The Halifax Gibbet was the forerunner of the guillotine. In fact, the guillotine was inspired by the Halifax Gibbet with the former working on the same principal as the latter. The principal of the guillotine – a sharp-bladed instrument being held above and then dropped some distance from a condemned person’s neck – was first used in Medieval England. It is believed that this method of execution was first used in Halifax – hence its name – in the C13th. 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 recorded use of the Halifax Gibbet was in 1286 when John of Dalton was executed – though no records survive to explain what he was guilty of.
The Halifax Gibbet was a wooden structure that was 15 feet high with an axe shaped blade at the top. This was held up by a rope. Once the condemned prisoner had been securely fastened, the executioner would cut the rope. In theory, the weight of the blade and the speed at which it fell would decapitate the condemned. The Halifax Gibbet was used on markets days. This would ensure many people were in the town to witness the execution and the hope was that the fearsome sight of the Gibbet would act as a deterrent to those who might have considered a life of crime. If a condemned prisoner escaped on the day of his/her execution and crossed outside of the town’s boundary, he/she was safe as long as the condemned never returned to Halifax. John Lacey, in the reign of James I, did escape on the day of his execution. He returned to the town in 1623, a full seven years after the year he should have been executed. Lacey was recognised, arrested and executed on the Gibbet. The Halifax Gibbet was last used in 1650. The first recorded use of what was known as the guillotine was in 1789.
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