Public Hanging in Edinburgh


I find the news at the moment discouraging and alarming.  Putin’s murder of Alexei Navalny – a brave, courageous man if there ever was one – coupled with a Russian advance in Ukraine primarily because America’s MAGA cult blocked an aid package, was the detritus at the bottom of a cess pool to finish things off.

Perhaps I am in a maudlin mood because of the chapter I’ve just written in the third book in my Major Gask series.  It’s set in Edinburgh, Scotland and relates the true story of the execution of George Bryce in 1864.  It’s a lesson from history about the depths of man’s inhumanity to man and maybe a small flame of hope in that people can be outraged too by brutal acts.  It is also a comment on the slow wheels of American justice – this murder took place in April, the trial was in May, the execution in June.  I’ve copied this chapter below.  It begins with Major Gask reading the paper at his breakfast table……


I was reading the papers the next morning.  The news was dominated by a public hanging that was due to take place tomorrow, Tuesday the 21st.  The condemned man was a George Bryce, a carter, who was described by one witness as a ‘drunken blackguard’.

The article described how a young girl, Jane Seaton was set upon the previous April in Ratho.  Jane’s employer and other servants heard her screams and came across Bryce, his knee pressed upon the poor girl’s breast, with his hands around her throat. They tore Bryce off the girl and she ran away, terrified.  However, Bryce was not finished, he struggled free and raced after her, catching Jane as she was hammering at a neighbour’s door, seeking refuge.  Then, in a rage, he cut the poor girl’s throat from ear to ear with a razor, killing her on the spot.

The guilty verdict had been an easy one with all the witnesses, even though Bryce pled insanity, and the hanging was to take place at the corner of George IV Bridge and The Lawnmarket.  A hangman from York in England, Thomas Askern, head been hired to carry out the execution as there was no official Edinburgh hangman.   

Glenn was fully aware of the story.  It had apparently been a topic that had angered the population of Edinburgh since the trial in May which had been followed closely by the papers so he had no interest in reading the article when I showed it to him.

When Rait came down for breakfast he was, however, more interested and after reading it noted, “It’ll be a carnival. Chaotic.  I cannot for the life of me understand why justice needs to be served in public”.   Then, on reflection he asked, “I wonder, would it be mawkish to observe how it goes down?  It would be instructive to observe the population and Scottish justice in action”.

In my own view, public hangings brought out the worst in people. They’d flock to see the spectacle from miles around. Stalls would be erected to sell trinkets, food and drink.  Pickpockets would be in their element.  But if Rait was going to observe the event, I would join him. There would be a large crowd and better that he had a companion to watch his back.

* * *

Throughout the night there was a general carousing on the streets below as people arrived to claim their places for the coming entertainment.  Indeed, it sounded more like a Hogmanay party than an execution.  I did my best to sleep through it all and I wondered how Bryce would be spending his last night on earth.

Come morning, a cloudy, relatively warm day, ten thousand or more had gathered to witness Bryce’s end.  There was a lot of dark humour, a general thirst for vengeance and a taut atmosphere.

We had walked the two minute journey from Glenn’s lodgings without incident and did our best to keep out of the way of the milling crowd, watching this part-carnival, part lynch-mob baying for Bryce to be executed with a detached demeanour.

A strong barricade had been erected around the scaffold between the County Prison and George IV Bridge and the crowd stretched along the bridge to the end of the County Prison and down the High Street as far as we could see.  At every corner, itinerant musicians and singers performed which, mixing with the curses and oaths, shouts and jostling, made the whole thing seem more like the Donnybrook Fair than an execution.

When Bryce did appear, he was wearing a white shirt buttoned up to the neck and a dark 3-piece suit.  He was of average height and build with unkempt black hair and he shuffled rather than walked,  accompanied by officers of the law.  A continuing barrage of stones and rotten vegetables followed him as he was led to the scaffold.  Some of the missiles struck the officers too.  The assault on Bryce continued as he mounted the scaffold and didn’t stop even as he stood, unmoving on the fatal trapdoor.   

The hangman fastened leather straps around Bryce’s limbs but he did so in a clumsy fashion, his fingers fiddling with the buckles.

“I think he’s the worse for drink” I remarked to Rait and Rait agreed, “It’s not a job I’d do sober”.

The abuse continued even as the minister tried to lead the condemned man in his final prayers with shouts and angry gesticulating from the crowd.

Then, the cap was drawn down over his head, the hangman tightened the noose and a hesitant hush settled on the crowd as if a calming mist had fallen.  The final signal was given, the trap door released, jeers and hoots of derision split the air.

And the body dropped.

But instead of disappearing from view behind the screened off area beneath the scaffold platform, Bryce dropped a mere two feet and was left dangling in full view of the assembled crowd.  Instead of having his neck broken as a skilled hangman would have effected, he was being strangled.  It was clear that the hangman had botched the hanging, having failed to cut the rope to the right length.

Bryce dangled there, suffering a slow strangulation.

A minute passed, and another.  Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Now the mood of the crowd was changing.  People were aghast, some women averted the eyes of their children from the cruel scene and the longer Bryce hung, suspended between life and eternity, the angrier they got.

The mob that had been throwing rotten fruit at Bryce a few minutes before were now berating both the authorities and Askern, the hangman, for allowing this horrific act of cruelty to continue.  Each second stretched into an eternity.

Thirty minutes and still Bryce was hanging, his strangulated breaths shallower and shallower. And now the town worthies who had attended to receive the approval of the crowd instead found themselves the targets of a very angry mob.  In an undignified scramble, ducking and weaving to avoid the missiles thrown their way, they scurried away from the scene in disarray like frightened rabbits.

Fights began to break out.  They spread like a rabid fire whipped by an angry wind. Then, in a concerted wave, the mob swarmed to the gallows intent on bringing the hangman to justice.

“I think we should go” I said to Rait who had been watching it all with detached calm.  We were only a couple of minutes from Glenn’s lodgings so we turned and hurried up Castlehill, brushing against men, women and children infected with the general febrile atmosphere.

We made it safely and clambered up the stairs.  In the drawing room, Mrs Barrie was at the window watching the chaos below and we all three stood there watching, wondering at man’s inhumanity to man.

* * *

I heard the next day that Askern had made his escape on the 10:15 train out of Waverly Station in a compartment that had been blocked off so no other passengers could reach him. Crowds had gathered around the train before it left, shouting obscenities.  And Askern sat with his back to the window, afraid to look at his accusers.

In the following days more was revealed.  I heard that the town councillors had hired this hangman because he was cheap.  But he was cheap for a reason.  Like all of York’s hangmen (there was more work for hangmen in England than Scotland), he had been in jail for debt when he was offered his freedom if he became a hangman. He was, however, incompetent with several broken ropes and a few slow-stranglings to his credit such that various authorities had simply refused to employ him.  But the penny-pinching Edinburgh worthies selected him nonetheless.

I wondered why they had let Bryce hang so long in the face of such mob anger until I read that they were legally prohibited from halting a sentence being carried out. Apparently a Margaret Dickson had been hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in 1724 but she woke after being cut down so, after that, the words ‘until dead’ were added to the death sentence — making it illegal to stop the sentence from being carried out before the last breath had been drawn.

The whole episode was a stain on the city that would take some time to erase. It was the first public hanging that I had witnessed and it would be my last.