The Halifax Gibbet Law.
The following is taken from a notice within a display cabinet at the Bankfield Museum, Halifax. The display features a model of the gibbet and the original blade which was found in a solicitor's office in Wakefield in 1970.
In the early medieval period, the Lords of the Manor of Wakefield governed Halifax. They were granted the right to execute thieves caught on there land. From this right the custom of the Halifax Gibbet developed.
Other places in Yorkshire also had the right to punish wrongdoers at this time. Halifax's gibbet law became famous, however as it continued in use for hundreds of years. Many think this was to protect the cloth trade which was a mainstay of Halifax's economy.
The law stated that any thief caught with goods worth over 13 and a half pence could be killed by the gibbet. The executions would take place on market day, with many spectator's gathered to watch.
There were over 53 recorded executions between 1541 and 1650. It is likely that there were more before records began.
(Notice at Bankfield Museum).
The Halifax Gibbet was an early guillotine, used in the town of Halifax, England. Halifax was once part of the Manor of Wakefield, where ancient custom and law gave the Lord of the Manor the authority to execute summarily by decapitation any thief caught with stolen goods. Decapitation was a fairly common method of execution in England, but Halifax was unusual in two respects: it employed a guillotine-like machine that appears to have been unique in the country, and it continued to decapitate petty criminals until the mid-17th century.
The device consisted of an axe head fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two 15-foot (4.6 m) tall uprights, mounted on a stone base about 4 feet (1.2 m) high. A rope attached to the block ran over a pulley, allowing it to be raised, after which the rope was secured by attaching it to a pin in the base. The block carrying the axe was then released either by withdrawing the pin or by cutting the rope once the prisoner was in place.
Almost 100 people were beheaded in Halifax between the first recorded execution in 1286 and the last in 1650, but as the date of the gibbet's installation is uncertain, it cannot be determined with any accuracy how many were dealt with by the Halifax Gibbet. By 1650 public opinion considered beheading to be an excessively severe punishment for petty theft; use of the gibbet was forbidden by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, and the structure was dismantled. The stone base was rediscovered and preserved in about 1840, and a non-working replica was erected on the site in 1974. 2 skeletons were discovered nearby and these are thought to have been the last 2 known victims of the gibbet Anthony Mitchell and Abraham Wilkinson.
The gibbet law allowed that if the victim was able to withdraw his head as the blade fell and escape across the Hebble Brook he could be freed. It is thought that only 1 man John Lacey (aka Running Man) achieved this in 1617, unfortunately he returned to Halifax several years later and the law allowed him to be recaptured and he was executed the 2nd time in January 1623.
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