In December 1818, Robert Johnston, age 24, was executed for robbing Mr. John Charles of some £600 in pounds and notes, plus a watch key and chain. This single crime, trial, and execution ignited a swarm of controversy – evidence of which can be found in our collections. We recently acquired a pamphlet, Letter to the Magistrates of Edinburgh … with Regard to the Execution of Robert Johnston, which joins several others in our collection that describe the trial and gruesome execution that followed.
Opinion diverged about Johnston and the severity of his punishment. Some noted that Johnston, a 24-year-old carter, had repeatedly been in custody on various charges; in fact, he had only been out a few days before robbing Mr. Charles. Others noted that his parents were “honest and industrious,” and pointed out that Johnston had been thrown out of work due to economic distress in Scotland. These writers thought his only choice was to steal or starve.
All agreed that the punishment – execution by hanging – was severe. Other carters had recently committed crimes in Edinburgh; perhaps local magistrates wanted to make an example of Johnston. Citizens interceded on his behalf, to no avail.
On the day of the execution, a noose was slipped around Johnston’s neck, and he mounted a table, which was supposed to drop suddenly at Johnston’s signal. Unfortunately, the table did not drop completely, leaving him half standing and half suspended, struggling. As the crowd realized he was still alive, they urged the attending magistrate to halt the execution. Soon the crowd threw stones at the magistrate, overpowered the police, cut Johnston down, partially revived him and carried him off. The police eventually recaptured him, dragged him to the station, and continued their attempts to revive him before returning him to the gallows. During all this time Johnston appeared conscious but did not speak.
When the execution resumed and the table dropped once again, Johnston continued to struggle for about 20 minutes before finally expiring. The whole gruesome business lasted almost two hours.
Witnesses agreed on the sequence of events, and all were shocked at the inhumane and error-ridden execution. However, they vehemently disagreed about whether the magistrates exercised their duty to ensure a working scaffold and secure a competent executioner. Some blamed the magistrates; others blamed the crowd (which they called a mob) for cutting Johnston down and thereby prolonging his suffering.
For historians of crime and punishment, it is useful to consult materials like the pamphlets here, which offer multiple perspectives, reminding us that there is often more than one “truth.” These pamphlets also shine a light on issues that concerned the populace and the police nearly two hundred years ago. They show that controversy over the death penalty was, and remains, a recurrent theme in other legal systems as well as our own.