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The dark and eerie reminders of Halifax’s unusually gruesome past

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Hanging’s too good for ’em, so the adage goes.

And in medieval, Tudor and Stuart era Halifax hanging was indeed too good for thieves.

Instead, due to some weird charter, the town would sometimes execute its thieves by cutting their heads off. That’ll learn ’em.

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Sometime around the mid-13th century, a ‘gibbet’ was erected in the town centre.

While the guillotine is associated with the French Revolution of 1792, a similar machine was in used in Halifax at least 500 years previously.

It is believed almost 100 petty thieves – the threshold was goods worth 13.5p (about £180 in today’s money) so you didn’t have to steal much – lost their heads in this macabre device between 1286 and 1650.

Halifax’s Gibbet, which was used to execute criminals

The device consisted of an axe head fitted to a heavy block of wood which ran in grooves between two uprights measuring 4.6m (15ft).

A rope attached to the wooden block ran over a pulley which allowed the block to be raised.

Once the block was raised the taut rope was secured with a pin. For the axe to fall the pin was removed or the rope cut.

The 18th-century author Daniel Defoe, who visited Halifax on his first tour of Britain, relayed the legend that if the condemned man could remove his head block between the time the pin was removed and the axe fell he could run for his life.

If he crossed Hebble Brook before the executioner could catch up with him, the thief was a free man so long as he never returned to Halifax. If the pursuing executioner recaptured his quarry the condemned would be back on the block again sharpish.

Halifax Gibbet as it is today on the corner of Gibbet Street and Bedford Street

Halifax Gibbet as it is today on the corner of Gibbet Street and Bedford Street

According to legend, two condemned men, Dinnis and John Lacy managed it. Lacy, however, forgot the final part of the deal and was summarily executed when he returned to Halifax seven years later.

It wasn’t the only instrument of capital punishment in Halifax; the gallows were used too, although the gibbet was employed in troubled times.

The gibbet was last used in 1650 before the then ruler of England Oliver Cromwell banned the death penalty for petty theft.

Its final victims were Anthony Mitchell and John Wilkinson, of Sowerby. Both were relieved of their heads for stealing cloth and two horses of total value £5,8s (about £1,000 today). Wilkinson had also pinched more cloth from another place.

The Halifax Gibbet

  • A law known as the Gibbet Law gave the Lord of the Manor for Halifax the power to condemn someone to death by the Halifax Gibbet if they were found guilty of stealing something that was worth more than 13p.
  • The first victim of the Gibbet was John of Dalton in 1286.
  • The last executions on the Gibbet were those of Anthony Mitchell and John Wilkinson in 1650.
  • In 1974 a 4.6m high, non-working replica was reconstructed on the site and still remains on Gibbet Street today.

The stone base of the gibbet was rediscovered, alongside the skeletons of two decapitated men, by workmen in 1839.

Rather than literally bury part of Halifax’s gory history the town embraced it and in 1974 a replica – to scale but non-functioning, obviously – was erected on the original stone base on Gibbet Street.

Both the replica, the original stone base and the name of the street are a daily reminder of the town’s uniquely gruesome past.

Thanks: Andrew Plumridge

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