One of the most unsettling items in the bundle of letters held at the Archives is a memorandum on the subject of how best to go about removing the head of a recently executed person. The document was written by Alexander Calder, who had been involved in the execution of James Wilson, one of the rebels, at Glasgow in August 1820.
Memorandum on decapitation, written by Alexander Calder, Glasgow, 31st August 1820
Alexander Calder found by experience at Glasgow in the placing of the Body of James Wilson to the Block, the Body was placed over the coffin with the chin over the Block saw that the body had to be kept up by additional pieces of wood it would be much better that an article made resembling the lid of a chest were placed on the end next the head of the coffin to come as far down as the center of the board that when the stroke is given two officers may draw the Body to the foot & another two be ready to lift the shoulders & take away this part of a lid and let the decapitator lay every head in there respective coffin himself as these were the only obstacles met with at Glasgow.
The block is made as if a large book were laid on its edge with a three square box at the extremetys with an Dust thereon the top of the Block about 3 or 3½ inches above the lid of the coffin & the Body laid on the face.
Alexander Littlejohn remained at Glasgow trying to sort out an executioner, whilst William Galbraith appeared to have been in Edinburgh at this point, seeing if he could get a better deal there. The main concern appears to have been getting the best value for money that they could, no doubt under pressure from their employer to ensure that they were spending public money wisely.
Letter Alexander Littlejohn at Glasgow to William Galbraith, 31st August 1820
Glasgow 31st Aug 1820
I have received yours. I see you set out tomorrow morning. Your going to Edinburgh will save me the journey. The decapitator was furnished by Captain Brown of the Edinburgh Police and he expects to be employed for our job. He received 10 Guineas for Wilson & did extremely well. You must apply immediately on your arrival. I have been talking to the executioner along with Mr Salmond & find that he will go to Stirling for 10 Guineas a man with expenses. Try the Edinburgh man what he will take. Find too that there is a pretty good hand at Edinburgh who it is supposed will come for 6 Guineas. We are to get axe, block, hurdle etc from this & a horse & driver for 5 Guineas. I have not furthered my bargain till I return. I mean to be home by the Perth Coach tomorrow. Mr Salmond has been extremely kind. I think we would be better to have Calder with us as a Superintendant.
Write tomorrow early.You must take care to bargain that the decapitator is also to hold up the heads etc as there was a squabble at that point here & the hangman won’t do it.