Halifax Gibbet

Close to Halifax’s Elim Pentecostal Church, on a hill overlooking the town, sits a replica of the ‘gibbet’. I always associated the term with a metal cage inside which executed felons were displayed for public admonition. In Halifax, hoiwever, it refers to a proto-guillotine, in which a wooden frame held a heavy axe which, by cutting a rope or removing a pin in a pulley system, came sliding down to sever some unfortunate thief’s head. The puritan government of the Commonwealth forbade the practice in 1650, though several hundred had already been killed this way in the previous centuries.

Although the practice seems rather cruel, local historians have tried to explain why Halifax offered so grisly an end to thieves. The town depended on its cloth trade; anyone who stole this valuable commodity would have to pay a fee to the royal judges in order to prosecute them, and the goods were forfeited to the Crown if the accused was found guilty. Halifax therefore came up with its own response to theft, that was cheaper, more efficient and, arguably, less painful than the official sentence of hanging.

Nevertheless, the Gibbet was situated only 500 yards from the town’s area of legal jurisdiction. If the condemned person could escape by removing their head from the block after the pin had been withdrawn, and manage to cross the boundary at the Hebble Brook, they could not legally be brought back to face punishment.

John Lacey is reported, in 1617, to have achieved such as escape. Somewhat unwisely, Lacey elected to return to Halifax seven years later, at which point he was re-arrested. Unable to escape a second time, he kept his appointment with the axe blade. There are no first-hand accounts, and it was only recorded much later, but the story persisted, and Lacey became known as 'The Running Man.'

Satisfied that the Halifax Gibbet was created out of a sense of justice rather than cruelty, it reminded me of God’s greater justice to which each human will be subjected. We are all called to repent of our sin and trust in Christ and His great work for our forgiveness. Yet how many, like dogs to vomit and sows to mud, return to our sins. God in His mercy does not strike us down each time we sin, but calls us to flee from the wrath to come.

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said:

“Today, if you will hear His voice,

Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

Hebrews 3:12-15