Samantha Priestley, The History of Gibbeting (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Gibbeting was the practice of hanging a criminal in a cage, iron bands, or chains from a high post for all to see and presumably reflect upon as they passed by. The victims could have been gibbeted alive or post-execution, and they were left hanging until they decayed completely. No one is sure when it started, early records are sketchy, though criminals were hung in chains throughout mediaeval England. The Murder Act of 1752 regulated the practice somewhat, but local customs still differed as to how they used gibbeting. That is the point at which Samantha Priestley delves into the details of gibbeting for nine gruesome but interesting chapters, with some helpful photos and illustrations, for her The History of Gibbeting.
No law existed before the Murder Act to administer gibbeting and it remained a confusing practice, though gibbeting while alive apparently fell into disuse in the 17th Century. Who was liable for this punishment and for what crime depended on location as much as anything else apparently, as becomes clear from Priestley’s parade of case studies running through her book. Gibbets were also almost always located in unique places particular to the crime for which it was the punishment. Indeed, modern place names remind us of the most infamous victims of the gibbet. It was not only murderers who ended in a gibbet, halfway between heaven and hell: highwaymen, mail robbers, and, of course, pirates also suffered this peculiar ignominy. The latter included Captain William Kidd, hanged at Execution Dock in London along with many others, and displayed at Tilbury Point, hanging again in chains. Priestley continues with a chapter on why the British public found this form of punishment so fascinating with 40,000 turning out for James Cook’s ordeal, the last man to be gibbeted. It also horrified them, as it was intended to, but, Priestley concludes, its deterrence effect proved minimal at best. The rationale for gibbeting, if there ever was any, faded in the face of the great reforms of the 1830s when it was abolished, but the fascination remains.
The History of Gibbeting is an easy read on a difficult subject. Priestley is accomplished fiction writer and it shows in her breezy style. That is both the strength and weakness of this book: she tells engaging stories about heinous crimes and skims the surface of her subject very well, but the depth of analysis is lacking, as are most of the source references, and the historical context receives loose attention. Nevertheless, historians are not Priestley’s audience, the educated public is, and they will be entertained and informed. 8/10
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