The Gibbeting of Pirates and Mutineers

(Main Monarchs: George III and George IV) *Warning of gruesomeness*

A very important map for this blog / 1872 Greenwich Peninsula and Isle of Dogs
A very important map for this blog / 1872 Greenwich Peninsula and Isle of Dogs

While researching our local highwaymen, the name Blackbeard kept cropping up (I have no idea why). This got me thinking, did Greenwich have a pirate history? The maritime axis of the world had to have some links to marauding filibusters, surely.


So, I took a brief break from blogging about the local highwaymen, and went down a new rabbit hole, where I discovered something called ‘gibbeting.’


If you are faint-hearted, this blog is one to skip because gibbeting is a nasty affair.

From the Murder Act of 1752 until the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was forbidden to bury the bodies of executed murderers unless they had first been anatomised or ‘hung in chains’ (gibbeted).[1]

What is gibbeting?


Gibbeting (aka hanging in chains) was a punishment beyond execution. Why this was done when someone was already dead seems a waste of resources and downright twisted, but it was done anyway.

Quite simply, it ‘was the exhibiting of the corpses of executed criminals in public. It was normally reserved for criminals convicted of unusually heinous crimes or others of whom the authorities wished to make examples.’[2]


These examples were designed to install fear in the criminally minded. Whether it worked or not is up for debate as many contemporaries felt that the violence bred more violence.

Captain Kidd Hanging in Chains / Credit: ‘The Pirates Own Book’ Marine Research Society, 1924, American School
Captain Kidd Hanging in Chains / Credit: ‘The Pirates Own Book’ Marine Research Society, 1924, American School

To make sure the extra punishment had the desired impact, the executed bodies were either hung where the crime was committed or where lots of people could see them.


Land gibbeting


So, once the heinous individual had been hung (typically at Tyburn Tree), they were then often tarred and left to rot, suspended from a pole and basically held together by iron rings wrapped around their decomposing bodies. That’s, of course, if they were land criminals. Maritime nasties (pirates and mutineers), however, got even better treatment (more on this below).


The first recorded case of gibbeting was of a Scot who’d done wrong in London during 1306 (Edward I was King, and he hated the Scots and the Welsh – and they hated him).


During the mid-1700s, there was a huge crime wave (those pesky highwaymen!), so George III gave gibbeting legal status in The Murder Act 1751, which declared there was a need for ‘some further terror’ to dissuade the lawbreakers, crooks, felons, villains and blaggards. The last gibbeting was done in 1832, and the Murder Act was repealed in 1834.[3] These days, the general principles of our sentencing structures are two-fold: punishment and rehabilitation. There's no hint of rehabilitation during the gibbetting period – not even a whiff.


So, that’s eighty-one years of officially treating the dead with some serious disrespect.


Prisoners to be gibbeted were measured for their iron gibbet suit before they were executed, so not only did they know they were condemned to a slow death, but they also had to endure the mental torture of being measured for their post-execution outfit. They’d all probably seen what a gibbeted body looked like and knew how long they were often left hanging as a warning.


Captain Kidd was left dangling in the wind for three years!

Gibbet, c.1780 (wrought iron) / Credit: American School / Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent
Gibbet, c.1780 (wrought iron) / Credit: American School / Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

Offences worthy of the gibbet[4] were:


Maritime gibbeting and Execution Dock


Special treatment was generously provided for those committing crimes on the water – that of Execution Dock, located along the River Thames near Wapping’s shoreline. Its full name back then was Wapping-in-the-Wose (Wose = ooze/mud).[5]

John Rocque’s map of London (1746) showing the location of Execution Dock Stairs at Wapping
John Rocque’s map of London (1746) showing the location of Execution Dock Stairs at Wapping

The British Admiralty was given jurisdiction for all crimes committed at sea under the Articles of War regulations (they can be found here, if you are interested). If punishment included execution, the Admiralty could add on the extra bonus of gibbeting after the prisoner had been hung at Wapping.


Prisoners were allowed to drink a quart of ale at a public house on the way to the gallows. Yippee.


Following execution (here comes the extra special bonuses for committing a crime on the sea), bodies were chained to a stake at low tide until three high tides had washed over them. Once this ritual had finished, the bodies were tarred to preserve them longer and taken from Wapping to be gibbeted in a place where all seafaring folk could see them as a deterrent.


Sometimes, a ruling would be passed down for dissection instead so the Royal College of Surgeons could pull the body to pieces for medical explorations; those lucky ones didn’t get washed in the putrid brown waters of the Thames (it was full of all sorts of decomposing nasties) and only their toes got dipped – once – so they didn’t bloat before being cut open. (I really hope you aren't reading this while eating your breakfast).


Blackwall Point and Greenwich Marshes

It makes sense that if the Royal Admiralty wanted to create a visual theatre for their gruesome punishments, they would do so along the River Thames.


Many sailors, admiralty, pirates, and smugglers, lived along the river, and a vast number of ships sailed up the Thames – the message would have been loud and clear.

Thames Gibbet / Credit: William Hogarth’s ‘Idle Apprentice’ 1747
Thames Gibbet / Credit: William Hogarth’s ‘Idle Apprentice’ 1747

At the bend of the Thames, where we now see the O2, were what was then known as the Greenwich Marshes – with Blackwell opposite. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Blackwall Point (the northern tip of the Peninsula and opposite Blackwall) was the location where the pirates’ corpses were hung.


An old name for the Greenwich Marshes was Bugsby Reach or Marshes (we now have Bugsby Way near Asda). Bugsby ‘may have been the commander of a prison hulk that was once moored here, but it has also been suggested that the word is a corruption of ‘boggarty’, which meant ‘haunted by sprites or spirits. The methane gases of the marshes could have conjured up such manifestations.’[6]

E. Walford, M.A., Mary Barclay: Notes and Queries, Volume s6-VIII, Issue 208, 22 December 1883, Page 501
E. Walford, M.A., Mary Barclay: Notes and Queries, Volume s6-VIII, Issue 208, 22 December 1883, Page 501
Gibbet at Blackwall Point (distant right) / Credit: Gentleman’s Monthly/London Magazine March 1782 p.105
Gibbet at Blackwall Point (distant right) / Credit: Gentleman’s Monthly/London Magazine March 1782 p.105

There were objections that these hanging human cages offended foreign visitors and became gruesome tourist attractions. Why on earth would they have thought such a thing!

Recreation of gibbeting by Mischief PR for Black Sails in 2014
Recreation of gibbeting by Mischief PR for Black Sails in 2014

The ‘Thames tassels’, as they were known, were visible to all visitors arriving in London by sea, and one author noted that in 1841 there were many people who could still remember the sight of the gibbets opposite Blackwall waving in the wind and that ’a gibbet’s tassel’ was one of the first sights that greeted the stranger approaching London from the sea’.[7]


Morbid curiosity


As we research and read about these things, we may have a morbid curiosity similar to that of the day. Would we, too, be fascinated enough to saunter down to the river’s edge and watch the executions and gibbeting?


Charles Dickens saw one in 1849, Southwark. He wrote to The Times later that day:

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. [8]

The irony is, he went, and he watched. He may have had different reasons to some and behaved differently, but he went. Maybe there was no way to avoid them when travelling.


Further insight can be gained from a newspaper article that provides a more colourful description of how the crowds gather.[9]


Did it work?


Gibbeting cost a lot. It was also quite an infrequent activity, especially the maritime gibbeting, so in some ways, rather than acting as a deterrent, it created a novelty that served to make the names and histories of the gibbeted more memorable and permanent. And although the newspapers (and Dickens) showed their disgust and distaste, the last gibbeting was well attended.


Locally gibbetted – names


Working out exactly where the local gibbets were is a little confusing. Records use variations, as you can see below. From my understanding, gibbets were usually placed upstream (the upper gibbet), which was Greenwich side, and downstream (the lower gibbet) on the Bugsby Hole, Woolwich side. I would love to know if anyone has information that can place them better.


Listed below are just some of the names I could find of men that had been gibbeted locally.[10]


A Gibbet on the River Thames / Credit: Thomas Rowlandson 1790
A Gibbet on the River Thames / Credit: Thomas Rowlandson 1790
 

If you’d like to get in touch about anything you’ve read or have more information you’d like to share, please contact Julie at blackheathandgreenwichhistory@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to subscribe to keep updated, scroll to the footer and sign up.


The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.

 

Footnotes

[1] Tarlow, Sarah, and Dyndor, Zoe. "The Landscape of the Gibbet." Landscape History 36.1 (2015): 71-88. [2] J. A. Sharpe. "Gibbeting." The Oxford Companion to British History (2015): The Oxford Companion to British History, 2015 [3] ibid [4] Tarlow, Sarah. The Golden and Ghoulish Age of the Gibbet in Britain. London, 2017. Palgrave Historical Studies in the Criminal Corpse and Its Afterlife. p.22 [5]John Stow, Survey of London, London, John Wolfe, 1598, p. 347. [6] J. A. Sharpe. "Gibbeting." The Oxford Companion to British History (2015): The Oxford Companion to British History, 2015 [7] (Knight 1841, p.360). [8] Charles Dickens, letter to the Editor of The Times, 13 November 1849, in The Letters of Charles Dickens: The Pilgrim Edition. 12 vols., 1965–2002, vol. v, 1847–9, ed. Graham Storey and Kenneth Fielding (Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 644–5. [9] Renfrewshire Independent - Saturday 26 September 1863 [10] Tarlow, Sarah. The Golden and Ghoulish Age of the Gibbet in Britain. London, 2017. Palgrave Historical Studies in the Criminal Corpse and Its Afterlife.

Sources:

  • Tarlow, Sarah. The Golden and Ghoulish Age of the Gibbet in Britain. London, 2017. Palgrave Historical Studies in the Criminal Corpse and Its Afterlife.

  • Samantha Frénée, « Pirates and Gallows at Execution Dock: Nautical Justice in Early Modern England », Criminocorpus [Online], Les Fourches Patibulaires du Moyen Âge à l’Époque moderne. Approche interdisciplinaire, Communications

  • Tarlow, Sarah, and Dyndor, Zoe. “The Landscape of the Gibbet.” Landscape History 36.1 (2015): 71-88. Web.

  • Albert Hartshorne, Hanging in Chains (New York: The Cassell Publishing Company, 1893), 25.