The Daily

That Look When You Know How To Cause Trouble

I like to blog about the dark side of history and our penchant for violence in defense of our freedom – blood watering the tree of liberty and all that. See, my series on ancient history (before Magna Carta, the first document to guarantee the right to jury trial) when all disputes were resolved on a battlefield (What Is A Jury Trial (No. 1)?What Is A Jury Trial (No. 2)?).

I also blog about family history, American history and the organized riots where my people come from including the Whiskey Rebellion (Whiskey Rebellion: A Continuing Tea PartyWhiskey Rebellion: Dreadful Night) and the West Virginia Miner Wars  (Great High MountainThe Trial of Sid Hatfield).

I also blog about how my people got here and the violent mobs they left behind (The Pigeon, The Lost Badge of Innocence).

Our story is not unique. Here’s another one I found recently.

Andrew Wilson was a notorious smuggler operating out of Pathhead, about twelve miles from Scotland’s capital. As a noted outlaw with a grudge of for the local customs duty collector, James Stark, Wilson cultivated his legend and an appropriate following among the common folk.

On a cold, dark winter night in 1736, Stark’s home was robbed shortly after he confiscated some of Wilson’s booty. Wilson and some of his confederates were arrested but, because they were perceived more as political martyrs than common burglars,

Allies managed to sneak a saw and a heavy knife to him, tools that he and Robertson used to saw through the bars of their cell window. Robertson was able to squeeze through the gap they had made, but unfortunately for Wilson, he was a “squat, round man.” When he tried to make his way through the opening, he became stuck, unable to go either all the way out or back inside his cell. Before Robertson could free him, the guard was alerted, bringing the flight to freedom to a highly embarrassing end.

Wilson was doubly depressed over his failure. Not only had he lost his last chance to save his own neck, but he felt he had forfeited Robertson’s as well. Although he accepted his grisly fate, he was determined that his friend should still find a way to escape. A characteristically audacious plan formed in his mind.

Three days before their scheduled execution, Wilson and Robertson were escorted to the Tolbooth church to hear their final Sunday service. When the proceedings were about to commence, Wilson made his move. He threw himself on their three guards, using all his considerable strength to hold them down. “Geordie, do for thy life!” he shouted.

Robertson followed this sage advice. He ran, and did not stop running until he was able to hide himself in Edinburgh’s dark, twisting alleys. The citizens were more than happy to offer him shelter from the authorities. Wilson, of course, was soon overpowered, but he no longer cared. He had accomplished his goal.

Wilson’s act of self-sacrifice made him even more of a hero in Edinburgh. Anger over what was seen as his totally unjust death sentence grew. As the date of Wilson’s hanging approached, authorities became increasingly concerned about the public mood. They feared there would be an attempt to rescue the condemned man on the way to the gallows. John Porteous, one of the three captains of the City Guard, was given orders to have the 25 men under his command monitor the execution site and swiftly put down any signs of dangerous mutiny among the spectators. For good measure, the magistrates brought in a detachment of 150 men from the Royal Welsh Fuseliers.

The 41-year-old Porteous could not be called a pleasant character. He had obtained his promotion to captain not from merit, but from influence–the job was his payoff for being willing to marry the Lord Provost’s cast-off mistress, Isobel Gordon. Porteous was one of those people who are put in a position of authority, and come to enjoy their power rather too well. To put it more plainly, he was a harsh, officious bully who did not scruple to use physical violence on those unlucky enough to come into his custody. His insensitive and tyrannical nature had made him the most well-hated figure in Edinburgh. He was the worst possible choice to be put in charge of controlling an already hostile and indignant crowd.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Porteous had a particular animosity towards the condemned man. He saw Wilson’s engineering of Robertson’s escape as an insult, a grave offense against his authority. It was said that while Wilson was in his custody, Porteous had inflicted savage physical revenge on the prisoner that virtually amounted to torture–a rumor that made Edinburghians all the more outraged.

When April 14th arrived, the large crowd around the scaffold was grim, but silent and orderly. Somewhat to the authorities’ surprise, the death sentence was carried out without incident.

The trouble began after Wilson was hanged. When the hangman moved to cut down the body of the man Edinburgh had liked and admired, this final indignity caused the crowd’s buried wrath to bubble over. Infuriated citizens began throwing stones and clods of dirt at the City Guard. The hangman received such a volley of missiles that he fled. (He had to be put under police protection.) Spectators began rushing the gallows, determined to cut Wilson down and try to revive him, or at least give his body an honorable burial. The situation was dangerously near to going completely out of control.

What happened next is disputed, which is unsurprising, given the chaotic scene. Most reports state that Porteous, instead of working to pacify the crowd, behaved in a way guaranteed to bring on disaster. Furious at this show of open insubordination, he grabbed a musket and fired it at the mob. A young man named Charles Husband fell down dead.

Porteous ordered his troops to fire warning shots over the crowd, which only succeeded in hitting several spectators in the tenement buildings opposite them. When this only added to the uproar, he insisted that his men shoot directly at the horde, threatening the reluctant soldiers with disciplinary charges if they disobeyed. Three people were instantly killed, and at least twelve wounded. The confusion this caused among the crowd enabled Porteous to order a retreat. The Guard began to flee, with the now thoroughly inflamed mob in hot pursuit. Porteous gave another order to fire at the multitude, which resulted in three more deaths and great many other casualties. This just spurred the crowd on. Their goal now was not merely to mourn Wilson’s death. They wanted revenge, and their target was Captain Porteous. If the onlookers had managed to get their hands on him at that moment, he would have been quickly torn to pieces.

Porteous made his report to a meeting of the city magistrates, only to find he was no more popular there than he had been among the mob. The magistrates were furious at the debacle, and had no desire to offer him much support. By the time the riot had quelled down, at least nine people were dead and some twenty more seriously injured. The official inquiry into the tragedy led to Porteous facing charges of manslaughter, maiming, and murder.

Porteous’ trial took place on July 5-9, 1736. He pleaded self-defense, and brought in witnesses who testified that he had not personally fired into the crowd. (Crown witnesses, naturally, asserted the reverse.) Although by the letter of the law, the defendant had a strong case, public sentiment was so against him that his conviction was virtually a foregone conclusion. It was decreed that on September 8, Porteous would follow Wilson to the gallows.

Although this verdict was welcomed in Scotland, London felt otherwise. His Majesty’s government felt that Porteous’ actions had been entirely called-for in the circumstances. Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole granted Porteous a six-week reprieve. It was believed that a full pardon would soon follow.

The news that the Porteous would escape the noose after all outraged Edinburgh. The thought of the hated London government butting in to save a man they held responsible for the death of Scottish citizens just added further fuel to the public fire. A group of men–some of them holding prominent positions in Edinburgh society–secretly made their plans, determined that Porteous would not escape the punishment they felt he well deserved. These vigilantes spread the word that on September 8, they would assault the Tolbooth and deliver their own form of justice to the prisoner. Naturally, the authorities planned to have extra guards at the prison on that night.

The rumored date was, however, merely a ruse. On the night of September 7, some four thousand men quietly marched on Edinburgh, taking the castle garrison completely off-guard. The crowd broke into the City Guardhouse and emptied it of its store of weaponry. Then, they headed straight for the Tolbooth–and John Porteous. The city magistrates were helpless in the face of this very large, very well-armed, and very very determined army. The authorities sent frantic messages to all the garrisons quartered in the city, but these soldiers were disinclined to come to their aid.

By 11:30 p.m., the mob had succeeded in breaking down the prison door. After relieving the jailer of his keys, they marched on Porteous’ cell. The prisoner was savagely dragged outdoors, the his captors beating and kicking him all the way. Porteous was hauled to the site where Wilson had been executed, and a makeshift gallows was swiftly erected.

The former captain had a much more agonizing end than the one delivered to Andrew Wilson. After a rope was put around his neck, Porteous was repeatedly hauled up, then quickly lowered again. All the while, members of the mob beat him and even tried setting him on fire. This slow torture lasted for nearly an hour before it finally killed him. His body was pulled up one final time–like a macabre victory flag–and left dangling there while the mob silently dispersed into the darkness.

London was indignant at the news of Porteous’ grisly end, and ordered an inquiry into the affair. A reward of £200 pounds–as well as a promise of immunity–was offered for anyone who would give information about the lynching. It was all in vain. Although everyone in the city must have known who was involved in Porteous’ murder, they kept that knowledge to themselves. No one was ever punished, or even publicly identified, for their part in the grim doings of September 7.

The English government settled for fining Edinburgh £2000, with the money to be paid to Porteous’ widow. Probably very wisely, that lady then left Scotland for good. The Lord Provost, whom London blamed for failing to prevent the incident, was fired from his post. All the clergymen in Scotland were ordered to issue threats of arrest to anyone involved in Porteous’ murder. These instructions were largely ignored. Scots tend to have long memories. Public opinion remained so bitter against John Porteous that it was not until 1973 that his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard was given a proper headstone.

As for George Robertson, he managed to escape to Rotterdam, where he became the proprietor of a successful tavern. He also supplemented his income by acting as an informant for Scottish customs officers, giving them information on the local smugglers. According to a 1789 pamphlet, Robertson “at last got into some way with the English smugglers, and ruined many of them. The Dutch got information of him, and he took the hint and escaped over to London…he skulked about in London for some time, and got letters from those he did for in Scotland; and he applied to that hero, William Duke of Cumberland, who procured him a pardon from the King; and at last he died in misery in London.”

There are no happy endings in this story.

[There is one quaint footnote to our ugly little tale. In his leisure moments, Porteous was a renowned and skillful golfer. In 1724, he and one Alexander Elphinston played the first golf match to be reported in the newspapers. Among the spectators were the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Morton, “and a great many persons of distinction.” The wager was twenty guineas, with Mr. Elphinston coming out the winner. Scottish true crime historian William Roughead’s last word on Porteous was, “one would fain hope that such a good golfer was not so great a rogue.”]

Strange Company: The Porteous Riot; Or, Why Some People Should Just Stick to Golf