Interesting particulars of the last moments, and execution, of Moses M'Donald

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Interesting particulars of the last moments, and execution, of Moses M'Donald  (between 1812 and 1820) 










At Greenock, on the 5th June, 1812,

For House-Breaking and Theft.



And Sold by THOMAS YOUNG, Bookseller.


ON Friday, 5th inst. Moses M‘Donald, sentenced to suffer death at last assizes, was executed here pursuant to his sentence. Early in the morning a gibbet was erected and a platform raised on the square, in front of the New Church, and placed in such a situation as to be viewed from the three principal streets leading into the square. Four companies of the Ayrshire militia, which had arrived from Paisley the day previous, (to preserve order) were stationed round the square, and, by stopping the different avenues, effectually prevented a union of the spectators. At about a quarter past two o’clock the criminal was conducted from the prison (to the inside of the railing in front of the Church, from whence the platform was raised) by a guard of soldiers, preceded by the Magistrates, Sheriff Substitute, ministers, his father, brother, and sister, with a number of the gentlemen of the town, all attired in black. They then prayed and sung psalms three times, and about ten minutes past three o’clock he expressed his thanks to the Magistrates and Clergy, for the kindness he had experienced; he then took farewell, and ascended the scaffold, accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Bryan, with a degree of firmness we have never seen surpassed— the minister continued speaking with him while he stood on the drop, and had the rope adjoined— when he was ready, he let fall a handkerchief as a signal, on which the executioner let go the drop, but from the insufficiency of the rope, or two much of it being left slack, we cannot determine, the jerk it received, broke it, and he fell to the ground; the effect of feeling it then produced in the spectators cannot be described. His sister, who had been standing near, ran to him, assisted him up, and supported him into the Church where he nearly fainted, but soon recovered, and repeated distinctly the 51st Psalm, 1—15, and spoke with much firmness of his hope in the mercy of God through Christ. He remained in the Church until the gibbet was again adjusted, and a new rope obtained. He was then turned off at about 20 minutes before 4 o’clock, cut down about twenty minutes after 4, and deposited in a coffin by his father, brother, and sister, and buried on the following evening. His behaviour in the prison here, and at the place of execution, was exemplary, and seemed to accord with his unhappy situation. As this was the first execution that ever took place at Greenock, we sincerely hope it may be the last, and that the recollection of the source that produced such an awful spectacle to the crowd assembled, and painful task to those more immediately charged with having the law put in execution, may serve as a warning and admonition to that part of the community who by their heedless or determined course of life, render such dreadful examples necessary.

The Magistrates, Clergy, &c. and those on whom this ardous duty more particularly devolved, for the order and regularity with which it was conducted, and the steadiness displayed by them in performing a duty so repugnant to the feelings of humanity, is the thanks of every class in the community deservingly due.

We have been obligingly favoured with the following account and reflections of this unhappy man, by two of the Clergymen who had attended him.

On Friday last, Moses M'Donald, was executed here for shopbreaking and theft. He had been tried and received sentence of death in Glasgow; but the Judges thought it might add to the effect of the example to order their sentence to be put into execution in the place where the crime was committed. It was most just and necessary that such iniquitous practices should be checked by a striking example of the severity of the Law; and the public is greatly indebted to the vigilence and activity of the Magistrates of Greenock, in detecting the perpetrators and abettors of the crime for which this unhappy man was condemned to death, and one of his companions to banishment.

During his imprisonment here every proper indulgence was allowed him by the Magistrates, and much kindness shown by many of the inhabitants of the place. The Ministers of the established Church and several of the dissenting Clergymen here were anxious to afford him instruction and assistance in his spiritual duties, and visited him daily for that purpose.

The last visit was the most painful of all to their feelings. At one' o’clock on Friday, Mr. Steel and Dr. Gilchrist, (their colleague Dr. Scott being absent on clerical duty) left the Council Chamber, where they had been to wait on the Magistrates, and went to the prison, where they were joined by Mr. Hercus, Minister of the Independant Congregation, and Mr. Bryan, Minister of the Methodist Congregration.

On entering the cell of the prisoner, they found with him his wife and three children, and one of the officers of the Town. His wife had placed herself at the upper end of the matrass, on which he lay fastened by the leg to a strong iron bar, and held his head on her lap. This, said he, is my wife. She is an honest woman; and has been a good and dutiful wife to me, though I have used her ill. Not one word did the poor woman utter. In silent agony she clasped him to her breast and kissed his forehead. He requested that the 44th Paraphrase

“Behold the Saviour on the Cross,”

and the 5th Hymn,

“The hour of my departure’s come;”

in the collection appointed by the Church of Scotland, should be sung. One of the Ministers prayed, and another read a letter, wrote to two malefactors under sentence of death by the Rev. James Harvey of the Church of England.

It was now two o’clock, and an order arrived for his removal from the cell, and for preparing him to be led out to execution. About twenty minutes past two he was brought out, and escorted to the Square, where a gibbet had been erected in front of the church.

Here several portions of the psalms and paraphrases were sung, and Mr. Hercus, Dr. Gilchrist, and Mr. Steel, prayed with him in succession. He then deliberately thanked them for their instructions and prayers, and acknowledged his obligations to the humanity and kindness of the Magistrates. Upon which he mounted the platform, and the two last mentioned ministers retired.

During the whole of this awful transaction, the man himself appeared perfectly firm and unmoved. In Christian charity, we should indulge the hope that his firmness was not merely the effects of a constitutional insensibility, but was, at least in part, the effect of that trust which he declared he had been led, by the word and grace of God to repose in the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

He is gone to his own place: and it belongs not to us to Judge; though we would fondly hope that his repentance was sincere, and his trust in mercy well founded.

God grant that this man’s dreadful end may have a salutary effect on the minds of the riotous and unprincipled,and on the minds of all who are in danger of being corrupted and ruined by bad company.

How deceitful is the heart of the sinner! How willing to flatter itself with the hope of always escaping detection and punishment! Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily his heart is fully set in him to do evil. A man who has not the fear of God may receive repeated warnings in the punishment of his companions or in diseases or dangers which befall himself, and his conscience may smite him for his sins; but yet he will persist in his evil ways, until his fear come as a desolation, and his destruction as a whirlwind. Oh, that men would choose the fear of the Lord! but fools hate knowledge and despise reproof. Therefore shall they be filled with their own devises. Their very prosperity shall destroy them.

Such were some of the reflections which this unhappy man occasionally uttered in prison, often did he lament the insensability with which he had treated the warnings that Providence had given him; and he declared, that were he to obtain a free pardon, he could not tell whether he would not after all yield again even to the worst temptations of lust, or sloth, and of avarice. Let every one who even allows himself with secret desire, to contemplate the possibility of robbing, or pilfering without detection, think well of this declaration; for one act of dishonesty will lead him to another. Nay, let every slothful or dissipated person think well of this declaration: for his vices lead naturally to acts of dishonesty; and by acts is formed at last the habit. This poor man, in the prospect of death, seemed often to be deeply impressed with the sense of his guilt; he cried to God for mercy, and for the assistance of the Holy Spirit to prepare him for eternity; and he appeared to lament with bitterness of heart his folly and wickedness; but yet, when he thought of the opportunities of instruction which he had neglected, and of the warnings which he had despised, he could not venture, either in prayer to God, or in conversation with his fellow creatures, to say that, were his days to be prolonged, he would avoid in future the sins which he thought the grace of God had taught him to detest. What an awful lesson should this be to any one who thinks of an act of fraud, and flatters himself that, after securing the gain of that act, he will refrain from other or greater iniquities! Ah, what is the profit of any iniquitous act, that a man should give for it his peace of mind, or even risk the loss of his good name? And what profit can cver compensate the unhappiness and the wretchedness of him who is exposed to the danger of an ignominious death? But though a man were secured from that danger, what madness is it to commit any act which shall debase and corrupt his whole character, increase and exasperate his emnity to God, and expose his immortal soul to a misery, whose horrors no language can express, no imagination can conceive! Yet this is the natural tendency of every kind of vice; and vain is every warning to those who cast off the fear of God. Some men may be less exposed than others to the temptations of avarice, or better guarded, by consideration of worldly prudence, against the commission of such crimes as are punishable by the laws of civil society; but every one who lives without the fear of God, whatever be his external condition, must contract some base habit or other, and is in danger, from his want of right principles, of being seduced at last into action which may bring him to shame. I may blame, said M‘Donald, my neglect of the Sabbath, I may blame my excess in drinking, and I may blame the bad company which I kept; but this would be to begin at the wrong end; for all the things I have to blame, as procuring my ruin, proceeded from this one cause—I had not the Fear of God.


This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.