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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Tales From the Gibbet

In an earlier post I related the grisly tale of the wife and child murderer John Keal, (see the gibbeting of John Keal) who was hanged in 1731 and then hung up to rot in gibbet irons by the roadside, as a warning to others tempted by a life of crime. Gibbeting was a common form of punishment which existed in one form or another in Britain up until 1832. Here are more examples of this macabre form of punishment.
A tombstone in Surfleet churchyard bears the following inscription: "This stone is erected in memory of Mr Samuel Stockton, late of Ashby, in the parish of Leigh, in the county of Lancaster, who was most barbarously murdered near this place on the 8th day of December, 1768, for which murder one Philip Hooton was tried and condemned at Lincoln Assizes, and afterwards executed and hung in chains in the very place where the horrid deed was committed".
Philip Hooton, a local confidence trickster, had convinced wealthy trader Samuel Stockton, to buy corn in Lincolnshire and then sell it at a profit in Stockton`s native Lancashire. While returning from the corn markets, presumably with money, Stockton was lured by Hooton along a secluded path along the banks of the river Welland near Surfleet reservoir, and there brutally murdered him.

Hooton maintained his innocence throughout the trial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged and gibbeted at the scene of the murder in the March of 1769. In the early 1930`s the chains from Hooton`s gibbet were sold in Boston market and the "scolds bridal" a head piece devised for for nagging women that served as head irons, was donated to Boston`s Guildhall Museum  by J A Parkinson in 1931.

Although historical evidence is lacking there are stories of prisoners being gibbeted alive. For example in Wetheral, Cumberland, John Whitfield was said to have been hanged alive in a gibbet for many days until he was mercifully shot dead by a passing coachman. At Castle Cary in Somerset, Jack White, having committed fratricide, was said to have been left to starve in a gibbet cage at a crossroads three miles from the town and that his life was prolonged by a stranger who fed him candles.
In Lincolnshire, a similar story is connected to Gibbet Nook, situated between Tattershall and Coningsby. The story goes that while a man was being starved to death on a gibbet, a baker who was passing gave him a loaf of bread to eat. This prolonged the felon`s life and as a punishment, the baker was also gibbeted alive next to the man.
Gibbets encouraged grisly superstitions, as illustrated by the following rhyme:
 "Now mount who list, and close by the wrist`, sever me quickly the dead man`s fist! Now climb who dare, where he swings in the air, and pluck me five locks of the dead man`s hair".
This describes how the body parts of gibbeted criminals where once used in medicines, as it was believed that the moss growing on the corpse of a hanged man, particularly the skull, cured many ailments. When gibbeting was abolished in 1835, a version of this macabre practise was still in evidence as the following from "Fenland Notes & Quiries" illustrates:
"The Dead Man`s Hand- in Ellis enlarged edition of brands`Popular Antiquities iii, 276, is an instance of the remedy of stroking a wen (warts or other diseased body parts) with the hand of a dead man. From the context it would appear that the dead man ought, for the cure to be effectual, to have been executed for some crime. Nowadays, it seems this condition is not held to be essential.`(Vol 1V 1898-1900)
An example of the above occurred in 1830 when a multitude gathered at Lincoln to witness the execution of three men condemned to death at the late assizes. Two women rushed forward to "rub the dead men`s hands over some wens and one brought a sick child for the same purpose.
The hand of a gibbeted felon was sometimes used by criminals for the dark purpose of creating a charm known as "The Hand of Glory" The hand was first cut from the body pickled in salts, then dried. A candle made from the fat of the hanged man was then placed in the hand which was then brought into a house that was to be burgled.  As long as the candle burned, the occupants remained fast asleep thus enabling the felons to rob the house undisturbed.
Above: A " Hand of Glory" donated to Whitby Museum in 1933
Perhaps the best known gibbet site in the county belongs to that of wife murderer Thomas Otter, the last man to be gibbeted in Lincolnshire at Drinsey Nook near Saxilby on March 14th, 1806. While working in Lincoln, Thomas Otter, an itinerant labourer from Nottinghamshire  formed a relationship with local girl Mary Kirkham who soon discovered she was pregnant by him. In accordance with  the custom of the day, the magistrates gave Tom a simple choice. Marry the girl or go to prison!  He chose the former however, what the magistrates and his intended did not know was that Thomas already had a wife and child in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, so on November 3 1806, the couple were married at Hykham church.  After the ceremony, the newly weds  were seen walking along the turnpike towards Saxilby...It was the last time Mary was to be seen alive.
Her battered body was discovered some time later by the side of what is now the B1190 Doddington Road with the murder weapon, a large hedge stake lying on the ground next to her. Otter was arrested in Lincoln and on March 12 1806, he was found  guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged and his body gibbeted at the murder scene. After his execution, a great multitude gathered to watch otter`s body hung to the gibbet post. Over the years it became a grisly tourist attraction, that gained more notoriety when blue tits built a nest in the lower rotting jaw bone of the corpse, and raised a family of chicks in the dead man`s mouth.  The grisly spectacle inspired the following rhyme:
"Ten tongues within one head. Nine living and one dead One flew out to fetch some bread to feed the living within the dead" 
The gibbet stood for a total of forty four years until the post supporting the cage was blown down in a storm in the spring of 1850. It is hardly surprising that over the years all manor of ghostly tales grew up around the site as contemporary author Thomas Miller recounts in his book, "Rural Sketches":
"I remember well, when a boy, having to pass the gibbet post at Saxilby one stormy night, when the wild broken sky, with its masses of gloomy and billowy clouds, through which the watery moon now and then gleamed, together with the roaring of the trees, the hooting of an owl, and the whistling and creaking of the gibbet-irons as they rattled to and fro in the blast, caused me to look sharply round, and hurry on the trusty old pony, lest Tom Otter should spring back from the thicket, with the murderous hedge stake in his hand."

An unknown author wrote the following:

" Last spring I  caught  a  glimpse of the gibbet-post and irons, while passing the end of the lane; nor could I forget the sensation which the sight of it awakened in me when a boy, when I stood gazing upon the mouldering bones and the rusted irons, or heard them whistling in the wind at night, as I passed the long gloomy fir-trees"
Thomas Otter`s real name was Thomas Temporell or Temple. The word Otter is derived from the old Norse "Hottr" or "Odin" and was often used to describe a hooded man. I can only speculate that the man in this case was Thomas and the hood was the head irons of the gibbet which can still be seen today at Doddington Hall near Lincoln.

Above: The site of the gibbet, the present B1190 Doddington Road, which is still, known locally as Tom Otters Lane 

Above: The head irons from Tom Otter`s gibbet now on display at Doddington Hall

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