It’s the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean – Curse of the Black Pearl. Captain Jack in his raggedy rowboat sail past a string of hanging corpses. “Pirates Be Ye Warned” says the sign. Jack pauses his bailing to salute his fallen comrades, even as his own craft begins to sink.
These pirates were being “gibbeted” a horrible punishment, meant to inspire terror in potential wrong-doers.
Gibbeting was firmly rooted in Christian belief in the sanctity of the human body. Church doctrine said that in order to be raised on Judgement Day, a person needed to be buried “entire” – in other words, whole of body.
This belief inspired several medieval practices, including severing heads and displaying them on pikes, and cutting traitors into several pieces and sending the pieces to the far corners of a kingdom. Not only could the remains not be visited by followers, but the very gates of heaven were denied to the soul of the deceased.
In London in the 1600’s the fate of executed pirates was a matter of great ceremony. A veritable parade, led by on official carrying a silver oar – symbol of the British Admiralty’s authority to rule the seas – led the condemned pirate to Execution Dock, located on the Thames River. The Admiralty’s authority began at the edge of the sea, and so the place of execution was located in the mud flats of the Thames, below the high tide line.
Here the pirate was hanged, and here the body would remain until it had been “washed by three tides.” The Thames at this point was close enough to the ocean that tides made the level of the river rise and fall. After the dead body had been through this ritual, it would be covered in tar and left on display until the corpse fell utterly apart.
The bodies of famous pirates were something of a tourist attraction, and the authorities wanted them to stay around for as long as possible. Most notable was the body of William Kidd. To this end, for certain pirates, a gibbet, or iron cage, was often made to surround the body.
There was no special design for these. Nobody published plans. Instead, officials went to a local blacksmith and ordered a gibbet to be made. Each one was its own gristly work of art. Some were designed to simply hold the body, letting the arms and legs flop loose. Others contained the appendages in their own iron supports – either jointed, for eerie movement, or held firmly still by iron bands. Some held the whole body, like a loosely woven iron mummy.
Gibbets weren’t just for pirates, of course. Other criminals – murderers especially, were contained after death in similar structures. The classic location for display of these remains was a crossroads. It was popularly believed that – should the dead man get loose from his confines and decide to go for a stroll that the many choices of direction would keep him from finding his way into town.
Gibbets were designed for maximum horror. The point of the iron container was to hold the body in the shape of a human. Gibbets were hung out of reach of passersby, and suspended by chains designed to move and rattle in the wind. When they were first put up, crowds would gather in a kind of macabre holiday.
But very soon, the horror would set in. First was the smell. People living downwind suffered, and needed to close their windows when the wind blew from the gibbet. Animals – birds, and small predators, gathered to feed, and their activities could be plainly seen. In the early days, brave little boys might dare each other to play near the corpse. Lovers might meet near the gibbet, sure of being alone.
But as time went by, the place grew more and more horrible, and a tarred body might last – to some degree – for decades. The remains of William Kidd are said to have hung for twenty years. Bits of bone might be found under the gibbet, and strange plants were said to grown there… Believable, since the area was most horribly fertilized.
In the end, gibbeting fell out of favor. Early Victorians finally made the connection between filth and sickness. And the gibbet’s goal of preventing crime had not materialized. In fact, the gibbet was a location of yet more murders, such as a case where one servant girl invited her friend to a picnic near such a place, then poisoned her.
The finally gibbet in England was removed by the nearby townspeople in 1832, and two years later the practice was officially banned.
But, strangely enough, some of the hanging corpses on the gibbet achieved a kind of immortality. In a time of unmarked roads, when people navigated by landmarks, a body in a gibbet was notable enough – and long-lasting enough – to be noted by travelers. So we have place names like Old Paar Road, named for the corpse of a murderer who had once marked a crossroads.