Like many port towns in Scotland, Dundee underwent a rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution, with many of the facilities and institutions which helped the city and the citizen operate suddenly finding themselves out of depth. The police force was no exception – as Dundee saw it’s population explode from 26,000 in 1801 to 90,000 just six decades later, there was, at the time of our mystery in 1835, just 14 police officers.
Throughout the 1830s one of the groups to take advantage of this situation was the Black Band – a criminal gang who carried out a wave of crimes across the city mainly highway robberies and burglaries, alternating what areas of the city they operated in regularly to stretch the police force even more, and even reportedly sparking riots in poorer areas to further complicate any chance of arrest.
Eventually, however, the police were able to get their hands on a member of the Black Band, a 26 year old named Mark Devlin, who was arrested with two other members of the group during a burglary in the Hawkhill area. The two other members of the Band were given 7 and 14 year sentences, but while in custody Devlin was also charged with raping a woman named Ann McLachlan, a crime he was quickly found guilty of. At the time, rape was a capital offense, and Devlin was to go to the gallows on May 30.
The only issue was that Dundee did not have a resident hangman, as executioner had become so unpopular due to a series of contentious hangings carried out during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. While the spectacle of a public execution, as it had done throughout history, and into the modern day, was a crowd-drawer, the executioner was arguably the villain of this piece of theatre, and despite his crime there apparently a great deal of sympathy with Devlin in Dundee owning to the antipathy of the gallows.
A stand-in was called from Edinburgh, but he didn’t show up on the day a plea went out to the crowd to find a replacement. A man stepped forward, maintaining he would only carry out the job if he were able to remain anonymous, and wear a mask. While the typical image of an executioner is of a masked or hooded man it was in fact incredibly rare for the identity of the person to be obscured, and the execution of Mark Devlin is believed to be the only execution carried out by a masked man in Scottish history.
So at mid-afternoon Devlin was hung by the masked man, watched by 15,000 people, on gallows which had been specially constructed the previous night – their building apparently waking Devlin up around 1am as he slept in a cell at the Town House. He was the last person to be executed in Dundee’s High Street, and the last to be executed for the crime of rape in Scotland.
But the mystery remains – who came forward at such short notice to carry out the execution? Word spread quickly around the waiting crowd that it was James Livingston, a travelling salesman from Forfar – the rumours were so strong he was even forced to write to the local paper in Dundee to deny his involvement, a letter countersigned by the Dundee magistrate who had appointed the unknown executioner. With his name cleared, other suggestions included a relative of Ann McLachlan, as people with a clear motive for being so willing.
All that is known of the hangman is that he was a Dundee native, and the magistrate who appointed him took the secret to the grave.
Mysterious Murders: read about the murder of Jean Milne.