Let Me Remind You… Half Hangit Maggie
Trigger Warning: child loss, possible infanticide.
The salty dampness of her palms ironed wrinkles into her apron as she twisted and untwisted the linen in her hands. Maggie Dickenson awaited her sentence from the judge. She knew she would be charged, but with what, she wasn’t sure. She thought about the little baby she laid on the side of the riverbank. Her stomach still hurt from the birth just days ago. With no family in Edinburgh and her estranged husband, a fisherman, who didn’t know where she’d gone, she was alone. She couldn’t count on the baby’s father, her employer’s son, to be at the birth—or the trial.
She had tried to conceal her pregnancy as long as she could, which is what ultimately became her sentencing: concealment of pregnancy. In 1724, this was a real, punishable law. But what choice did she have? She would have been run out of town, or at the very least, definitely fired from her job and chastised. After all, she was still married, and the baby wasn’t her husband’s. She just needed some time to save some money and figure things out.
She tried to smooth the wrinkles out of her apron, but it was useless. And what would it matter? Soon she would be hanging from her neck in the Grass Market, in front of a crown of men and women, who wouldn’t even be looking at the wrinkles on her apron. Men and women, who thought she murdered her own baby by drowning it in the River Tweed. What they didn’t know was that she could never do such a thing.* She and her husband already had two children; she would have more, given the opportunity– and a husband that didn’t hit her.
When Maggie arrived in Kelso (a town near Edinburgh), she got a job as a fish and salt vender, but when that wasn’t enough to pay the bills, she took a job at a local inn. The proprietor’s son was younger than her, but relentless, and so charming. Eventually she gave in to him and they had a lustful affair for months before she became pregnant.
No one seemed to notice her pregnancy and up until the end she thought she had gotten away with it. Even up until the moment she gave birth by herself and laid the child, bundled up on the riverbank. She had tried to fling the baby into the river, but she couldn’t, she was too weak. Or maybe she was too weak mentally. No one was supposed to find the child, but they did. And here we are.
Maggie thought she was almost free when they had no proof that she killed the baby herself; It was born stillborn. But the damned physician said that the lungs aspirated water. Even then, the admission of pregnancy that no one else knew about, that was still punishable by death.
She was sweating, her whisps of hair sticking to her forehead. The pounding of blood in her ears prevented her from hearing the judge, but as if it went quiet for just the right length of time, she heard:
“…Death by hanging.”
Her head dropped and a tear fell from each eye. One for her and one for her child. The guards came to her, grabbing her by an arm each, and dragging her out of the courtroom. She tried to walk, but her legs wouldn’t cooperater. Her body tingled with numbness.
A crowd gathered around the gallows as Maggie was brought through the town square. She tried to tell people that she didn’t kill her baby, but it was no use. They didn’t believe her, and anyways, that’s not what she was being hung for. Her throat tightened with each step towards her death, choking her before the noose was even upon her neck. The roaring of foul words and shouting from the crowd deafened her thoughts.
The executioner placed the bag over her head and noose was tight but still rested on her shoulders. It was heavier than she imagined. The twine poked and bristled her skin. Soon it won’t matter. She told herself. Without warning, she heard a THWAP and fell until she was dangling from a knot behind her head. The hangman had forgotten to tie her hands behind her back and she reached up and squeezed a couple fingers between the rope and her flesh. The thumping of her artery pressed against her cold fingers. Then the blackness took over.
The physician came to pronounce her deceased. Once he did that, her body was placed into a coffin and hoisted onto a carriage. Her family had fought against the doctors who wanted her body for study, and they won. She would be brought home to her birthplace of Musselburgh, just a few miles outside of Edinburgh.
despite what would be a 25-minute drive today, the men that were taking her body were apparently in no rush and decided to stop for a pint at a watering-hole just outside of town, body-and-all.
Maggie was in a state of delirium. Like that feeling you get after you wake up from a nap. The pain on her neck reminded her of what just happened. Her eyes blinked open to nothing but black. She assumed with the pain in her neck, her throbbing headache and the confinement of the dark space was an indication that she was in Hell. But she could hear voices outside of the space; men laughing and glasses being placed on the table, the clinking of coins at a nearby card game. That’s when she started banging on the sides of the wooden coffin. She tried to scream, but nothing but a high-pitched whisper was coming from her sore throat. She kicked and punched until she saw a crack of light coming through the lid; three sets of eyes peering in. The men removed the top of the coffin and Maggie propped herself up on to her elbows. Before she could speak, the men screamed and ran off.
Eventually she was taken before the Judge again. No one knew how to handle such a situation and Maggie herself didn’t know what to expect. To her relief, the judge declared that she had fulfilled her sentence: She was hung until pronounced dead and now she was free to continue her life.
Maggie did continue her life. At some point her husband returned to her and apparently turned a blind eye to the whole situation because they continued their marriage and had a few more children themselves, the first coming just 10 months after her hanging.
Within the years to come, the concealment of pregnancy law was laxed, but they did change the wording: “to be hanged until dead” to “Death by hanging” in order to make sure that any future death penalties would result in an actually dead person.
Over the years, Maggie became a bit of a sensation through Edinburgh; a celebrity, you could say. She made money off of just being the woman who survived a hanging, people would send her jewelry and other things so she and her husband lived a very comfortable life. Maggie ended up living another 40 years and even had a pub named after her in Edinburgh. Right in the Grass Market, where she was hung.
*It’s unknown for sure whether she killed the baby, or it was born stillborn. For the sake of the story, I picked one.
***This was written to be a dramatized version of the real story. While the facts are there, artistic license was taken.