Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Halifax Gibbett

Learning the sort of history that you will never be taught at school can be very eye opening.  Various forms of execution have always been carried out but the most common form was hanging.  The French had a decapitation device devised by Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, which carried his name.  But remarkably, it was nothing new.  Naples in 1266 saw the execution of Conrad of Swabia, allegedly by decapitation.  Germany certainly had some kind of device because five men lost their heads in Zittau in 1300.  Incredibly, there are reports that a decapitation device was used in Ireland in 1307.  Yet there are claims of a chopping device used in England 1000 years ago, in an area of West Yorkshire; Halifax.  But Halifax certainly did have something in operation for hundreds of years; The Halifax Gibbett.  It was known to have been used as a form of execution during the 50 year reign of Edward 111 -1327 - 1377.  But an execution was witnessed in Halifax in 1565 by the Regent of Scotland, the Earl of Morton.  He was sufficiently impressed to go back to Scotland and make a version of it himself.  It was known as "The Maiden" but it is not known exactly how many Scots people were executed by it.  But it is known who the last person was.  None other than the Earl of Morton himself.  His crime was high treason.  He went to his own apparatus on June 2nd 1581.  Resonates with Charles Justice going to an electric chair he helped improve.

    The sentence of death was usually carried out within a week of conviction, on the town market days.  This area of Yorkshire was heavily involved in the manufacture of cloth so stealing cloth was a capital crime.  Amongst many others.  So what was this contraption?  It had a large square base of stone, with steps on one side, which the condemned walked up.  The uprights stretched for 18 feet, a 4 feet cross beam secured the sides, and had grooves in the uprights for the blade to move up and down.  The blade was 18 inches long and 12 inches wide.  A rope was used to pull the blade up, usually pulled by a horse, pegged in place, then released upon a signal from either a bailiff or a member of the jury that convicted him/her.  Between 1541 and 1650, a number of 49 people were executed.  More than six condemned were women.  The last victims of the Gibbett were Tony Mitchell & John Wilkinson, executed in 1650 for stealing horses and cloth.

    After this period, it was forgotten about.  The blade was put into storage and kept there for well over 300 years, before being put into a museum.  The base was actually uncovered by workmen, still intact.  The huge stone base and the steps.  There is a model of the Gibbett on display in the Bankfield Museum.  The base is on Gibbett Street - the street where one Emily Pye was murdered in her shop.