"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 9, 2013

Nicol Muschet: Murder By Committee

Current location of "Muschet's Cairn," via Wikipedia

I fully agree with Thomas De Quincey’s declaration that “something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane.” Although I confess to a deplorable interest in true crime, I have no desire to read about deviltry notable only for its brutality. (I avoid such horrors as the Moors Murders or Frederick and Rosemary West, for example.) I only like reading about human wrongdoing if it has a strong element of mystery or weirdness to it, preferably both.

This preamble serves as my excuse for today’s topic. Nicol Muschet’s ugly murder of his wife would not normally be a subject I’d care to write about. Muschet was a banal young creep, and his remarkable clumsiness as a murderer ensured that he rapidly got the punishment he so obviously deserved. His guilt has no nagging question marks around it.

The sole interesting factor of this case is that he was one of those rare murderers to work with an advisory committee. With no effort at all on his part, Muschet gathered around him a large group of people eager to offer counsel and practical aid for ridding himself of his spouse. The fact that several of these people were among Edinburgh’s more distinguished citizens just makes things all the quainter. This remarkable example of “team spirit” justifies, I hope, my presenting this curious little peek into the social life of early 18th century Scotland.

Most of what we know about Muschet comes from the pamphlet—an almost mandatory feature for all the more notorious criminals of the era—giving a first person account of his life and crimes. It is most notable for displaying a quite nauseating blend of self-justification and bathetic assumed religiosity.

According to this document, Muschet was born in 1695 to parents “eminent where they lived for Piety.” His father died early in his life, but he retained a mother who raised him “in the true Presbyterian Principles of Religion.”

He attended the Edinburgh Medical College, and in 1716 became a surgeon’s apprentice. Free from his mother’s guidance, he gravitated to bad companions, spending his days in “vitious Practices.” He left his job—we are not told why, but it was certainly a fortunate turn for the medical profession—and returned home. However, the lure of observing a public dissection soon brought him back to town. On his return, he met a young woman named Margaret Hall. According to Muschet, Hall was a girl of highly dubious virtue who immediately launched a shameless pursuit of him, even though he found the company of such a wanton creature repellent. It is curious to read that—three weeks after their first meeting—we find our hero marrying the girl. (In his account, Muschet protests—rather too much—against the contemporary, and likely quite accurate, rumor that the marriage was of the shotgun variety, insisted upon by Hall’s father.)

Considering the circumstances—and the character of the bridegroom—it is no shock that the marriage quickly proved a failure, and Muschet made up his mind to leave his wife and go abroad. There was, however, one complication to this plan. Muschet, on top of all his other lovable qualities, was a selfish skinflint who dreaded the idea of having to pay his wife alimony. It was probably at that time that he began to ponder more drastic plans for ridding himself of his new spouse.

These plans kicked into overdrive when Muschet met James Campbell, whom he described as “the only Viceregent of the Devil.” When Campbell heard of his friend’s marital unhappiness, he soon proved that Muschet’s description of him was not inaccurate. He offered a deal—eventually formalized in a written contract—that in exchange for a fee, he would help Muschet obtain a divorce. Campbell promised to acquire legal affidavits from witnesses testifying to “the whorish practices of Margaret Hall.” His “hellish project,” to use the words of his friend Muschet, was simple: He would bring Hall to the home of one of his obliging friends (a town Magistrate,) drug her with laudanum, and while she was unconscious, bring in another crony—a Professor of Languages, no less—to, as crime historian William Roughead primly put it, “sustain the role of Iachimo.”

The conspiracy was aborted, thanks to their legal advisor, a James Russell (this lawyer was also responsible for the contract between the parties.) Russell informed them that unless they could prove some sort of prior acquaintance between Hall and the estimable Professor, their evidence of her “infidelity” would do them little good.

At this point, a kinsman named James Muschet and his wife Grissel enter the picture. “For a piece of Money” they eagerly entered into the increasingly popular game of ridding Muschet of his wife. However, their schemes to prove Hall was a loose woman were increasingly expensive and utterly ineffective, causing Muschet to finally abandon the notion of ending his marriage by legal means.

His good friend Campbell then made a suggestion that had probably already occurred to the enterprising young surgeon. Why not simply give Hall a dose of poison? James Muschet, in return for yet another “consideration,” cheerfully agreed to take on the job. James gave Hall “a dram” liberally laced with mercury, but although she became dreadfully sick, it failed to produce the desired results. On Campbell’s advice, they gave her several more doses of the poison, but their subject showed a maddening refusal to die.

Campbell—certainly a believer in the “if at first you don’t succeed” motto—proposed that James Muschet take Hall out drinking, and when she was sufficiently unsteady, simply drown her in a pond. (He even helpfully suggested two sites he thought appropriate for the deed.) James, however, refused to agree to the plan. Grissel dreamed up an alternate scheme—her husband would “on a pretense of kindness” take Hall out riding on a pillion behind him, and when they came to a river, hurl her into the water.

Campbell rejected the plan as too difficult and overly dependent on chance. He suggested James should simply knock Hall on the head and throw her “into some Hole without the Town, and immediately thereafter to flee to Paris.” Alas, James again declined to do Muschet’s dirty work for him. Matters were at a stalemate until May of 1720, when our merry band agreed to try Campbell’s latest plan: Grissel would invite Hall to her lodgings and keep her there until a late hour “by affording her Meat and Drink, and entertaining her with flattering Discourse.” When Hall walked home, James, lying in wait in a dark alley, would bludgeon her to death. They wound up trying this scheme several times, but every time James was ready to strike, “some Body going up or down prevented it.”

By this point, Muschet sighed, he was ready to give up on murdering his seemingly invulnerable spouse, but after a scolding from Grissel Muschet (“Is it reasonable, think you, so to do, when my Husband and I have wared so much Time and Pains to accomplish that Design, and in Expectation of our Reward, now to give it over?”) took up the enterprise anew. James Muschet did not have any more luck as an assassin than before. Always, it seems, whenever Hall was within his grasp, passerby prevented him from carrying out the deed. All that this long succession of late nights in cold alleyways accomplished was to give the would-be murderer “a violent Toothache, which occasioned him to keep his Room for two or three days.”

On October 17th, 1720, Muschet borrowed a knife from his landlady. That evening, he invited his wife for a walk. The original plan was that he would make one more attempt to lead her to the ever-lurking James Muschet, but Nicol tells us he realized that it was “but a light thing who was the executioner.” It finally dawned on Nicol Muschet that if you want something done right, you had damn well better do it yourself. He would be rid of these inept and costly middlemen and just do the deed on his own. He led his wife into the dark, quiet grounds of the King’s Park, near the palace of Holyrood. Muschet records that Hall began to weep, “and prayed that God might forgive me if I was taking her to any Mischief.”

Very soon after she said these words, Muschet launched his attack. Stabbing a woman to death was more difficult than Muschet had thought, and the struggle was a long and gruesome one. Finally, however, this ill-fated marriage reached its bloody end. According to a contemporary “Elegy” on her murder, Margaret Hall was only sixteen years old.

Muschet left Hall where she had fallen, and after boasting of his “horrid Wickedness” to his landlady and the Muschets (the latter demanded instant payment for their earlier participation,) he took himself to bed. One hopes he had a bad night.

Hall’s mutilated body was discovered at about ten the next morning, and the corpse was soon identified. Muschet took himself to Leith, but returned to Edinburgh that night, where Grissel gave him the pleasant news that “all Things are very well,” and that he could return to his lodgings. She and her husband, she assured him, would ably perjure themselves in his defense. However, when Muschet heard that his landlady was being questioned by the authorities, he sped back to Leith.

Meanwhile, Grissel Muschet, displaying the usual honor among thieves—or murderers—decided that the best protection for her and her spouse was to grass on their former employer. They told law enforcement everything they knew about the murder, and Grissel even helpfully led the City Guard to Muschet’s current address.

After his arrest, Muschet initially tried denying his guilt, but either, as he said, “Conscience, that great Accuser” got the better of him, or (more likely) he realized the game was up. He threw up his hands and signed a confession. The jury had little difficulty in convicting him, with the hanging set for January 6th, 1721.

In his published confession, Muschet made a grand show of “forgiving” Campbell, the Muschet pair, and his other partners in crime, whom he described as being entirely responsible for his black deeds. He also took the opportunity to castigate those who had spread talk that he had attempted suicide in prison, that he was a chronic inebriate, and that his relations with his landlady went beyond the bounds of propriety. He ended with the probably overoptimistic declaration, “Welcome Heaven and Eternal Enjoyment!”

Of all Muschet’s little helpers, only James Campbell faced any charges. Two months after Muschet was hanged, Campbell was found guilty for being “art and part” in the numerous attempts to murder Margaret Hall (the indefatigable James and Grissel again turned King's Evidence,) and he was sentenced to transportation to the West Indies for life. It seems, however, that he soon returned to Scotland, because he is next heard of as a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle. He is lost to history at that point, but it is assumed he died in captivity.

The killing of Margaret Hall has left memorials other than her husband’s pamphlet. A cairn was erected over the site of her death, although the monument has been relocated over the centuries. “Muschet’s Cairn” gained fame through being featured in Walter Scott’s “The Heart of Midlothian,” thus bestowing upon a nasty little killer a curious form of immortality.


  1. Poor Margaret. It seems unlikely that it was a 'shotgun' wedding after just three weeks of the couple knowing each other. And if she was truly whorish, the conspirators would hardly have needed to drug her to gain proof of her debaucheries. Probably, she was just infatuated with a man whose social origins were better than hers. It's too bad the other Muschets didn't follow their relative to the gallows.

  2. Timmy and I were just talking about foul murder in the past. He opined that people in the "olden days" worked harder for a living and therefor didn't have time to violently butcher one another the way we do today. I, on the Devil's side if you will, said the sociopaths have been with us always, sponging off the hard workers and killing as they pleased... Sadly, I guess the surgeon's assistant sort of proved my point.

    1. Yes, no matter how hard life may get, people have always managed to find the time and energy to do dreadful things to each other.

  3. What an incredibly sad story; how they all wasted time, as well as life!


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