THE BOTCHED EXECUTION OF ROBERT JOHNSTON

BY DR. RACHEL BENNETT


In November 1818 Robert Johnston was convicted by the High Court in Edinburgh for assault and robbery. Along with two accomplices, who were transported for their parts in the crime, he attacked Mr John Charles, a candlemaker in Edinburgh, on the new road leading from St Patrick Square to Arniston place. He threw him to the ground and stole £360 in bank notes along with a watch, a key and a chain. He was sentenced to be executed at the ‘common place’ of execution in Edinburgh, in front of the new county hall at the Lawnmarket, on 30 December 1818.[1] 

The case received mass press attention both in Scotland and in England due to the actions of the crowd. The problem centred upon the rope used to hang him. The executioner had made the rope too long and thus when the scaffold drop fell, Johnston was able to rest his toes on the platform but still struggled and slowly began to choke. This produced “a loud shout of horror with cries of murder bursting from the immense multitude assembled” and a shower of stones were thrown at the platform to the point where the magistrates and other authority figures had to retreat into the church. Cries of “cut him down – he is alive” ensued and someone jumped up and obliged. Johnston was taken on a furious ride towards the High Street before being retaken by the police. The scene at the scaffold was described as “a disgraceful scene of outrage and riot” with people tearing his waiting coffin to pieces and trying unsuccessfully to tear the whole scaffold and platform down. He was finally brought back and hanged with his body cut down before dusk and the crowd dispersed.[2] John Simpson, the executioner, was dismissed from his office and the magistrates of the city released a statement claiming that no blame for the unfortunate event lay with them. Instead they blamed not only the executioner but also the crowd and stated that had the mob “remained quiet instead of offering such a daring outrage to the law the criminal would have been dead in a few minutes.”[3]

Broadside entitled 'Trial and Sentence!' (1818). Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland's Word on the Street archive. 


Johnston was then carried again to the scaffold. His clothes were thrown about him in such a way that he seemed half naked, and while a number of men were about him, holding him up on the table, and fastening the rope again about his neck, his clothes fell down in a manner shocking to decency. While they were adjusting his clothes the unhappy man was left vibrating, upheld partly by the rope about his neck, and partly by his feet on the table. At last the table was removed from beneath him, when, to the indescribable horror of every spectator, he was seen suspended, with his face uncovered, and one of his hands broken loose from the cords with which it should have been tied, and with his fingers convulsively twisting in the noose. Dreadful cries were now heard from every quarter. A chair was brought, and the executioner, having mounted upon it, disengaged by force the hand of the dying man from the rope. He then descended, leaving the man’s face still uncovered, and exhibiting a dreadful spectacle. At length a napkin was thrown over his face, amidst shouts of “Murder!” and “Shame, shame!” from the crowd.
— ROBERT JOHNSTON Executed for Robbery, On 30th of December 1818, after Shocking Scenes on the Scaffold. From Newgate Calender http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng579.htm

[1] National Archives Scotland JC8/14/27.

[2] Chester Courant, Tuesday 12 January 1819, p. 3.

[3] Morning Post, Friday 8 January 1819, p. 4. 


BANNER IMAGE: Broadside entitled 'Trial and Sentence!' (1818). Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland's Word on the Street archive.