Gibbet is also the name used for an early form of the guillotine, employed in England, Ireland and Scotland. The British Museum has a drawing depicting the execution of one Murcod Ballagh in 1307 in Ireland.
A notable example was the Halifax Gibbet employed in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax, where decapitation was the penalty for numerous offences, including the theft of cloth (Halifax being a centre of wool cloth manufacture). The device was first used in 1286 (to execute John of Dalton) through to 1650 (to execute Anthony Mitchell and John Wilkinson).
The Halifax model of gibbet was also introduced in Scotland during the minority reign of James VI (later King James I of Great Britain), where it was known as the (Scottish) Maiden. James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton introduced the maiden, and was later executed by the device, on 2 June 1581.
Gibbet usually refers to a gallows-type structure from which the dead bodies of executed criminals were hung on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals. It can also be used as a verb, denoting the action of placing criminals in gibbets. This practice is also called "hanging in chains".
Gibbeting was common law punishment, which a judge could impose in addition to execution. This practice was regularised in England by the Murder Act 1752, which empowered judges to impose this for murder. It was most often used for traitors, murderers, highwaymen, and sheep-stealers, to discourage others. The structures were therefore often placed adjacent to public highways. There are many places named Gibbet Hill in England. One is between Coventry and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and others are found at Frome, Somerset, near Haslemere in Surrey, and Mary Tavy in Devon.
Exhibiting a body could 'backfire' against a monarch, especially if they were unpopular. Henry of Montfort and Henry of Wylynton, enemies of the king (Edward II) and rebels were drawn and hanged and then exhibited on a gibbet near Bristol, so that others might abstain from similar crimes. However the people made relics of these bloody and mutilated remains and surrounded them with respect in violent protest. Even false miracles were organised at the spot where the bodies were hanging.
Although the intention was deterrence, the public response was complex. Samuel Pepys expressed disgust at the practice. There was Christian objection that persecution of criminals should end with their death. The sight and smell of decaying corpses was offensive, and regarded as "pestilential", so a threat to public health.
Pirates were sometimes executed by hanging on a gibbet erected close to the low-water mark by the sea or a tidal section of a river. Their bodies would be left dangling until they had been submerged by the tide three times. In London, 'Execution Dock' is located on the north bank of the River Thames in Wapping; after tidal immersion, particularly notorious criminals' bodies could be hung in cages a little further downstream at either Cuckold's Point or Blackwall Point, as a warning to other waterborne criminals of the possible consequences of their actions (such a fate befell Captain William Kidd in May 1701). There was objection that these displays offended foreign visitors and did not uphold the reputation of the law.
In some stories a gibbet is a small cage where slaves were hung for a month (depending on their "crime") without food, water or any other thing needed for survival. Early plantation owners in Jamaica would put them in a gibbet and let the local animals eat the slave while he or she was still alive.
In cases of drawing and quartering, the body of the criminal was cut into four or five portions, each of which was often gibbeted in different places.
So that the public display might be prolonged, bodies were sometimes coated in tar and/or bound in chains. Sometimes, body-shaped iron cages were used to contain the decomposing corpses. For example, in March 1743 in the town of Rye, East Sussex, Allen Grebell was murdered by John Breads. Breads was imprisoned in the Ypres Tower and then hanged, after which his body was left to rot for more than 20 years in an iron cage on Gibbet Marsh. The cage and Breads' skull are still kept in the Town Hall.
Another example of the cage variation is the gibbet iron, on display at the Atwater Kent museum in Philadelphia, U.S. The cage, created in 1781, was intended to be used to display the body of convicted pirate Thomas Wilkinson so that sailors on passing ships might be warned of the consequences of piracy. As Wilkinson's planned execution never took place, the gibbet was never used.
An example of an iron cage used to string up bodies on a gibbet can still be seen in the Westgate Museum at Winchester.
Another example can be seen in Moyse's Hall Museum Bury St Edmunds which was found in 1938, still with the skeleton of John Nichols - executed in 1794 - inside. It is not known what happened to the skeleton.
Public crucifixion with continued display of the body after death can be seen as a form of gibbeting.
William Jobling was a miner hanged and gibbeted for the murder of Nicholas Fairles, a colliery owner and local magistrate, near Jarrow, Durham. After being hanged the body was taken off the rope, and loaded into a cart and taken on a tour of the area before arriving at Jarrow Slake where the crime had been committed. Here the body was placed into an iron gibbet cage. The cage and the scene were described thus:
The gibbet was a foot in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a one-and-a-half ton stone base, sunk into the Slake. The body was soon removed by fellow miners and given a decent burial.
By 1796 the government had installed a gibbet on Pinchgut. The first convict to be hanged from the gibbet may have been Francis Morgan. In 1793 the British transported him to New South Wales for life as punishment for a murder. The authorities in NSW executed Morgan for bashing a man to death in Sydney on 18 October 1796.
As a consequence of the Castle Hill Rebellion and the 2nd Battle of Vinegar Hill ten were killed by the authorities and hung out for all to see.
In 1837, five years after the practice ceased in England, the body of John McKay was gibbeted on a tree near the spot where he murdered Joseph Wilson near Perth, Tasmania. There was great outcry, but the body was not removed until an acquaintance of Wilson passed the spot, and, horrified by the spectacle of McKay's rotting corpse, pleaded with the authorities to remove it. The place where this occurred was just to the right (when traveling towards Launceston) of the Midlands Highway on the northern side of Perth, and is marked by a sign proclaiming 'Gibbet Hill'. Though the place is not visible from the present road, the tree upon which McKay was hanged still stands. It is the last case of gibbetting in a British colony.