All Passion Spent. (An Edinburgh Tale).
In Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk yard where Captain John Porteous was laid to rest there is a commemorative plaque inscribed ‘All Passion Spent’.
The date of the incident is September 7th 1736 the same year George Hamilton became the first British Field Marshal and witchcraft was no longer punishable by death.
Earlier, on the 14th of April, Andrew Wilson, George Robertson and fellow smuggler William Hall were sentence to death by hanging.
William Hall was fortunate in having his sentence altered to life transportation to the colonies.
Wilson, in addition to the crime of smuggling had entered the bed chamber of an excise man to steal his collectors purse. The excise man had been too quick for Wilson and jumped out of the bedroom window in his long night shirt. At this time Wilson’s accomplices were in the process of breaking the door down.
By morning they were arrested and deposited in the local jail at the Tollbooth. Wilson’s friend George Robertson escaped from the Tollbooth prison a few days before the date of execution. He managed this with the help of some citizens who did not agree with the means of punishment and without the knowledge of his jailers bend the bars of his cell. He managed to leave the country and arrive safely in Holland.
The remaining prisoner Andrew Wilson was hanged in public on the 14th of April at the Grassmarket where the site of the gallows still remain.
Wilson’s body was expected to hang from the gibbet for at least half an hour. At the wave of a white rod by a magistrate from a high window of a near tavern, the hangman cut the body down amid a growing riot.
The hangman received blows from stones and had to be placed in protective custody to preserve his life from the maddened mob. An Edinburgh mob could be as dangerous as French revolutionary rabble and combining the hatred for excise tax men they were formidable.
To rescue the hangman magistrates and officials the Lord Provost of Edinburgh had no choice other than call out the whole of the Town Guard. Robert (Jock) Porteous, Captain of the guard, armed the men with muskets, powder and shot.
Edinburgh had increased its Town Guard after the 1715 rebellion and had the unlikely name of the Black Banditti. Its Drill Master was no other than Jack Porteous a man known for his short temper, and stocky build. By 1718 he had become an ensign of one of the three companies in the Town Guard. In 1726 promoted to Captain General and displayed that short fuse in dealing with his men accompanied with a sneering manner.
John Porteous had contacts in the Town council and used them at will, it may have been his reputation of serving with the Scots Dutch Brigade in Flanders. During this time it is rumoured he cut the throat of a Captain in a revenge attack.
In full regalia of cooked hat and military coat of splendour Porteous led his man to deal with the rioters, who gathered around the block that supported the gallows. Stones and other objects hurtled through the air to strike Porteous and his man. Without hesitation Captain Porteous ordered shots to be fired above the head of the crowd and as a result wounded inquisitive tenants in the houses opposite. This had no effect on the angered horde and in a panic the town guard was ordered to fired directly into them.
Six were killed outright and twelve wounded although some say over twenty, which led to the arrest of Porteous that same afternoon for murder.
The trial took place at the High Court of Justiciary on the 5th of July where the testifiers varied from observing the Captain of the Guard firing his pistol on the crowd to not firing at all.
The jury found him guilty of the crime by a unanimous verdict to be hanged. Surely, influenced by the ill feeling of the public who congregated outside the court.
A date for the execution was set for the 8th of September and the prisoner was incarcerated in the Tollbooth near St Giles.
In London where feeling were high and riots common due to an increase on Gin tax, Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister and the King became involved. A pardon was approved and its intentions conveyed to Edinburgh not realising they had miscalculated the wrath of its people. A mob amassed and went on the rampage and took the keys of the Westgate. Then proceeded to lock and secure all the toll gates. In an unstoppable mood they herded to the Cowgate to lock out any incoming troops and broke into the Guardhouse to arm. Taking with them 95 muskets, a drum and several axes before setting free prisoners. With heavy hammers they attacked the Tollbooth and then set the gates alight with the help of tar.
John Porteous was dragged out in his night gown and stripped bare, his gown was wrapped around his head. He was then tied hurriedly by rope. The rope had not been tied properly and Porteous struggled to free himself, in answer his arm and shoulder were broken and a foot burned in an attempt to set it alight.
Strung up high on a drying frame for some time before the mob took him down to beat him again. While hanging from the frame he was jerked up and down to ensure his demise and torment. John Porteous died near midnight one day before his official date with the hangman and was left to dangle till five the following morning.
Close to Candlemakers Row in Greyfriars Kirkyard he was buried along side many Edinburgh worthies.
As a consequence some proposed to disband the City Guard but that intent was soon forgotten.
A reward of £200 was offered for the murderers of Porteous but this large amount met no takes and justice slipped away.
This episode of Edinburgh history reminds me of the words of Patrick Henry:- Captain of the Guard. Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.