In February 1791, Spence Broughton and John Oxley had a not-so-bright idea that Broughton wouldn’t see through to the end of the story . . . but his corpse would.
The small-time, London-based criminals decided to rob the Rotherham mail coach in the northern city of Sheffield. Months later, in October of that year, Oxley was arrested for another crime and not only admitted that he’d also been responsible for the Rotherham job but pointed the finger at his accomplice as well.
Broughton was arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. At the time, thieves and highwaymen were among the most likely of all criminals to be hanged, and with Broughton’s premeditation and the use of violence in his crime, the noose was a given.
His case had become weirdly, strangely famous. After he was dead, his body was transported back to the scene of his crime, Attercliffe Common. There, he was strung up in a gibbet, and left for 36 years.
On the day that he was put there, around 40,000 people were on hand to see it. Local pub owners said that it brought them a small fortune, and stringing up the dead body didn’t seem to really have the desired effect that the justice system was going for.
Leaving the corpses of criminals to rot away in public view from a gibbet wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary—there were at least 100 of them in London by 1800. It was meant to act as a warning to others, an attempt to keep people in line by showing them the gruesome end that waited for them if they crossed to the other side of the law.
But Broughton’s body became not just a local landmark, but a target for the public’s sympathy rather than fear or hate. Newspaper articles from the time describe him as going to the gallows resigned to his fate, not allowed to make restitution or do penance for his crimes. Far from being a deterrent to the future crimes of others, it cemented his place in the area’s folklore—and drew attention to the fact that the system wasn’t necessarily working as it was intended to.
Writers and reformers of the day pointed to the spectacle that went along with his hanging and the execution of others. An execution had become an event, with attendees able to buy souvenirs from figurines of the hanged criminals to copies of their last words or sketches of their bodies hanging from the gallows. What was supposed to be a somber reminder of the bloody, awful end that waited for those that didn’t obey the law had turned into a public spectacle—one that, in the case of Spence Broughton and others left on display in gibbets, lasted for decades.
Broughton’s corpse was eventually cut down, not because of some social revolution or public outrage, but because nearby landlords were sick and tired of gawkers coming to visit the town’s grisliest landmark. He was given a churchyard burial, and a nearby pub was (sort of) named in his honor, taking the name “The Noose and Gibbet.”
It was only six years after he was cut down that England had its last public execution. Theft was no longer a capital offense, and the gibbets were taken down, their last two criminals buried in 1832.