When a man sold his drunken wife down the Grassmarket

In extraordinary scenes, Mary Mackintosh was brought to the Grassmarket by her husband, Thomas M.Guisgan, who held her by a straw rope tied around her middle with the words 'to be sold by public auction' pinned on her bosom.

The report of the auction, as featured in a broadside,  a single news sheet which predated newspapers. They were the most common source of news on the street for around 300 years. PIC: National Library of Scotland.
The report of the auction, as featured in a broadside, a single news sheet which predated newspapers. They were the most common source of news on the street for around 300 years. PIC: National Library of Scotland.

She was accused of being a notorious drunk and an adulterer but when the sale got underway on July 17 1828, a “bloody battle” broke out with punches thrown and people whacked with stones wrapped in stockings.

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It had started out civil enough. Several thousand spectators had assembled to witness this novel sale, held around 6pm, with the auctioneer, described as a “knight of the hammer”, wrestling for attention above the rowdy crowd.

According to a report of the day, quietness fell as people started to note the “countenance of the woman”.

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A Highland Drover was the first to place his bid. Stepping through the crowd, he pulled his purse and said: “She be a good like lassie, l will gi’e ten and twenty shillings for her.”

The crowd cheered at the offer but it was not long before “a stout tinker” made a bolt to the front of the crowd to say she should never go to the Highlands before offering a six pence. The clamour of the crowd heightened further.

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The next bid was quick to follow and came from a “Killarney Pig Jobber” whose “mouth open as wide as a turnpike gate”.

Half drunk, he offered two shillings more, given she was a “pratty” - or mischievous - woman.

It was at this stage that the atmosphere started to tilt. A brogue maker emerged from a public house “as drunk as 50 cats in a wallet - and hit the Killarney man, leaving him knocked out on the ground for a good 10 minutes.

Mary Mackintosh is said to have “laughed heartily” at the punch with the cheers of the crowd now “long and incessant”.

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But the scene rapidly deteriorated as bare knuckle violence broke out, much of it executed by women armed with stones. First, however, the Brogue maker walked up to the auctioneer.

A report of the day said: “He was so enraged, he knocked the auctioneer down, and made his claret flow desperately.

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“The women of the neighbourhood gathered to the number of 700, and armed themselves with stones, some threw them, and others put them in their stockings and handkerchiefs, and made a general charge through the mob,knocking every one down that came in their way, until they got up to the auctioneer, when they scratched and tore his face in a dreadful manner, in consequence of the insult the fair sex had received.”

One woman, described as a “true female hero” and the wife of a sweep, pelted Mr Guisgan, the man who had tried to sell his wife, before decrying him as a “contaminated villain”.

Mr Guisgan hit her back between her eyes, leaving them like “two October cabbages.”

The report added: “A general battle ensued, and only for the interference of the police, there would have been lives lost.”

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After the disturbance was quelled, the husband continued to insist she should be sold.

According to report, she was brought up again before the crowd and an elderly Jack Tar - a term used for seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy, stepped forward.

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He describe Mary Mackenzie as “well rigged” before offering half a Crown more than the last bidder.

But he was to be outbid by a farmer, described as a widower, who pledged two pounds and five shillings for Mrs Mackintosh.

The sale was agreed. The report concluded: “The farmer took her up behind him on his horse, and away they went amidst the cheers of the populace.”

Details of the extraordinary auction are held by the National Library of Scotland in its vast collection of broadsides, single newsheets which were distributed or pinned up around towns and cities. Predating newspapers, they were the most common way to relay news for around 300 years.

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Described as the tabloids of the day, broadsides were cheaply available sold on the streets by pedlars and chapmen.