Sunday 30 July 2023

Greenock's botched public hanging

At 3.15 on Friday 5 June 1812 a man, wearing “common clothes, vis a short blue coat, blue vest, white trousers and grey stockings”, stepped onto the scaffold which had been erected at the front of the Mid Kirk in Cathcart Square in Greenock.  His hands were tied behind his back, a white hood was put over his head and the noose adjusted around his neck.  There was a hushed silence from the large crowd assembled to view the hanging.  When he was ready, the man dropped a handkerchief as a signal to the hangman.  The drop was opened, and the condemned man fell to the ground.  There was a large gasp from the onlookers in the Square.  The unthinkable had happened – the rope had broken

Picture source - Greenock Burns Club

Half an hour later the process would be successfully completed and thus would end Greenock’s very first hanging.  The story which started some five months earlier, would have one more twist before drawing to its tragic conclusion.

On Sunday 11 December 1811, the Greenock police were informed that a burglary had been committed in Laigh Street (now Dalrymple Street) at the shop of James Jelly, grocer.  The area was described as “during the day a well frequented thoroughfare occupied by many respectable shopkeepers and men of business”. His shop, situated near the north end of what was formerly Harvie Lane, had been broken into.  About one o’clock in the morning the back door had been forced open and a large amount of goods had been taken.  The list of what was taken read – “a chest and a half of tea, 56 lbs of scale sugar, two loaves of refined sugar, 18 cheeses, 28 beef hams, 30 bacon hams; several flitches of bacon, value £15, 12 gallons of whisky, 6 pairs of bellows, 24 brushes, 10 stones of butter, 2lbs of tobacco £4 in British silver, 10 shillings in copper £2 in Irish Bank tokens, several shoe brushes, wine decanters crystal measures, tumblers, wine glasses, lamp oil, confectionaries, meal sacks and jars.  The whole valued at £130”.  Quite a haul!

With so much having been taken the police surmised that more than one person was involved.  A proclamation was read out in the town offering a reward of £50 to “any person or persons who will give such information as will lead to the recovery of the goods, and conviction of any of those concerned in the robbery.  Informants’ names will be concealed if required.”  Shortly afterwards Moses Macdonald “a quay jobber” and John Gray, were apprehended and charged with shop breaking.  They were imprisoned in Greenock and later indicted by the Lord Advocate to be tried at Glasgow on 29 April 1812 by Lords Meadowbank and Woodhouselee.  

In April 1812 at the Circuit Court of Justiciary Glasgow, before Henry Home Drummond (1783-1867), Advocate Depute, Moses Macdonald, John Gray and Alexander Gibson were indicted for breaking into the shop of James Jelly, grocer, Laigh Street, Greenock early on Sunday 15 December 1811 and stealing goods to the value of £130.  John Gray, defended by James Walker pleaded guilty, by being accessory after the fact.  Moses Macdonald, defended by John Jardine pleaded not guilty, and Alexander Gibson did not appear and was immediately outlawed

The jury consisted of “a number of country gentlemen and merchants" such as Colonel John Gerard of Rochsoles, William Napier of Miliken, John McAulay writer in Dumbarton John Lang, writer in Glasgow”.  Among the witnesses at the trial were the shop owner James Jelly and Catherine Clark, his wife.

The verdict was given the next day.  After deliberation the Jury found Moses Macdonald guilty by a majority.  John Gray was found guilty of aiding and assisting to remove the goods, knowing them to be stolen.  The court sentenced Moses Macdonald to be hanged at Greenock on Friday 5 June.  He was to be taken to Greenock and detained there until that date when he would be “hanged by the neck upon a gibbet, by the hands of the common Executioner, until he be dead, and ordains his whole moveable goods and gear to be escheat and inbrought to His Majesty’s use …”.

John Gray was sentenced to be transported for seven years with the addition that if he were to return before the seven years were up and found “at large in any part of Great Britain or Ireland without some lawful cause, and shall thereof be lawfully convicted, he shall suffer death in terms of the statute”.  He was to be taken to the prison at Greenock until “delivered over for transportation”.  The judge decided that the execution should take place in Greenock where the crime had been committed, as a warning to others.  Both men were sent to Greenock “in a cart” under military guard to be imprisoned until their sentences were carried out.  A petition had been addressed to the Prince Regent asking for a commutation of Macdonald death sentence.  Two days before the execution, Sheriff Campbell received a letter from the Secretary of State saying that His Royal Highness had “seen no cause to stay the execution on the sentence”.

Early in the morning of Friday 5th June 1812 a gibbet was erected on a raised platform at the railings in front of the Mid Kirk (then known as the New Church) in Cathcart Square in Greenock.  Greenock’s Chief Magistrate, Mr Crawfurd had previously been in touch with Edinburgh and asked to borrow their gibbet.  Four companies of the Ayrshire militia had arrived on the previous day and were stationed around the Square to prevent too many people coming in from the surrounding streets and congregating in the Square. 

Picture source - Greenock Burns Club

Described as being “a stout robust looking man about 35 years of age”, Moses Macdonald was a native of Ireland.  He had lived in Greenock with his wife and six children for several years.  He worked around the quays and harbours and “had lived a very ungodly life”.  Before the execution, at one o’clock on that Friday, ministers from various churches around the town visited the condemned man – it was reported that he was visited daily by a minister while he was imprisoned and that “every proper indulgence was allowed him by the Magistrates, and much kindness shewn by many of the inhabitants of the place”.

As they entered his cell, Macdonald was with his wife, three of his children and an official from the town.  He lay on a mattress with his leg shackled to an iron bar.  His wife sat with his head on her lap and “in silent agony she clasped him to her breast and kissed his forehead.”  He is reported to have said of her “she is an honest woman; and has been a good and dutiful wife to me, though I have used her ill”.

Psalms were sung and prayers offered up in the condemned man’s cell.  He was read a letter by Rev James Hervey of the Church of England and addressed to persons under sentence of death.  At 2pm he was taken from his cell to the front of the church.  It was reported that “During the whole of this awful transaction the man himself appeared perfectly firm and unmoved”.

Previously, on thinking about his actions he had said “I may blame my neglect of the Sabbath, I may blame my excess in drinking, and I may blame the bad company which I kept: but this would be to begin at the wrong end; for all the things I have to blame, as procuring my ruin, proceeded from this one cause – I had not the Fear of God before me.” (Many of the details appeared in a broadsheet published after the execution and written in very moralistic religious language.  These were commonly issued after hangings and emphasised the lack of religious thought in the minds of the condemned. The quotes from the prisoners can be taken with a pinch of salt!  This particular crime was considered especially bad because it had occurred on a Sabbath morning.)

At 2.15 pm, MacDonald was brought by a guard of soldiers from Greenock Gaol in a procession headed by the Sheriff and two Magistrates “with white staves in their hands” town officials and the Town Clerk, Ministers  Rev Robert Steele (Old West Kirk), Rev Dr John Gilchrist (East Parish Church) Rev John Hercus (Independent Church)  and Rev Bryan (Methodist Church), officers of the town along with Macdonald’s father, brother and sister all dressed in black.  In front of the Kirk, Macdonald was given wine by his sister.  The company sang psalms and prayed for almost an hour.  

At 3.10pm MacDonald “expressed his thanks to the magistrates and clergy for the kindness he had experienced and said goodbye to his family and friends".  He then stepped up to the scaffold accompanied by Rev Bryan who spoke to him as they walked to the “drop”.   His arms were tied at his back, the rope was put around his neck and a white cap drawn over this face.  When he was ready, he dropped a handkerchief as a signal to the hangman to open the drop.  Unfortunately, to the shock and horror of the onlookers, the rope broke, and Macdonald fell to the ground unharmed apart from some bruising.

Macdonald’s sister immediately ran to him, helped him up and supported him back into the church where it was reported “he nearly fainted, but soon recovered, and repeated distinctly the 51st Psalm and spoke with much firmness of his hope in the mercy of God through Christ”.  The gibbet was adjusted, and a new rope put in place.  At 3.40 he was brought back out and hanged without incident.  It was reported that “he made three or four feeble convulsive throes" – and was apparently dead in three minutes.  He was cut down at 4.20, placed in a coffin by his family and taken up to the bridewell (gaol) to be buried the following evening.

This being Greenock, there was much speculation in the town that the hangman, John High from Edinburgh, must have brought the rope with him as it had been faulty.  It was said that Greenockians knew all about ropes and it was eventually a Greenock rope that completed the task.  John High was accompanied by his “guide” or guard – a fee was paid by the town for his services.  John High was Scotland’s public executioner for nearly 40 years.  He died in 1817.

Just three months later the final twist in this story came to light.  In the Greenock Advertiser of 18 September 1812 there was an article stating that it had been discovered that James Jelly, the shop owner had “robbed his own shop and cellars of a variety of articles which he hid in various places.  The currency he gave to his wife to hide which she took to a neighbour’s house”.  Jelly aim was to defraud his creditors, he then absconded.  In order to avoid trial and punishment Jelly and his wife “petitioned for, and have been allowed to go into banishment, for and during the term of their natural lives under certification that if they are again seen within the liberties of Greenock, they will be committed to the Bridewell for thirty days, exposed on the pillory, and again sent into banishment”.  James Jelly and Catherine Clerk were married in 1807 in Ayrshire.  In March of 1812 Jelly had not seemed to have had money worries – he had feued ground from Sir Michael Shaw Stewart on the south side of Alexander Street (Roxburgh Street) and west side of Captain Street.  (Roxburgh Street Sugar Refinery was later built on that spot.)  He made over the ground “with a slated house of two storeys and garrets” to his wife and three sons.  But the property was seized by his creditors. 

Surely this raises several questions about the whole case.  Did Jelly pay the men to rob his shop and if so, could one of them be hanged for the crime?  Did Jelly and his wife petition for, and accept banishment as punishment to save the authorities the embarrassment of having a public trial and Macdonald’s execution be brought to the fore?  Was it all done quietly to get them away and stop any unrest that may have occurred in Greenock if the facts were known?  Was the quantity of goods taken from the shop not just slightly suspicious?  It must have taken quite a while to load the goods onto a cart to be taken elsewhere.  Later a woman named as Mrs Scott was accused to trying to sell some of the stolen goods.  There must have been more people than the three accused involved in hiding the goods or had Jelly found a cellar or safe place to store them?

Alexander Gibson, although named in court as being part of the theft, did not appear for trial.  Could he have taken the reward money and informed on his comrades in return for an agreed outlaw sentence? 

Unfortunately this was not the last hanging to take place in Greenock.

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