The Enduring Imaginative Power of the Criminal Corpse

Posted by ap507 at Oct 28, 2016 10:05 AM |
Professor Sarah Tarlow discusses the enduring popularity of the gibbet in Halloween paraphernalia
The Enduring Imaginative Power of the Criminal Corpse

Figure of a gibbeted criminal in the Halloween aisle of a supermarket (photo: Sarah Tarlow)

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My local supermarket has devoted an entire aisle to Halloween paraphernalia. Among the decorative cobwebs and inappropriately horrific children’s costumes is a startlingly gruesome hanging gibbet ornament. A semi-skeletal figure dressed in prisoners stripes grips the bars of a cage and, when the contraption is switched on , croaks ‘Let me out’, accompanied by some scene-setting rattling chains.

Having spent the last five years studying the history post-mortem punishment in general, and of the gibbet in particular (I know, I need a hobby), the inaccuracies of this representation are overwhelming. For a start, in the peak period of gibbeting in Britain – the eighteenth century – nobody was gibbeted alive. Putting a body in a gibbet – or ‘hanging in chains’ – as it was known at the time – was exclusively a post-mortem punishment.  Live gibbeting did take place in the Caribbean, notably in the case of enslaved men accused of violence towards their owners, or of inciting rebellion. So the unfortunate prisoner gripping the bars of his cage and peering desperately out is a fantasy. Next, the shape of this pretend gibbet is totally wrong. Rather than being an oversized birdcage or a kind of dangling cell, actual gibbet cages were designed to fit closely around the body, to keep it upright and person-shaped, not for a living person to sit in and harangue passers-by.

Of course, correcting factual inaccuracies is not the point. This is a grotesque and mildly frightening piece of Halloween tat, not a pedantically correct historical reconstruction. It’s all good fun, insofar as murder, execution and humiliation post-mortem violations of the body count as fun. But in another way, it would be wrong to draw too sharp a distinction between the past and the present. If the customers of Grantham Aldi find the gibbeted criminal creepy, rather than an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of the State and the implacability of Justice, so too did their eighteenth-century forebears.

One of the key findings of our research project (‘Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse’, funded by the Wellcome Trust) is that during the eighteenth century, many people found the public display of dead and decomposing bodies creepy and ghoulish. Methods of gibbeting and features of the gibbet and features of the gibbet accentuated the unsettling and disturbing aspects of the gibbeted body. Though a dead body, it remains upright and above ground. Its visibility was enhanced by locating the gibbet in a prominent place, and as close as possible to the scene of crime. Though a dead body, it moved. The gibbet cage was suspended from the gibbet arm using a hook and a short length of chain, so that it would move in the wind, and turn about. Though a dead body, it made a noise. Contemporaries described the eerie sound of the creaking of chains and the cawing of carrion birds. Though a dead body, it hung above the road and seemed to watch people coming past. Letters, diaries, petitions, and common folktales tell of people’s reluctance to pass by a gibbet, especially at night.

The government that passed the 1752 Murder Act, the law responsible for ensuring that nobody convicted of murder could be buried in holy ground, unless they had been anatomically dissected or hung in chains first, hoped that the act would deter criminals by graphically demonstrating the consequences of crime. Much like a farmer nailing up the corpses of shot crows on a field gate, hanging in chains was intended to impress the hearts and minds of others. Even at the time, however, creepy nastiness rather than moral reflection was the main consequence. In this light, the appropriation of a misremembered and ‘gored-up’ version of the eighteenth-century gibbet for the expanding commercial blood-fest that is twenty-first century Halloween is a fitting tribute to a post-mortem punishment that never quite achieved what its legislators hoped it would.

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