The Origin of the Gibbet in England
IT is well known that the gibbet, so often named, in this work, is now used in England, for carrying into effect the final sentence of the law upon murderers; that their bodies may hang a dreadful warning to the passenger, not to stray from the path of honesty; yet, perhaps, few have inquired into its origin.
The gibbet we find of doubtful derivation. It is both an English word and a French word, implying the same meaning, 'A post on which malefactors are exposed.' We find this punishment recorded in Holy Writ, Joshua chap. viii. ver. 28,29:
'And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day. And the king of Ai he hanged upon a tree, and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.'
Searching farther back into ancient history, we find from Martinius, the learned etymologist, that this mark of the grossest infamy which can be inflicted on a criminal, was not unknown to the Greeks. It is most probable, however, that we had the mode of punishment of the gibbet from the French; the people of that nation seldom taking any usage or custom from the English, at so early a period as the thirteenth century, when it was used here, and known by that name.
In the year 1242, says the historian, Matthew Paris, William De Marisco, a knight, was judicially condemned and ignominiously put to death. He was brought from the Tower to that infernal machine, vulgarly called the gibbet; and, after he had breathed his last, was hung on one of the hooks, and being taken down after he was grown stiff, was disembowelled: his bowels were burnt, and his body being divided into four parts, the quarters were sent to four cities. This evidently answers to our hanging, drawing, and quartering, and has the intention of exhibiting a terrible spectacle to the people, just as our hanging a dead body in irons is meant to do. But it varies much, we observe, from gibbeting. The gibbet, in this case, serving only as a common gallows.
The same author, Matthew Paris, in speaking of the execution of two men, says, 'Paratum est horribile patibulum Londini quod vulgus gibitem appellat.'
One of these criminals, after he was dead, was hung upon a gibbet, and the other was gibbetted alive, to perish by pain and hunger. These cases come fully up to the point in hand, as the body of the first was put upon the gibbet when dead, in order to be a permanent spectacle of terror; and the other was not to die, as probably being the most guilty, by the mere simple act of suspension, but by a more lingering kind of death.
About the same period of which Paris gives a history, the king of France ordered all clippers of the coin, patibulis laqueatos, vento praesentari, that is, to be hanged, and then exposed to the wind; which, though irons be not mentioned, appears to be the very thing the English do now, and to have the same intention.
The first gibbet used in England, whereon to expose criminals, after death, by hanging, was in the reign of King Henry III. A.D. 1236.
We have shown that the ancient writer above quoted, adduces an instance of a criminal being gibbetted alive, and left to perish by that miserable death; but the severing the hand from the body, and placing it above the carcase of the criminal, when gibbetted, the knife stuck through it with which the murder was committed, we believe to be exclusively Scottish; for we have not found it practised by any other nation.
We should hardly believe that in a part of our habitable globe individuals, worked into the frenzy of fanaticism, inflict upon themselves a temporary and more painful gibbetting; as though their torture would expiate their supposed sins. Yet true it is, and we have just met an account of this frightful penance, which places its truth beyond the shadow of doubt: after reading accounts of the voluntary sacrifice of a widow of Malabar burning herself to ashes upon her husband's funeral pile, we may give credit to the horrid voluntary gibbetting of the same race of people.
The following account of this shocking spectacle has been well authenticated by several officers in the service of the East India Company, who have witnessed this religious rite among the Gentoos.
There were three voluntary victims. The first was attended by a numerous procession, and preceded by music and dancers. According to the custom of Indian festivals, they were adorned with flowers, clothed in their best apparel, and attended by their relations.
They marched, or rather ran, round the apparatus several times, flowers being in the mean time strewed before them.
The engine of torture used upon this occasion was a stout upright post, thirty feet in height. At the bottom was a stage, and about half way towards the top another on which two priests, or rather executioners, were mounted with drawn sabres, in place of books of religion in their hands. Across the top of the post, or pole, was another, of about half the length and circumference, strongly lashed thereto with ropes. At each extremity were hooks of iron, somewhat resembling, but larger than those used by butchers in England, to hang up their meat in the shambles.
The sufferer was hoisted up to the executioners. They immediately proceeded to strip their prey of his robes, and then fixed the hooks into the fleshy part of his back, near the shoulder blades. The ropes affixed to these hooks, and tied to the transverse beam. Behind him two smaller ropes depended from the beam which received his great toes in separate loops. Over the penitent's head was suspended a kind of flat muslin canopy, with a narrow flounce, just sufficient to shade his face from the sun, but not conceal him from the view.
Thus prepared he is slung into the air, by means of ropes tied at the opposite end of the pole, and hanged round to give full views to the surrounding crowd. The air was now rent with shouts of applause, almost to adoration. The trumpets sounded, the drums beat, and pateraroes fired. The traverse beam, turning upon a pivot, was slowly moved round, over the beads of the multitude. Notwithstanding the torture which the victims must feel, they supported it generally with patient firmness. The writer of the account now quoted, says he was an eye-witness to three persons submitting to this punishment on one afternoon.
The first sufferer, continues the narrator, was a young man, about twenty-four years of age. He got upon the scaffold with affected indifference; but when launched into the air, I could distinctly bear him send forth some agonising yells. Still he persevered, and described the circle three times; he held a fan in one hand, and a bundle of cajans (leaves of the palmira tree) in the other, which he continued waving with seeming composure, until he made a signal, and thereupon was let down.
There was no difference in the mode of suspending the other two, excepting that one beat a small taum taum (great drum) the whole time; and that the second held a basket of flowers in one hand, and scattered them with the other among the spectators, who eagerly caught them. Either from the various accompanying noises, or from the superior fortitude of the two latter, I could not distinguish any expression of pain.
When let down their backs were rubbed with turmeric; and they were received by their friends with the highest marks of veneration and joy.
I was informed that these men were thenceforward esteemed the particular favourites of Swamee (the Deity), and entitled to particular privileges. I was also present at this ceremony, at Madras, near the Black-Town. If I was to relate the many singular customs of the disciples of Brama, of which I have frequently been a spectator, I should only gain credit from Asiatic travellers, who know from experience, the truth of Hamlet's observation, that 'there are more things on earth, than are dreamt of in the philosophy of the many.'