THE REV. THOMAS HUNTER, M.A.
Executed on 22nd of August, 1700, near Edinburgh, for the diabolical Murder out of Revenge of the Two Children of Mr Gordon
It is with deep regret that we are compelled to bring before the reader a murderer, in a character which ever should be held most sacred. A crime more premeditated, and more fraught with cruelty, never stained the annals of history. Ambition has often impelled tyrants to shed innocent blood; revenge has stimulated men to kill each other; jealousy with 'jaundiced eye' destroys the object of its love; but God forbid that we should ever again have to record the fact of a tutor, a minister of the Gospel, premeditatedly murdering his pupils! -- the sons of his benefactor. When we add, that this most miserable sinner expiated his offence in avowing himself an atheist, we arrive, at once, at the very depth of human depravity.
This detestable culprit was born in the county of Fife, in Scotland, and was the son of a rich farmer, who sent him to the University of St Andrews for education. When he had acquired a sufficient share of classical learning he was admitted to the degree of Master of Arts, and began to prosecute his studies in divinity with no small degree of success. Several of the younger clergymen act as tutors to wealthy and distinguished families till a proper period arrives for their entering into orders, which they never do till they obtain a benefice. While in this rank of life they bear the name of chaplains; and in this station Hunter lived about two years in the house of Mr Gordon, a very eminent merchant, and one of the bailies of Edinburgh, which is a rank equal to that of alderman of London.
Mr Gordon's family consisted of himself, his lady, two sons and a daughter, a young woman who attended Mrs Gordon and her daughter, the malefactor in question, some clerks and menial servants. To the care of Hunter was committed the education of the two sons; and for a considerable time he discharged his duty in a manner highly satisfactory to the parents, who considered him as a youth of superior genius and great goodness of heart. Unfortunately a connection took place between Hunter and the young woman, which soon increased to a criminal degree, and was maintained for a considerable time without the knowledge of the family.
One day, however, when Mr and Mrs Gordon were on a visit, Hunter and his girl met in their chamber as usual; but, having been so incautious as not to make their door fast, the children went into the room and found them in such a situation as could not admit of any doubt of the nature of their intercourse. No suspicion was entertained that these children would mention to their parents what had happened, the eldest boy being not quite ten years of age; but when the children were at supper with their parents they disclosed so much as left no room to doubt of what had passed. Hereupon the female servant was directed to quit the house on the following day; but Hunter was continued in the family, after making a proper apology for the crime of which he had been guilty, attributing it to the thoughtlessness of youth, and promising never to offend in the same way again.
From this period he entertained the most inveterate hatred to all the children, on whom he determined in his own mind to wreak the most diabolical vengeance. Nothing less than murder was his intention; but it was a considerable time after he had formed this horrid plan before he had an opportunity of carrying it into execution.
Whenever it was a fine day he was accustomed to walk in the fields with his pupils for an hour before dinner, and in these excursions the young lady generally attended her brothers. At the period immediately preceding the commission of the fatal act Mr Gordon and his family were at their country retreat, very near Edinburgh; and having received an invitation to dine in that city, he and his lady proposed to go thither about the time that Hunter usually took his noontide walk with the children. Mrs Gordon was very anxious for all the children to accompany them on this visit, but this was strenuously opposed by her husband, who would consent that only the little girl should attend them.
By this circumstance Hunter's intention of murdering all the three children was frustrated; but he held the resolution of destroying the boys while they were yet in his power. With this view he took them into the fields and sat down as if to repose himself on the grass.
This event took place soon after the middle of the month of August, 1700 and Hunter was preparing his knife to put a period to the lives of the children at the very moment they were busied in catching butterflies and gathering wild flowers. Having sharpened his knife, he called the lads to him, and when he had reprimanded them for acquainting their father and mother to the scene to which they had been witnesses, said that he would immediately put them to death.
Terrified by this threat, the children ran from him; but he immediately followed and brought them back. He then placed his knee on the body of the one while he cut the throat of the other with his penknife, and then treated the second in the same inhuman manner that he had done the first. These horrid murders were committed within half-a-mile of the Castle of Edinburgh; and as the deed was perpetrated in the middle of the day, and in the open fields, it would have been very wonderful indeed if the murderer had not been immediately taken into custody.
At the very time a gentleman was walking on the Castle hill of Edinburgh, who had a tolerably perfect view of what passed. Alarmed by the incident, he called some people, who ran with him to the place where the children were lying dead. Hunter now had advanced towards a river, with a view to drown himself. Those who pursued came up with him just as he reached the brink of the river; and his person being immediately known to them, a messenger was instantly dispatched to Mr and Mrs Gordon, who were at that moment going to dinner with their friend, to inform them of the horrid murder of their sons.
Language is too weak to describe the effects resulting from the communication of this dreadful news; the astonishment of the afflicted father, the agony of the frantic mother, may possibly be conceived, though it cannot be painted.
According to an old Scottish law it was decreed that "if a murderer should be taken with the blood of the murdered person on his clothes, he should be prosecuted in the Sheriff's Court, and executed within three days after the commission of the fact." It was not common to execute this sentence with rigour; but this offender's crime was of so aggravated a nature, that it was not thought proper to remit anything of the utmost severity of the law.
The prisoner was therefore committed to jail and chained down to the floor all night, and on the following day the sheriff issued his precept for the jury to meet; and in consequence of their verdict Hunter was brought to his trial, when he pleaded guilty, and added to the offence he had already committed the horrid crime of declaring that he only lamented not having murdered Mr Gordon's daughter as well as his sons. The sheriff now passed sentence on the convict, which was to the following purpose: that "on the succeeding day he should be executed on a gibbet, erected for that purpose on the spot where he had committed the murders; but that, previous to his execution, his right hand should be cut off with a hatchet, near the wrist; that then he should be drawn up to the gibbet by a rope, and when he was dead, hung in chains between Edinburgh and Leith, the knife with which he committed the murders being stuck through his hand, which should be advanced over his head and fixed therewith to the top of the gibbet."
Mr Hunter was executed in strict conformity to the above sentence on the 22nd of August, 1700. But Mr Gordon soon afterwards petitioned the sheriff that the body might be removed to a more distant spot, as its hanging on the side of the highway, through which he frequently passed, tended to re-excite his grief for the occasion that had first given rise to it. This requisition was immediately complied with, and in a few days the body was removed to the skirts of a small village near Edinburgh, named Broughton. It is equally true and horrid to relate, that, at the place of execution, Hunter closed his life with the following shocking declaration: "There is no God -- I do not believe there is any or if there is, I hold him in defiance." Yet this infidel had professed himself to be a minister of the Gospel!