The extraordinary circumstances attending the execution of this unfortunate man give his case a melancholy interest. Our readers, doubtless, recollect the singular conduct of the Edinburgh mob, at the execution of Porteous. A scene, if possible more disgraceful, occurred on the present occasion.
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 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, 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, they 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 the Advocates' Close. The unhappy man, 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 broke 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.
The bleeding of the unfortunate culprit by a surgeon, with the view of restoring animation, was, we apprehend, an illegal torture, as by it the poor wretch was made to suffer a double death. It is true the authorities did not call in the surgeon; but it is equally true that they did not prevent, when they might, the surgical process. The whole proceedings were afterwards properly investigated, and those to whom blame was attached were punished.
The following is a remarkable instance of a similar scene which occurred in France in the year 1828.
Peter Hebard, who had been confined in the prison at Abbey, in France, for five months, expecting the final order for his punishment, having been convicted of a murder, committed under aggravated circumstances, and who had been allowed to indulge in hopes of a reprieve, was told to prepare for death in the afternoon. For nearly five years an execution had not taken place at Abbey, and the consequence was that an immense crowd assembled, which could with difficulty be kept in proper order by a large body of gendarmes. The prisoner was bound to the board laid across the scaffold; and upon the usual signal, his head was placed between the lunette in the guillotine. The knife fell with a trembling motion, but did not touch the criminal. A cry of horror arose from the crowd. The knife was again lifted -- it fell a second time, but without reaching the criminal's neck. A volley of stones was discharged at the executioner and his two assistants. For the third time the instrument was let down, but it only inflicted a slight wound. The executioners then quitted the scaffold for fear of the stones, and the criminal's head continued for some minutes bound to the block. The chief executioner again mounted the scaffold, and the knife fell twice more without success. The excitement in the crowd became indescribable. The executioner fled, the criminal lifted his head up, and was greeted with cries of "Bravo!" but he could not get away from the cords. One of the executioners then got on the scaffold, told the unhappy man to turn his head, and at the same time seized him by. the neck, and gave him several wounds with a shoemaker's knife. Hebard's head, nearly half off, hung on his shoulder; the spectacle was so horrible, and the spectators so enraged at the executioner, that he was obliged to make his escape amongst the gendarmes. Hebard, who was found standing up to the block, still breathed, and remained for two hours in that situation, during which time he frequently opened his mouth. It appears that the scaffold had been intentionally damaged by a person who acted as assistant to the executioner on account of a grudge. A question might arise, whether the executioner's assistant had a right to stab the criminal, and so alter his punishment, which was to die by the guillotine.