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What is a Gibbet?

A gibbet is an instrument of public execution, historically used to display the body of a criminal post-mortem as a deterrent to others. It's a stark reminder of the brutal practices of justice in the past. How did societies transition from such public spectacles to modern-day justice systems? Join us as we delve into the evolution of societal retribution.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “gibbet” is used both to refer to an executional device, and to a hanging cage used to display the remains of executed prisoners; when someone is thusly displayed, it is known as “gibbeting.” Gibbeting in the sense of a public display of remains was last documented in the early 1800s, and it is often condemned as a particularly gruesome and unpleasant practice.

In the sense of a device used for execution, most people use “gibbet” to refer specifically to the gallows, although the term is also sometimes used in discussions of guillotines. Sentences to death by hanging are not as common as they once were, with many nations preferring methods of execution which are perceived as more humane. Several examples of historic gibbets can be seen on display in regions where such artifacts are preserved.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

When prisoners were subjected to gibbeting, after they were hanged at the gallows, their remains were displayed in cages which were designed to keep the body parts together as the body slowly decomposed; sometimes the body would be treated with tar to prolong the process. Such gibbets would be hung on walls and from trees to serve as a grim warning, and they would be taken down once the body had finally deteriorated. In some cases, the body was drawn and quartered first, with different body parts being gibbeted in various locations.

Gibbeting cages were also used as a punishment for pirates and other maritime offenders, who would be chained in such cages at the tide line to drown. Often, the gibbeted prisoner would be left in the gibbet after death to confront passing mariners, at least until the gibbet was needed again.

While gibbeting seems merely macabre to most modern people, in the era when it was used as a punishment, it was especially horrific. Many Europeans believed in literal resurrection on Judgment Day, and they believed that without complete bodies, they would not be allowed to be resurrected. As a result, when a prisoner was subjected to gibbeting, especially after being drawn and quartered, it was viewed as a double punishment: in addition to being hanged to death, the prisoner would also be denied religious succor.

Historically, many people were disgusted and horrified by the practice of gibbeting, and, on occasion, a prisoner in the gibbet would be silently cut down and removed by people who would give the remains a decent burial. Gibbets also undoubtedly haunted the dreams (and noses) of many city-dwellers, who would have been confronted with an array of remains in varying degrees of decomposition on a daily basis.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a gibbet?

A gibbet refers to a gallows-type structure from which the bodies of executed criminals were hung in chains and displayed as a deterrent to others. This practice, known as gibbeting, was common in England and some other countries from the medieval period through the 18th century. The gibbet was often placed at crossroads, near the crime scene, or in prominent locations to maximize public exposure.

How was gibbeting different from hanging?

Gibbeting differed from hanging in that it was a post-mortem display rather than the method of execution itself. After a criminal was hanged, their body would be encased in an iron cage or chains and suspended from a gibbet for long-term public display. This served as a gruesome warning against crime, whereas hanging was the actual execution method that led to the person's death.

When did the practice of gibbeting end?

The practice of gibbeting was officially abolished in England in 1834 with the passing of the Anatomy Act and the Murder Act of 1752, which limited the time a body could be displayed. The last recorded gibbeting in England occurred in 1832. The decline of gibbeting was due to changing attitudes towards capital punishment and the recognition of the dignity of the deceased.

Were gibbets used only in England?

No, gibbets were not exclusive to England. The practice of gibbeting was also used in other European countries, as well as in the American colonies. However, the use, prevalence, and legal status of gibbeting varied across different regions and periods. For instance, in Scotland, the last gibbeting took place in 1785, while in other places, it may have continued into the 19th century.

Are there any remaining gibbets today?

While the practice of gibbeting has long been abolished, some gibbet sites and replicas remain as historical landmarks. For example, the Caxton Gibbet in Cambridgeshire, England, is a replica erected on the site of an original gibbet. These sites serve as reminders of the brutal penal practices of the past and are often of interest to historians and tourists.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments

anon93006

Penny78: Good luck with your novel, though you should know that you may have inferred, but the writer can only imply. The speaker/writer implies, the listener/reader infers. A common mistake, but annoying to those who know the difference. --Old Salt

penny78

This article was very interesting. I learned a few things I hadn't known. I'm writing novel based in Devonshire, England in the late 18th century. I have been toying with the idea of using the presence of a gibbet in my book. I knew about the tarring of the body but had not known why it was done. I also was aware that part of the punishment procedure was to cut the body into pieces and the innards removed, but I had not read that the body organs were put on display inside the gibbets, as well. I'm having trouble visualizing the gibbet hanging from a wall, though. I assume you are inferring that some of these cages were flat. If so, I'm getting some new stimulating ideas. The gibbets I've seen pictured are reasonably long, roundish and hanging from trees or tall poles. Did these bodies really remain, say in a public square, while maggots swarmed over the decayed flesh? Not to speak of the horrible odor.

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      Woman with hand on her hip