The Gibbet in the Landscape: Locating the Criminal Corpse in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England
In the late 1740s a group of smugglers known as the Hawkhurst gang committed a number of violent crimes that included several brutal murders. At least 75 of the gang were subsequently hung or transported for smuggling, robbery and murder. Of those in receipt of the death sentence, 14 were subjected to the further punishment of hanging in chains (or gibbeting), thereby inflicting further ignominy on the offenders.1 Hanging in chains was usually reserved for murderers, and occasionally mail robbers. However, between 1747 and 1750 members of the Hawkhurst gang were also gibbeted for crimes including smuggling and robbery. Gibbeting was an infrequently used punishment, but the violent circumstances of the Hawkhurst gang’s crimes coupled with the authorities’ desire to punish smugglers on the south coast led to the large number of gibbetings, and consequently a peak in the use of the punishment in the 1740s. These gibbetings reflected the increasingly severe measures taken to eradicate the crime of smuggling. They were temporally and spatially specific, reflecting the nature of the crimes and the circumstances that led to the hanging in chains. This study provides an insight into the extreme use of a particular punishment, showing that judicial penalties were adapted to fit the circumstances of the crimes and reflect how the offences were perceived.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Violent Crime South Coast Crime Scene Death Sentence
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