Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gibbets and guillotines

It can all be a bit confusing. The gibbet was a structure like a gallows on which a body was exposed after execution. But not in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, where it was an early form of the guillotine - except that Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) had not yet proposed the use of a mechanical device to carry out the death penalty in France, so his name was not used for it.

The posthumous punishment of gibbeting, also known as "hanging in chains," was usually reserved for traitors, murderers, highwaymen, and pirates. Gibbets could be seen spotting the landscape of Warwickshire, Somerset, Surrey, and Devon until the practice was outlawed in England in 1834. Here is an eyewitness account: "There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust." Gibbeting was also used as a deterrent to criminals in Amsterdam, where an aging Rembrandt (1606-1669) rowed to the site where the corpse of 18-year-old Elsje Christiaens (1st image) was strung up with the ax she had used to kill her landlady in 1664.

The Halifax gibbet was used between 1286 and 1650 to behead some 80 male and female prisoners. More than 100 years later, a replica was erected at the spot where the original had stood. The original is depicted (2nd image) as it appeared in the 17th c. and described in 1822: "The platform, four feet high, and thirteen feet square, faced on every side with stone, was ascended by a flight of steps; in the middle of this platform were placed two upright pieces of timber, five yards high, joined by a cross beam of timber at the top; within these was a square block of wood, four feet and a half long, which moved in grooves, and had an iron axe fastened in its lower edge, the weight of which was seven pounds eleven ounces; it was ten inches and a half long, seven inches over at the top, and nine at the bottom, and towards the top had two holes to fasten it to the block. The axe is still to be seen at the gaol, in Halifax: the platform remains, but has been hid, for many years past, under a mountain of rubbish."

The guillotine was used to behead as many as 40,000 in France during the 1793-1794 Reign of Terror and remained the official method of execution until 1981, when capital punishment was outlawed. The last public use of the guillotine was the beheading of Eugen Weidmann in 1939, after which execution was carried out behind closed doors. It has finally come out of hiding and is on display at an exhibit about crime and punishment at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The horse-drawn cart that carried Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) and others to the guillotine is called a "tumbrel" - except when that word is used to refer to the medieval punishment of the ducking (or cucking) stool, but that only further confuses the issue...

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