Sweet-toothed felon John Fisher paid the highest price possible for the sake of stealing some sugar.
Fisher, 23, was hanged at Newgate for stealing 800lbs of sugar from London’s Dundee Wharf in 1801.
Highwayman William Griffiths was hanged for targeting a man who was to turn criminal himself.
Griffiths was hanged at Tyburn for stealing two guineas and some pieces of silver. The crime took place on Tottenham Court Road, in London, and Griffiths’s victim was Reverend Dr Dodd.
Little did he know that Dodd was to be hanged at Tyburn as well, just four years later for forgery.
Forget the French guillotine – the inhabitants of Halifax got there way before. The Northerners created an automated beheading machine that was designed to relieve robbers of their heads after they’d been found guilty in a court of law.
Dating back to Norman times, the Halifax gibbet was a mechanised axe – a forerunner for the guillotine, it was primarily created to prevent any one person from having to shoulder the burden of executing people.
And execute they did – anyone who had taken as little as 13 pence earned the penalty. One such criminal was Abraham Clegg. He was placed under the gibbet and parted company with his grey matter on this day in 1636. And in doing so, Clegg joined the ranks of 52 others, at least that’s the official number of beheadings since the gibbet’s execution records began.
As it was lead weighted, the Halifax gibbet was 100% fail safe – and being such a gruesome deterrent, it seemed successful in putting would-be criminals off from committing petty thefts.
Testimony to this is that, a few years before Clegg’s death, the infamous gibbet was immortalised in John Taylor’s 1622 poem, ‘From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord deliver us’:
“That whoso more than thirteen pence doth steale,
They have a jyn [engine] that wondrous quicke and well
Sends Thieves all headless unto Heav’n or Hell”.
As if execution wasn’t gruesome enough, it was grimmer up North. And you don’t get harder than the inhabitants of Halifax in West Yorkshire.
They dreamed up the famous gibbet, which was based on the guillotine, but meaner. It was built to deal with people who stole cloth and became so legendary in its time that even Daniel Defoe wrote about it.
Why was it so bad? Well get this, if you were quick enough to move away from the unit and escape before the blade swiped your head off, you could go free so long as you never came back to darken Halifax doorways again. But boy did you have to be nimble.
Sadly Anthony Mitchell and John Wilkinson weren’t quick enough and became the last two criminals to fall victim to the callous contraption. In fact after their executions, the gibbet was retired mainly because people had turned against it as a method of execution following Charles I’s decapitation just a year before the two robbers.
As for Mitchell and Wilkinson, they’d been had up for stealing cloth and horses. And for that they were condemned to death. It’s hard to believe that criminals could lose their life for a bit of material, but in that day and age it was a new industry and they had illusions of taking on the more established haberdashers in Europe and further afield. And to give them a hope of doing that, they came down hard on the perpetrators.
It said that the bodies of two headless men were unearthed a couple of hundred years later and the skeletons are attributed to our two victims.