ELLIOT DAVIES recounts the torturous tale of the last live gibbeting in England
Gibbeting is a particularly inhuman form of execution from the old world that strikes me as one of the worst possible ways to die.
It involves being suspended outdoors in a body-hugging cage that utterly restricts all movement. There you’re left to the mercy of the crows and the cold. All who were put into a gibbet would leave a skeleton – the flesh having fallen from their bones, their tastiest bits having long since become carrion – perhaps whilst they still drew breath. Not pleasant.
We know of the last person to ever have been gibbeted alive. It happened in the 1830s in Baslow, directly east of the historic Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
What is gibbeting?
Our story concerns a vagrant who, cold, tired, hungry and desperate, called into a thatched cottage in Baslow, begging for food. The lady of the house had just finished making breakfast, so the intoxicating scent of fried bacon filled the air. But she told the vagrant, in no uncertain terms, that there was no food for him.
Don’t worry, you’ll stop feeling sorry for this vagrant in a few seconds. Incensed, he forced his way into the house, overpowered the woman, and poured the boiling fat from the bacon directly down her throat. She was scalded to death, and he was promptly arrested and tried for murder. Not pleasant.
He was sentenced to be hung at Gibbet Moor, just off the Baslow/Chesterfield road, to suffer a prolonged and agonising death.
As the unbearable pain of hunger, thirst, cold, exposure and muscle cramp set in, the vagrant began to scream. And scream. And scream. He screamed so loud and so long into the night that he woke the Duke of Devonshire who was, at the time, staying at the nearby Chatsworth House.
The Duke was so disturbed by the screams that he enacted laws to prohibit the awful act of gibbeting. The vagrant was thus the last person to ever die by gibbeting in England. His name is unfortunately lost forever, but some say that his screams can still be heard up at Gibbet Moor.
Hiker reports ghostly screams from the gibbet
In 1992, a hiker by the name of Jane Townsend reported to have heard these unearthly, horrifying screams, yet this sad tale apparently created two ghosts. The vagrant’s uncharitable and unfortunate victim reportedly sits at the bedside in the master room of her cottage.
The late Edgar Osbourne, a Chatsworth House archivist, even claimed to have been soothed by this spirit when bedridden by illness. Is she giving the charity which, when refused in her life, caused her death?
This undeniably tragic tale left its mark on the land in the form of one spirit condemned to endless torment, another obliged to offer endless charity and, above all, in the ultimate prohibition of the inhuman practice of gibbeting.
Where can you see a gibbet?
The gibbet itself can be seen in the Vernon Gatehouse in Derby. They’ve put a rubber skeleton in there, which sort of makes the whole thing look a tad ridiculous, but still. Not pleasant.