The Edinburgh Lynching

Jun 8, 2016 - by Martin Baggoley

The Porteous Mob (1855), James Drummond

Mob lynchings have been extremely rare events in the United Kingdom. The most infamous occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1736

by Martin Baggoley

On Monday April 6 1724, the Caledonian Mercury included the first ever press report of a game of golf, which was played a short distance from Edinburgh and it read: "On Saturday last there was a solemn match at Golf in the Links at Leith for 20 Guineas, betwixt Mr. ALEXANDER ELPHINGSTON, son of the Lord BALMERINOCH, and Captain Porteous of the Town Guard, when Mr. Elphingston won. His Grace the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Morton, and a great many Persons of Distinction were present, besides a very great Mob."

What was not known at the time was that both golfers would again come to the attention of the public in the years ahead.

The first to do so was Elphingston, who in December of 1729 met Lieutenant Swift of Lord Cadogan’s Regiment in a duel which followed an argument at an earlier social gathering. This contest also took place on the links at Leith and Elphingston was again the victor, having run the lieutenant through the chest with his sword. The injury proved to be fatal and Elphingston should have stood trial for murder, as attempts were being made at the time to outlaw duelling as a means by which gentlemen settled their differences. However, he was able to avoid justice until his death three years later.

It was 12 years after the game of golf at Leith that Captain Porteous came to prominence once more.

The Brandy Smuggler -- Andrew Wilson

John Porteous was born in Traquair in 1695, the son of an Edinburgh tailor, a trade he abandoned when a young man, deciding instead to seek adventure. He enlisted in the army and served in Europe until 1716, when he returned to Edinburgh, where he joined the City Guard, which was responsible for maintaining order. With the help of his social contacts he was soon promoted to the rank of captain with an annual salary of £80 ($117). He relished the authority the position gave him and he quickly gained a reputation for tackling any signs of civil disorder with great brutality. It was little wonder that he became a feared and detested figure.

By the terms of the 1707 Act of Union, the independent countries of Scotland and England had become one nation known as Great Britain, but many Scots felt they had fared badly, especially as far as excise duties were concerned, which were considered to have increased massively and unfairly, for which the English were held responsible. Smuggling was rife in Scotland by the 1730s and the smugglers were in continuous and often violent conflict with the revenue officers, whose task it was to deal with the problem. In Fife, the responsibility rested on the shoulders of Mr. Stark, who in early 1736 learned that a large quantity of contraband goods was being stored at the home of Edinburgh merchant Andrew Wilson, a known brandy runner. Mr. Stark organized a raid on the premises, which led to brandy and other goods being seized, which were taken to the local customs-house for safe keeping.

Wilson was not a man to accept his loss with equanimity. He and his gang raided the customs-house and retrieved what he believed rightfully belonged to him. For this act of defiance he was hunted down together with two of his gang, William Hall and George Robertson. In the eyes of many, the three accused men were heroes and not the dangerous criminals they were being portrayed as by the authorities. It was the revenue men, who prospered by serving their English masters who were viewed as the real villains. Following their trial, Hall was ordered to be transported for life and there was widespread anger when Wilson and Robertson were sentenced to death.

They were held in the Tolbooth Gaol, from which they made an unsuccessful escape attempt with a condemned horse thief. Nevertheless, in line with custom, on the Sunday before their executions, they were allowed to visit a local church under escort, which supposedly offered them the opportunity of making their peace with God. The group had barely entered the chapel, when despite being manacled, Wilson who was exceptionally strong, lunged at one of their guards and using his teeth, immobilised him. The other guards went to the aid of their colleague, enabling Robertson to escape by rushing out of the building. As he ran through the streets, which were crowded with churchgoers, many recognised him but he remained unmolested and reached one of the city gates before they were all closed for the duration of Morning Service. The alarm was raised but the City Guard, led by Porteous, searched in vain for the fugitive.

Wilson’s standing increased greatly in Edinburgh, for not only was he a man who had stood firm against the reviled revenue men but he had helped his friend escape. This served to increase the fears of the authorities in London and Edinburgh that some kind of unrest or possibly a rescue attempt might take place on April 14, the day of his public execution.

The Execution of Andrew Wilson Leads to a Riot

On the day, the condemned man was led out of the gaol escorted by 50 members of the City Guard under the command of Porteous, no doubt still seething with anger as he recalled Robertson’s escape. As a back-up, five companies of the Welsh Fusiliers were waiting at the execution site, ready to intervene should trouble arise. However, the execution went ahead without incident and Wilson died quickly, but trouble broke out when the hangman attempted to cut down the corpse after it had been hanging for only a few minutes, rather than the customary hour. As he began to do so, a section of the crowd began to hurl rocks at him. The City Guard responded by firing into the crowd, wounding 19 and killing six within a matter of minutes.

As the officer in charge and amid mounting public anger, Porteous was arrested and accused of being responsible for the injuries and deaths. Details of what had occurred were given at his trial, which opened on July 6. The indictment listed the 19 individuals whose wounds he was said to be responsible for and the six he was accused of murdering, by giving his men an illegal order to open fire. Charles Husband, an apprentice confectioner, was the only one Porteous was alleged to have shot personally. The other five were Archibald Ballantyne, John Anderson, Alexander McNeill, Henry Grahame and Margaret Gordon.

The Trial of John Porteous

Before Porteous entered his pleas, his barrister claimed the captain had no case to answer. It was argued that he and his men were at the execution at the behest of the local magistrates, who had authorized the arming of the City Guard with powder and ball as they were fearful of the crowd’s reaction. In the past, those same magistrates had relied heavily on Porteous

and his troops to put down riots and to restore order. The hanging of Wilson was no different and the captain was simply discharging his duty without malice as he had on many previous occasions.

The crown responded by saying the authority enabling him to shoot into the crowd ended once the execution had been carried out. Therefore, his actions became unlawful as the Riot Act was not read out as it should have been, to have warned the crowd of the possible serious consequences if they did not disperse. The court agreed with the prosecuting barrister, ignoring the defence claim that the magistrates were responsible for reading the Riot Act but had failed to do so as they had fled the scene, fearing for their own safety.

The trial therefore went ahead and Porteous pleaded not guilty to all matters, insisting that his actions stemmed from his fear that many of the spectators were intent on cutting Wilson’s body down before one hour had elapsed, in the hope of reviving him and afterwards helping him to escape. It was this fear that led him to order the removal of the body earlier than was customary, to prevent such an occurrence. It was at this point that rocks were thrown, injuring the hangman and several members of the City Guard, who were standing at the scaffold. The injured troops included Privates Alexander Mushet, whose shoulder blade was broken and Alexander Baird who suffered a serious foot injury. To support the defense, other witnesses were called, one of whom was Thomas Horton, a surgeon with the Welsh Fusiliers, who stated that some of the rocks that were thrown were heavy enough to have killed anyone struck by them.

Porteous claimed that he did not order his men to fire into the crowd and produced evidence to support this. Apprentice surgeon Alexander Campbell was one of several witnesses who swore they heard Porteous shout “Don’t shoot” to his men but some of them ignored his order. At first, they fired above the heads of the crowd, but almost immediately, lowered their weapons and shot directly into their midst. This it was claimed gave credence to the defendant’s claim that by opening fire, his men had disobeyed him. It was stated that the City Guard had a lengthy history of indiscipline and on a number of occasions they had shot into crowds without having been ordered to do so by Porteous or any of their other officers and this is what happened on the occasion of Wilson’s execution. Several such cases were mentioned, including once when they shot into a mob when it was believed an attempt was about to be made to take the body of a hanged criminal to prevent it being dissected.

The crown, however, presented a wholly different scenario, insisting that an angry Porteous, still feeling humiliated following the escape of Wilson’s co-accused, set out deliberately to cause death and injury and had issued a direct order to his men to open fire. William Gordon, a domestic servant and gardener James Nielsen told the court that after some warning shots fired into the air, they saw Porteous point his gun into the crowd and both witnesses were adamant that the first shot fired was from his weapon. Then, they heard him shout to his men “Level your pieces and be damned,” encouraging them to follow his example. Within a short time, they noticed the body of a young man close to the captain with blood flowing from a head wound, who was later identified as Charles Husband.

When delivering their verdict, the jury acknowledged that some of the spectators had thrown rocks at the executioner and City Guard, but they found the defendant guilty on all counts, and stated “Porteous fired a gun among the people assembled at the place of execution and he gave orders to the soldiers under his command to fire. And upon his and their firing, the persons mentioned in the indictment were killed and wounded.” He was sentenced to hang on

Wednesday September 8. On learning of the verdict and sentence, several hundred people who were waiting in the street outside the court building, responded with loud cheering.

A petition seeking a Royal Pardon was despatched to London but the king was visiting Hanover and in his absence, the queen issued an order on September 3, part of which read;

……the sentence of death pronounced against John Porteous, late Captain-Lieutenant of the City Guard of Edinburgh, present prisoner in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, which was to have been executed upon him upon the 8th day of September instant, be respited for six weeks from the time appointed for his execution. These, therefore, in obedience to her majesty’s commands, discharge and prohibits the Magistrates of Edinburgh and all other officers of the law, from putting the foresaid sentence of death in execution upon the said John Porteous till the 20th of October next to come…………

When this became known, the sense of outrage in Edinburgh and beyond was tangible. It was widely believed that the government in London considered the conviction of Porteous to be a direct challenge to its authority in Scotland and the postponement of his execution would prove to be the first step in a process that would ensure the captain would not hang and would escape justice.

The Lynching of John Porteous

Matters came to a head on the night of Sunday September 7. A large number of men took control of the gates, overpowered the sentries and seized their weapons. Many were in disguise or had covered their faces and ran through the streets, encouraging others to join them, shouting “All those who dare avenge innocent blood let them come here.” It was estimated that a short time later, 4,000 men and women approached the gates of the Tolbooth, demanding that Porteous be handed over to them. When the prison governor, not surprisingly, refused to do so, many of the crowd forced their way in. Seizing the keys to the cells, the one containing Porteous was unlocked. He was dragged outside and many of those who witnessed subsequent events, irrespective of their views of the man, reported that the captain acted with great courage throughout his terrifying ordeal.

A draper’s shop was broken into and a rope taken. Porteous was carried to the doorway of a dyer’s premises, from which a pole protruded above the door. The rope was thrown over it and a noose made which was put around his neck. The first attempt to hoist him up failed as he struggled free. He was thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly before being stripped naked. His nightshirt was wrapped around his head and another attempt was made, but this also failed and he once more fell to the ground, where he suffered another severe beating, which resulted in his arm and shoulder being broken. A third and this time, successful effort was made to hang him and as he was being hoisted up, his foot was set alight. He died a few minutes before midnight, after which his corpse was taken to the market cross where it was exhibited for several hours. The next day he was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars churchyard.

An appalled London government feared these events would trigger a more widespread popular uprising in Scotland and decided that an example had to be made of the ringleaders. A reward of £200 ($292) was offered for information leading to their arrests and convictions. However, nobody was ever convicted of the murder, which it was believed was organised by the smuggler friends of Andrew Wilson. In the absence of any convictions, a fine of £2,000 ($2,920) was levied on Edinburgh.

In the early 1970s a headstone was put on the captain’s grave, bearing the inscription;




As for Robertson, after escaping from his guards, he called at the house of a friend who removed the manacles. Other sympathisers arranged for him to board a ship bound for Rotterdam in Holland, where he became the landlord of a tavern, which for many years afterwards was a favorite haunt of travellers from Scotland.

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