The Execution of Margaret Wishart

The following article was published by the Edinburgh Observer on 22 June 1827 and concerns the execution of Margaret Wishart, who was convicted for the murder of her blind sister Jean in 1826.

This unfortunate woman, who was convicted at the Perth Circuit, in April, of poisoning her sister, Jean Wishart, a blind woman, who resided with her in Arbroath, suffered the awful sentence of the law at Forfar, on Saturday last.  It will be remembered, that she was also accused of the murder of a natural child, of which her sister had just been delivered; but the Jury found this part of the charge not proved.  The atrocious nature of the crime was sufficient to attract the public attention in no common degree; but an additional interest was created by the circumstance, that while she had all along asserted her innocence, many were of opinion that the evidence (which was altogether circumstantial) was far from conclusive.  When she arrived at Forfar, she entertained sanguine expectations of mercy, and these were festered by well-meant, but injudicious communications which she subsequently received.  A relation, having spoken decidedly as to the fallacy of these hopes, she became sullen and thoughtful; delirium succeeded, and her situation having been reported to the Crown Council, a respite for 14 days was granted; but before it arrived she had been restored to reason, and afterwards continued in a sane state of mind.  It was not until within eight days of the time fixed for her execution that she began seriously to prepare for death.  The gibbet and drop had for some time been in preparation, but the first public manifestation of what was going on was the appearance of a number of labourers, who, on Friday evening, proceeded to rail in a large space in front of the Town House; and, by one o’clock in the morning, all was completed.  In the mean time the unhappy object of these preparations was engaged in devotion, attended by Mr. Clugston & the Rev. Mr. Edie.  She evinced the greatest self-control, and indeed never left her composure of mind, except for an instant, when it was communicated to her that her arms must be pinioned.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, the special constables, about two hundred in number, and including all the respectable inhabitants liable to serve, took their station within the barricade in front of the Town House, and by two o’clock some thousand spectators had assembled.  The unhappy woman was brought from her cell pinioned, and as she passed the door of an adjoining apartment she shook hands with it’s inmates, and warned them to repent.  She walked along the passages of the gaol, and up stairs to the Town Hall without faltering, leaning on the arm of Mr. Clugston.  In the Town Hall the Town Council and some other gentlemen were assembled, and here she joined in singing part of a psalm, after which an impressive prayer was offered up by the Rev. Mr. Ranken, of Inverary.  At it’s conclusion she shook hands with the Magistrates and Ministers; and, after thanking them warmly for their attentions, intimated that she was ready to proceed to the scaffold.  Mr. Clugston now begged her, as a dying woman, to say whether she was guilty or not.  She answered, “I am not guilty, and God will plead my cause.”  She then stepped onto the platform, leaning on Mr. Clugston, preceded by the Magistrates, and was now, for the first time, presented to the view of the assembled multitude.  She was neatly dressed in black, with a white apron, and appeared to be about forty years of age.  After she was seated on a chair, and had opened her psalm book, which she held with a steady hand, the fifth hymn was sung, and Mr Clugston again had recourse to prayer.  He was deeply affected, and his earnest pleadings conveyed to the minds of the spectators lessons of humility, and the frailty of human nature, which cannot fail to influence their future lives.  The unfortunate culprit had stepped back a little, and when she returned, she was arrayed in the appurtenances of death.  A white cap covered her face, the fatal cord surrounded her neck, and the handkerchief, with which she was to give the signal, was in her hand.  She was placed on the drop, and remained in that situation for twenty-five minutes fevrently engaged in prayer.  In this last appeal, though she confessed herself a great sinner, and worthy of death, she again asserted her innocence of the crime for which she was to suffer.  She repeatedly shifted the handkerchief from the one hand to the other, as she concluded her prayer; nature struggled hard, reluctant to give the fatal signal.

At length it was necessary to inform her that the time fixed by the sentence was fast expiring: she faintly answered, “Two minutes yet,” and, after a solemn pause, lifting up her face to Heaven, she gave the signal – the drop fell, and in a moment, after one or two convulsive motions, she was a corpse.  The assembled multitude maintained a death-like stillness, and the first interruption of the solemn silence arose from the steps of crowds retiring from the scene.  The body, after having hung for three quarters of an hour, was cut down, put into a box, and sent off to Edinburgh, to Mr. Munro, for dissection.