The following is an excerpt from Disinformation’s latest book release INFERNAL DEVICE: Machinery of Torture and Execution. Author and designer Erik Ruhling assembles an unmatched array of torture tools invented exclusively for the infliction of pain and the ending of life, each carefully researched with an accompanying full-color, highly detailed rendering. This beautifully presented hardcover features classics like the Iron Maiden and the Guillotine, as well as more rarified connoisseur’s fare such as the Scavenger’s Daughter and the Ear Chopper. And if the Tongue Tearer is not to your taste, there’s always the Breast Ripper or the Drunkard’s Cloak.
Travel through Europe during the Middle Ages and the gibbet, or “hanging cages” would have been an omnipresent sight, frequently displayed on the approaches to a town or near the site of a crime. Crow-picked corpses swayed in the wind, staring down upon the passersby until reduced by the elements to bits of cloth and bone. Not an “official” punishment until 1752, the justice system had at times ruled that execution was not a significant deterrent for some crimes, and reasoned that the mortification of the perpetrator’s corpse would discourage all but the most hardened and ruthless criminals.
After execution, the judge could decide to donate your corpse to anatomists (who had quite a difficult time obtaining bodies for dissection, but who were often obliged by resurrectionists, i.e. body snatchers, but that is another, albeit interesting, story), or to hang you from a gibbet as a warning to others. The occasional slathering in tar ensured that this curiosity would have a significant “lifetime.”
The body was either hung “in chains,” meaning a tight wrapping in iron bonds; or it was deposited in a slatted cage made of wood or iron. Either way, the resulting object was hung in a conspicuous location as a warning to all. The effectiveness was debatable, as one judge noted the practice was useless as a way to deter crime but an excellent way to frighten children. To be sure, the sights did frighten quite a few people in some way or another; the poet William Wordsworth was said to have fled at the sight of a gibbet. The gibbet apparently was empty, but he ran nonetheless.
In some cases, mostly having to do with piracy, the criminal was gibbeted while still alive. Vivum excoriari, “alive in chains,” was a slow, painful death in which the lawbreaker lingered for days, starving and dehydrated. On the bright side, the executioner would not have to move the body once the victim had perished. He or she was already installed in their final resting place.
Finally, there was another unrelated device which took the name of “gibbet” — the Halifax Gibbet was an early version of the guillotine, which was less effective at cleanly separating the head from the body, but enjoyed the same infamy as its descendant, with many beggars supposedly steering clear of Halifax for fear of being gibbeted.
More INFERNAL DEVICES:
Unhappy New Year! Beware the Noisemaker’s Fife
If more “disinformation” about the various religions, cults, and belief systems of the world interest you, be sure to check out Russ Kick’s new anthology EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT GOD IS WRONG.