The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment by Samantha Priestley
The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment (2020), by Samantha Priestley, is an interesting and somewhat informative, if overly long, look at the tradition of “hanging in chains,” as it was often called at the time.
Priestley offers up a general introduction to the practice followed by several sections: The Murder Act, The Making of a Gibbet, Infamy, Thieves and Pirates, That’s Entertainment, The Gibbet as Landmark, No Deterrent, The Decline of the Gibbet, A Modern Fascination.
The first looks at the impact of the 1752 law, which attempted to standardize the hodgepodge application of the gibbet. We also get a sense of the frequency of gibbeting (relatively rare), the crimes it was associated with (murder, piracy, and stealing the Royal Mail, mostly), and whether or not criminals were ever gibbeted alive (mostly likely, though there is no solid evidence, it was almost certainly quite rare).
The Making of a Gibbet is pretty self-explanatory, but also examines specific locations (they were erected as near as possible to the site of the crime, even if the criminal — or their body — had to be transported from where they were tried and/or imprisoned). What was perhaps most surprising to me was that gibbets were not simply standard cages but were always made to fit the person meant to be put inside (after waiting a suitable amount of time past their hanging to ensure they were in fact dead). They were also made to last (many kept displaying their skeletal remains for decades before the gibbets were removed) and to be somewhat tamper-proof, though Priestley notes it wasn’t unheard of for families or souvenir-hunters to break them open and remove the body (or a piece of it for the latter group).
The next several sections of The History of Gibbeting detail specific notorious criminals who were gibbeted and their specific crimes, while That’s Entertainment discusses the public nature of the punishment, where food stalls were set up and crowds (including children) arrived in the hundreds or even thousands. James Cook’s public execution, the last criminal to be gibbeted in Britain, drew 40,000 people to the grisly spectacle.
The Gibbet as Landmark chapter looks at the gibbets in the landscape, as well as their emotional toll depending on their placement. Priestly explains, for instance, how one criminal’s “body was hung in chains just a quarter of a mile from his parents’ house and directly opposite it, so every time they stepped from their home the first thing they saw was their son’s corpse hanging in the gibbet cage.” On the other hand, sometimes they became a literal part of the natural landscape, as when starlings regularly nested in the cages or even the skeletons themselves.
The best aspects of The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment are Priestley’s liberal use of primary source documents, such as newspaper accounts or court documents, and the number of specific examples cited, both of which lend a sense of authority and immediacy to the discussion. I also greatly appreciated the nearly-20 pages of illustrations and photographs at the end, which included drawings or photos of actual gibbets, preserved sites, letters, flyers, and other associated artifacts. Unfortunately, the book was also greatly marred by what was to me an inexplicable amount of repetition, something the editing process should have cut down on by a lot. It was this repetition, as well as the retelling of similar cases, that left the book feeling over-long to me. That said, it remains an informative work of introduction to the topic, and for those looking to learn more, Priestley offers up a bibliography of other works and online resources.