Gripping Talk Marks Scotland’s Last Public Hanging that Happened in Dumfries

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A gripping talk on the subject of Scotland’s last public hanging,that occurred right here in Dumfries and Galloway, will be presented by award-winning storytellers and local history enthusiasts, Mostly Ghostly, next Tuesday evening, at Annan Old Parish Church Hall.

In May 1868, Robert Colvin Smith was hanged for murder at the old Buccleuch Street Prison in Dumfries, ensuring his place in the annals of Scottish criminal history. The case, sometimes referred to the as The Annandale Murder, will feature as the first talk of 2023 in Annan the History Town’s winter programme.

Kathleen Cronie, who is organising these events on behalf of ATHT, and is also the Founder of Mostly Ghostly, tells us more:

“The case of Robert Smith first captured my attention as a child visiting Dumfries Museum in the 1980s, and has fascinated me ever since. During that visit, I had the opportunity to view Smith’s death mask, an image that has never left me, and have since conducted a wealth of research into the story, the lives of those involved and the powerful impact his heinous crimes had on the local community. This year marks the 155th anniversary of those crimes, and Smith’s subsequent execution – the last public hanging in Scotland – and we aim to offer a unique insight that will inspire guests to discover more about their local history.”

Robert Smith, a nineteen-year-old farm labourer from Eaglesfield, murdered Thomasina Scott near the village of Cummertrees. Thomasina, who was just nine-years-old, had been running an errand for her mother, when a heavy rain shower caused her to seek shelter at the home of Mrs Jane Crichton. It was there she encountered Robert Smith, who offered to accompany her on the road to Annan. The last person to see Thomasina with Smith was a witness named Thomson, who identified her walking near the murder scene. Smith robbed the child, before raping and strangling her in the Croftshead Wood. He then attempted to murder Mrs Crichton, for fear she could implicate him in Thomasina’s death.

Following Thomasina’s murder, Smith made no real attempt to hide his tracks. The police found him at a lodging house in Dumfries, and from there he was arrested, tried and found guilty. Smith admitted his crimes in full and given their severity, he was sentenced to death by public execution. Smith kept a calm demeanour throughout most of his imprisonment, finding solace in religious studies and making his peace with God.

Kathleen said:

“I don’t think any of us can imagine facing a crowd of people awaiting our deaths; the formalities prior to the act, meeting your own executioner and catching the first glimpse of the dreaded gallows. Robert Smith however, seemed to accept his fate and was ready to meet it.”

At the time, a Bill was being passed in Parliament to end the macabre spectacle of public hangings, and some efforts were made for Robert Smith to be hanged in private, however it was found to be impossible.

Witnessed by a crowd of around six hundred, Robert Smith met his maker on Tuesday, 12th May 1868. On the day of the execution, hangman Thomas Askern, courting publicity in a white vest, assisted Smith to the fatal drop. Before drawing the bolt, Askern had to make some last-minute adjustments, adding to the day’s tensions. Death was by no means swift; due to a misplaced rope, Smith’s convulsions, thankfully screened from view, continued for nine minutes before death released him.

Mostly Ghostly, who are known for exploring, and bringing to life, the darker side of Dumfries and Galloway’s history through their range of tours and events, are keen to present their findings. They have previously given talks on Smith’s story at the Festival of Museums, a collaboration with Annan and Dumfries Museums, Sanquhar Arts Festival, and for various community groups. Inspired by the story, they developed a history tour entitled Deadly Dumfries that guides guests to key locations linked with this landmark case.

Touching on the research process, Team Member John Hill said:

“Research into Smith’s case has been ongoing, with visits to the National Records Office in Edinburgh, Dumfries Ewart Library and Dumfries Museum. Over the years, we have learned a lot about the story, gathering compelling information, which will form the basis of our talk. It will be interesting to gauge guests’ views, and we are hopeful that some of those attending may provide further insights.”

Summing up, Kathleen said:

“We look forward to welcoming our guests next week, and are proud to be working with Annan the History Town to deliver what we aim to be a highly engaging and thought-provoking talk. We never forget that real people were affected by these ghastly events, the consequences of which left an indelible mark on the local communities around Annan, and our accounts will be underpinned, as always, with sensitivity and respect.”