Whilst much is often made of the people who were executed - justly or otherwise - in Edinburgh throughout history, there's relatively little attention given to those who bore the responsibility for dispatching those poor souls.
In order to have an execution, an executioner had to be present to swing the axe, tighten the noose or light the tinder (depending on whether your fate was to be beheaded, hung or burned at the stake). They also carried out corporal punishments, such as public whippings. These people occupied a strange place in the society of their times - no one really wanted to do the job, but everyone agreed on the necessity of justice being meted out as laid down by the laws of the land.
So executioners often existed in a strange half-life among Edinburgh's citizens, by turns feared, respected, despised and admired. Here's my trip through the lives, deaths, and working arrangements of some of Edinburgh's executioners.
In Scots, an executioner was sometimes called a 'lokman', or in popular slang was known as 'the doomster', the man who sent you to your doom....
The origin of the word 'lokman' is slightly hazy, with some people making the connection between an executioner and a jailer, or one who controlled the locks - although these two roles were never knowingly linked in Scotland.
More likely is the use of 'lok' as a term to describe a quantity of a product - generally about a handful, but also a tuft (of wool or cloth - from which a 'lock' of hair gets its origin). The connection with the executioner is that part of the reward or payment which was given for performing this unpleasant work was taken from a tax levied on every portion of goods which were imported into the city for sale at the market, calculated as a lok or handful of each. Thus the commercial activity of Edinburgh helped to pay for maintaining the law and the administration of justice in the city.
This amounted to a significant quantity of cash - in 1590, the lokman employed to coordinate the execution at the front of Edinburgh Castle of a group of men and women convicted of witchcraft was paid £5 18s 6d, equivalent to over £1,250 in modern currency!
As a municipal appointment the official executioner would later be granted a dedicated accommodation in the Old Town, furnished and paid for from city funds. This house was on Fishmarket Close, conveniently located near to the law courts and ideally placed for access to some of the city's designated sites of execution, on the Royal Mile and in the Grassmarket.
So for those who had the stomach for the work, being a lokman could be a richly rewarded occupation...
Cockburn was a hangman during the reign of Charles II, and was on duty in the Grassmarket during the execution of around 100 Covenant martyrs, killed for adhering to a statement of religious faith which was at odds with the monarchy during the late seventeenth century.
In accordance with the various traditions of the time, Cockburn wasn't only a hangman, but was also known to have wielded an axe at beheadings of various higher status figures (for whom the faster death than a lingering demise by hanging was considered something of a judicial mercy) and of being involved in the torture of various suspected criminals in order to secure guilty confessions.
He was known to have conducted himself in his role as executioner with a certain gusto, and cannot have been considered a reluctant administrator of the sentences imposed on criminals. But Cockburn was also notable for having his own life ended at the end of a rope, after he was found guilty of murdering a beggar in the city.
It was alleged that Cockburn had enticed the beggar, called John Adamson, into his home on Fishmarket Close, whereupon he had struck him with a number of violent blows in order to take from him the small amount of cash Adamson had collected that day. He denied causing Adamson's death - denied him even having been in his home - but blood-soaked clothes were found concealed in Cockburn's rooms, and he was arraigned and held in chains to secure a confession. When none was forthcoming, local magistrates pronounced Cockburn guilty of the murder, and sentenced him to be hanged.
The situation thusly presented authorities with a conundrum - who was to execute the city's executioner?! And so a man named Mackenzie - the executioner in Stirling, who had previously served in Edinburgh - was sent for, and Cockburn might have been darkly amused had he ever known that the man who sent him to his death had been his own predecessor, whom he had replaced!
Alexander Cockburn was hanged in Edinburgh on (or around) 16 January 1682.
HANG OR BE HANGED
It's fair to say that few people ever set out to become executioners, and the role could be a tricky one to fill anytime it fell vacant. Although the perks and benefits of the job could be substantial, the level of public profile and the gruesome nature of the job description itself made it a hard role to recruit.
One of the last executioners to take the job in Edinburgh was a man named Jock Heich, who was appointed in 1784. His path to employment was a curious one, as he had been arrested on charges of stealing poultry - although he was also a notorious wife beater, and it may have been that the authorities were induced to arrest him for some minor offence as a substitute for crimes they may not have been able to prove in an open court.
His sentence - for what amounted to petty theft - was to be hanged. But the authorities offered him an alternative, and offered him instead the role of hangman, which at that time was carried out by an elderly man who was unlikely to be remaining in post for long. Heich could avoid an unpleasant death for himself by taking on the job of executioner to others.
It's not known how long Heich deliberated over the decision - suffice it to say he served as the city's doomster until his death in 1817.
MEN OF CONSCIENCE
If Alexander Cockburn had been a violent brute who took rather too much pleasure in the carrying out of his role, other executioners in Edinburgh took a more considered approach to the job.
John Dalgleish was the hangman during the early eighteenth century, and was the figure who saw the smuggler Andrew Wilson to his death ahead of the Porteous Riots in 1736. He was also responsible for administering corporal punishments, including the public whippings of less violent offenders. Asked on one occasion how he judged the force and weight of the blows he administered with the whip, Dalgleish replied, "I lay on the lash according to my conscience". This was perhaps his way of acknowledging a degree of latitude in the degree of trauma involved in the punishments he administered.
A little earlier, in 1700, a similar issue of conscience had led to a curious circumstance in the city. In the aftermath of the Darien Expedition to settle a Scottish colony in South America, there was a great sense of public outrage at the way in which the English government had acted in the affair, which had seen the expedition fail disastrously, with the needless deaths of thousands of would-be resettlers who had risked their lives and livelihoods in the spirit of colonisation.
Such was the strength of public opinion that a riot had been orchestrated in the city of Edinburgh, for which a number of organisers and agitators had been arrested and sentenced to a severe public whipping at the Mercat Cross.
Despite the riot having been a breach of city regulations, many sympathised with the position of the rioters, and agreed with their cause, and the hangman experienced a prick of conscience at punishing men with whose political feeling he strenuously agreed. And so it was that at their punishment, Dalgleish enacted the whipping with a degree of theatricality, and didn't let the whip make contact with the backs of the rioters, avoiding causing them pain or suffering.
The city authorities were outraged by what they saw as a partisan avoidance of judicial instruction, and had the executioner arrested and sentenced to a public whipping for his insubordination!
The council sent to Haddington to secure the services of a hangman to come and administer the punishment, but on arrival the replacement hangman found himself threatened and intimidated by the general public whose feeling had been shared by their conscientious objector.... Accordingly he refused the job and fled the city, forcing some to joke that Edinburgh council would have to secure the services of a third executioner to punish the second who had refused to punish the first...!
Instead, Edinburgh council admitted defeat at the hands of public opinion and dropped the issue.
SHAMED AND ASHAMED
One of the city's executioners had been a young man in a wealthy family from Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Having inherited a significant fortune, he squandered the cash and lost it through a profligate lifestyle, before being declared bankrupt. He left Melrose in shame, and set out to start a new life in Edinburgh, where nobody knew him or his story.
Having changed his name, he found the only job which was open was that of hangman, and with no other option available to him he gratefully accepted the role.
Having begun to save up some cash, he had aspirations of returning to his former lifestyle, and bought some fine clothes in which he would walk out to Bruntsfield Links, one of the world's oldest golf courses. Here he would socialise with some of the city's elite, playing golf and enjoying something of the former lifestyle he had lost through his own extravagance.
One evening, having played a round of golf, he was enjoying a drink with his new high society friends, when one of the ladies in the company happened to recognise him, and exposed him as the city's hangman.
He was roundly ridiculed and humiliated for having the nerve to seek to associate with high status figures when his position in life was so low, and having been chased away from the group he walked to Holyrood Park where, feeling ashamed at having been exposed so viciously, he took his own life by jumping from the top of the Salisbury Crags.
The point from from he leapt to his death is still known today as Hangman's Crag.
THE LAST PUBLIC HANGING
Edinburgh's last public hanging took place on the High Street in 1864 - and it was precisely because of the events which transpired that day that no further public executions were to take place.
Because so few executions were occurring at that time, the city had retired the post of executioner and no longer had a resident doomster to call upon for the purpose of administering justice. And so, to execute George Bryce, convicted of murder in June 1864, Edinburgh brought a hangman from York to perform the necessary deed.
It had long been considered that the role of executioner was not just to be trusted to violent thugs (like Alexander Cockburn) but that a degree of skill was required to perform the task in as brisk, efficient and painless way as possible. Sought-after executioners - like Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman - plied their trade with a methodical rigour that made the process smooth and efficient, and were rewarded highly for their diligent approach to the task at hand.
One primary calculation which was required from hangmen concerned the length of rope from which a prisoner would be hung - adjusting the length as needed to ensure the necessary fall and force of a drop, in order to efficiently break the neck and render death instantaneously, was considered the minimum degree of care to be taken over a prisoner's final moments.
In 1864, the executioner brought to Edinburgh from York - named Thomas Askern - seemed to possess none of these necessary skills and considerations. It may be that he had overstated his experience or qualifications to secure the job, or (according to rumour) he had over-exerted himself at one of Edinburgh's pubs the evening before, and arrived for the execution in a state of hangover. Regardless of the reason, what is known is that Askern took little care in assessing the length of rope needed to hang George Bryce, and when the trap door opened, the prisoner dropped barely two feet and was left to dangle in mid-air in front of the assembled crowd.
Instead of disappearing out of sight beneath the scaffold and dying with a swift break to his neck, as was expected, Bryce slowly suffocated in full view of the men, women and children who had gathered to witness the execution. Reports of the event differ on how long it took Bryce to die. The shortest estimate put it at 12 long minutes of slow, agonising suffocation. One witness recorded it took Bryce nearer forty minutes to finally expire.
Public response to the botched death was heated and angry, and a mob chased the officials and hangman from the scaffold with a barrage of stones. Thomas Askern became immediately so hated he had to be smuggled out of the city on a coach back to York first thing the next morning.
Appalled at the trauma meted out in place of a swift and efficient execution, Edinburgh held no more public executions - although hangings still took place in the privacy of the city's prison until the last execution in Edinburgh, within living memory for some, in June 1954...
Find out more about the lives of previous residents of the city on my private walking tours!
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