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Broadside entitled 'Elegy and Epitaph'


This memorial notice begins: 'Elegy and Epitaph on Thomas Williams, Late Dempster, or Hangman, of the City of Edinburgh'. The dedication under the title begins: 'Who died the 5th of January 1833, aged 66 years. He was upwards of 12 years in that capacity, and conducted himself with wonderful propriety, which few does in his line. This shows, that whatever occupation in life we follow, a man may keep his character somewhat blameless.' The first line of the elegy itself reads, 'SCARCE had the infant year begun', while the opening line of the epitaph reads, 'HERE lies TAM WILLIAMS, our city Dempster'. A 'dempster' was a legal officer who repeated the sentence after the judge.

This broadside contains a song of mourning dedicated to the memory of Thomas Williams, who worked as a hangman - or doomster - in Edinburgh from 1819 to 1833. The elegy and epitaph are fondly commemorative in tone, virtually saying that somebody had to do this job and that 'Tam' performed his onerous duties well. It appears that the hangman's job became something of a family business, since Tam's son, John, followed in his footsteps. For performing this demanding job, Thomas Williams was given a free house and received a weekly wage of 12 shillings. This wage was known as the 'Doomster's Allowance'.

Broadsides are single sheets of paper, printed on one side, to be read unfolded. They carried public information such as proclamations as well as ballads and news of the day. Cheaply available, they were sold on the streets by pedlars and chapmen. Broadsides offer a valuable insight into many aspects of the society they were published in, and the National Library of Scotland holds over 250,000 of them.

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Date of publication: 1833   shelfmark: F.3.a.13(76)
Broadside entitled 'Elegy and Epitaph'
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