The Dark History of Half Hangit Maggie

On September 2nd, 1724, a young woman named Margaret Dickson faced a crowd of onlookers booing her, excited to see her fall to her death, hanged on a gibbet in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh.

However, about an hour after Maggie was declared dead and lying in a coffin, making her way to Musselburgh to be buried by her family – she woke up.  

From this day forward, Maggie Dickson would now be called Half Hangit Maggie.

Edinburgh Castle from the Vennel - Half Hangit Maggie

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Walk the Path of Half Hangit Maggie in Edinburgh

Do you want to visit the places in Edinburgh where Maggie Dickson lived and died? (Well, almost!) Check out the sites that Maggie walked over 300 years ago.

The Shadow of the Gibbet

Visit the Shadow of the Gibbet in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. What was once the location where public executions took place now sits a round memorial stone and a shadow created with dark stones leading to Maggie Dickson’s pub.

Maggie Dickson’s Pub

Stop for a drink in the pub dedicated to the history and life of Maggie Dickson. The pub in the Grassmarket is just steps away from the site where Maggie was hanged.

Tolbooth Prison Entrance

In front of St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile sits a mosaic heart on the pavement. This heart is known as the Heart of the Midlothian and was once the entrance of the Old Tolbooth Prison where Half Hangit Maggie was held awaiting her trial and hanging.

Walk from the old Tolbooth Prison to the Grassmarket

Want to walk the same path that Maggie walked on the day of her execution? Start at St. Giles, the heart of the Midlothian, down towards Victoria Street to the Shadow of the Gibbet in the Grassmarket.

The Sheeps Heid Inn – Duddingston

The Sheep’s Heid Inn is located in the Duddingston area of Edinburgh and is said to be the public house where Maggie came back from the dead. Stop in for a pint and your favourite Scottish meal as you stare out the window and wonder what was going through the mind of the cart driver as he saw Maggie spring to life from inside her coffin.

Who was Half-Hangit Maggie?

Half Hangit Maggie is known as the woman who survived a hanging in Edinburgh in 1724.

Margaret Dickson was born in 1702 in one of Scotland’s oldest seaside towns, Musselburgh (or at least on the outskirts of Musselburgh.) and lived a very simple life. Like most of Scotland in the 18th century, her family was quite religious.

She married her husband when she was 20 and they happily lived together. That is, until one day, he vanished, seemingly deserting her and leaving Maggie to fend for herself.

No one truly knows where her husband went, so it is a bit of a mystery, but numerous theories have been speculated, including being forced to join the Royal Navy or moving away to find work in another town. However, his absence left Maggie poor and almost destitute.

To survive, Maggie was forced to move into a small town named Kelso near the River Tweed, where her fate truly changed forever.

What Crimes Was Maggie Dickson Charged With?

Maggie took a job at an inn and worked as a domestic in exchange for lodgings. While working and living in Kelso, Maggie took a liking for the innkeeper’s son and became pregnant with his child. Now while her husband did desert her, she was technically still married. So, the baby was considered illegitimate as he was born from an affair.

And back in the 1700s, this was not okay. Women were humiliated and treated as outcasts in town, losing friends and being disowned by family. Not only that but they were even forced to sit in specific chairs in church so people would know who to humiliate and judge. It was a good time.

So, women would secretly hide their pregnancies and destroy their babies, which is exactly what happened to Maggie.

To avoid losing her job, Maggie attempted to hide her pregnancy, but the changes to her body became obvious. The rumours of her being pregnant from adultery spread around Kelso. So, when the body of a dead infant turned up on the banks of the River Tweed, it was pretty easy to trace the crime back to Maggie.

She finally admitted that the baby was hers but said he was born prematurely. She didn’t have time to get to a midwife for assistance. Even if she did get assistance with her baby’s birth, Maggie said he was stillborn. She knew she had to dispose of the baby’s body.

Distraught, she brought her baby to the River Tweed to send his body down the river as her form of burial. However, it is claimed that she couldn’t bring herself to put her baby in the river and left the body on the riverbank instead.

Half Hangit Maggie – The Scottish Woman Who Survived A Hanging

Why Wasn’t Half-Hangit Maggie Charged with Infanticide?

While no one is certain what happened, some speculate that she drowned her child. Doctors at the time, using very inaccurate tools, stated that the baby had been alive because he had water in his lungs.

This wasn’t enough evidence to convict her of infanticide, but she will still be charged with concealing her pregnancy. Maggie was convicted by an all-male jury. She was charged under the Concealment of Pregnancy Act for hiding the pregnancy and birth of her child. Both were considered capital crimes.

Her sentence? To be hanged to death.

She was sent to the old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh, infamous for its horrific conditions. Many criminals were chained to the wall, and prisoners would die in within quite regularly. Maggie did end up confessing to hiding her pregnancy while in prison. However, she was adamant about her innocence in the death of her child.

None of this mattered, though; on a cold September morning in 1724, Maggie was brought to the gibbet in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.

The Grassmarket Gibbet marker in Edinburgh - The Place where Half Hangit Maggie was hanged

The Day Maggie Dickson Became Half Hangit Maggie

Maggie walked from the Tolbooth prison towards the Grassmarket to meet her grisly end. The Grassmarket was packed with people, excitedly chatting with each other  – waiting to throw stones and yell at the criminals about to be hanged.

Walking through the chanting and the humiliation of people taunting her, Maggie made her way to the gibbet and under the ominous shadow of the nearby Edinburgh Castle – the hangman’s noose was wrapped around her neck, and she was dropped to her death.

However, Maggie didn’t die. At least not right away. Most people will die from a broken neck once their body drops, but on occasion, people will survive the fall and hang until they finally die.

Usually, this will happen when the rope is too short to cause enough force on the drop to cause death – which is a horrible way to die. It isn’t certain if this happened during Maggie’s execution. However, there are many speculations as to what happened to cause her prolonged survival.

Why is Maggie Dickson called Half Hangit Maggie?

Half Hangit (or Half Hanged) means that Maggie survived being hanged to death. She was only “half hanged” because she lived to tell the tale. However, she still sustained injuries from her botched execution.

How did Half Hangit Maggie Survive?

Some say she seduced the hangman, and he loosened her rope so she wouldn’t break her neck in the fall. Others say the hangman forgot to tie her hands before hanging her. This allowed her to slide her hands between the rope and her neck, causing her to survive the drop.

No one truly knows, but it is said that they removed her hands. She hung freely for 30 minutes before being cut down and taken away in a coffin to be buried by her family.

I have a few theories about her survival, including being hanged on a short rope. This would cause injuries but not necessarily death. Or, she may have fainted, which could be why she was pronounced dead. No offence to the medical doctors of the 1700s, but their practice and experience weren’t very reliable.

This isn’t why she is known as the woman who survived being hanged, nor is it how she got the nickname Half Hangit Maggie.

Once she was hanged, she had to stay hanging for 30 minutes before she was officially pronounced dead and then sent on her way to her burial. She gained her nickname because an hour after she was hanged – she woke up on the back of a carriage in a wooden coffin.

Half Hangit Maggie Woke up from the Dead

Once loaded into a coffin and put onto a cart – Maggie was sent on her way to Musselburgh from Edinburgh when they stopped at a nearby pub for food and drinks. The pub they stopped at was called The Sheep Heid Inn and still stands today! It is located in Duddingston in the Peffermill area and has been standing since the 1300s.

Noises and movement were noticed from within the thin wooden coffin. The cart driver went to investigate and noticed Maggie was trying to get out of the coffin. Apparently, Maggie was jostled back to life due to the bumpy road conditions between Edinburgh and Musselburgh. This caused her to awaken from death.

Maggie was injured by the hanging. She had neck problems known as a hangman’s fracture and possibly a broken vertebra. So, she spent the night at the inn and felt well enough to walk herself to Musselburgh the next day. She could fully heal before going back to Edinburgh to face the courts.

How did Half Hangit Maggie Change Scottish Laws Forever?

The council was shocked she was alive. However, according to laws in Scotland, she was blessed with divine intervention and was pardoned. At the time, the laws in Scotland said that she could not legally be punished twice for the same crime.

However, after her survival, judges in Scotland changed the terms of the sentence from “hanged” to “hanged until dead” so this would never happen again.

Once pardoned, Maggie lived for another 40 or so years. She reunited with her husband, had several kids, and ran her own ale house.

Did Anatomy Students Actually Fight for Maggie’s Body?

Now, there have been stories that Maggie’s family had to fight to keep her body so they could bury her in her hometown of Musselburgh. Edinburgh is known for being a city with incredible medical history. It has renowned medical and anatomy schools that would bring in students from all over the world.

The problem with being so popular is the anatomy schools had trouble getting their hands on fresh cadavers that they could use to further learn about the human body.

Many anatomy classes only had access to bodies once or twice a year when criminals’ bodies were donated to the schools. This was not enough for the high demand from students.

So, over the years, people have claimed that medical students were desperate to claim Maggie’s body to take to Edinburgh’s Anatomy School for dissection.

How Anatomy Schools Got Cadavers in Scotland

In Scotland, most people refused to donate their bodies to science. So, the anatomy schools rarely had a chance to dissect bodies and were desperate to get their hands on a fresh corpse.

In an attempt to gain access to more bodies, things like grave robbing was prevalent. To combat this, watch towers were placed in graveyards. This way families could stay and watch over the grave of their loved ones to keep them safe from body snatchers.

Other security measures, like mort safes, were also used. A mort safe is an iron cage placed over a grave to prevent anyone from gaining access to bodies.

Another thing that occurred is that a family would hold onto the body of their passed family member until the body started to decompose before burying them. Eventually, grave robbing became a crime in 1832 with a new Anatomy Bill.

The Truth About Maggie vs Edinburgh’s Anatomy Schools

So, did this happen to Maggie? Were medical students desperately fighting to get her body so they could dissect her corpse?

And if this is the story, why were they fighting her family? As a criminal, her family wouldn’t have had to chance to decide, and her body would have been donated anyway.

The timing was off. So, I decided to look deeper to find the truth behind these rumours.

Maggie was hanged in 1724, and the first medical school didn’t open in Edinburgh until 1726. It is also one of the world’s oldest medical schools and the oldest medical school in the United Kingdom. There is a slim chance these rumours are true without an anatomy school nearby.

I found an article by the Surgeons Hall Museums that confirmed my suspicions. They agree that the story about anatomy students fighting to access Maggie’s body is not likely.

The Grassmarket Sign

Have Edinburgh Tour Guides Embellished Maggie’s History?

I think that over the years, tour guides and storytellers would add more information to Maggie’s story to make it seem more exciting. If you are into medical history or dark history, you will know that Edinburgh is known for grave robbing and that anatomy schools got cadavers in very shady ways.

After all, in Edinburgh, it is well known that a doctor named Robert Knox would purchase bodies from two men named Burke and Hare. They would lure victims in, suffocate them, then bring the body to Dr. Knox the next day. He paid them handsomely until they were caught.

I feel that the history was thrown in with Maggie. However, they didn’t look into the years that anatomy schools existed in Edinburgh, so they threw it in to make her story more interesting.

How is Half Hangit Maggie Remembered today?

Maggie’s legacy and memory are still told today. She now has a pub with her namesake in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. There is a stone marker where the gallows once stood. The shadow of the gibbet, now made of dark stone, leads you toward Maggie Dickson’s pub.

There are so many versions of her story it can be hard to decide what is fact and what is made up by the storytelling over the years.

People love to embellish certain things about her life to make her story seem darker than it really is. However, she was a real woman whose partial death led to the law being changed in Scotland, and her legacy still lives on in Edinburgh 300 years later.

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