By Patrick Low

It was said that after the body was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall, and placed ready for dissection, that the surgeons were called to attend a case at the Infirmary, who, on their return, found Macdonald so far recovered as to be sitting up; he immediately begged for mercy, but a young surgeon not wishing to be disappointed of the dissection, seized a wooden mall with which he deprived him of life.
— John Sykes, Local Records (1833), 202.

On the evening of the 23rd May, 1752, a fight broke out in a public house on Newcastle’s Bigg Market. An argument had arisen between a group of men and a 19 year old Scottish Soldier named Ewan (Owen) MacDonald, temporarily stationed in Newcastle with General Guise’s Highlanders. MacDonald followed the group of men out of the pub and stabbed a Cooper, named Robert Parker, in the neck killing him almost immediately. His rage did not end there though, as he returned to the pub and abused several other drinkers and broke another mans arm. MacDonald was soon arrested and sentenced to execution on Newcastle’s Town Moor, to be followed by dissection, making him the first man to suffer this post-mortem punishment as dictated by the 1752 Murder Act, in Newcastle. MacDonald refused to go quietly, reports of his execution on Newcastle’s Town Moor, on 28th September, 1752, stated that he threw the executioner from the ladder.  But something even more remarkable happened in this case. Or did it?  It is here where the story becomes more-cloudy.


After execution MacDonald’s body was taken to Newcastle’s Barber Surgeons' Hall to be dissected and anatomised. This purpose built Hall was fairly unique in the country, with most regions outside of London undertaking this post-mortem punishment in small medical dispensaries or, in some cases, the lobbies of Shire Halls.  These could be immensely well attended events. Indeed at the dissection of William Corder in 1827, at the Shire Hall in Bury St Edmunds, newspapers reported that "the first anatomical duty was to try to accommodate ‘5,000’ people determined to accompany the body on its post-execution journey…..The anxiety to see Corder’s body was as great as at his execution: crowds flocked around the doors.” 


Local newspapers of the time reported MacDonald's dissection in some detail. However, a fascinating new element emerged in a report in Sykes’ Local Records of 1833, some 80 years later. The note stated that the surgeons attending the dissection were called to attend a case at the local Eye Infirmary, leaving an apprentice surgeon in charge. The apprentice, on attending MacDonald found him to be “so far recovered as to be sitting up.” The report went on to state that “not wishing to be disappointed of the dissection” the apprentice seized a wooden mall (sic) and finished MacDonald off himself! Furthermore, the mallet used was reported to have been on display in the Barber Surgeons Hall ever since. 

Figure 17 - Shews the method of amputationg the great toe with mallet and chistel, used by Roonhuyse. Signature in corner of Tabula XXXIII : R. Parr. 1743-1745  From: A medicinal dictionary  By James, Robert.  Wellcome Images L0009863

A man supposed to be dead arising from his coffin and surprising his wife (?). Coloured aquatint, 1805, after a drawing by Henry Wigstead, 1784.  Wellcome Images L0031335


Reviving after execution was not unheard of, hangings were frequently botched with ropes snapping and felons reviving only to be re-hung. Despite the body having to hang for a customary one hour after death rumours still abounded at some executions that the criminal had cheated death. Indeed, in the few cases where rich members of society were executed, it was not uncommon for rumours to spread that they had in fact revived and escaped. One such instance of this was the execution of Reverend Dodd 'The Macaroni Parson' in 1777. In spite of a vast crowd at his execution, rumours that he had actually escaped death abounded for decades after. Similarly, in Scotland in 1724, Maggie Dickson was reported to have woken up in her coffin on the route to her burial and to this day is still immortalised as "half-Hangit Maggie." 


What are we to make of this story then? Half Hung or Half Baked? It is worthy of note that in MacDonald's case no mention of his revival surfaced until some 80 years after his dissection. Whether it is true or not though, what is perhaps most important is that it would have been believed by many at the time. The public’s fear of dissection and general mistrust of the Barber Surgeons was widespread. Whatever the veracity of the story the legend of Half Hung MacDonald lives on to this very day, the subject of ghost tours, public lectures and local histories.