Edinburgh, Execution and Embellishment

Edinburgh royal-mile-public-execution courtesy of www.news.stv
Edinburgh royal-mile-public-execution courtesy of http://www.news.stv

Towards the end of last week a fascinating diversion took me North of the border, into Scotland – Edinburgh to be precise. The Scottish Capital is a place I have great affection for after living there for 3 years in my early twenties and visiting and performing at the festival for many years. During my time there, I worked predominantly for press agencies and the BBC, so it is a nice coincidence that it is the press that brings me back to study it again.

While continuing on from my research last week on the 1868 Capital Punishment Act and resultant ‘privatising of capital punishment’, I was sent down a fascinating Carrollesque rabbit warren, that led me to the last public execution in Edinburgh. It is a brilliant example of the blurring of lines between fiction and fact in reporting and, more importantly, the temptation of modern popular histories to promote the salacious over the more sedate, but factually accurate, details.

My search turned to Edinburgh, when I began following the hangman Thomas Askern. He appeared last week, as the hangman who quite brutally botched the execution of Matthew Atkinson in 1865, the final public execution in the North East. Well, like most hangmen, it appears he had form. When I looked into the first private execution in the North East (John Dolan & John McConville 1869 at Durham Prison), I found an interesting piece of information in one article that suggested that Askern was the original appointment for hangman but pulled out because

of some intimidation arising out of the last execution at Durham, on which occasion the rope broke.

Newcastle Guardian & Tyne Mercury 27th March 1869

The fallout from the botched execution had obviously gone further than the parliamentary questions that were raised at the time. As it happens and perhaps in consequence of this (a fact I will look to discover) Askern is never invited back to officiate in the North East. The irony being that his replacement, William Calcraft, was one of the periods most infamous botchers.

Askern was originally the hangman of York.Like some hangmen of the time he was previously a convict – in Debtor’s prison.  As transportation links improved across the period, it was quite common for hangmen to travel far and wide and Askern was infrequently employed in Lincoln, Durham and Leeds. It is not so widely reported that he officiated in Scotland. However a chance google search for his name brought up his role in the last public hanging in Edinburgh, that of George Bryce in 1864, and an initial scour of websites seemed to suggest it was an infamous one for how spectacularly bodged it was – to the point that Askern was rushed out of the town in disguise, to avoid a baying mob.¹

A Plaque marking the site of the last public execution in Edinburgh (George Bryce 1846).
A Plaque marking the site of the last public execution in Edinburgh (George Bryce 1846). Courtesy of http://www.onlyinedinburgh.com

Naturally, I couldn’t avoid a bit of further research to get the full story and here is where the difficulty arose. When I started searching the British Newspaper Archives I could find no reports that backed this up, in fact the reports where quite to the contrary. The phrase, if it sounds too good to be true, was springing to mind.

Here are some of the interesting details that arise in the reports that make it hard to believe this happened.

To the anger of the crowd, the execution was to be enacted with a screen around the edge of the scaffold to block any view of the hanging body.This in itself is interesting in respect to the ‘public’ nature of the execution. When the drop was opened

The body fell three feet, and entirely dissappeared from the view of the public

Dundee Courier and Argus, June 22nd, 1864


Similarly, regarding the immediate aftermath of the execution.


Only the rope being seen, the vast crowd began immediately to disappear.

The Southern Reporter, June 23rd, 1864


With the body entirely out of sight, the crowd would have been unable to witness any struggle – yes they may’ve heard exertions from someone unduly suffering, but again no mention is made of this. With regards to any suffering witnessed there appeared to be some, but very minor – as the following reports indicate.


On making the fatal plunge, the body remained in perfect stillness for the space of about thirty seconds, after which a slight tremor of the spinal cord, a clutching of the fingers, and a slight drawing in of the foot were the only movements perceptible. There was no struggle whatsoever indicative of suffering.

Dunfermline Saturday PressSaturday 25 June, 1864 p.4


There were a few heaves of the chest, but Bryce’s death was swift and speedy.

Southern ReporterThursday 23 June 1864 p.3

Even The Times reported the same.

The executioner drew the bolt bolt, and, with a few slight struggles, the convict expired.

The Times, June 22, 1864. p.14

Also, with regards to the notion that the hangman was snuck out of town in disguise to avoid the baying mob, this again appears unsubstantiated. One thing that may account for a rush is his grief at the scene.

Askern’s duty being over he rushed back to the pinioning room and wept like a child – at what none asked, but some wondered curiously.

Southern ReporterThursday 23 June 1864 p.3

Another paper gave further detail for the tears.

Notwithstanding that he conducted himself with the greatest coolness, it was observed, as he came down from the scaffold, that tears were trickling down his cheeks. After his unenviable office was fulfilled, he entered into a room in the County Buildings and burst into crying, exclaiming that he hoped the Lord would forgive him, and then remarking that he had only been discharging a solemn duty.

Dundee, Perth, and Cupar AdvertiserFriday 24 June 1864 p.6

His actual exit appears to be a very public one from Edinburgh, far too public for his liking.

The executioner left for York by the 10.15 train on Tuesday night from the Waverley Station. He occupied a compartment of a third-class carriage alone, and shortly after taking his seat was recognised. The intelligence soon spread among those on the platform, and till the train started the carriage was surrounded by a curios crowd. Askern, however, sat with his back to the window during the whole time, and appeared inclined, if possible to shun Observation.

Dundee, Perth, and Cupar AdvertiserFriday 24 June 1864 p.6

Hangmen often had a certain infamy that they neither desired or encouraged, the following clip springs to mind.

So, that’s it – job done. As the trainee historian I have punctured a ‘myth’ of popular history. Lets leave it there. Sadly I can’t and perhaps there is no clear answer here as to which report is right – the salacious or the sundry. For what is clear above all things, is that the more one reads the cloudier the reporting gets. From a summary of ten papers you could quite easily be reading about ten completely different executions. The crowd are in one instance ‘decorous’ and displaying ‘model behaviour’ and in another a mob with a ‘tendency to drunken riot, rather than that of sorrow or regret. Similarly, the state of the body after execution is in some instances ‘serene and unharmed, with placid expression’ and in another ‘all purple and stiff.’

A few things do appear to be widely acknowledged and verified across the reports. These include the scale of the crowd, nearly all reports estimating it at between 15-20,000. Also, that at the point of execution ‘a thrill of horror’ or ‘audible shock’ went through the crowd at the moment of the fatal plunge. The final point of agreement is that the body was cut down  at 9am (the customary one hour after an execution) and then sent for interment at Calton Gaol.

The moral of the story then is never trust the press! Joking aside, the flagrant inconsistencies in reporting does not bode well for my dissertation – oh why can’t life be easy. It appears that the words of Mark Twain were as true as ever (if they were indeed his words!).

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Mark Twain

Mark Twain courtesy of http://underthetablebooks.com/
Mark Twain courtesy of http://underthetablebooks.com/

As a final aside, it should be noted, that in the case of Dolan and McConville (the genus of this story) Askern is reported to have delivered an error free execution. With no public to witness, it is hard to assess the veracity of this in light of this blog. All I would say is that the reporters caveat of the men dying ‘almost without a struggle’² does leave one with a certain amount of doubt.

1). There is a slew of websites that report this, from tourist sites, to crime and execution websites, hence not citing one in particular
2). Newcastle Guardian & Tyne Mercury 27th March 1869

Distraction 1: 

Continuing my love of Smiley Lewis (Nearly two weeks pretty much non stop now) I couldn’t resist putting on another of his tracks. The sentiment of this track is true for almost every person I am studying that met their sorry end of the gallows. Enjoy.

One night of sin,
Is what I’m now paying for
The things I did and I saw
Would make the earth stand still

Smiley Lewis – One Night of Sin

Distraction 2:

A great BBC series, The Secret History of Our Streets, was bizarrely enough in Edinburgh this week. In my past days working in TV production I briefly met the Producer (Jaime Taylor) on a ‘multi-platform’ course that we were both on and i think i’m right in saying it was that that the very early idea for the series arose. Sadly, i was nothing to do with it and given the outline of this blog, it’s probably going to turn out that i’m wrong anyway. Either way it’s a great series that you should watch and congratulations to Jaime for sticking with it and making such a successful series.




2 thoughts on “Edinburgh, Execution and Embellishment

    1. Thanks mate, surprisingly it’s got a fair number of views – should’ve tagged more execution posts to my comedy sketches, hope all is good with you mate. Ps. In two years time if you fancy writing 100,000 words when I’ve had a breakdown then let me know!

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