Maggie Dickson: Convicted, Sentenced, Hanged, and Lived

Updated on July 31, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Urban legends have always fascinated Phyllis. Some of them frighten her, but she will write about them anyway.

Mary King's Close
Mary King's Close | Source

Maggie Haunts Mary King's Close

In Edinburgh, Scotland, when walking through Mary King's Close at night near Grassmarket, one may encounter the ghost of a woman named Maggie who was accused of murdering her baby in 1729 — Maggie Dickson was convicted, sentenced and hanged, yet lived another forty years after her "execution."

A Close is a passageway under buildings in the old part of Edinburgh. It makes for easy access from one area to another, avoiding traffic and busy walkways above ground. These passageways under the main streets are shrouded in myths and urban legends. Many witnesses from times past, and even today, claimed to have seen the ghost of Maggie in the Close near where she was hanged.

Maggie Dickson was born sometime around 1702, in Musselburgh, five miles east of Edinburgh. She grew up in the same area and married a fisherman when she was about 20. The husband abandoned her not long after they married. It is not sure why he left or where he took off to. Being alone, Maggie had to find a way to support herself and was able to find a job at an inn in Kelso, in exchange for room and board. Kelso lies in the bend of River Tweed and the confluence of River Teviot, which in early days, made Kelso the center for commerce. Kelso is still the largest Market Square in Scotland.

River Tweed in Scotland Where the Baby was Found

River Tweed in 2004
River Tweed in 2004 | Source

Baby on the Bank of River Tweed

Working at the pub, Maggie was in daily contact with the innkeeper's son, whom she had a relationship with. When Maggie found herself pregnant, she did not tell anyone. Concealing her pregnancy, she continued to work. She knew that if anyone found out she was pregnant, she would lose her job and be destitute. Apparently she did not tell her lover about the pregnancy, or if she did, he did nothing to help her in any way. Although alone and pregnant, Maggie was technically still married.

Maggie continued to work till the day her child was born in a field, where she had gone to give birth in secrecy. Whether the baby was still born or died shortly after birth, is not known for sure. It is known, however, that Maggie left her dead baby on the bank of River Tweed.

A man working in his fields found the baby and took it to authorities in town. Somehow the dead baby incident was traced back to Maggie.

Maggie was arrested and charged either with the "Concealment of Pregnancy Act," or the murder of her baby — quite possibly with both charges. Yet, the Concealment of Pregnancy Act, which was passed in 1690, was enough on its own to sentence Maggie to death, for, it was a capital punishment law at that time.

On September 2, 1724, Maggie was taken, along with other prisoners who were sentenced to death, to the Grassmarket public square and hanged. She was taken down and pronounced dead. Maggie was put into a coffin, onto a wagon, then taken by family and friends to Musselburgh for burial.

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Out of the Coffin

The journey by foot to Maggie's final resting place would be a long one. On the way there, the group stopped at a pub to have drinks and refresh themselves. As they returned to the wagon, a loud banging came from the coffin. They quickly pried open the lid and found Maggie was alive. They helped her out of the coffin, gave her the care she needed, then took her home.

The news of Maggie's survival spread quickly; lore and legends began soon after as the story was verbally repeated over and over. The law declared that since Maggie's survival was an act of God, she was absolved of all charges. She had been tried, sentenced and executed according to the law.

Maggie lived for another forty years. A pub in Grassmarket, facing the public square where Maggie was hanged, bears the name of Maggie Dickson's Pub. Out front of the pub is a stone marker that tells Maggie's story.

Dates and actual details have become fuzzy over the years, but, Maggie was real, as is her story. For the rest of her life, she was known by locals as "Half Hangit Maggie."

Jefferson Burst - Hangman's Fracture

When a person is hanged, it breaks the neck at the C2 vertebrae, the axis. The rope around the neck causes a fracture of what is called "hangman's fracture." In medical terms, it is a fracture of the pars interarticularis at the axis.

In the case of an execution type hanging, a forcible hyper extension of the head is caused by the noose being placed under the chin, thus when the body drops, a distraction of the neck occurs from the weight of the body.

If a person receives a Jefferson burst from an accident, it could cause damage to the spinal cord which can cause neurological problems or paralysis.

A halo traction device plus a cervical collar will often be used to stabilize the neck and upper body after a Jefferson fracture. There are cases where many have survived this type of broken neck, and with proper bracing and therapy can be healed and return to a normal life.

It is obvious that Maggie Dickson did not receive a Jefferson burst, "hangman's fracture," or broken neck. Somehow, she survived this fate and lived a normal life after her execution. Some say that Maggie lived a quite normal life after the execution and bore other children over the following years.

Shadow of the Bibbet, Where the Gallows Once Stood

This memorial was placed on the site of the gibbet (gallows) in 1937.
This memorial was placed on the site of the gibbet (gallows) in 1937. | Source

Grassmarket in Present Time

Grassmarket Re-developed 2009-2010
Grassmarket Re-developed 2009-2010 | Source
A
Grassmarket, Edinburgh, Scotland:
Grassmarket, Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh EH1 2JU, UK

get directions

Grassmarket where the public gallows was.

B
Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, Scotland:
The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh EH1 1PG, UK

get directions

C
River Tweed:
Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, UK

get directions

River Tweed area where the baby was found.

One of the most haunted places on earth -

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns

    Comments

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      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Graham, I am so glad you enjoyed reading about Maggie. I thank you for the great compliments and votes.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        Hi Phyllis. This the second of your hubs that I have read. I found it to be first class. Context, content and photographs.

        voted up and all and following.

        Graham.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Thank you, Mary. My sister is a remarkable woman and, yes, a woman of determination. She is now doing great, even back to driving again. It is so wonderful to see her doing so well. She does have some limitations, but, is happy to be alive and lives for the moment, enjoying each one. Thanks again for your kindness and blessing.

      • tillsontitan profile image

        Mary Craig 

        5 years ago from New York

        So sorry yet glad to hear about your sister. She must be a woman of determination for sure! God bless her.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Yes, it was amazing that Maggie survived her ordeal. Since she had been executed, the court said her sentence had been carried out by law, so she was free to go. Thanks for your visit and comment.

      • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

        Claudia Mitchell 

        5 years ago

        Wow - Interesting story and amazing that she survived.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        tillsontitan, thanks for stopping by. I always like reading your comments. it is much appreciated. Yes, Maggie has a very interesting story. I was determined to find out for myself about the laws back then and there is a mega-ton of information on it if one knows what to search for. I also had to research about the Jefferson Burst/Fracture because this happened to my sister about 2 years ago. She fell forward, hit her head on a sliding glass door and it caused the fracture in her neck that is the same as the "hangman's fracture". She has survived and has returned to an almost normal life. Of course there are things she can no longer do, but with determination, will power, proper bracing, good doctors, and a lot of prayer, she is alive and well.

        Thanks again for your visit and comment.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Eddy, thank you. I so enjoyed finding out about Maggie. I wish there was more to her story that I could read. It is too bad she did not keep a journal or write about the rest of her life after being "executed". Thanks again, Eddy. I always appreciate your visits and comments.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Mike Robbers, what a joy to have you visit. Thank you so much for the comment, it is much appreciated. When I first heard about Maggie Dickson, I thought it must be an old folklore thing, that it could not be possible to be hanged and live. Research showed me how wrong I was. Maggie was very real and so is her story. Thanks again, Mike.

      • tillsontitan profile image

        Mary Craig 

        5 years ago from New York

        This was so interesting Phyllis. It is hard to imagine the life women had back then. Your backup history, medical information and story about Maggie all blend to make this a great hub!

        Voted up, useful, and interesting.

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 

        5 years ago from Wales

        This was such a gripping read Phyllis ;I loved it and have to vote up.

        Eddy.

      • Mike Robbers profile image

        Mike Robbers 

        5 years ago from London

        Incredible story, Phyllis and a very interesting hub that i enjoyed reading.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Sheila, thank you for the visit and comment. I am so glad you found it interesting. I was very intrigued when I first heard about Maggie Dickson. I appreciate you stopping by.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        MysticMoonlight, I so agree, Maggie was indeed a lucky woman. Thank you for the visit and comment, it is much appreciated.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        europewalker, thank you so much for the visit and comment. You are very kind with your praise and your visit is much appreciated. Thanks again.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Pam, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. There sure were some very unfair laws on the books back then. Maggie lived a pretty hard life, yet was very fortunate to have survived the hanging. Thanks for the vote, it is much appreciated.

      • profile image

        sheilamyers 

        5 years ago

        Great hub! I've heard the story of the ghost, but not the details about Maggie. Very interesting and informative.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        LTM, It must have been interesting to live in Scotland -- that area of the world is so rich in history and also legends. I tend to agree with you that Maggie was fortunate to have not been in Edinburgh when she awoke and came out of the coffin. Thanks for the visit and comment.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Michele, thank you for the visit and comments. About a year ago, my brother came home from Europe, had visited Scotland, and told me about Maggie Dickson's pub and her nickname. I was so intrigued I just had to research further. Thanks for the vote, it is much appreciated.

      • profile image

        MysticMoonlight 

        5 years ago

        Interesting story and Hub. I've never heard this story before now and found it intriguing. She was a very lucky woman!

      • europewalker profile image

        europewalker 

        5 years ago

        Interesting read. I like your writing style and subject matter Phyllis, keep them coming :)

      • Pamela-anne profile image

        Pamela-anne 

        5 years ago from Miller Lake

        I enjoyed your hub I myself was born in Dumbarton, Scotland; I am glad I wasn't there in the time period poor Maggie was. Thanks for sharing this historical story - voted up! Hope you will stop by and read a hub or two of mine when you have time, take care pam:)

      • LongTimeMother profile image

        LongTimeMother 

        5 years ago from Australia

        I used to live in that part of the world. You did an awesome job of recounting the story.

        I'm just glad they were taking her back to Musselburgh to bury her. Her story might otherwise have had a very different outcome. :)

      • Michele Travis profile image

        Michele Travis 

        5 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

        This is a very interesting hub. Not only the story, but the medical details on how a person can live after being hanged. Well, and how hanging would kill a person.

        Voted up.

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