A gibbet is an instrument used as part of a public execution. Gibbeting refers to the gallows-type structure used in the execution. A dead or dying body would be hung on public display to deter other potential criminals from committing similar crimes. A gibbet could also be used as the means of execution, essentially leaving the condemned person in a small cage, with no means of escape, to die from exposure to the elements or from thirst and starvation.
The Murder Act of 1752 permitted a judge’s prerogative to sentence the guilty to a gibbet in the case of murder, but it was also used for traitors, pirates, highwaymen, and sheep stealers. The Act required bodies of convicted murderers to be either publicly dissected or gibbeted. The gibbet was placed at crossroads of highways and waterways as a warning to others who meant to break the law. Also called hanging in chains, gibbeting was formally abolished in England in 1834. Surprisingly, the need of medical schools for bodies upon which to perform anatomy lessons curbed the use of gibbets. A rotting body held no worth in those cases. Women criminals were not gibbetted because the medical schools were interested in the workings of the female body, and so those women who were condemned were not sentenced to gibbeting. The medical schools were permitted 50 bodies per year through these measures. As they required 200+, they became “creative” cultivators of “fresh” bodies. Grave robbers and restorationists made a living in bodies. At the time, a person could drive through a village with a dead and naked body in the wagon, without breaking a law. If, however, they left the body clothed, they could be arrested for stealing the dead man’s clothes. It was all quite convoluted.
Prior to that, it was a rare, notorious, horrifying punishment, which gathered quite the crowd to witness the spectacle of a gibbet being erected. According to Rebel Circus, a blacksmith designed and constructed the gibbet to fit the size of the person. The gibbet cages were designed so the rotting body stayed together, holding the shape of the person. “The person’s chin and nose were usually strapped in place, and their arms and legs were left to dangle in the air. If a person had dared to attempt to help a person in a gibbet, their efforts would be futile. The gibbets were held up on poles that were, at a minimum, 30′ high. The gibbets were covered in sharp studs to keep people from attempting to touch them.
“Gibbets were not removed once the condemned finally became reduced to a skeleton. They were left up for years at a time. They became landmarks, and a few even had streets named after them. There were many different designs and variations of the gibbet. Some kept the condemned in place by impaling the back of his head on a spike, but that was later stopped because it allowed for the condemned to die too quickly.”
There are 16 gibbets remaining in England, the majority of which can be viewed in museums. The practice peaked in the 1740s. 134 men were placed in a gibbet between 1752 and 1832. According to Atlas Obscura, beyond the obvious stench of the rotting bodies, “…unfortunately for its neighbors, the gibbet was not a fleeting visitor. They remained in place for decades sometimes, as the corpses inside were eaten by bugs and birds and turned into skeletons. Steps were taken to prevent people from removing them; the posts were often 30 feet or higher. One was studded with 12,000 nails to keep it from being torn down. They became landscape features; gibbeted criminals lent their names to roads (like Parr) and became boundary markers.
“Because gibbeting was so rare, blacksmiths had little to go on when called upon to make a gibbet. Some were heavy, some were very loose, some were adjustable. One had a notch where a nose would go. In some cases, the gibbet held only the torso, allowing the arms and legs to dangle outside its confines. After a gibbet was removed (or fell down from wear) the gibbet and its components were sometimes turned into souvenirs, such as a post that was carved up into tobacco bowls.”
Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse provides us information on building the gibbet, the cost of the project, the locations chosen for the gibbet, the gibbets that have lasted the longest (as landmarks), ant the end of the practice for those of you seeking more facts.
Spooky Isles gives us the story of the last person to be gibbetted. This punishment took place in Baslow, near historic Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Learn what happened when the Duke of Devonshire was awakened by the condemned person’s scream by checking out the story on this link or the one below.