IT was in this week of 1724 that a woman called Margaret Dickson, always known as Maggie, was executed by hanging in Edinburgh for the crime of killing her newborn baby.

She protested her innocence until the last, but the hangman, one John Dalgleish, did his job and on September 2, 1724, Maggie Dickson was hanged by the neck in the Grassmarket in front of a large crowd that had little sympathy for the murderer, even though she was just 22 or 23 at the time. A physician concurred that she had expired and there then broke out a most unseemly row as her family fought for possession of her body against a group of medical students – such fracas were common at the time as only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection at that time, and Edinburgh’s medical faculty needed every corpse it could get.

A few hours later, Maggie Dickson was sitting up at an inn on the east side of Edinburgh enjoying a drink – we can presume it was consumed via her sore throat – and the legend of Half-hangit Maggie was born. For somehow Maggie had survived being hanged and she went on to live for another 40 years, dying for a second time in 1765.

There are many accounts of her legend and the dates often get mixed up, but research in records and archives means the following account is the most factual I can devise.

Margaret Dickson was born in Musselburgh around 1702. She was a hawker of fish and salt who married a local fisherman who soon abandoned her – it was reported that he had been press-ganged into the Royal Navy or had left to find work in Newcastle.

Maggie went to the Borders and began working in an inn in Kelso where she soon became pregnant, allegedly by the innkeeper’s son. Maggie concealed the pregnancy for fear of being evicted, made jobless and being hauled in front of the Kirk elders as a fornicator. She duly gave birth and the baby was either stillborn or she did indeed murder it. She laid the body by the River Tweed, finding herself unable to fling it in the water. The corpse was found shortly afterwards and a physician who examined the body determined that the child had been alive, albeit for a limited period.

Maggie appears to have been originally charged with concealment of pregnancy, but the charges were upped to homicide and Maggie was convicted in short order by the all-male jury and the judge had no choice but to sentence her to death by hanging.

In her brilliant Quines, a collection of poetry about Scottish women, the writer and actress Gerda Stevenson devotes a poem to Hauf-Hingit Maggie. It’s in the Scots leid and at its most powerful when Gerda imagines the end and return of Maggie Dickson:

Embro Tolbooth’s a dowie jyle. An mercy? Nane they gied me

at ma trial—the verdict: hingin. The duimster slippit the towe

ower ma heid, drapt the flair – but I’d lowsed ma hauns,

I gruppit thon raip, aince, twice, thrice at ma thrapple –

I’d dae it this time! The duimster dunted me wi his stick,

dunt, dunt, an the dirdum dinged in ma lugs,

“Clure the hure! Clure the huir!” Syne aa gaed daurk.

A chink o licht. The smell o wuid, warm – a cuddie’s pech;

ma een appen. I lift ma nieve, chap, chap oan ma mort-kist lid,

chap, chap! A scraich ootbye, a craik o hinges. I heeze masel, slaw,

intil ma ain wake, at the Sheep Heid Inn. Fowk heuch an flee:

“A ghaist, a bogle, risin fae the deid!” I sclim oot, caum.

The braw Brewster gies me a wink, hauns me a dram.

I sup lang the gowd maut, syne dauner back tae life, an hame.

What happened was that as her family and friends transported Maggie in her coffin towards Musselburgh for burial, they stopped off for refreshments, and possibly her wake, at an inn, most probably the famous Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston. One of the bearers looked at the coffin and saw the lid moving. Knocking could be heard, the lid was duly removed and the very much alive Maggie Dickson was taken out and fully revived. Though obviously a bit sore round the neck, she was well enough to continue her journey home.

The question was what would the law now do. The authorities debated the case and heard powerful arguments that divine intervention had occurred. But the most obvious conclusion was that the sentence of death by hanging had occurred – remember that a physician had pronounced her dead – and therefore the law could not have a second attempt at killing Maggie.

Tradition has it that while in the Tolbooth jail, Maggie seduced her hangman and he loosened the rope to let her survive. However it happened, she lived. Maggie’s husband came back to Musselburgh and they were remarried – death, after all, had parted them.

She became quite famous in Edinburgh and beyond, and gained the nicknamed Half-hangit Maggie. There is evidence that she suffered neck problems and may even have had a broken vertebra, but sadly the details of much of the rest of her life are obscure.

In October that year, the Scots Magazine reported: “Tuesday last the famous Margaret Dickson (who so cannily outwitted John Dalgleish in the Grass-market) came to town from Musselburgh. People’s curiosity was such, to see a hanged woman appear in the streets … that she’d infallibly been trode down or stifled in the crowd, but that she got into the house of John Hood, (one of the keepers of the tolbooth and a Gospel Relation of hers who conveyed her off by a back-door.”

The most celebrated memorial to her is Maggie Dickson’s pub in the Grassmarket, just yards from where she was hanged.