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Maggie Dickson: Convicted, Sentenced, Hanged, and Lived

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

Maggie Haunts Mary King's Close

Do you know this ghost story?

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 she 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.

Who Was Maggie Dickson?

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 known 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, long ago, made Kelso the center for commerce. Kelso is still the largest Market Square in Scotland.

River Tweed in Scotland where the baby was found (seen here in 2004)

River Tweed in Scotland where the baby was found (seen here in 2004)

The Baby on the Bank of River Tweed

Working at the pub, Maggie was in daily contact with the innkeeper's son, with whom she had a relationship. 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 stillborn 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's Arrest and Execution

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 and onto a wagon, then taken by family and friends to Musselburgh for burial.

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 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's Legacy

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."

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

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 hyperextension 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, they 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 a 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.

Grassmarket re-developed 2009–2010

Grassmarket re-developed 2009–2010

One of the Most Haunted Places on Earth

© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on October 30, 2013:

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

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on October 30, 2013:

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.


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 21, 2013:

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.

Mary Craig from New York on August 21, 2013:

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

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 21, 2013:

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.

Claudia Porter on August 21, 2013:

Wow - Interesting story and amazing that she survived.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 23, 2013:

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 Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 23, 2013:

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 Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 23, 2013:

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.

Mary Craig from New York on July 23, 2013:

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 from Wales on July 23, 2013:

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


Mike Robbers from London on July 23, 2013:

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

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 22, 2013:

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 Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 22, 2013:

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

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 22, 2013:

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 Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 22, 2013:

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.

sheilamyers on July 22, 2013:

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

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 22, 2013:

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 Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on July 22, 2013:

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.

MysticMoonlight on July 22, 2013:

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

europewalker on July 22, 2013:

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

Pamela-anne from Miller Lake on July 22, 2013:

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 from Australia on July 22, 2013:

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 from U.S.A. Ohio on July 22, 2013:

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.