29 April 1834
On the evening of 29 April 1834, a large crowd gathered in Harbour Grace to cut down the gibbeted body of Peter Downing a convicted murderer.
Downing was convicted in early April for the brutal murders of a school teacher (Mr. Bray) , his infant son and a servant girl. For his crimes Downing was sentenced to be hanged, dissected and gibbetted.
For much of the month of April the people of Harbor Grace were forced to look on the gibbeted body of Downing.
The residents of Harbour Grace, approximately one thousand, had had enough, they removed the partially decomposed body of Downing, paraded it through the town, past the Court House, and dropped it on the doorstep of a magistrate, Dr. Stirling, along with a note, signed by anonymous which read:
Dr. S. This is your man you were the cause of bringing him here take and bury him or Look Out should you be the cause of allowing him to be put up again we will mark you for it, so do your duty and get him out of sight.
truly a friend,
Dissection and gibbeting were punishments that had long been established in England and her colonies for crimes of traitors, murderers, highwaymen, pirates, and sheep stealers. The intention was that the body of Peter Downing would be left as a grim reminder and would stay on the gibbet for a year or more until it rotted away or was eaten by birds. Gibbeting was formally legalised in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752.
Gibbeting was not generally accepted by the people in Newfoundland. Many were offended by the sight and odor of a decaying body, others believed that the decaying bodies spread disease, others felt that being hung by the neck till dead was enough, even a criminal should meet his Creator in his full body.
In Harbour Grace, Dr. Sterling heeded the content of the note from the angry citizens. The decayed body of Peter Downing was buried immediately at the Court House, and no attempts were made to have the incident investigated or the body gibbeted again.
In Newfoundland “gibbetting” is well documented. In St John’s, Gibbet Hill, a small peak close to Signal Hill, takes its name from the practice. The location was very intentional. Anyone looking towards Signal Hill would see the ‘gibbeted bodies.” A reminder to heed the laws of the colony!
Newfoundland for a number of years held the dubious distinction of being the last place in the British Empire to proceed with gibbetting. The last man believed to be gibbetted in England was William Jobling on August 21st 1832. The last man in the British colonies was likely John McKay, in 1837. He was gibbeted on a tree near Perth, Tasmania.
Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to explore the records of the Office of the Colonial Secretary. This office served as the official repository for Newfoundland state records and as the registry for varied legal and statistical documents, the collection includes extensive holdings relating to all aspects of Newfoundland political, economic, community and social life. In particular take some time with GN 2/2 this series consists of correspondence, reports, petitions, and records related to the operations of government in Newfoundland. The records include summaries of court cases.
Recommended Reading: Plebian Collective Action in Harbourt Grace and Carbonear, Newfoundland, 1830 – 1840, Linda Little (1984) . Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Recommended Activity: Visit Gibbet Hill in St. John’s, imagine the horror the gibbetted bodies struck in the hearts of the citizens of St. John’s as they stared at the decaying bodies overlooking their town.