The Crime, Trial & Execution of Margaret Wishart Pt.3: The Execution

And oh, that pang, where more than madness lies;
The worm that will not sleep, and never dies;
Thoughts of the gloomy day -…..
……tears the quivering heart;
Ah! Wherefore not consume it and depart.

Byron

‘Tis guilt alone,
Like brain – sick frenzy, in its feverish mood,
Fills the light air with visionary terrors,
And shapeless forms of fear.

Francis

Part Three: The Execution

MARGARET WISHART as I before stated, was transferred from Perth Prison and confined in the condemned cell in the old Tollbooth at the Cross of Forfar, on the 23rd day of April 1827. The Crown authorities in Edinburgh at the same time transmitted the death-warrant to Provost Webster, which he read at a meeting of the Forfar Town Council on the 28th April. The warrant bore that the sentence was to be carried into execution on 2 June following, and that her body was to be delivered to Dr Monro, of Edinburgh, for dissection. Addressing the Council the Provost said “I have been informed that many of those present at the trial had doubts as to the propriety of the verdict, founded as it was entirely on circumstantial evidence, and some thought by no means conclusive evidence. A petition respectfully signed praying for mercy, or at least for further enquiry, had been sent from Perth to the King. I would therefore, gentlemen”, he added, “move that a similar petition be forwarded from this place to Mr Lindsay, M. P., to be presented through the proper channel to His Majesty.” This recommendation of Provost Webster’s was unanimously agreed to, and the following is a verbatim copy of the petition sent: –

 

UNTO THE KING’S MOST EXCELLENT MAJESTY.

The Humble Petition of the Subscribers, Magistrates, Members of the Town Council, Heritors, and Inhabitants of the Royal Burgh of Forfar.

Sheweth, – That at the Circuit Court of Justiciary held at Perth on the 14th and 15th of April, Margaret Wishart, lately residing in Arbroath, now prisoner in the Gaol of this Burgh, was by a majority of the jury found guilty of the murder of Jean Wishart, her sister, by poison, and was sentenced to be hanged at Forfar on Saturday the 2nd day of June next, and her body to be delivered over to Dr Monro, Professor of Anatomy, in Edinburgh, to be publicly dissected and anatomised. As the unfortunate woman who thus lies under the last sentence of the law has all along asserted her innocence, and still continues to do so, the Petitioners are induced to approach your Majesty as the fountain of mercy, as well as of justice, on her behalf. The Petitioners have a painful interest in the case, as this Burgh has been fixed upon as the place of execution, and they beg leave therefore humbly to state that they understand that the evidence against her was altogether circumstantial and amounted only to a presumption of guilt – at least it did not exclude a probability of her innocence. In short there does not appear to have been such a degree of evidence as would warrant a conviction where the life of a fellow-creature is at stake. The Petitioners have no wish that the justice of the law should be defeated, but they cannot contemplate without anxiety the possibility that they may be eye-witnesses to the innocent person suffering the dreadful penalty of death, and they therefore most humbly entreat your Majesty to take the case into your gracious consideration.

May it therefore please your majesty to take the case of the prisoner, Margaret Wishart, into your serious consideration, and to cause further inquiry to be made as to its nature, and your Petitioners shall ever pray.

 

The Provost was asked to sign the petition in the name of the Council, and to invite all the respectable inhabitants of the town to sign, and thereafter to forward it to Mr Lindsay, M. P.

It was not to be wondered at that the worthy old Provost should try his best to save his old servant from the gibbet. There is much truth in the old quaint axiom, “who rules the rulers,” and on this occasion doubtless the Provost’s daughter, Miss Webster, had urged on her father to do what he could in the interest of Margaret Wishart. Before it was possible to receive a reply, or know what effect the petition for the Royal clemency would have, the condemned woman was watched all day and night, as the custom is, and daily visited by the parish minister, Mr Clugston. Margaret had been some three weeks in the prison of Forfar, when the rev. and gentlemen waited on the Provost and assured him that from the incoherence of her speech and the strangeness of her manner he was convinced that the condemned woman was insane. The Provost at once requested Dr Steel and Dr Smith to visit her and report. They accordingly did so, and signed a certificate that she was in their opinion in a state of derangement and mental alienation and unconscious of her situation. The Provost forwarded a copy of the certificate to the Lord Advocate, and to Mr Sheriff L’Amy. All these proceedings took place on 21 May, and the next day (22nd) the Provost received a letter from Mr Secretary Bourne to the following effect:-

“That he was sorry to acquaint him that he could not consistently with his public duty recommended prisoner to his Majesty as a fit object for any extension of the Royal mercy.” Some days after Mr Secretary Bourne again communicated with the Provost by letter, signifying that by the King’s command, the execution of the sentence of death passed upon Margaret Wishart, now in the jail of Forfar, be respited for fourteen days from the date appointed for her execution. In the meantime the Solicitor-General instructed the Sheriff of the County, Mr L’Amy, to visit the prisoner, and to take along with him Mr Ridley, the Superintendent of the Dundee Lunatic Asylum, and Mr Ingram, the Superintendent of Montrose Lunatic Asylum. They did so, and they recommended the Magistrates of the Burgh to see that she was constantly attended to by females, and kept as quiet as possible, and that no other person should be allowed to visit her except the clergyman, or any other person she might earnestly desire to see.

Was this woman “guilty?” We have it on the testimony of the Town-Clerk, Mr Hunter, who interested himself very much in her fate, that when she first arrived at Forfar she entertained the most sanguine hopes of mercy, and that these expectations were fed and fostered by well-meant but injudicious remarks made by visitors. A relation came to see her, however, spoke very decidedly to her of the fallacy of entertaining such hopes. After that she became sullen and thoughtful; she was troubled with bad dreams, her imagination presented to her visions of the sister and child, and then she became delirious. It was in consequence of this state of mind that a respite was granted for fourteen days, but by the time the notice of the respite received at Forfar she had fully recovered her reason.

The Magistrates by this time were fully convinced that there was no hope of mitigation of the sentence, so they began to make preparations for the execution. They asked David Neish and Francis Soutar to go to Dundee and inspect the gallows there, so that they might make one similar. The job was ultimately given to these two joiners, along with John Whyte, blacksmith, and these tradesmen were particularly enjoined to have everything ready on Friday evening preceding Saturday 16th day of June.

The Magistrates also entered into an agreement with Thomas Williams, common hangman from the city of Edinburgh, the burgh of Forfar not having such a functionary, of which agreement the following is a copy:-

Thomas Williams binds himself to proceed to the burgh of Forfar in good time so as to reach that place on Tuesday the 29th day of May at the latest, for the purpose of executing Margaret Wishart, at present under sentence of death at Forfar, upon Saturday the 2nd day of June next, and then and there to do all of the duties incident to his office, including the pinioning and tying up and cutting down of the criminal, and in all other respects to submit himself to the jurisdiction and control of the Magistrates of Forfar until this be there performed. The fee to be £10 10s, with £3 3s of travelling charges, and £5 5s to an assistant if one is required.

(Signed) THOMAS WILLIAMS.

The Provost wrote Lieutenant Damas, who had charge of a company of dragoons then stationed in the town, requesting him to have a party of the king’s soldiers to support the civil power if occasion should arise. Lieutenant Damas courteously replied, “I beg to say that the party here under my command shall be at your service at a moment’s notice.”

The following handbill, which is interesting as a proof of the great care and completeness of the arrangements was printed and posted throughout the town:-

Forfar, 14th June, 1827.
The Special Constables appointed by the magistrates of Forfar, to preserve the peace at the execution of Margaret Wishart, on Saturday the 16th inst., are to meet on that day at a quarter before 12 o’clock, at their respective rallying places and under their respective leaders viz.

  1. North District; opposite Mr Grubb’s house. Mr Grubb, head constable; Mr Carnaby and Mr Petrie, assistants.
  2. West District; at the head of the Little Causeway. Mr Thom, head constable; Mr P. Blair and Mr W. Gordon, assistants.
  3. Cross District; at the north end of County Buildings. Mr T. Ritchie, head constable; Mr McLean and Mr Elder, assistants.
  4. Middle District; at the well near the New Chapel. Mr R. Don, head constable; Mr Young and Mr Dickson, assistants.
  5. North East District, at the well at the head of the Backwynd. Mr Christie, head constable; Mr J. Dick and Mr D. Christie, assistants.
  6. South East District, in the School Park. Mr Dall, head constable; Mr John Anderson and Mr W. Simpson, assistants.

At one o’clock the constables shall march to the front of the Town House, and take up their stations within the barricade (entering by the west door of the Town House,) and shall remain till the execution is over.

The head constables shall arrange a party to keep watch during the erection of the barricade from Friday evening, and another party to relieve them next morning at 8 o’clock.

They will also arrange parties to keep watch at the accesses to the town, to prevent horses, carriages, &c, from entering during the time of the execution.

The Magistrates are resolved to enforce attendance by the infliction of fines, and such other legal punishment as may be suited to the particular offence. But it is hoped that measures of this kind will be unnecessary, and that all the inhabitants will do their upmost to preserve peace and good order.

By order of the Magistrates and Head Constables,
(Signed.) WILLIAM HUNTER, Town Clerk.

But how is it with the poor woman for whose public strangulation all these precautions are being taken? The respite had the effect of reviving her hopes of pardon. Even though she was told that the investigations made by the Sheriff at Arbroath under the directions of Crown Counsel had been unfavourable to her, she still hoped against hope, and it was not until eight days of the time fixed for her execution, that she began seriously to prepare for death, and it is even said at this period her mind was haunted by projects of self-destruction. This feeling too wore away, and she expressed herself sorry that she should have thought of such a thing. She now devoted herself earnestly to the religious exercises of the Rev. Mr Clugston, who had been unremitting in his attentions to her. She was also much soothed by the visits of Miss Webster, who believed in her innocence, and above all by the company and sympathy of the jailor’s wife, Mrs Milne (Mary Hunter), who had at one time been her fellow-servant at the Mains of Melgund.

I was walking on the pavement outside of the condemned cell late on the Thursday night of the week of her death, my mind brooding deeply on the woman’s sad fate, thinking that inside of these walls, there was a human being with strong desires to live, with hopes and aspirations and health, and bodily vigour, yet, who in less than two days would be hurled into eternity.

I speculated on the problem, if such cruelty was really necessary for the upholding and welfare of the social compact, then waxing wroth I denounced our system of criminal law as –

“A vengeful, pitiless, and almighty fiend,
Whose mercy is a nickname for the rage
Of tameless tigers hungering for blood.”

At this stage of my meditation I heard the voice of the condemned woman, the tone of which I knew so well. “Oh! Me,” the poor thing moaned; “Oh! Dear me; tae think that I sud ever come to this o’d; tae dee th’ death o’ a dog, an’ thousands looking on.” Loud sobs here choked her utterance, but a moment after she again continued, “God in Heaven kens I never did naething tae my sister Jean, tho’ she provokit me sair. Oh! Mary Hunter, pit yir airm roun’ my briest, and yer hand on my broo, for my heart’s like tae jump oot, an’ my heid’s on fire.”

I ran from the spot, and sought my own dwelling in South Street, for I could not listen longer to the wild despair of the doomed wretch, and my heart bled at the awful realisation of such frantic human misery.

On the day before the execution, I was eye-witness to a strange scene which struck me as very peculiar at the time, and although I have tried hard to get some explanation of it, I have never succeeded. I saw a woman coming swiftly along the centre of East High Street. She was tall and thin, and wore a cloak of some light-coloured flimsy material, which enveloped her whole person. In her hand she held a long white wand, her hair, which was black and wavy, was bound together with a broad silk band across her forehead. She was accompanied down the street by a troupe of boys and girls, but she neither looked to the right, nor the left, but held on her way with a swift stately stride until she came to the part of the street right opposite the windows of the condemned cell. Here she stopped. With the wand she held in her hand she drew a circle in the centre of the street, she then walked three times round this imaginary circle, and then strode back the way she came, along East High Street. I was curious to see where she would go, and followed her, she went past the East Port, along by Brander Ha’, and down the Arbroath Road. I was told by the people of the East End that she had come up that way a short time before, that she had asked no questions, nor looked at or spoken to any one. Who could this female have been? Could she have had any connection with the case in any way, or had she only been some poor crazy creature, with mind unhinged, on whom the excitement of the talk about the trial and the coming execution had exercised an influence?

The gibbet and drop had been a considerable time in preparation, but the first public manifestation of what was going on was the appearance of a number of labourers who proceeded on Friday afternoon to rail in the large space in front of the Town House. In the course of the evening beams of the platform became visible projecting from the east window of the Town Hall.

I did not see the man myself, but from the description I got of him, I am nearly certain that the person who wandered back and fore on that Friday afternoon, looking on while the work was in progress was Andrew Roy. Mrs Petrie, who kept an alehouse in the Osnaburgh pend, told me that she was sure from his manner and his hunted look that there was something “no usual” the matter with this man. He called at her change-house occasionally for refreshment, spoke to no one further than giving his order, and seemed not to be able to sit on a chair for five minutes at a time, he was so restless and nervous. Sometimes he would come round Mr Hammock’s corner, sometimes from the direction of the Spout, and sometimes through the Osnaburg Pend, but the spot on which they were erecting the gibbet might be compared to the candle round which this human moth was flickering.

The gibbet was exactly similar to the one used in Dundee, on the 2nd June 1826, when the sailor, David Balfour, was hanged in that town for killing his wife with a butcher’s knife – a sad story of love, infidelity and jealousy, ending in murder with a weird consummation that has never been explained, I will tell the story some other time.

The hangman, Thomas Williams, had already arrived, having come with the “Defiance” coach on Wednesday. So close did he keep himself that unless it was the magistrates, ministers, and officials, no one saw him; indeed some of the townspeople went the length of saying he was not there at all, and that it was one of the burgh officers who acted as hangman, but this is a myth.

About ten days before the fatal sixteenth, the culprit’s two married sisters from Arbroath paid her a farewell visit in the condemned cell. Mrs Milne, the jailor’s wife, who was present, has described the scene to me as the most painful she ever witnessed, and that Margaret earnestly and solemnly declared to them that she was innocent of the crime of which she was convicted, and now likely to suffer. On the Friday forenoon of which we write she dictated a letter to her sisters, she subscribed it with a steady hand, and delivered it to the Rev. Mr Clugston to be forwarded to them after her death. She expressed in warm terms of gratitude her obligation to the Rev. Mr Clugston, to her Counsel, Mr Melville, and particularly to the jailor and his wife for their unwearied attention. Without indicating the slightest emotion she made arrangements for the execution by marking the passages which she wished to be sung on the following day.

She was attended till one o’clock in the morning by the Rev. Mr Clugston, who then left her and returned at six, the Rev. Mr Dickinson being with her in the interval. She had slept none that night nor for two nights before, but at seven o’clock she felt inclined to rest, when those about her withdrew. By half-past ten she was dressed. In this, her last toilet, she was assisted by Miss Webster. Mr Milne, the jailor, then informed her that the Magistrates would come at half-past one to superintend the pinioning of her arms, she evinced some agitation and repeatedly exclaimed – “Oh! But it is an awfu’ thing tae dee!” She was visited during the course of the forenoon by the Rev. Messrs Eadie, Rankin, Lindsay, and Dickinson. At one o’clock the bell began to toll; at half-past one the Magistrates entered the cell; then the first four verses of the 48th paraphrase were sung, and the Rev. Andrew Eadie offered up an appropriate prayer. Thomas Williams, the hangman, was now introduced, when he proceeded to tie her arms. The poor woman was perfectly calm, but she remarked to him – “do not tie me too tight.” The Magistrates then withdrew, and she took the arm of the Rev. Mr Clugston to follow, but he asked her if she would wish a few minutes for private devotion. She said yes, and remained in the cell for about ten minutes. She then proceeded, leaning on the arm of Mr Clugston as before. Going along the passage she stopped at the door of a cell, where two prisoners were looking through the grating. She shook hands with them and exhorted them to give up the habit of profane swearing, and to repent and reform.

It appears that this reproof to these prisoners on her part was particularly called for, because the poor woman had been repeatedly, and cruelly annoyed by the noise and swearing of the prisoners in the second flat of the Tolbooth, which was persisted in notwithstanding the remonstrances of the jailor and the expostulations of the clergymen. On this same Saturday forenoon the Rev. Mr Clugston had been sorely disturbed by the singing and swearing of these inhuman wretches while he was engaged in prayer. She proceeded with a steady step to the Town Hall, in which were now assembled the Magistrates and Council, and some other gentlemen. After she was seated, from the seventh to the twelfth verses of the 51st Psalm were sung, and Mr Rankin, the minister of Inverarity, offered up a suitable prayer. Mr Clugston then intimated to her that all was ready, and asked if she was quite prepared. She said she was ready. He then asked her the question – “Now that she was about to appear in the presence of Almighty God, whether she was guilty or not guilty of the crime for which she was about to suffer?” She answered – “I am not guilty, and God will plead my cause.”

The sun was shining brightly on this fine June Saturday afternoon; the market was over; there had been little business done therein that day, as everything gave place to the all-absorbing interest in the tragedy that was about to be enacted. All the shops in the vicinity of the Cross were closed, and some thousands of people were assembled on the streets. The most complete silence reigned among the spectators, not a breath of wind blew, everything had the quietness and stillness of death. The solemn funeral toll of “Lang Strang” sounding from the Steeple now and again woke up the echoes, and so quiet and still was the atmosphere that the whisk of the rope with which the bell is propelled was distinctly heard by the multitude. Just before the condemned woman appeared on the platform of the scaffold, old Provost Webster came out through the window. His eyes had a feverish look, and his pale drawn countenance told of the trouble and anxiety of his mind. He bowed in a courtly stately manner to the crowd, and then disappeared from view.

Exactly at twenty-five minutes to three Margaret Wishart came on the platform outside the window, leaning on Mr Clugston. He requested a chair to be placed for her, as he was apprehensive she would not be able to stand. Mr Clugston stood on her right and Mr Rankin on her left. When seated she gave out the following verses of the 5th Hymn, and requested the audience to join in the singing:-

“Not in mine innocence I trust,
I bow before Thee in the dust,
And through the Saviours blood alone
I look for mercy at Thy throne,
I leave the world without a tear,
Save for the friends I hold so dear,
To heal their sorrows, Lord descend,
And to the friendless prove a friend.

I come, I come, at Thy command,
I give my spirit to Thy hand;
Stretch forth Thine everlasting arms
And shield me in the last alarms.
The hour of my departure’s come,
I hear the voice that calls me home.
Now, O’ my God, let trouble ceases,
And let Thy servant die in peace.”

Particularly at the last verse the condemned woman’s voice was heard distinctly above the rest, and so still and quiet was everything in the burgh that day that people have told me who were not present at the Cross that as far south as Pensioners’ Row they could distinctly recognize the words of the hymn that was being sung. Mr Clugston offered up a most fervent prayer addressed to the God of the Spirit of all flesh. The rev. gentlemen was deeply affected, and so were many of the multitude who listened to this eloquent appeal to the Most High. After the prayer was concluded she returned within the window for a moment, and the rope was there adjusted. She was then guided forward to the drop, when in a voice which was very distinctly heard, she addressed the crowd. She exhorted them to avoid evil company, to keep the Sabbath, and to attend to the ordinances of religion. She then engaged in prayer, in which she acknowledged herself a great sinner in the sight of God, and implored His mercy through the merits of the Redeemer; she confessed her sins to be many and highly aggravated, but declared herself innocent of the crime for which she was to die. She repeatedly appeared to be in the act of dropping the fatal signal, but incontinentally resumed her supplications, and sore sore must have been her mental struggle during the painfully protracted lapse of the twenty minutes in which she thus hung trembling on the brink of eternity.

The feelings of many of the spectators were excited to an intense degree, and many of the female portion of the multitude shed silent tears. Sandy Peacock, the town’s drummer, advanced to her side, and told her that the time was up. She said – “In two minutes I will have done.” At eighteen minutes past three she gave the signal; the bolt was drawn – a few convulsive throbs – the opening and shutting of her hands once or twice – then all was still. Thus terminated her earthly sufferings.

Three doves sat on the riggin’ of that three-storey house at the Cross, the house in which Samuel Ritchie, the watchmaker, had his shop. The moment that Margaret Wishart fell through the trap-door of the scaffold the three doves flew from where they were perched, and circled round the head of the dying woman. An Irish girl who was standing beside me exclaimed, “See, the Blessed Virgin Mary has sent the innocent doves for her soul.” I must say that my interpretation was far more prosaic. In the calm stillness of the day the birds had been startled by the noise of the drop, and curiosity had prompted them to fly to the spot to see what was the matter. Be this as it may, the superstitious regarded it as a happy omen for the future welfare of Margaret Wishart’s soul.

The body was cut down, and carried in at the east door of the Town-House. Alexander Donaldson, journeyman wright with Mr Neish, was awaiting there with a box, into which the body was deposited, the lid of which he securely nailed down. The Magistrates gave Donald Cormach, sheriff-officer, who had been selected to convey the body to Edinburgh, the following warrant for such transmission:-

16th June, 1827.

Whereas Margaret Wishart, lately prisoner in the Tolbooth of Arbroath, afterwards in the Tolbooth of Forfar, suffered death on a gibbet this day at Forfar, between the hours of two and four o’clock afternoon, and as her body is to be delivered to Dr Alexander Munro, Professor of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh, to be by him anatomized, in terms of a sentence of the Lords of Justiciary at a Circuit Court held at Perth, dated the fifteenth of April last: It is resolved to issue this warrant to certify that the body of the said Margaret Wishart has been delivered to Donald Cormach, sheriff-officer in Forfar, for the purpose of being conveyed by him and his assistant to the said Alexander Munro, and warrant is hereby granted him accordingly: Moreover, all sheriffs, magistrates, and officers of the law, are hereby requested to give him all necessary assistance.

(signed) CHARLES WEBSTER, Provost.
JAMES BROWN, Baillie.
JOHN MURRAY, Baillie.

Immediately after the body was cut down the workmen began to remove the gibbet and barricades, and in little more than half-an-hour the Cross exhibited no sign that so awful a spectacle had taken place there that day.

As in the Shuttleworth case, here again we have a striking instance of the strange operation of coincidents. On the early morning of Sunday, the 9th October, 1826, Jean Wishart died by the action of poison at Arbroath; on the early morning of Sunday, the 15th April 1827, Margaret Wishart was condemned to death at Perth; on the early morning of Sunday, the 17th June, Margaret’s body was delivered to Dr Munro for dissection. I do not affirm there is anything in this, still the most skeptical materialist must allow it is singular and strange. The superstition concerning dates and their power to rule for “weal or woe” is very ancient. Many of the instances adduced are, to say the least of them, remarkable. Thirty-two sovereigns have ascended the English throne since the time of William the Conqueror, every month except May witnessing the coronation of one or more, that month not one. Hundreds of instances could be given, where in the lives of men and women extraordinary coincidences have occurred on particular days of the week. Sunday appears to have been an evil day in the life history of Margaret Wishart.

Three weeks after the death of Margaret Wishart, some boys fishing for perch on the causeway that runs out from the Inch, near the centre of the Loch of Forfar, saw what looked to them like a bundle of old clothes floating on the surface of the water. They succeeded in drawing this object towards them with the aid of their long “speenie” wands, and then they saw it was the body of a man, but in such a state of decomposition that it was fearful to look upon. One of the boys ran into the town with the news. Soon John Stewart and Sandy Peacock and Donald Cormach were on the ground, and dragged the body out of the Loch to the Inch. The clothes were reduced to pulp, the flesh was falling from the bones, and what made the corpse still more hideous, water-rats had eaten away the face of the man so that identification was impossible. A shell was procured, and the remains huddled in and buried. I said nothing to anybody, but my opinion was at the time, and still is, that this miserable looking corpse once contained the soul of the arch-fiend and prime mover in this horrible tragedy, which culminated in the death of the blind girl and her child, her sister Margaret, and also himself. The tortures of an awakened conscience had given him no rest, until at last, unable to endure its hellish pangs, he plunged into the “hole” at the Inch – a fitting end to an ignoble life.

Provost Webster did not live many days after the ignominious death of his old servant. He died on 11th July, less than a month after she was expiated her crime – expiated, I say, if she was guilty – mercilessly and inhumanely murdered if she was innocent. It is somewhat singular that the three cases I have recorded of capital punishment are cases in which the three persons implicated were condemned on circumstantial evidence, that all three went to the gallows protesting their innocence – Andrew Low on the Hill of Balmashanner in 1783 – Margaret Tindal or Shuttleworth, Montrose, in 1821 – and Margaret Wishart, at the Cross of Forfar in 1827.

Donald J. Jolly

 

Part Two: The Trial