THE LAST MAN GIBBETED (JAMES COOK 1832)
BY PATRICK LOW
By the 1830’s the punishment of gibbeting itself had largely fallen into disuse. As such many people believed, wrongly, that it was no longer an additional punishment option for the crime of Murder. However, in 1832 it was to rear its ugly head in two cases in very quick succession, the latter of which was to be the last time it was ever seen in England and Wales. The first person to suffer the fate that year was William Jobling of Jarrow who was executed and hung in chains on Jarrow Slake, County Durham. However shortly after, in August 1832, a man named James Cook who lived and worked in Leicester, was to have the ignominous prize of being the final man gibbeting in England, Wales and Scotland.
James Cook was a bookbinder who had recently taken on his late master’s business in Leicester’s Wellington Street. Cook was in debt to one Mr Paas, a London based maker of brass instruments, commonly used by bookbinders. Paas decided to visit Leicester to catch up with suppliers and collect his debts, but the trip was to be the last he ever made. Cook murdered Mr Paas and tried to conceal the evidence of the crime by burning his body at his bookbinding workshop. The barbarity of Cook’s crimes deeply shocked people and were widely reported in the local and national press. Indeed, in some reports the Learned Judge sentencing Cook was so much affected that he had to stop at various points to shed a tear.
Cook was executed outside Leicester Prison on the 10th August 1832 and his death was witnessed by vast numbers of spectators. Local newspapers reported that people, mainly of the “labouring classes”, from many surrounding districts had struck work for the day in order to see the spectacle. The crowd was estimated to be as large as 40,000 people. This was not uncommon for the period and with the advent of trains in the mid c19th crowds arguably grew right up until the removal of execution from public sight. Indeed, it was in Leicester that Thomas Cook set up his infamous travel company that was known in it’s early years to offer special train trips to hangings. As was also common at executions, reports noted that a man very near the gallows himself was pickpocketed during the spectacle.
Cook’s final words on the gallows were reported in The Times as “Lord remember me when thou comest to Judge the World.” After execution his body was taken to the junction where Saffron Lane met Aylestone Road In Leicester. There it was placed in a gibbet cage and suspended from a large wooden post. However, unlike most gibbets, it only lasted a matter of days. In Cook’s case, a combination of unexpectedly large crowds and complaints from local neighbours led to a petition to the Home Office, which in turn called for the gibbet's immediate removal. Similarly, just weeks prior to James Cook’s Murder trial, William Jobling's body in Jarrow, despite being placed under heavy military guard, had been stolen away in the night never to be recovered. In one single month the final two gibbets in England had been raised and removed. Writing of Cook’s gibbet removal one report stated,
Cook’s was to be the last gibbet in England and Wales, (the final case in Scotland was in 1810). After a summer in which William Jobling’s gibbet had been surreptitiously stolen and Cook’s had been removed by petition to the Home Office, the punishment had seemingly lost its power. In one sense the ending of gibbeting fits neatly in a wider narrative of an increasingly ‘civilised’ society, now abhorring public punishments, but one musn’t forget that the gibbet and execution of Cook himself were hugely well attending affairs. Although the Hanging in Chains Act that removed the punishment of gibbeting didn’t arrive until 1834, many commentators at the time of Cook’s gibbeting appeared to foresee its end.
BANNER IMAGE: A replica of James Cook's Gibbet as displayed in Leicester's Guildhall. Image author's own