People of Angus
Margaret Shuttleworth - the last public execution in Montrose
The last execution of a woman in Montrose took place on Friday 7 December 1821 when Margaret Shuttleworth was hanged for the murder of her husband. Documentation consisting of original letters, newspaper reports and official town records regarding the circumstances leading up to Mrs Shuttleworth’s execution make for gruesome reading amongst Montrose’s Burgh Papers, available in Angus Archives.
Margaret was a very unlucky woman. As little more than a child herself she worked as a nanny but on her own birthday she dropped the child she looked after who subsequently died. She married Henry Shuttleworth on her birthday and this was also the date of her execution.
Executions do not seem to have been as common in the nineteenth century as one might have thought. The combination of the reduction in ‘capital’ offences and the increase of transportation as a punishment seems to have contributed to decline in executions. From original correspondence, it is obvious that a public execution in Montrose was an unusual event because the Town Council had to receive instructions on how to construct a scaffold and how to organise an execution. One document details exactly to the minute when each event was supposed to take place.
The instructions on the guarding and care of the prisoner and the procedures on the day of the execution were set down in precise detail. The day of the execution itself was a day of torrential rain and storm which stopped many country people from venturing into Montrose. Nevertheless, by 2pm it was estimated that a crowd of over 4,000 was present. The town guard and militia had been posted around the jail, the shops were closed and the steeple bell was rung four times a minute until the execution was over. By 2.15pm Mrs Shuttleworth and her escort began its short procession from the jail to the scaffold in the order laid down in the instructions.
With Mrs Shuttleworth seated on a chair on the scaffold, the Reverend Paterson led devotions and prayers for approximately twenty-five minutes before questioning her about her guilt and, as always, she protested her innocence. The executioner put the noose round her neck, covered her head with a cap and put a handkerchief in her hand to drop when she was ready. She shook hands as best she could with her escort, again protested her innocence and dropped the handkerchief. The executioner cut the rope and she dropped. As per the instructions, her body was to hang in public view for at least thirty minutes before it could be cut down. It was then packed into a box to avoid public notice and began its two day journey to the dissecting room of Edinburgh University. It is interesting that there was no mention of a doctor in the escort and no-one actually had to pronounce her dead.
Common thought was that Margaret Shuttleworth had probably been innocent. After the execution, her maid told of hearing another man in the house and of a violent quarrel on the night of the murder. It was never investigated. No-one will ever know for sure whether she was guilty or innocent. What is clear is that no woman was ever executed in Montrose after 1821.
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