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Book of Scottish Story
Bowed Joseph


A Last-Century Edinburgh Character
BY ROBERT CHAMBERS, LL.D.

The mobs of Edinburgh have ever been celebrated as among the fiercest in Europe. The one which accomplished the death of Porteous, as narrated in the tale of the Heart of Midlothian, was a most surprising instance of popular vengeance, almost surpassing the bounds of belief; though it must sink considerably in our admiration, when we reflect upon the power and ferocity which at all periods have characterised the actions of this monstrous and danger-fraught collective. The time has been, when, in the words of the old song, "all Edinburgh" would "rise by thousands three," and present such a strength to the legal authorities, that all opposition to their capricious will would be in vain. In the younger days of many now living, even the boys of the High School, and of Heriot’s Hospital, could erect themselves into a formidable body, equally resistless and indomitable. It is a fact, ludicrous enough too, that when the lads of these different schools were engaged in any of those squabbles, formerly so frequent and fatal, between them, they always showed a singular degree of political sagacity when assailed by the town-guard, in immediately joining their strengths, and combining against the common foe, when for the most part they succeeded in driving them from the scene of action. When such was the power of boys and striplings in this ill-protected city, and such the disorderliness of holiday assemblies, there is little left for wonder at the ravages committed by a mob formed of adults, actuated by violent feelings of jealousy, bigotry, and revenge.

Of this uncontrollable omnipotence of the populace, the annals of Edinburgh present many fearful records. At the various periods of the Reformation and the Revolution, the Chapel of Roslin was destroyed by a mob, whose purpose neither cooled nor evaporated during a walk of eight miles. James the Sixth was besieged and threatened in his courts, and in the midst of his Parliaments, by a rabble of mechanics, who, but for the stout walls of the Tolbooth, might perhaps have taken his life. The fine chapel of Holyrood-house was pillaged of not only its furniture and other valuables, but also of the still more sacred bones which lay within its precincts, by a mob which rose at the Revolution, and did such deeds of violence and rapine as fanaticism and ignorance alone could have excited. At the unfortunate issue of the Dover expedition, at the execution of Captain Green, at the Union, and at many other events of less importance, the populace of Edinburgh distinguished themselves by insurrection and acts of outrage, such as have alone found parallels, perhaps, in the various transactions of the French Revolution. Even so late as 1812, there happened a foray of a most appalling nature; the sports of an occasion of rejoicing were converted into scenes of frightful riot, unexampled as they were unlooked for. The fatal melancholy catastrophe of this event, had, however, the good effect of quenching the spirit of licentiousness and blackguardism in the Edinburgh youth, and finally undermined that system of unity and promptitude in action and in council by which its mobs had so often triumphed in their terrible resolutions.

In this fierce democracy, there once arose a mighty leader, who contrived, by means of great boldness, sagacity, and other personal merits, to subject the rabble to his will, and to elect himself dictator of all its motives and exploits. The person who thus found means to collect all the monstrous heads of the hydra within the grand grasp of his command was a little decrepit being, about four feet high, almost deprived of legs, and otherwise deformed. His name was Joseph Smith, or more commonly, "Bowed Joseph”. He lived in Leith Wynd, and his trade as a private citizen was a buff belt maker. This singular being—low, miserable, and contemptible as he appeared—might be said to have had at one time the complete command of the metropolis of Scotland. Whenever any transaction took place in the Town Council which Joseph considered to be of very improper tendency ; whenever meal rose to whatever Joseph considered to be an improper price; whenever anything occurred in the city which did not accord with Joseph’s idea of right and wrong; in short, "when they werna gude bairns,” this hero could, in the course of an hour, collect a mob of ten thousand persons, all alike ready to execute his commands, or to disperse at his bidding. For this purpose, he is said to have employed a drum; and never surely had " fiery cross " of the Highland chieftain such an effect upon the warlike devotion of his clan, as "Bowed Joseph’s drum" had upon the finder spirits of the Edinburgh rabble.

The "lazy corner" was a lazy corner no longer as he marched along—the "town rats," as they peeped forth like old cautious snails from their Patmos in the High Street, drew in their horns and shut their door as he approached—the West Bow ceased to clink as he descended. It seemed to be their enthusiasm to obey him in every order—whether to sack a granary, break the windows of an offensive magistrate, or to besiege the Town Council in their chamber. With all this absolute dominion over the affections and obedience of the mob, it is to be recorded to the honour of Bowed Joseph, that however irregular the nature of his authority, he never in any of his actions could be said to have transgressed the bounds of propriety. With great natural sagacity, he possessed a clear and quick-sighted faculty of judgment. And the real philanthropy of his disposition was not less remarkable than his other singular qualities. He was, in short, an advocate for "fair play," as he called it, in everything. Fair play alone was the object of his government, and nothing else.


The following interesting story is handed down concerning Bowed Joseph, which proves his strong love of justice, as well as the humanity of his heart. A poor man in the Pleasance, from certain untoward circumstances, found it impossible to pay his rent at Martinmas; and his hard-hearted landlord, refusing a portion of the same with a forlorn promise of the remainder being soon paid, sold off the whole effects of the tenant, and threw him, with a family of six children, in the most miserable condition upon the wide world. The unfortunate man, in a fit of despair, immediately put an end to his existence, by which the family were only rendered still more destitute. Bowed Joseph, however, did not long remain ignorant of the case. As soon as the affair became generally known throughout the city, he shouldered his drum, and after half-an-hour’s beating through the streets, found himself followed by a mob of ten thousand people. With this enormous army he marched to an open space of ground, named informer times Thomson’s Park, where, mounted on the shoulders of six of his lieutenant-generals, he harangued them in the true "Cambyses vein," concerning the flagrant and fatal proceedings for the redress of which they were assembled. He concluded by directing his men to seek the premises of the cruel landlord ; and as his house lay directly opposite the spot in the Pleasance, there was no time lost in executing his orders. The mob entered and seized upon every article of furniture that could be found, and in ten minutes the whole was packed in the park. Joseph set fire to the pile with his own hands, though the magistrates stood by with a guard of soldiers, and entreated him to desist. The eight-day clock is said to have struck twelve just as it was consigned to the flames.

When such was the strength and organisation of an Edinburgh mob so late as the year 1780, we need scarcely be surprised at the instance on which the tale of the Heart of Midlothian is founded, happening, as it did, at a much earlier period, and when the people were prompted to their terrible purpose by the sternest feelings of personal revenge.

In the exercise of his perilous office, it does not appear that Bowed Joseph ever drew down the vengeance of the more lawfully constituted authorities of the land. He was, on the contrary, in some degree countenanced by the magistrates of the city, who frequently sent for him to the Council Chamber, in cases of emergency, to consult him on the best means to be adopted for appeasing and dispersing the mob.

On an occasion of this moment, he was accustomed to look very large and consequential. With one hand carelessly applied to his side, and the other banged resolutely down upon the table, and with as much majesty as four feet of stature, and a beard of as many weeks old, could assume, and with as much turbulence in his fiery little eye, as if he was himself a mob, he would stand before them pleading the cause of his compeers, or directing the trembling Council to the most expeditious method of assuaging their fury. The dismissal of a mob, on these occasions, was usually accomplished at the expense of a few hogsheads of ale, broached on the Calton Hill, and by the subsequent order of their decrepit general, expressed in the simple words, "Disperse, my lads,"

Having for many years exercised an unlimited dominion over the affections of the rabble, Bowed Joseph met his death at last in a manner most unworthy of his character and great reputation. He fell from the top of a Leith coach in a state of intoxication, and broke his neck, which caused instantaneous death. He had been at the Leith races, and was on his return to Edinburgh when the accident took place; and his skeleton has the honour of being preserved in the anatomical class-room of the College of Edinburgh.

An Edinburgh mob, although it may supply excellent subjects for tales, in all its characteristic fierceness and insubordination, is now a matter of mere antiquity. In the present day, the working classes of Edinburgh, from whom it may be supposed the principal materials of the mobs used to be drafted, are in the highest degree orderly, both in private conduct, and in their public appearances in bodies. The printing press, the schoolmaster, and that general improvement of manners which now prevails, have entirely altered the character of the populace, and any mischief now committed through the public uproar is seen to arise not from the adult, but the juvenile and neglected portion of the community.


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