The Corpse That Hung By An English Road For 36 Years

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, September 30, 2014
462540587
“Thereafter the Execution of Spence Broughton, his Body be hung in chains, on a Gibbet to be erected on some conspicuous spot on Attercliffe Common, in the County of York, on the South of the Road leading from Sheffield to Rotherham, not less than Three Hundred Yards from the Road.” —York Castle Court ordering the execution of Spence Broughton

In A Nutshell

Thieves and highwaymen were rampant in 18th-century England, and when they were caught they often faced the hangman’s noose. That was the case with Spence Broughton, sentenced to hang for robbing a mail carriage. That wasn’t the end of him, though, and his body was put on display for the next 36 years. His body was finally removed and buried at the request of landlords sick of tourists coming to look at him.

The Whole Bushel

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.

Show Me The Proof

BBC: The Rotting Corpse of Spence Broughton
Museum Sheffield: Sheffield’s Horrible History

  • Lisa 39

    I don’t think I’d want to visit something like that, I really don’t blame the landlords for wanting it taken down, that’s a pretty gruesome thing to have hanging around (pun unintentional). Nice article Debra.

    • RotorRob

      Times and attitudes were different girls, sorry, ladies, it’s hard to really say what you would have done in those times. Lord knows our preoccupation with death is bad, but theirs was a much more at home experience for them, no hospice, put grandpa in the shed, and get the shroud ready.

      • Lisa 39

        That’s all very true, but I still wouldn’t want a corpse hanging around (yeah, I did it again) for 36 years, that’s past making an example of him and more like torture for the people who have to see it everyday 🙂

        • Clyde Barrow

          Coughlin’s Law: Bury the dead. They stink up the joint.

          • Lisa 39

            Eewww, I didn’t even think about that part before. Coughlin was pretty darn smart!

          • Clyde Barrow

            I don’t always quote Tom Cruise movies, but when I do….I quote a character that wasn’t played by Tom Cruise!

          • Lisa 39

            Which movie was that? I’m not a tom cruise fan at all.

          • Clyde Barrow

            ‘Cocktail’ (1988). I’m not much of a Tom Cruise fan, either. My favorite movie with him in it is ‘Valkerie’….simply because he gets killed in the end.

            Kinda like ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ (1967). Uh, wait a damn minute….

          • Lisa 39

            Haven’t seen either movie, I heard valkerie was good tho, now that I know he dies maybe I’ll watch it lol.

            Haha, Bonnie & Clyde was a good movie, except for the part where they died at the end of course.

          • Clyde Barrow

            Valkerie actually was a good movie. It wasn’t Bonnie & Clyde, but still good.

            As for Cocktail, it’s a so-so 80’s film that doesn’t hold up particularly well. The content and the plot makes one wish they were drunk whilst watching it.

          • Lisa 39

            I thought I saw valkerie on Netflix, I think I’ll watch it.

            I remember the trailers for cocktail in the 80’s, it just looked dumb, thanks for the heads up about drinking first if I ever watch it 😀

  • oouchan

    Not interested in seeing a swinging corpse. However, the history on it was neat.

    Cool.