Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Gibbeting of John Keal

An act of 1752 ordered that the bodies of executed criminals had either to be handed over to surgeons for dissection of “hung in irons”. The latter involved the construction of an elaborate metal cage in which the body, having first been coated in pitch to prevent early decomposition, was publicly displayed, usually at a cross- roads or roadside close to the scène of the crime. The grisly spectacle of some local miscreant hanging by the roadside, with birds pecking at sightless eyes, was meant to serve as a powerful deterrent to those tempted by a life of crime. However, this macabre practice, formally referred to as “hanging in chains”, had been an unofficial form of punishment in Britain for hundreds of years prior to the act. Evidence of gibbets have long since disappeared from our highways and byways, but in some locations it is still possible to find evidence pertaining to this grisly practice. At Normanby by Spital, a tree still standing by the roadside was said to have been used to gibbet dead criminals. When a post was erected for this grisly purpose at a farm still known today as “Gibbet Post Farm” the irons from the tree are said to have been taken down and used in the construction of the nearby Pillford Bridge.

The gibbet tree at Gibbet Post Farm, Normanby by Spital

The earliest known case of gibbeting in the county happened to a woodcutter named John Keel in March 1731. Keal, from Bardney Dairies, near Lincoln, lived in a farm cottage in the Wolds village of Mucton, near Louth. A widower with five children, he eventually remarried Mary Aldgate from Swaby and had three more children with her.
Keal was a drunk with a quick temper and one evening, during a violent row with his wife, accused her of adultery with a neighbour whom he also suspected of being the father of their youngest child. She denied the accusations but in a murderous rage, Keal snatched the infant from its cradle and with a furzebill-a hooked hatchet-chopped off its head. He then attacked his wife with the same weapon fatally stabbing her in the breast and throat. Keal was imprisoned for six months in Lincoln castle, and then brought before Lord Baron Page at the Lent Assizes on Tuesday, 7th March, 1731. A contemporary pamphlet (see below) records his sentencing and subsequent execution:
“… the judge pronounced sentence that he should be gibbeted alive, with the intent to strike terror into the hardened soul of the prisoner, yet the laws of England allow of no such death therefore, on the above morning (Saturday, 18th March, 1731) he was taken from Lincoln in a light cart, and the gibbet irons with him, and with very little ceremony hanged upon a gibbet -post by the neck until he was dead, when being cut down he was put into irons, again hung up, between earth and heaven, food for every devouring bird of prey. He said nothing at the place of execution, but appeared with a wild and ghastly insensibility, terrible to behold.”
The pamphlet gives the location of the gibbet as Hoffam (Haugham) Walk, at the cross-roads between Mucton Burwell and Louth. However, there have been conflicting stories over the years as to its precise location. N V Gagen in “Hanged at Lincoln 1716 to 1961” points out that “Haugham Walk” has not been identified although early maps show the walk to be east of Tathwell.
Some have claimed that the gibbet stood at “Broad Spot” in Louth, near the Keddington crossing, while others claimed its location was at the junction of the Legbourne and Kenwick Roads. Credence was given to this by the Louth enclosure and award plan of 1805, which refers to a private road here known as “gibbet road” running from Legbourne road corner to Linden Walk.
The post from Keal`s gibbet was used for a time in the stables of the House of Correction in Louth. When theses premises were demolished, the governor had the posts turned into various souvenirs and mementos and the gibbet cage can still be seen on display in Louth Museum.
For many years after his execution, it was said that Keals`s ghost haunted the place where the gibbet once stood. Such stories were possibly inspired by the following darkly amusing tale recorded by Meg Wynne in “Ghosts and Legends of Louth”
One Saturday night, three of Keal`s` friends gathered in the White Horse pub, in Louth:
“While eating some hot supper, one said, “What about taking some for old Kealy?” They drew lots as to who should take it and the loser staggered off, clutching a bowl of hot soup. When he reached the gibbet, he held it up and said, “Ere ya be Kealy, ave brought a bit of ot supper” and placing it down on the grass, he retired into the hedge bottom for forty winks. When he awoke he saw that the food was untouched, so he shouted, “Why aint ya etten it it?” and to his horror a gruff voice replied “It’s too ot” His nerve failed him and he threw the bowl of food into the air and fled for his life back to town. What he didn’t know was that his pals had sneaked along after him to see the fun and came in at the right moment.

(Left) A page from the battered pamphlet recording the sentencing and subsequent execution of the murderer John Keal (courtesy of Lincoln Central Library)

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Scawby Hall, The Laughing Coachman

According to tradition, one dark and stormy night, a coach was being driven on the road between Scawby and Broughton. The coachman, who had been freely partaking of the local ale at the village inn, cracked his whip laughing and shouting as he urged the horses to a frenzied gallop.
“Through the furious night they raced, then suddenly they swung away from the road, dashed across the fields, and, with a resounding splash, coach, horses, and coachman disappeared beneath the water of the pond in the grounds of Scawby Hall.”

And on certain nights, it is said, people passing along that road have heard the sound of spectral hoof-beats, the crack of a whip and the maniacal laughter of the drunken coachman

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Werewolf of Gedney Dyke
Few mythical creatures in the pantheon of world wide folklore have as much enduring popularity as the werewolf. Since the time of the ancient Greek’s stories of savage half-wolf-half-human creatures have persisted and even in today’s ultra technological age it is still possible to find vestiges of this ancient superstition in the more remote regions of France and Eastern Europe. The word “werewolf” is old Anglo-Saxon for man-wolf. In the folklore of medieval England these bestial creatures were closely associated with witchcraft and black magic. It was generally believed in these times that witches possessed the knowledge to prepare ointments which when rubbed on the skin enabled them to take the shape of wolves. Thus transformed they would then roam the countryside killing animals and any unfortunate human who crossed their path.
There are countless stories of werewolves in the folklore of France, Spain, and Eastern Europe, but in Britain the werewolf is a comparatively rare beast. This is possibly because wolves have been extinct in these isles for hundreds of years and consequently many dark tales associated with them have been lost to antiquity. However, in certain parts of Britain the werewolf legend faintly lingers. For example in Lincolnshire, as recently as the late 19th century, in a village near Northorpe, it was said that an old lame man reputed to be a wizard, was seen to change into a vicious canine creature and attack his neighbour’s cattle.

More sinister perhaps is the following tale of werewolfism in the county related by my friend and fellow student of folklore Christopher Gask.
In the 18th century, in the village of Gedney Dyke, an old woman acquired the reputation of a witch, as in the case of many old women who lived alone in remote, sparsely populated areas. At that time rumour usurped reason and it was said that she had the evil eye. Consequently her house was shunned by the locals. In a village nearby a youth named John Culpepper had developed a crush on a local girl called Rose Taylor who spurned his advances, as his reputation was that of the village idiot this was perhaps not surprising. The final straw was reached at a local fair when Rose publicly ridiculed him. He had heard stories of Old Mother Nightshade of Gedney, and though she was reputed to harm anyone foolish enough to venture near her dwelling, even those who unwisely sought supernatural council with her, Culpepper went to see her any way; well he wasn’t known as the village idiot for nothing!
The hapless half-wit duly arrived at the infamous cottage, and surprisingly was received by a cheerful old woman who appeared to be hurt and bemused by her undeserved ostracism, although she did admit to having “certain powers” Emboldened by this reception, john poured out his tale of rejection. The old woman listened thoughtfully then she said, “Young man, I will help you, but you must do what I say.” She handed him a wrapped box which he was to present to Rose on her birthday and after he was to return to the old woman for further instruction. Seven days later the girl of his thwarted dreams found an additional parcel amongst her presents; a box containing a selection of sweetmeats which she ate and thoroughly enjoyed. That evening John set out for the old woman’s house convinced that soon all would make sense and vengeance would be his. Once more she received him like a long- lost son and kept him talking long into the night. Just when he was beginning to think that she had forgotten why he was here, she said: “Now I shall reveal the secret of your revenge, but you must let me do it in my own way and not question what I do, however odd.” John agreed to this, by this time he would have agreed to anything, and at her bidding sat back and closed his eyes. When he reopened them he was firmly tied to the chair with the old woman standing over him. “You poor weak fool.” she croaked “did you really think I would help a worthless simpleton like you? Those sweets you gave to the girl were just sweets and nothing more, but now I have a present for you.” As she said these words her wrinkled visage began to twitch and shudder horribly, this spread throughout her entire frail frame, and before the boy’s incredulous eyes a macabre metamorphosis was taking place; limbs miraculously stretched and altered shape. Her extremities too were changing, fingers and toes elongating, her nose extended into a snout and thick fur grew over her wrinkled skin. Finally, the transformation from biped to quadruped was complete and before John’s disbelieving eyes stood a huge grey wolf. The beast pounced and the screams and inhuman growls that ensued could be heard in the village, but no one had the nerve to investigate until day light when a large party set out.
Outside Old Mother Nightshade’s dwelling were a series of giant paw prints heading away from the cottage. Within were the mangled remains and assorted viscera of what had once been John Culpepper. The parson was summoned but refused to confirm that this was the result of witchcraft. The frightened villagers then took matters into their own hands and put the accursed home of Mother Nightshade to the torch. When the conflagration subsided not a trace of the building or its gruesome contents remained.
Today, some 250 years later, there are still those in Gedney Dyke who claim that the howl of a wolf can be heard on the moonlit nights.