It was the last thing I expected to see. A Gibbet. In the hallway leading to the washrooms on the main floor of Mackenzie Hall.
I was attending a conference there last week and I’m fairly certain that other than the staff, I was the only one who knew that the frame of black rings and chains hanging on the wall between the Men’s Room and the Ladies’ Room was a gibbet. This was a device used to publicly display the bodies of executed criminals.
Built as a courthouse in 1855 and goal (jail) Mackenzie Hall is one of the oldest structures still standing in Sandwich, the oldest part of Windsor. Now the Cultural Centre for the City of Windsor, it is used as a performing arts space, theatre, art gallery, meeting facility and a ballroom for private rentals and special events. It stands next door to the present city jail, and has a ghost or two.
This rather unusual piece of trivia was floating around in my brain is because we used to run creepy stories every October in our local history publication, “The (Walkerville) Times”. Here’s one about gibbeting that we found in an old book about Sandwich: The Township of Sandwich Past and Present, by Frederick Neal (1909)
“During the early part of Sandwich’s existence as a District or County seat, punishment was dealt out with a liberal hand. In those days the law read “Murderers, horse and sheep thieves shall be hung in some public thoroughfare and remain in full view of passersby until the flesh rot from their bones.” It is said that a woman and a man were gibbeted on the brow of the hill near Mill Street and known as Lot 4, East Russell Street [near the Duff-Baby House]. The crime for which they are said to have suffered for was murder.
During the time when the office of Sheriff was held by William Hands two young men, both of Chatham, (one colored and one white), were gibbeted on the brow of the hill on Russell Street, nearly opposite of what is known by the citizens as Cook’s Canal. At that time Bedford Street terminated at South Street and the public thoroughfare continued down South Street to Russell, down Russell for a short distance and then gradually ran towards the river until the River Road was reached along by the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s dock and fish hatchery at the intersection at McKee Road.
The iron frames, or “gibbets,” consisted of an iron bar, which when placed on the person to be punished reached from the back of the neck to his heels. To this perpendicular bar was clasped an iron ring which clasped the neck, another encircled the waist, while two others firmly held the ankles.
The “gibbets” stood on an elevation overlooking the road. This big-boting made a great commotion in the neighborhood, and the exposed remains became so offensive as to excite the strongest opposition to the law.” The dreadful smelling things must be cut down and buried,” was the cry. But who was to do it? Such an action would be in defiance of law and might bring unknown severity upon the heads of the people who interfered. There seem to have been few brave enough to attempt the noisome work.
Sheriff Hands was a man of courage and decision, a conspicuous character that rode about mounted on a strikingly white horse.
One dark night during the heat of the argument regarding the occupants of the gibbets, a white horse was seen in the immediate neighbour-hood of the gibbets, and next morning not a sight was to be seen of bodies. No arrests were made and the worthy sheriff refused to talk on the subject and took no action to discover the person or persons who defied the law.
In 1889, the property on which the bodies of these two men were buried was purchased by Calvin Cook and made into a gravel pit. One day while the labourers were engaged in digging they came upon a quantity of bones and iron frames. The writer, hearing of this discovery, visited the gravel pit and succeeded in saving and securing the complete skeleton of one of the men and the gibbeting irons in which it was enclosed. The discovery and a complete history of the incidents was published in columns of the Windsor Record at that time.
A day or two afterwards Calvin Cook, the owner of the property, demanded possession of them and the writer very reluctantly gave them up. These “irons” have since passed on to other hands.”
(And now you also know why there was a school called William Hands.)
Here’s where I learned about those grand old days of gibbeting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibbet