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2 Gruesome warning
3 Death and display
The term is sometimes used to describe a gallows, a structure used in the execution of criminals by hanging.
The 'gibbet' could also be a gallows-type structure from which the dead bodies of executed criminals were hung on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals. This was often the fate of murderers, highwaymen and sheep-stealers, and the structures were therefore often placed adjacent to public highways (Gibbet Hill marks one such site between Coventry and Kenilworth in Warwickshire; the same place name is used for a site near Haslemere in Surrey).
In some cases, the bodies would be left until their clothes rotted or even until the bodies were almost completely decomposed, after which the bones would be scattered.
So that the public display might be prolonged, bodies were sometimes coated in tar and/or bound in chains. Sometimes, body-shaped iron cages were used to contain the decomposing corpses (the Atwater Kent museum in Philadelphia displays a 'gibbet iron' made in 1781 to display the body of convicted pirate Thomas Wilkinson so that sailors on passing ships might be warned of the consequences of piracy).
Death and display
As a gruesome variation, the 'Caxton Gibbet' in Cambridgeshire is one example of a gibbet employed as a suspended iron cage into which victims were placed while they were still alive. The person would then die from starvation, dehydration or exposure (or occasionally drowning – pirates were sometimes executed by being placed in a cage at low-tide to be drowned as the water rose above them). After death, the body would remain suspended for some time as a warning to others.
'Gibbet' is also the name used for an early form of the guillotine. A notable example was employed in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax, where decapitation was the penalty for numerous offences, including the theft of cloth (Halifax being a centre of wool cloth manufacture). The final executions using the Halifax gibbet took place in 1650.