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Myths and Legends
1800 Woodcuts, Thomas Bewick and His School

© Department of Special Collections, Glasgow University Library
The rotting corpse of Spence Broughton

Gibbeting was regularly used across England in the 18th Century; it is reported that 100 gibbets were on Hamslow Heath in London by 1800.

Halifax gibbet
Another Yorkshire tradition was The Halifax gibbet which was a special execution devise, an earlier form of the French guillotine.
Historian David Taylor says that: “Highway robbers and burglars were twice as likely to be hanged as mere horse thieves.” Premeditation, use of violence, unruly behaviour and past convictions created a greater chance of being convicted for capital punishment; this sheds light on why Spence Broughton received such a harsh sentence. Fifty years later, a shift in the public moral-conscience meant that there were only seven capital offences remaining. Crimes such as theft and sending threatening letters were given more lenient forms of sentencing.

On public display

In the 18th Century, executions were a form of public entertainment. Like a theatre packed with an anticipating audience, pennies would line entrepreneurial traders’ pockets when an infamous criminal was put to death.
1800 Woodcuts, Thomas Bewick and His School
© Special Collections, Glasgow University Library
Illustrations of the gallows and copies of people’s last speeches were sold, alongside mass-produced figurines of the most famous criminals; sometimes railway companies would offer cheap excursions to view the hangings. However, unpredictable crowds meant these events were a risky business. If the crowd sympathised with the condemned, it could become enraged at an execution.

The numbers who visited Spence Broughton’s gibbeted body proved his was a famous case; however other primary source materials suggest he also became a figure of public sympathy. 'The Sheffield Register' of April 1792 reflects the public opinion:

“the behaviour of these unhappy men was singularly devout and penitent – and of Broughton in particular, was marked with a degree of fortitude and resignation, seldom observed in persons in his unfortunate circumstance."

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