In 1823 a prominent London physician, John Ayrton Paris, published a book in collaboration with a barrister called J. S. Fonblanque. Medical Jurisprudence was the first English-language textbook on the subject, and went through many editions. It was a valuable resource whenever the worlds of law and medicine overlapped – criminal trials, inquests, or claims of medical negligence.
It also contains a great many curiosities, such as this story about a murder trial and possible miscarriage of justice – a tale which in parts of Scotland has entered folk legend.
Margaret Dickson, of Musselburgh, was tried and convicted in Edinburgh in the year 1724, for the murder of her child; her conviction was accomplished by the evidence of a medical person, who deposed that the lungs of the child swam in water.
The conclusion drawn from this medical evidence: the child had been drowned. But Margaret maintained her innocence, and there were ‘strong reasons’ for doubting the verdict. For a start, the liquid in the child’s lungs might have been the result of infection – perhaps she had died of natural causes. Margaret also pointed out that she and her husband had been estranged and living apart for ten months. Her lawyer argued that the law relating to infanticide was
applicable only to unmarried women, as those who have husbands are under no temptation to murder their children.
A tenuous defence which the court rejected emphatically. Margaret Dickson was sentenced
To be hanged by the neck upon a gibbet until she be dead.
The end of the story? Well, it ought to have been.
After execution, her body was cut down, and delivered to her friends for the rites of interment; it was accordingly placed in a coffin, and sent in a cart to be buried at her native place, but the weather being sultry, the persons who had the body in charge stopped to drink, at a village called Peppermill, about two miles from Edinburgh.
A charitable interpretation might be that the undertakers had stopped for a glass of water, but the reference to a public house in the next sentence makes clear that they had decided it was time for a wee dram.
While they were refreshing themselves, one of them perceived the lid of the coffin move…
An event that would make me wonder whether I’d maybe had a drop too much.
…and uncovering it, the woman immediately sat up, and most of the spectators ran away with every sign of trepidation.
As well they might. Margaret Dickson had not literally risen from the dead, but the locals were not interested in hanging around for explanations. In fact the executioner had failed to do his job: the noose had not broken the woman’s neck, but merely asphyxiated her. Though she had appeared dead when cut down from the gibbet, she still had a faint pulse.
A person, however, who was in the public house immediately bled her, and in about an hour she was put to bed, and by the following morning, was so far recovered as to be able to walk to her own house, after which she lived twenty-five years and had several children.
Margaret Dickson, the woman who rose again from the dead, immediately became the most famous woman in Musselburgh. So you might be wondering why she wasn’t arrested and sent back to the gallows. A footnote explains:
A person against whom the judgment of the Court has been executed, can suffer no more in future, but is thenceforward totally exculpated; and it is likewise held, that the marriage is dissolved by the execution of the convicted party.
So the net result of her ‘execution’ was that Margaret was (a) pardoned; and (b) liberated from an unhappy marriage. A double Get Out of Jail Free card, in fact.
But there was a twist in the tale:
The husband of this revived convict, however, married her publicly a few days after her resuscitation; and she strenuously denied the crime for which she had suffered.
Convicted of murder, executed, married, had lots of children. It’s quite a life story.