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Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Gibbeting of John Keal


An act of 1752 ordered that the bodies of executed criminals had either to be handed over to surgeons for dissection of “hung in irons”. The latter involved the construction of an elaborate metal cage in which the body, having first been coated in pitch to prevent early decomposition, was publicly displayed, usually at a cross- roads or roadside close to the scène of the crime. The grisly spectacle of some local miscreant hanging by the roadside, with birds pecking at sightless eyes, was meant to serve as a powerful deterrent to those tempted by a life of crime. However, this macabre practice, formally referred to as “hanging in chains”, had been an unofficial form of punishment in Britain for hundreds of years prior to the act. Evidence of gibbets have long since disappeared from our highways and byways, but in some locations it is still possible to find evidence pertaining to this grisly practice. At Normanby by Spital, a tree still standing by the roadside was said to have been used to gibbet dead criminals. When a post was erected for this grisly purpose at a farm still known today as “Gibbet Post Farm” the irons from the tree are said to have been taken down and used in the construction of the nearby Pillford Bridge.

The earliest known case of gibbeting in the county happened to a woodcutter named John Keel in March 1731. Keal, from Bardney Dairies, near Lincoln, lived in a farm cottage in the Wolds village of Mucton, near Louth. A widower with five children, he eventually remarried Mary Aldgate from Swaby and had three more children with her.
Keal was a drunk with a quick temper and one evening, during a violent row with his wife, accused her of adultery with a neighbour whom he also suspected of being the father of their youngest child. She denied the accusations but in a murderous rage, Keal snatched the infant from its cradle and with a furzebill-a hooked hatchet-chopped off its head. He then attacked his wife with the same weapon fatally stabbing her in the breast and throat. Keal was imprisoned for six months in Lincoln castle, and then brought before Lord Baron Page at the Lent Assizes on Tuesday, 7th March, 1731. A contemporary pamphlet (see below) records his sentencing and subsequent execution:
“… the judge pronounced sentence that he should be gibbeted alive, with the intent to strike terror into the hardened soul of the prisoner, yet the laws of England allow of no such death therefore, on the above morning (Saturday, 18th March, 1731) he was taken from Lincoln in a light cart, and the gibbet irons with him, and with very little ceremony hanged upon a gibbet -post by the neck until he was dead, when being cut down he was put into irons, again hung up, between earth and heaven, food for every devouring bird of prey. He said nothing at the place of execution, but appeared with a wild and ghastly insensibility, terrible to behold.”
The pamphlet gives the location of the gibbet as Hoffam (Haugham) Walk, at the cross-roads between Mucton Burwell and Louth. However, there have been conflicting stories over the years as to its precise location. N V Gagen in “Hanged at Lincoln 1716 to 1961” points out that “Haugham Walk” has not been identified although early maps show the walk to be east of Tathwell.
Some have claimed that the gibbet stood at “Broad Spot” in Louth, near the Keddington crossing, while others claimed its location was at the junction of the Legbourne and Kenwick Roads. Credence was given to this by the Louth enclosure and award plan of 1805, which refers to a private road here known as “gibbet road” running from Legbourne road corner to Linden Walk.
The post from Keal`s gibbet was used for a time in the stables of the House of Correction in Louth. When theses premises were demolished, the governor had the posts turned into various souvenirs and mementos and the gibbet cage can still be seen on display in Louth Museum.
For many years after his execution, it was said that Keals`s ghost haunted the place where the gibbet once stood. Such stories were possibly inspired by the following darkly amusing tale recorded by Meg Wynne in “Ghosts and Legends of Louth”
One Saturday night, three of Keal`s` friends gathered in the White Horse pub, in Louth:
“While eating some hot supper, one said, “What about taking some for old Kealy?” They drew lots as to who should take it and the loser staggered off, clutching a bowl of hot soup. When he reached the gibbet, he held it up and said, “Ere ya be Kealy, ave brought a bit of ot supper” and placing it down on the grass, he retired into the hedge bottom for forty winks. When he awoke he saw that the food was untouched, so he shouted, “Why aint ya etten it it?” and to his horror a gruff voice replied “It’s too ot” His nerve failed him and he threw the bowl of food into the air and fled for his life back to town. What he didn’t know was that his pals had sneaked along after him to see the fun and came in at the right moment.

The gibbet tree at Gibbet Post Farm, Normanby by Spital

(Left) A page from the battered pamphlet recording the sentencing and subsequent execution of the murderer John Keal (courtesy of Lincoln Central Library)

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