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The Maiden


Like most of Britain, what passed for justice in Edinburgh, amounted to the harshest punishments for even the least misdemeanors. The stealing of a loaf of bread or failure to notify authorities of a pregnancy were sufficient crimes to warrant a hanging, though petty criminals (often vagrants) were more commonly abused in a brutal and public manner to provide a means of deterent.

Typically this would involve dragging the poor miscreant to the Mercat Cross, or a similarly public site to be shackled and shamed. Burning criminals at the stake was an alternative to hanging, particularly as serious criminals were seen to forfeit rights to 'dignified' execution or burial. It was also a public spectacle in which the principle of prevention was seen to be at its most effective. Keeping such retribution in the public eye was a matter of displaying disembodied heads on spikes around the walls of the city.

Making sure that justice was 'seen' to be done was taken to its extreme in the case of traitor Francis Maubray who was killed during an attempted escape from his cell at Edinburgh Castle. Despite his denial of guilt, the royal warrant served on him, was deemed to necessitate continuity of his trial. His cold, lifeless corpse was therefore taken to court to receive official sentence. Found guilty of treason, his body was drawn, quartered and then displayed in typical fashion around conspicuous sites in the city.

The regicide (murder of a ruling agent) of James I (1406-1437), perpetuated by Walter, the Earl of Atholl and his grandson Robert Graham, was met by horrific retribution. For masterminding the plot, Walter was subjected to various forms of bone-breaking torture culminating in a ceremony during which vital organs were removed before his eyes and thrown into a fire.

Superstition and accepted belief were often inseparable in view of crimes involving woman, seen as either immoral or wayward. If some calamity or misfortune could not be readily explained with reference to logic, suspicion, followed by 'mob rule', would ensure that a suitable candidate was accused and tried, often without any basis in evidence. Guilt would be established, either through torture and a likely confession, or ducking.

This preposterous practice involved submerging the accused in water on a stool to which they were shackled. If they floated up to the surface they were assumed to be a witch. If they remained underwater and drowned, the accusation would be proved false. One might hope, in view of these customs, that Scottish justice has moved forward, somewhat, from days in which over 200 crimes were punishable by hanging.







Burke & Hare
Deacon Brodie



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