, Jean Watt, in Liberton’s Wynd, and on an evening soon after the miserable spoil was divided in equal proportions. By this time the town was alarmed, and the police on the alert. Brown (alias Humphry Moore), who proved the greatest villain of the whole, was at that time under sentence of transportation for some crime committed in his native country, England, and having seen an advertisement offering reward and pardon to any person who should discover a recent robbery at the shop of Inglis and Horner, one of the many transactions in which Brodie had been engaged of late with Smith and others, he resolved to turn king’s evidence, and on the very evening he had secured his share of the late transaction he went to the Procurator Fiscal, and gave information, but omitted to mention the name of Brodie, from whom he expected to procure money for secrecy. He conducted the police to the base of the Craigs, where they found concealed under a large stone a great number of keys intended for future operations in all directions. In consequence of this, Ainslie, Smith and his wife and servant, were all arrested. Then Brodie fled, and Brown, revealed the whole affair.
Mr. Williamson, king’s messenger for Scotland, traced the Deacon from point to point till he reached Dover, where after an eighteen days’ pursuit he disappeared; but by a sort of fatuity, often evinced by persons similarly situated, he gave clues to his own discovery. He remained in London till the 23rd of March. He took his passage on board the Leith smack Endeavour for that port, disguised as an old man in bad health, and under the name of John Dixon; but on getting out of the Thames, according to some previous arrangement, he was landed at Flushing, and from thence reached Ostend. On board the smack he was rash enough to give in charge of a Mr. Geddes letters addressed to three persons in Edinburgh, one of whom was his favourite mistress in Cant’s Close. Geddes, full of suspicion, on reaching Leith gave the documents to the authorities. Mr. Williamson was once more on his track, and discovered him in Amsterdam, through the treachery of an Irishman named Daly, when he was on the eve of his departure for America; and on the 27th of August, 1788, he was arraigned with Smith in the High Court of Justiciary, when he had as counsel the Hon. Henry Erskine, known then as “Plead for all, or the poor man’s lawyer,” and two other advocates of eminence, who made an attempt to prove an alibi on the part of Brodie, by means of Jean Watt and her servant, but the jury, with one voice, found both guilty, and they were sentenced to be hanged at the west end of the Luckenbooths on the 1st October, 1788. Smith was deeply affected; Brodie cool, determined, and indifferent. His self-possession never forsook him, and he spoke of his approaching end with levity, as “a leap in the dark,” and he only betrayed emotion when he was visited, for the last time, by his daughter Cecil, a pretty child of ten years of age. He came on the scaffold in a full suit of black, with his hair dressed and powdered. Smith was attired in white linen, trimmed with black. “Having put on white night-caps,” says a print of the time, “Brodie pointed to Smith to ascend the steps that led to the drop, and in an easy manner, clapping him on the shoulder, said, ‘George Smith, you are first in hand.’ Upon this Smith, whose behaviour was highly penitent and resigned, slowly ascended the steps, followed by Brodie, who mounted with briskness and agility, and examined the dreadful apparatus with attention, particularly the halter destined for himself;” and well might he do so with terrible interest, as he was to be the first to know the excellence of an improvement he had formerly made on that identical gibbet – the substitution of what is called the drop, for the ancient practice of the double ladder. The ropes proving too short, Brodie stepped down to the platform and entered into easy conversation with his friends.
This occurred no less than three times, while the great bell of St. Giles’s was tolling slowly, and the crowd of spectators was vast. Brodie died without either confessing or denying his guilt; but the conduct and bearing of Smith were very different. In consequence of the firmness and levity of the former, a curious story became quickly current, to the effect that in the Tolbooth he had been visited by Dr. Pierre Degraver, a French quack, who undertook to restore him to life after he had hung the usual time, and that, on the day before the execution, he had marked the arms and temples of Brodie, to indicate where he would apply the lancet. Moreover, it was said that having to lengthen the rope thrice proved that they had bargained secretly with the executioner for a short fall. When cut down the body was instantly given to two of his own workmen, who placed it on a cart, and drove at a furious rate round the back of the Castle, with the idea that the rough jolting might produce resuscitation! It was then taken to one of his workshops in the Lawnmarket, where Degraver was in attendance; but all attempts at bleeding failed; the Deacon was gone, and nothing remained but to lay him where he now lies, in the north-east corner of the Chapel-of-ease burying-ground. His dark lantern and sets of false keys, presented by the Clerk of Justiciary to the Society of Antiquaries, are still preserved in the city.
Captain Porteous, the commander of the Guard, was an active officer, who had seen some service with the Scots Brigade in Holland; but he was a harsh, proud man, of profligate character, who, it has been alleged, rendered himself odious to the people by the severity with which he punished the excesses of the poor, compared with his leniency to the wealthy. His fierce pride was roused to boiling heat. He had resented the escape of Robertson as an imputation upon the City Guard; and also resented, as an insult, the presence of the Welsh Fusiliers in the city, where no drums were permitted to be beaten save his own and those of the 25th of Edinburgh Regiment, and he was therefore well inclined to vent his wrath on Wilson, as the cause of all these affronts. It would seem that on the morning of the execution, he appeared, by those who saw him, to be possessed by an evil spirit. It is alleged that he treated Wilson with brutal severity before leaving the prison; and when the riot began, after the execution, and the City Guard was slowly returning up the steep West Bow, and facing about from time to time under showers of missiles, which broke some bonces and dashed the drums to pieces, it is said that he not only ordered his soldiers to “level their pieces and be d—-d!” but snatched a musket from one and shot a ringleader dead (Charles Husband, the man who cut down Wilson); then a ragged volley followed, and six or seven more fell killed or wounded.
An Edinburgh crowd never has been easily intimidated; the blood of the people was fairly up now, and they closed in upon the soldiers with louder imprecations and heavier volleys of stones. A second time the Guard faced about and fired, filling the steep narrow street with smoke, and producing the most fatal results; and as all who were killed or wounded belonged to the better class of citizens – some of whom were viewing the tumult from their own windows – public indignation became irrepressible. Captain John Porteous was therefore brought to trial for murder, and sentenced to die in the usual manner on the 8th of September, 1736. His defence was that his men fired without orders; that his own fusil when shown to the magistrates was clean; and that the fact of their issuing ball ammunition amounted “to no less than an order to fire when it became necessary.”
George II. was then on the Continent, and Queen Caroline, who acted as regent of a country of which she knew not even the language, took a more favourable view of the affair of Porteous than the Edinburgh mob had done, and from the Home Office a six weeks’ reprieve, preparatory to granting a full pardon, was sent down. “The tidings that a reprieve had been obtained by Porteous created great indignation among the citizens of the capital; they regarded the royal intervention in his behalf as a proof that the unjust English Government were disposed to treat the slaughter of Scotsmen by a military officer as a very venial offence, and a resolution was formed that Porteous should not escape the punishment which his crime deserved.”
On the night of the 7th September, according to a carefully-arranged plan, a small party of citizens, apparently of the lower class, preceded by a drum, appeared in the suburb called Portsburgh. At the sound of the drum the fast-swelling mob assembled from all quarters; the West Port was seized, nailed, and barricaded. Marching rapidly along the Cowgate, with numbers increasing at every step, and all more or less well-armed, they poured into the High Street, and seized the Nether Bow Port, to cut off all communication with the Welsh Fusiliers, then quartered in the Canongate. While a strong band held this important post, the City Guardsmen were seized and disarmed in detail; their armoury was captured, and all their muskets, bayonets, halberts, and Lochaber axes, distributed to the crown, which with cheers of triumph now assailed the Tolbooth, while strong bands held the street to the eastward and westward, to frighten all who might come either from the Castle or Canongate. Thus no one would dare convey a written order to the magistrates, and Colonel Moyle, of the 23rd, very properly declined to move upon the verbal message of Mr. Lindsay, M.P. for the city.
Meanwhile the din of sledge-hammers, bars, and axes, resounded on the ponderous outer gate of the Tolbooth. Its vast strength defied all efforts, till a voice cried, “Try it with fire!” Tar-barrels and other combustibles were brought; the red flames shot upward, and the gate was gradually reduced to cinders, and through these and smoke the mob rushed in with shouts of triumph. The keys of the cells were torn from the trembling warder. The apartment in which Porteous was confined was searched in vain, as it seemed at first, till the unhappy creature was found to have crept up the chimney. This he had done at the risk of suffocation, but his upward progress was stopped by an iron grating, which is often placed across the vents of such edifices for the sake of security, and to this he clung by his fingers, with a tenacity bordering on despair, and the fear of a dreadful death – a death in what form and at whose hands he knew not. He was dragged down, and though some proposed to slay him on the spot, was told by others to prepare for that death elsewhere which justice had awarded; but amid all their fury, the rioters conducted themselves generally with grim and mature deliberation. Porteous was allowed to entrust his money and papers with a person who was in prison for debt, and one of the rioters kindly and humanely offered him the last consolation religion can afford. The dreadful procession, seen by thousands of eyes from the crowded windows, was then begun, and amid the gleam of links and torches, that tipped with fire the blades of hundreds of weapons, the crowd poured down the West Bow to the Grassmarket. So coolly and deliberately did they proceed, that when one of Porteous’ slippers dropped from his foot, as he was borne sobbing and praying along, they halted, and replaced it. In the Bow the shop of a dealer in cordage (over whose door there hung a grotesque figure, still preserved) was broken open, a rope taken therefrom, and a guinea left in its stead. On reaching the place of execution, still marked by an arrangement of the stones, they were at a loss for a gibbet, till they discovered a dyer’s pole in its immediate vicinity. They tied the rope round the neck of their victim, and slinging it over the crossbeam, swung him up, and speedily put an end to his sufferings and his life; then the roar of voices that swept over the vast place and re-echoed up the Castle rocks, announced that all was over! But ere this was achieved Porteous had been twice let down and strung up again, while many struck him with their Lochaber axes, and tried to cut off his ears.
… As soon as the rioters had satiated their vengeance, they tossed away their weapons, and quietly dispersed; and when the morning of the 8th September stole in nothing remained of the event but the fire-blackened cinders of the Tolbooth door, the muskets and Lochaber axes scattered in the streets, and the dead body of Porteous swinging in the breeze from the dyer’s pole. According to the Caledonian Mercury of 9th September, 1736, the body of Porteous was interred on the second day in the Greyfriars. The Government was exasperated, and resolved to inflict summary vengeance on the city. Alexander Wilson, the Lord Provost, was arrested, but admitted to bail after three weeks’ incarceration. A Bill was introduced into Parliament materially affecting the city, but the clauses for the further imprisonment of the innocent Provost, abolishing the City Guard, and dismantling the gates, were left out when amended by the Commons, and in place of these a small fine of £2,000 in favour of Captain Porteous’ widow was imposed upon Edinburgh. Thus terminated this extraordinary conspiracy, which to this day remains a mystery. Large rewards were offered in vain for the ringleaders, many of whom had been disguised as females. One of them is said to have been the Earl of Haddington, clad in his cook-maid’s dress. The Act of Parliament enjoined the proclamation for the discovery of the rioters should be read from the parish pulpits on Sunday, but many clergymen refused to do so, and there was no power to compel them;..