BACK on December 18, 1865, bakery driver Alexander McEwan was going about his daily business.

He worked for the Alloa based bakery of William Muirhead at Candle Street and was finishing his rounds as daylight began to fade.

On his way back, as he approached Vicar’s Bridge between Blairingone and Muckhart, the lamps on his cart swaying and the sound of the horse’s hooves breaking the silence.

He was startled by the sudden appearance of a man from the side of the road. He slowed, but the robber pulled a gun and shot him at point blank range.

The takings of the day were stolen, and he made good his escape.

Two women passing by came across the empty cart and found the injured man lying a few feet away. They took him to a nearby farmhouse, but he succumbed to his injuries.

Investigations got underway and the gun was found discarded in hedgerow nearby, as well as a boot print. Not long afterwards, a poacher, Joseph Bell, was arrested in Tillicoultry on suspicion of murder.

He happened to have on him the exact amount of cash that had been stolen from McEwan’s body, £5 10s. He was taken to Alloa prison before being transferred to Perth by train.

Bell had been born in 1837 in the English village of Swadlincote, or Gresley Common, near Burton-on-Trent to respectable parents.

He came to Scotland in 1857 and, having loved field sports since childhood, did gamekeeping with dogs in his spare time.

By profession he was a potter, and a good one at that. This meant he earned good money, which he spent freely.

He had only arrived in Clackmannanshire from Montrose a few days before the murder.

Following the examination of 105 witnesses, Bell was found guilty of shooting McEwan by Sheriff Substitute Hugh Barclay and sentenced to be hanged.

Bell protested his innocence.

He was visited by his wife and several friends while he was incarcerated. On one occasion his parents, his sister and brother, and a male cousin came.

The father, on seeing his son, rocked himself back and forth and clasped his hands in anguish. He would only speak occasionally, repeating the words, ‘Oh Joseph, my poor Joseph.’

As he sat there, he noticed a passage of Scripture painted on a board on the wall of the room.

It read: “Behold, now is the day of salvation...Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

The old man pointed at it and said the message was for him.

Much of Joseph Bell’s time as a prisoner, having been convicted of murder at Vicar’s Bridge near Muckhart, was spent on religious studies and writing letters.

He wrote an article for the People’s Journal entitled ‘Caution to Poachers’, but it was never published. He also spent time writing poems.

By this time Bell, although trying to remain upbeat, was now a shadow of his former self.

On the day of execution – on May 22, 1866 – he was haggard; his eyes red from lack of sleep; and he seemed to be weary and ill. He was dressed all in black.

After prayers had been read and hymns sung, with Bell participating in the songs, the Lord Provost approached the table in the small anteroom and addressed him.

He said: "Now, Joseph we are all met here in very sombre circumstances that is very painful to us because in a short time, you require to be in the presence of your maker," to which Bell replied he was ready.

The Lord Provost continued that if he had anything to say he could do so. Bell rose from his chair, although the Sheriff-Substitute said he could remain seated if he wished, and addressed them.

He said: "I swear by Almighty God…that I will tell the truth…I am so innocent of that murder as the child unborn.

"I don’t know who did the murder, I have no idea who did it; it was not me as did it."

He then said he was grateful to the ministers, but was going "to die an innocent man".

He was shaking after his statement and given some wine to calm him as eight o’clock approached.

Bell regained his composure as he was led out to the scaffold. On reaching the top he placed himself under the beam and William Calcraft, the executioner, proceeded with the arrangements.

The 2000-strong crowd were sickened by Bell’s appearance and there were many wild cries from them.

After the white cap had been drawn over his face the chaplain and Rev Mr Milne of Dollar stepped forward and said their goodbyes.

Bell grasped their hands and again said he was innocent. As he dropped Bell hardly made a sound.

Following the execution, the rope snapped, and Bell’s lifeless body fell to the ground. Women jeered and men leapt up onto the gallows.

Calcraft feared for his life as the police beat them back to prevent the assault. Calcraft was later seen from a place of safety looking "like a wild animal".

Bell’s execution was the last fully public hanging in Scotland.