When the crowd gathered to see the hangman launching teenager Robert Smith into eternity on a wet Tuesday in 1868, it was the last time this public spectacle would be witnessed in Scotland. Smith's crime was heinous, his public punishment brutal. And, finally, it was the end of a tragic public theatre which had drawn eager, baying crowds for more than a thousand years.
Launched Into Eternity is a fascinating account of crime and public punishment in Scotland. From bloody Viking penalties to the execution of William Wallace, and from witch hunts and public drownings to the horrific execution in 1820 of three Scots Radicals whose crime was to campaign for a fairer deal for the downtrodden, this is an astonishing and macabre story. But it is perhaps less surprising when you consider that by 1800, judges had the authority to hand out the death penalty for more than 200 separate offences.
Times have undoubtedly changed for the better, but the shadows of our history offer a fascinating insight into the brutality of life and the public punishments of the past.
But if their deaths were cruel, Launched Into Eternity tells of women decried by jealous neighbours as witches being burned alive, publicly drowned, having ears and noses cut off and a vast range of other tragic cases where the justice of the time was delivered in the most brutal ways.The sheer scale of this can be seen in the fact that by 1800 Judges had authority to hand out the death penalty for more than 200 offences, some as trivial as poking about in a rabbit warren, stealing a shilling, begging, poaching, picking pockets, spending time with gipsies and stealing a horse, sheep or goat. Times have undoubtedly changed for the better, but the shadows of our past offer a fascinating insight into the brutality of life and the punishments of the past.
David Leslie was a senior journalist with the News of the World for over forty years, latterly as Scottish Crime Editor. He is the author of several books including Crimelord, the story of underworld supremo Tam 'The Licensee' McGraw, and Carstairs: Hospital for Horrors. He has appeared in television documentaries giving unique insights into notorious crimes and criminals and is a regular contributor to radio stations and newspapers, drawing on his extensive and unchallenged knowledge of the Scottish underworld.