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The Newgate Calendar - ROBERT JOHNSTON


Executed for Robbery, On 30th of December 1818, after Shocking Scenes on the Scaffold

   ROBERT JOHNSTON was a native of Edinburgh, where he spent the first part of his life without reproach. His parents were poor, and Robert was employed as a carter. In his twenty-fourth year he got into bad company, and was engaged in the robbery of a chandler in Edinburgh, and being apprehended he was brought to trial with two others, and found guilty. His companions had their sentence commuted to transportation for life, but on Johnston the law was ordered to be put in force.

   The execution was directed to take place on the 30th of December, 1818, and on that day the judgment of the law was carried out, but under circumstances of a most extraordinary nature. A platform was erected in the customary manner, with a drop, in the Lawnmarket; and, an immense crowd having assembled, the unfortunate culprit was brought from the lock-up house at about twenty minutes before three o'clock, attended by two of the magistrates, the Reverend Mr Tait and the usual other functionaries. The customary devotions took place, and the unhappy wretch, with an air of the most undaunted boldness, gave the necessary signal. Nearly a minute elapsed, however, before the drop could be forced down, and then it was found that the toes of the wretched culprit were still touching the surface, so that he remained half suspended, and struggling in the most frightful manner. It is impossible to find words to express the horror which pervaded the crowd, while one or two persons were at work with axes beneath the scaffold, in the vain attempt to hew down a part of it beneath the feet of the criminal. The cries of horror from the populace continued to increase with indescribable vehemence; and it is hard to say how long this horrible scene might have lasted had not a person near the scaffold, who was struck by a policeman while pressing onward, cried out: "Murder!" Those who were not aware of the real cause of the cry imagined that it came from the convict, and a shower of stones, gathered from the loose pavement of the street, compelled the magistrates and police immediately to retire. A cry of "Cut him down -- he is alive!" then instantly burst from the crowd, and a person of genteel exterior jumped upon the scaffold and cut the rope, and the culprit fell down in a reclining position, after having hung during about five minutes only. A number of the mob now gained the scaffold, and taking the ropes from the neck and arms of the prisoner removed the cap from his head, and loosening his clothes carried him, still alive, towards High Street; while another party tore the coffin prepared to receive his body into fragments, and endeavoured unsuccessfully to demolish the fatal gallows. Many of the police were beaten in this riot, and the executioner, who was for some time in the hands of the mob, was severely injured.

   In the meantime the police officers rallied in augmented force, and retook the criminal from the mob, at the head of Advocates' Close. The unhappy man, only half alive, stripped of part of his clothes, and with his shirt turned up, so that the whole of his naked back and the upper part of his body were exhibited, lay extended on the ground in the middle of the street, in front of the police office. At last, after a considerable interval, some of the police officers, laying hold of him, dragged him trailing along the ground, for about twenty paces, into the office, where he remained upwards of half-an-hour, while he was attended by a surgeon, bled in both arms, and in the temporal vein, by which suspended animation was restored; but the unfortunate man did not utter a word. In the meantime a military force arrived from the Castle under the direction of a magistrate, and the soldiers were drawn up in the street, surrounding the police office and place of execution.

   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. The unhappy wretch was observed to struggle very much, but his sufferings were at an end in a few minutes. The soldiers remained on the spot till the body was cut down, and as it was then near dusk the crowd gradually dispersed.

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