CAPTAIN JOHN PORTEOUS
Convicted of murder, but murdered by the mob
Few cases have excited more attention than that of Captain Porteous, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death but who having rendered himself obnoxious to the people, was dragged out of prison, and killed by an enraged mob. The magistrates of Edinburgh, the town in which the riot took place, were fined for neglect of their duty, and rendered incapable of acting again in any judicial capacity, and the royal proclamation was issued, in which a large reward was offered for the apprehension of the murderers, but from such an immense mob as that which seized Porteous, it was impossible to select any individuals.
John Porteous was born of indigent parents, near the city Edinburgh, who bound him apprentice to a tailor, with who after the expiration of his apprenticeship, he worked as journeyman.
Porteous was soon noticed by several reputable gentlemen, as young man of good address and fine accomplishments, and one whom they entertained a desire to serve.
It happened at this time, that a gentleman who had been lord provost of Edinburgh, growing tired of his mistress, wished to disengage himself from her in a genteel manner: and knowing Porteous to be very poor he proposed his taking her off his hands by making her his wife. When the proposition was first made to the lady she rejected in with much disdain, thinking it a great degradation to match with journeyman tailor; but on the gentleman's promising her a fortune of five hundred pounds, she consented, and they were married accordingly. Porteous now commenced master, and met with good success for some time; but being much addicted to company, he neglected his business; by which means he lost many of his customers. His wife, in consequence, was obliged to apply to her old friend the provost, to make some other provision for them.
In Edinburgh there are three companies of men, of twenty-five each, who are employed to keep the peace, and take up all offenders, whom they keep in custody till examined by a magistrate. An officer is appointed to each of these companies, whom they style captain, with a salary of L.80 a year, and a suit of scarlet uniform, which in that part of the world is reckoned very honourable.
A vacancy happening by the death of one of these captains, the provost immediately appointed his friend Porteous to fill up the place; who being now advanced to honour, forgot all his former politeness, for which he was so much esteemed when a tradesman; and assumed all the consequence of a man in authority.
If a riot happened in the city, Porteous was generally made choice of by the magistrates to suppress it, he being a man of resolute spirit and unacquainted with fear. On these occasions he would generally exceed the bounds of his commission, and would treat the delinquents with the utmost cruelty, by knocking them down with his musket, and frequently breaking legs and arms.
If sent to quell a disturbance in a house of ill fame, notwithstanding he was a most abandoned debauchee himself, he would take pleasure in exposing the characters of all those he found there, thereby destroying the peace of many families: he would treat the unhappy prostitutes with the greatest inhumanity, and even drag them to a prison, though many of them had been reduced by himself.
Amongst the many instances of cruelty he committed, we shall mention the following, because it procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city: A vacancy happening in the lectureship of a neighbouring church, two young gentlemen were candidates; and having each an equal number of votes, the dispute was referred to the presbytery; who declared in favour of Dawson. The other candidate, Mr Wotherspoon, appealed to the synod, who reversed the order of the presbytery. As the parishioners were much exasperated, and a tumult being apprehended at the church on the day Mr Wotherspoon was to preach his first sermon, Porteous was ordered there to keep the peace, but finding, on his arrival, Mr. Dawson had got possession of the pulpit, he went up the steps without the least ceremony, seized him by the collar, and dragged him down like a thief. In consequence of the wounds he received at this time, Mr D. died a few weeks after.
Mr Wotherspoon coming in at the time of the affray, Mr. Dawson's friends were so enraged, that they immediately fell on him, whom they beat in such a terrible manner, that he also died about the same time as Mr Dawson.
Thus the lives of two amiable young gentlemen were sacrificed to the brutality of this inhuman monster. Many men, women, and children, were also much wounded in the affray; yet this wretch escaped unpunished: no notice being taken of the many instances of his barbarity.
Nothing gave more pleasure to this fellow than his being employed to quell riots, which, to the disgrace of the magistrates he was too much encouraged in. On these occasions he never wanted an opportunity of exercising his savage disposition. Smuggling was so much practised in Scotland at that time, that no laws could restrain it. The smugglers assembled in large bodies, so that the revenue officers could not attack them without endangering their lives.
The most active person in striving to suppress these unlawful practices was Mr Stark, collector for the county of Fife, who being informed that one Andrew Wilson had a large quantity of contraband goods at his house, persuaded a number of men to accompany him; and they seized the goods, and safely lodged them (as they thought) in the Custom-House, but Wilson being man of enterprising spirit, went in company with one Robertson, and some more of his gang, to the Custom-House, when breaking open the doors, they recovered their goods, which they brought off in carts, in defiance of all opposition.
Mr Stark hearing that such a daring insult had been committed, dispatched an account thereof to the Barons of the Exchequer who immediately applying to the Lord Justice Clark, his lordship issued his warrant to the sheriff of Fife, commanding him to assemble all the people in his jurisdiction to seize the delinquents and replace the goods. In consequence of the above order, many were apprehended, but all discharged again for want of evidence, except Wilson and Robertson, who were both found guilty and sentenced to die.
A custom prevailed in Scotland at that time, of taking the condemned criminals to church every Sunday, under the care of three or four of the city guards. The above two criminals were accordingly taken to one of the churches on the Sunday before they were to suffer; when, just getting within the door, Wilson (though handcuffed) assisted in his companion's escape, by seizing hold of one soldier with his teeth, and keeping the others from turning upon him, while he cried out to Robertson to run.
Robertson accordingly took to his heels, and the streets being crowded with people going to church, he passed uninterrupted, and got out of one of the city gates just as they were going to shut it: a custom constantly observed during divine service. The city being now alarmed, Porteous was immediately dispatched in search of him, but all in vain, as Robertson met with a friend who knocked off his handcuffs, and procured him a horse; and the same evening got on board a vessel at Dunbar, which landed him safe in Holland.
He was living in the year 1756, and kept a public-house with great credit, near the bridge at Rotterdam.
On the following Wednesday a temporary gallows was erected in the grass-market, for the execution of Wilson, who was ordered to be conducted there by fifty men, under the command of Porteous.
Porteous being apprehensive that an attempt would be made to rescue the prisoner, represented to the provost the necessity there was for soldiers to be drawn up ready to preserve the peace. On which five companies of the Welsh fusiliers, commanded by a major, were ordered to be in readiness in the lawn-market, near the place of execution.
No disturbance arising, the prisoner finished his devotions, ascended the ladder, was turned off, and continued hanging the usual time; at the expiration of which, the hangman going up the ladder to cut him down, a stone struck him on the nose, and caused it to bleed. This stone was immediately followed by many others, at which Porteous was so much exasperated, that he instantly called out to his men 'Fire and be damned'; discharging his own piece at the same time, and shooting a young man, who was apprentice to a confectioner, dead on the spot.
Some of the soldiers more humanely fired over the heads of the people; but unfortunately killed two or three who were looking out at the windows. Others of the soldiers wantonly fired amongst the feet of the mob, by which many were so disabled as to be afterwards obliged to suffer amputation.
Porteous now endeavoured to draw off his men, as the mob grew exceedingly outrageous, throwing stones with everything else they could lay their hands on, and continuing to press on the soldiers; on which Porteous, with two of his men, turned about and fired, killing three more of the people, which amounted to nine in the whole that were left dead upon the spot; and many wounded.
A serjeant was sent by the major of the Welsh fusiliers to inquire into the cause of the disturbance, but the mob was so outrageous that he could gain no intelligence. Porteous, being assisted by the Welsh fusiliers, at last conducted his men to the guard, when, being sent for by the provost, he passed a long examination, and was committed to prison in order to take his trial for murder.
On the 6th of July, 1736, the trial came on before the lords of the justiciary, previous to which Porteous made a judicial confession that the people were killed as mentioned in the indictments; but pleaded self-defence. His counsel then stated the following point of law to be determined by the judges, previous to the jury being charged with the prisoner: 'Whether a military officer with soldiers under his command, who fires, or orders his men to fire, when assaulted by the populace, is not acting consistently with the nature of self-defence, according to the laws of civilised nations?'
The counsel being ordered to plead to the question by the court, they pronounced, as their opinion, 'That if it was proved that Captain Porteous either fired a gun, or caused one or more to be fired, by which any person or persons was or were killed, and if the said firing happened without orders from a magistrate properly authorised, then it would be murder in the eye of the law.'
Thus the question being decided against him, and the jury impanelled, forty-four witnesses were examined for and against the prosecution.
The prisoner being now called on for his defence, his counsel insisted that the magistrates had ordered him to support the execution of Wilson, and repel force by force, being apprehensive of a rescue; that powder and ball had been given them for the said purpose, with orders to load their pieces.
They insisted also, that he only meant to intimidate the people by threats, and actually knocked down one of his own men for presenting his piece; that finding the men would not obey orders, he drew off as many as he could; that he afterwards heard a firing in the rear, contrary to his orders. That in order to know who had fired he would not suffer their pieces to be cleaned till properly inspected, and that he never attempted to escape, though he had the greatest opportunity, and might have effected it with the utmost ease.
They farther insisted, that admitting some excesses had been committed, it could not amount to murder, as he was in the lawful discharge of his duty, and that it could not be supposed to be done with premeditated malice.
In answer to this the counsel for the crown argued, that the trust reposed in the prisoner ceased when the execution was over; that he was then no longer an officer employed for that purpose for which the fire-arms had been loaded, and that the reading the riot act only could justify their firing, in case a rescue had actually been attempted.
The prisoner's counsel replied, that the magistrates, whose duty it was to have read the act, had deserted the soldiery, and took refuge in a house for their own security, and that it was hard for men to suffer themselves to be knocked on the head when they had lawful weapons put into their hands to defend themselves.
The charge being delivered to the jury, they retired for a considerable time, when they brought him in guilty, and he received sentence of death.
The king being then at Hanover, and much interest being made to save the prisoner, the queen, by the advice of her council, granted a respite till his Majesty's return to England. The respite was only procured one week before his sentence was to be put in execution, of which, when the populace were informed, such a scheme of revenge was meditated as is perhaps unprecedented.
On the 7th of September, 1736, between nine and ten in the evening, a large body of men entered the city of Edinburgh, and seized the arms belonging to the guard; they then patrolled the streets, crying out, 'All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.' They then shut the gates and placed guards at each.
The main body of the mob, all disguised, marched in the mean time to the prison; when finding some difficulty in breaking open the doors with hammers, they immediately set fire to it; taking great care that the flames should not spread beyond their proper bounds. The outer door was hardly consumed before they rushed in, and, ordering the keeper to open the door of the captain's apartment, cried out, 'Where is the villain, Porteous?' He replied, 'Here I am, what do you want with me?' To which they answered, that they meant to hang him in the Grass Market, the place where he had shed so much innocent blood.
His expostulations were all in vain, they seized him by the legs and arms, and dragged him instantly to the place of execution.
On their arrival, they broke open a shop to find a rope suitable to their purpose, which they immediately fixed round his neck, then throwing the other end over a dyer's pole, hoisted him up; when he, endeavouring to save himself, fixed his hands between the halter and his neck, which being observed by some of the mob, one of them struck him with an axe, which obliging him to quit his hold, they soon put an end to his life.
When they were satisfied he was dead they immediately dispersed to their several habitations, unmolested themselves, and without molesting anyone else.
Such was the fate of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of qualifications which, had they been properly applied, might have rendered him an honourable and useful servant of his country. His undaunted spirit and invincible courage would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But being advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of his fellow citizens, he was detested and hated by all who knew him. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will he a caution to those who are in power not to abuse it; but, by a humane as well as diligent discharge of their duty, to render themselves worthy members of society.