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.
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. 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.”
 National Archives Scotland JC8/14/27.
 Chester Courant, Tuesday 12 January 1819, p. 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.