Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner.

Just who was Dundee’s mystery hangman of 1835?

James Livingstone's letter from the Dundee Advertiser of June 4, 1835.
James Livingstone's letter from the Dundee Advertiser of June 4, 1835.

Few mysteries remain unsolved forever but there is one in our archives that has remained a puzzle for nearly 180 years. It is the identity of the hangman who dispatched Mark Devlin in an attempt to smash the power of the Black Band criminal gang.

This ruthless secret society held Dundee in a grip of terror in the 1830s. They were thought to be based in a cellar in Overgate, at that time a place of shadows and secrets. They used the cover of this medieval warren of properties to spark riots, launch break-ins and highway robberies.

The Black Band fanned out across the booming city and never struck in the same district twice. Dundee’s new and tiny police force of 14 officers could not handle the gang’s crime wave. But in February 1835 they got lucky. They caught Devlin, a young Irishman, carrying out a break-in. He was sentenced to hang at Dundee on May 30.

The magistrates had a problem though. The town had not had a hangman since the 1745 rebellion. The post had become so unpopular because of the hanging of popular Jacobites that no one would take it.

So a young bailie arranged for an executioner to come from Edinburgh.

The window frame was removed from the Guild Hall within the Town House and a platform erected outside. The pulley was inside.

The execution was timed for 2pm but the Edinburgh hangman did not show.

The race to find a replacement was always going to be hard. While the townspeople enjoyed the free entertainment of a public hanging, they also loved to hate the hangman.

With just an hour to go, a volunteer was found who was willing to try his hand at execution. He demanded to wear a mask to conceal his identity.

By 2pm, about 15,000 people packed the High Street. When the hooded hangman came into sight, speculation rippled through the crowd. Then word went round like lightning and within a minute, the throng “knew” the hangman’s identity. He was James Livingstone, a travelling fairground showman.

As Devlin appeared, flanked by two priests, the hush of the crowd was broken by a woman’s wailing. Devlin raised his cap, shook hands with the sheriff and magistrates and made a penitent speech before being dispatched to eternity.

Meanwhile, in Forfar, James Livingstone was operating his merry-go-round, unaware of the character assassination going on in Dundee. But by evening he heard the first rumours which grew over the coming days, threatening to destroy his name and business.

In exasperation, he wrote to the Dundee Advertiser denying involvement and citing as witnesses, Provost Meffan of Forfar and Town Officer John Stewart. The letter was countersigned by Meffan and the Forfar magistrates.

This was enough to clear his reputation but the true identity of the hooded hangman was never revealed. All that is known is he was a native of Dundee. The junior bailie who appointed him took the secret to his grave.

Already a subscriber? Sign in