The Story of the Edinburgh Lawman Lynched by an Angry Mob

Porteous Riots
The Porteous Mob, by James Drummond (1855)

In September 1736, John Porteous, Captain of Edinburgh’s City Guard, was lynched by an angry mob of local residents.

Overpowered and taken from the Tolbooth prison, Captain Porteous was dragged through the streets of the Old Town to the Grassmarket, where he was eventually hanged.

This gruesome incident marked the climax of what came to be known as the ‘Porteous Riots’, which erupted in Edinburgh as a direct result of the captain’s actions several months prior.

The Porteous Riots

In April 1736, three smugglers were arrested and condemned to death in Edinburgh. While one of the trio, William Hall, was granted a stay of execution, his co-conspirators Andrew Wilson and George Robertson were hanged before the public on April 14th.

The execution of the pair is believed to have sparked outrage among some Edinburgh locals, one of whom attempted to cut down and remove Wilson’s body from the gallows. It was here that Captain Porteous is said to have reacted hastily; firing a musket and killing an innocent bystander in the crowd.

With the crowd growing agitated and a sensing a riot, the City Guard began to withdraw from the Grassmarket, firing above the heads of the pursuing mob. However, in doing so they shot and wounded onlookers from nearby tenements.

In a final attempt to quell the riot, guards under Porteous’ command opened fire once again – killing an additional five people and wounding several more.

Porteous Riots
The Porteous Riot, by James Skene (1818)

For his involvement in the incident, Captain Porteous was arrested and charged with several counts of murder.

The trial, which took place in July 1736, was an emotionally charged affair. Porteous was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. With an execution date set for 8th September, Porteous was held in the Tolbooth prison, located in the city’s Old Town.

Rising Tensions

Across Scotland – and indeed the whole of the UK – Porteous’ conviction sparked sympathy. Prominent political figures including Sir Robert Walpole became involved in the affair.

In September, an appeal was submitted and Porteous’ execution was deferred after a formal request from Queen Caroline, consort to King George II.

The decision to grant Porteous this reprieve sparked outrage among Edinburgh locals. And with the incident still fresh in the minds of many residents, some sought to take the law into their own hands.

A crowd of several thousand locals gathered in the west of the city before making their way to the Tolbooth. Overpowering the guards, Porteous was snatched from the prison and marched to his fate.

Arriving in the Grassmarket, Porteous was hanged from a dyer’s pole for a short while before being taken down and stripped. In the ensuing carnage, he was savagely beaten. One local even attempted to set fire to the disgraced lawman.

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Eventually, Porteous was strung up a final time and died in the evening of the 7th September.

The Porteous Riots shocked the nation, and in February 1737 a parliamentary inquiry into the incident was held.

The subsequent investigation recommended that the City Guard be disbanded and replaced. However, these suggestions never came to fruition. Ultimately, the city of Edinburgh was fined £2,000, with compensation granted to Porteous’ widow.

Notably, those responsible for instigating the riot were never caught, despite a sizeable reward of more than £200 being offered for information related to the case. As such, the Porteous murder gave rise to a number of conspiracy theories on who was responsible.

At the time, there were suggestions that the final riot and lynching had been organised by smugglers in revenge for the original execution. Other theories featured claims of Jacobite involvement while another prominent theory implied that the murder was organised by a group of local city tradesmen with a grudge to settle.

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