Half-hangit Maggie Dickson: did anatomy students really squabble over her body?

The tale of Maggie Dickson has fascinated the public for centuries, but were the medical students really as involved as the story claims? Find out more in this blog from our Senior Research Fellow, Professor Ken Donaldson.

The 2nd September 1724 in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket saw the culmination of a set of shocking events that included a promiscuous wife, a dead illegitimate child, a failed hanging, and an alleged squabble between anatomy students for a body that later revived. On that day 22 year-old Margaret or ‘Maggie’ Dickson of Musselburgh was to be hanged in public for killing her newborn baby. In 1723 Maggie’s husband Patrick had been absent, possibly due to being press-ganged into the navy, leaving poor Maggie potentially destitute. Desperate to earn enough to support her two small children, she had gone to work in an Inn in Kelso and had grown close to the Landlord’s son. A baby was conceived and although she had attempted to conceal the fact that she was pregnant, the discovery of a dead newborn child on the banks of the nearby River Tweed lead to Maggie’s arrest. Found guilty at her trial, Maggie was sentenced to be hung and the date of 2nd September was set. She was duly hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and some sources report an unpleasant tussle between medical students, several of them attempting to grab her body and cut it down from the gallows, hoping to buy it from her family for anatomical dissection.

A pub in the Grassmarket named after Maggie Dickson

Fortunately for Maggie, as things turned out, her family wished her body to be decently buried and she was put on a cart to be taken to Musselburgh, 6 miles down the coast. Halfway en-route, however, the drivers felt the need for ‘refreshment’ and stopped at an Inn. When they emerged from the inn ‘refreshed’, Maggie was sitting upright in her coffin! Passers-by had heard tapping from inside the coffin and removed the lid and when Maggie sat up they had fled, fearing she was a ghost. In fact she was obviously a lady of robust constitution and after an hour or so she commenced walking the last few miles back to Musselburgh. Maggie lived a further 40 years and had several more legitimate children. The conundrum of whether her sentence had been fulfilled was examined by the Edinburgh legal fraternity, who concluded that Maggie had been formally punished by hanging and that she could not be legally punished twice for the same crime, so she was freed. However, it was said that thereafter the terms of the death sentence pronounced by judges was changed from ‘hanged’ to ’hanged until dead’.

The alleged tussle between students for what was taken to be Maggie’s corpse brings the Edinburgh trade in body-snatching to provide bodies for dissection into Maggie’s story. This trade was a direct result of the competition for bodies for dissection, between Edinburgh University Medical School and the 7 or so ‘extramural anatomy schools’ that grew up around it.  Burke and Hare’s murderous enterprise began in 1828 in response to this trade when they stumbled upon serial killing as an alternative revenue stream to body-snatching, after an old man died in Hare’s lodging house owing rent. The enterprising Hare decided to sell the body for dissection. Then, realising how rewarding and relatively easy murder could be, he and Burke sought out another 16 victims in the Grassmarket and sold their bodies for dissection, before eventually being caught.

Heriot’s Hospital from the Grassmarket, from an engraving showing view of George Heriot’s School from Victoria Street, inscr. ‘Heriot’s Hospital (as seen from foot of West Bow) Edinburgh.’ and ‘Drawn and Engraved by Thomas Dick.’ (SC934255) © RCAHMS. Licensor www.rcahms.gov.uk

However, 1724, the time of Maggie’s hanging, was a century before Burke and Hare and the University did not even have a Medical Faculty, it being only instituted in 1726.  So no extramural anatomy schools would have existed as competition to the University and so, by implication, there was no competition for bodies for dissection. In fact the first mention of an extramural medical school being set up in competition to the University was by two doctors from St Andrews University, in 1726. In that year Dr George Martine and Dr William Graeme tried to set up a school in basement rooms in Surgeons Square, near the Medical School, but there was considerable opposition, most likely from the University itself and they closed down in 1728.

The shadow of the gibbet with a pub named after Maggie Dickson in the background.

So a fight for possession of Maggie’s body seems most unlikely and it was probably added by later commentators to render the already lurid story of Maggie’s failed hanging even more so, by hinting at bodysnatching, another sensational aspect of Edinburgh’s dark history. A ‘shadow’ of a gibbet formed in stone on the ground at the East end of the Grassmarket, by the Covenanter’s memorial, now marks the original site of the gibbet where Maggie was ‘half-hangit’ 3 centuries ago. 

Covenanters Memorial and gibbet. Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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