GIBBETING OR HANGING IN CHAINS

Edgar Allan Poe and the Spanish Inquisition could scarcely have been more fertile in devising means of human torture.
— W. S, “Andrew Mills.,” Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend 1, no. 2 (April 1887): 67.

Gibbeting or ‘Hanging in Chains' was the post-mortem punishment of encasing a criminals body in an iron cage (gibbet cage) and suspending it from a tall, often wooden, post. Unlike, dissection it was used relatively sparingly, with only 9.6% of people executed for murder between 1752-1832 suffering the punishment. This is compared to over 80% who were sentenced to dissection on the anatomist’s slab.  Similarly, unlike dissection, the gibbet was not just used for murderers. In several cases criminals were gibbeted for robbing the mail, piracy and smuggling. The gibbet was also an exclusively male punishment. In the period covered by this project (1752-1834) no-one was gibbeted alive, but there are recorded instances of this practice in previous centuries. One particularly interesting project finding is that, in spite of the 1752 Murder Act’s insistence that a murderer must be dissected or Hung in Chains, the actual use of the gibbet declined. 

 

Illustration of the Gibbet, Gibbet Lane, Halifax, West Yorkshire. From a sketch by Hollar. Undated. Image courtesy of Calderdale Libraries' Weaver to Web Archive. Document ID: 101675

 

BUILDING THE GIBBET

The term gibbet was often used to describe gallows structures as well. In Halifax, as early as the sixteenth century, they used a structure that was something of a predecessor to the French Guillotine. It was known as the Halifax Gibbet and a replica of it still stands to this very day. However, in the c18th the term gibbet was far more commonly associated with the post mortem cage in which criminals sentenced to be Hung in Chains were placed, following their execution.  Many counties had fewer than five gibbetings between 1752-1832 and some had none at all, so knowledge of their construction would have been very limited. Local blacksmiths, often with no prior knowledge of gibbet cages, were employed to make these structures. As such, there was no uniform design.  This project has found that their construction and style differed from region to region and period to period.  Also, they were expensive items to make, in some cases upwards of £50. Unlike dissection, the costs could not be recovered via ticketed entry. Records of the costs of gibbets were often recorded in the Sheriffs' Cravings alongside details of expenses incurred.


LOCATING THE GIBBET

The location of a gibbet was an intrinsic part of the punishment. The structure was to be placed at the scene of the crime or as near to it as possible. They were often sited in prominent locations, high up, or by major roadsides to allow for them to be seen far and wide. The posts on which the gibbets hung were usually around 20-30 feet high. It was not uncommon to make special provision for the criminal corpse (up until 1823 suicides were buried at crossroads with a stake placed through their heart). Unlike in England and Wales gibbets in Scotland were more often than not placed at the site of execution. Many contemporary accounts from the time still exist and detail gibbets peppering the landscape and having a supernatural, ghostly quality. 

A man rides past a gibbet. Lithograph by W. Clerk. Wellcome Images V0042290


Negative from photograph of ''Winter Gibbet'' with five people standing before it.  Elsdon, Northumberland. nd. [c.1910]. Image courtesy of Northumberland County Archives service under Creative Commons Licence

THE LONG LASTING GIBBET

There was no specification for how long a gibbet should stay standing. In consequence many gibbets stood in the landscape for a very long time and became known landmarks and even featured on maps. The bodies that they held often decayed long before the gibbet did, but there are numerous reports of bodies lasting for many years. In one case, on Saxilby Moor near Lincoln, the newspapers reported that a bird had been nesting in the criminal's mouth for over two years. Some (such as Combe Gibbet, in Berkshire and Winter’s Gibbet in Northumberland) still stand today – albeit after numerous repairs and rebuilds. Indeed, many towns and regions still have roads and features named after them, such as Toby's Walks in Suffolk, named after Tobias Gill who was hung in chains there. So, next time you are out in the countryside keep your eyes peeled for gibbet hills/lanes/farms/woods.

THE END OF THE ROAD:

The Last two gibbets ever constructed were made in 1832, for William Jobling in Jarrow and, shortly after, James Cook in Leicester. Neither stood for more than a month. Jobling’s was stolen away never to be recovered (despite a widely published warning of the seven year transportation that awaited any would be thief) and Cook’s was removed after a petition to the Home Office.  Two years later, the practice of gibbeting was removed from the statute by the Hanging in Chains Act of 1834, although it hadn’t been used for almost two years prior. Indeed, there had been very few instances of its use from the nineteenth century onwards. Some argue that the cases of William Jobling and James Cook both illustrated that the punishment had outgrown its welcome and was seen as an odious and barbarous relic of a bloody penal system. However, right up until 1832, the gibbet was a very popular attraction visited in some cases by many thousands of people. Indeed, in James Cooks' case, it was the vast crowd that the gibbet attracted that motivated the petition to the Home Office in the first place.


MAPPING THE GIBBET

This map marks the sites of gibbets erected between the time of the 1752 Murder Act and the punishments eventual removal by the Hanging in Chains Act 1834. To access a decade by decade breakdown please click the arrow to the left of the map title 'Gibbet sites 1752-1834.

 
 

 

NUMBERS HUNG IN CHAINS BOTH FOR CONVICTIONS UNDER THE MURDER ACT AND FOR NON-KILLING OFFENCES 1752-1832

NUMBERS HUNG IN CHAINS BOTH FOR CONVICTIONS UNDER THE MURDER ACT AND FOR NON-KILLING OFFENCES, IN ALL COUNTIES, BY DECADE, 1752-1832 (Inc ADMIRALTY SESSIONS).
 

TAKE YOUR FINAL STEP ON THE CRIMINAL JOURNEY


SUGGESTED FURTHER READING

BANNER VIDEO: Winter's Gibbet, Elsdon, Northumberland. Footage by Patrick Low. Filmed December 2016