The remarkable story of Margaret Dickson illustrates how church and state often worked hand in hand to create untold suffering for women, especially when it came to reproductive issues. Fortunately for all us, we live in a much more enlightened age.
Infanticide in the Age of Reason
When it comes to matters sexual or reproductive, women have throughout history, usually been society's victims. Such is the case of one Scottish peasant named Margaret Dickson.
In order to tell properly her following horrific story, we have to explore the historical background a little.
Before the Age of Reason really got a foothold, one notorious social problem was infanticide- the murder of a child within a year of birth. This type of crime was, as one historian put it, "woefully common." As a crime, it has long been considered the most contrary to human nature since the love of a helpless baby would, on the surface, appear to be ingrained in our maternal instincts and our universal sense of self-preservative.
What kind of pressure could induce any woman to commit such a heinous crime?
Yale history professor Keith Wrightson sheds a bit of light on the subject:
While it was certainly not a generally tolerated practice, infanticide would appear to have had a considerable currency in the disposal of a minority of unwanted, predominately illegitimate children.
It was unsurprisingly both a capital crime by the state and an unpardonable sin by the Church. And yet, many historians theorize that it was a fairly common practice at that time.
One of the problems, according to Professor Lisa Zunshine's book Bastards and Foundlings: Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-century England, was that infanticide-preventative measures by both the church and state often worked at cross-purposes. The punishment imposed by law and the stigma invoked by Church morality and society, in general, created a situation that led to tragic consequences for some women.
On the other hand, a 1624 Jacobean statute ... dispensed with the presumption of innocence and declared that if an unwed woman concealed the birth and death of her child, she would automatically be accused of child murder.In practical terms, this particular combination of laws meant that the fear of corporal punishment and public ostracism would often prompt the unwed woman... to conceal her pregnancy and try to get rid of the child as soon as it was born even though the 1624 statute targeted precisely this sort of behavior.
As Kieth Wrightson points out, a "thorough investigation of infanticide.. raises the disturbing possibility that Christian social morality may have exacerbated the resort to infanticide to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy."
the most universal solution to periodic overpopulation in pre-industrial societies. It was used to control population and, at times, the sex ratio where the sexual division of labor dictated. Some groups practiced infanticide because, in the absence of medical techniques, it was less risky and painful than abortion.
She also adds that if infanticide is not acceptable today, it may be because we have better birth control methods, not because we are morally superior.
Without the modern advantage of safe abortive measures or dependable birth control methods, it was all too easy for the women- and there were no equitable punishments for men- to find themselves trapped and desperate.
It is shocking to remember that for the first time in the history of humankind, the number of a woman’s children can be limited effectively without endangering her health or life of the mother. As one source notes:
Until about 100 years ago, it was less dangerous for a woman’s health to carry an unplanned child to term and then kill it than to attempt an abortion.
With all this in mind, let us now turn to the story of convicted infanticide, Margaret Dickson.
On the Banks of the River Tweed
The small community of Musselburgh, Scotland sits about five miles due east of Edinburgh. It was here in the early eighteenth century that Margaret Dickson, the unlikely heroine of our story, was born. Her life, as the young wife of a fisherman and mother of several children, had not been a particularly unusual one.
When her husband was called up for Navy as part of the British fleet, Margaret, still a young woman of about 21, found herself alone. During this time she had an affair with a neighbor with whom she became pregnant. (Another version of the story has Dickson working at a local inn and having relations with the owner's son.)
Of course, the very idea of a pregnancy from adultery was a scandal, but especially in a close-knit and religious community. According to a pamphlet on the case, the stigma was much more than just gossip, disparaging remarks or a cold shoulder.
In Scotland every woman who was guilty of fornication, was obliged to sit on a seat in the most conspicuous place in the church, three different Sundays, when she received a public rebuke from the minister.
This punishment was so intimidating that many women would have preferred to do anything rather than to endure the public disgrace, including the murder of the newborn child.
The source above tells us that nothing was more common than for the women of the community- even those who might not have gone to church for years- to enter just to hear of the shameful acts of another woman. So conditioned were women at the time, there was very little compassion for the woman who found herself in Dickson's situation.
Even though she was clearly pregnant, Dickson denied the obvious to her neighbors. Eventually, the time came and Dickson went into labor and delivered the baby. However, what is not clear is whether the child was born alive or not.
In any case, the premature child died at some point after it was born- as later determined by a physician. Near her home on the banks of the local river Tweed, the tiny body of a newborn child was found. Dickson was apprehended on suspicion of murder and committed to Edinburgh prison. Additionally, the authorities examined Dickson and determined "there were to be seen about her all the appearances of a delivery."
When questioned, she admitted the baby had been hers but maintained that it had already been dead and that she had no harmed the baby. Her only crime, she confessed, was in the way in which she tried to conceal the body. (As noted, for unwed mothers, even concealing a pregnancy was a capital crime.)
She admitted that the fear of ostracism and ridicule and shame had prompted her to hide her pregnancy. She, in fact, had been so afraid of exposure that when she went into labor, she had refused even to seek assistance from her neighbors. No midwife had been summoned for the same reasons.
It was, she said, for this reason, that she had lapsed into unconsciousness. Whether the child was alive at the time of its birth, she could not honestly say. Upon awaking, she claimed, the baby was dead.
To her credit, while in prison, she seemed deeply penitent for her sins, admitting that she had indeed had been disloyal to her husband. Even then, she denied that she had murdered her child.
Based on that evidence, including the testimony of a physician, Dickson was found guilty of the murder of her infant, for which she was to hang by the neck until she was dead.
While many might have been sympathetic, few actually believed her version of events. Right up to days of her execution, she continued to protest her innocence.
All to no avail.
On the Saturday morning of September 2, 1724, Dickson was brought from the prison. There she was hanged in the public square known as Grassmarket, in the shadow of Edinburgh castle.
Unlike many public hangings, Dickson's case from all reports did not draw large crowds. With the grim task carried out as order by the local executioner by order of the Sheriff of the district, the body was then left hanging for what was considered the requisite length of time.
Afterward, her body was cut down and handed over to her friends for the proper internment. Her body was put into a coffin at the execution site and loaded into a handcart to be brought back from Edinburgh to her hometown. (This was in fact, a stroke of luck, since in most cases, the bodies of convicted murderers would have been turned over to medical schools for dissection classes.)
Along the way, it seems, the entourage stopped at a village in order to refresh themselves at a tavern. While they were sitting there drinking and talking, one of them looked up and happened to see the lid of the coffin move. With some obvious hesitation, he carefully and slowly slid the top of the coffin off. At that moment, much to the horror of the crowd, Margaret Dickson sat up in her coffin. Needless to say, the event immediately cleared the room. Every person in the tavern "took to their heels, almost killed with fear."
Now a skilled and experienced mortician will tell you that a corpse can sometimes behave in eccentric ways. This is usually blamed on trapped gasses or natural muscular reflexes. In the case of Margaret, however, what occurred was, without a doubt, an actual resurrection.
Unbelievably, this was not the first time such a thing had occurred. Survival after blundered executions is not quite as uncommon as you might think.
The book, Amazing True Stories of Execution Blunders by Geoffrey Abbott gives us a pretty good idea what can go dreadfully wrong when executions are left in the hands of incompetents.
Back to our story. a gardener who happened to have been at the tavern had the bright idea of opening a vein of the newly revived Dickson. This was the remedy for all things at the time and apparently didn't make the young woman any worse off.
Within hours, according to our source, Margaret was well enough to be able to go to bed where she spent the night. By the next morning, she had recovered enough to walk the remainder of the journey (some 3 miles, by my reckoning) to Musselburgh.
The Scottish Loophole
In some cases, as awful and unjust as it might seem, a botched hanging would necessitate a second try. That was the typical response. (In one case, when an "executed" prisoner unexpectedly awoke from death in the morgue, a quick-thinking attendant picked up a hammer and finished the executioner's work.)
However, things were more fortunate for Margaret Dickson. Scottish law, built on the ancient Roman law, states ‘a person against whom the judgment of the Court has been executed can suffer no more in future, but is thenceforth totally exculpated;
Meaning, that every person upon whom the judgment of the court has been rendered- that is, a person that has been punished- cannot be forced to suffer again. In effect, that punishment has been officially absolved forever. (To rectify this, the words "until dead" were later added to all execution orders so that nobody could escape a secondary round of punishment.)
Remarkably, the King's lawyer could not pursue her any further. Its concern in the matter was complete. Instead, the King's legal representative filed a bill in the High Court of Justiciary against the Sheriff, for his failure to properly carry the court's judgment.
There is yet another twist in the Dickson case. The law also states:
and it is likewise held that the marriage is dissolved by the execution of the convicted party; which indeed is consistent with the ideas that common sense would form on such an occasion.’
Since technically the young woman had, in the eyes of the law, been executed, she was legally- but not literally- dead. Therefore, her marriage was also dissolved.
Her widowed husband agreed a few days later to forgive her for straying and married her a second time, with, as the source reports, thousands turning up to witness. If ever there was an unexpectedly happy ending this must be it. For her harrowing survival, she was given the name ‘Half-hanged Meg.’
Later Dickson reportedly had several more children and obtained a job selling salt in Edinburgh marketplace, her second and final death not occurring until 1753.
* * * *
The story illustrates, I think, what can go wrong when Church and State conspire to eliminated common sense choices for women. The only unusual aspect of the Margaret Dickson case was that she somehow- against the odds- managed to survive.