A road junction at Bratton Seymour, on the A371 about two miles (3.2 km) west of Wincanton, is still called Jack White’s Gibbet in memory of an eighteenth-century murderer, though the gibbet itself is of course long gone. In 1730, a traveller named Robert Sutton, while drinking at an inn at Castle Cary, foolishly bragged that he was carrying a good deal of money, so when he went on his way he was trailed by Jack White, a local ruffian. Jack caught up with his victim at the Bratton Seymour junction, and robbed and killed him. When the corpse was found it was laid out in the inn at Wincanton, where many people gathered to view it. Jack was among them, and as he drew near he noticed a trickle of blood beginning to ooze from the dead man’s wound; others saw it too, and though Jack tried to run away he was caught and forced to actually touch the corpse, which at once gushed with blood. This was taken as proof of guilt, so he was hanged at the site of the crime, after which his body was gibbeted there and left to rot.

According to some informants speaking to twentieth-century folklorists, Jack was more cruelly punished by being locked alive into the iron cage of the gibbet and left to starve to death – a hideous form of punishment known in Elizabethan times and said to have been employed in the late seventeenth century on Bagshot Heath, Surrey. A further elaboration of the Wincanton tradition, recorded by Kingsley Palmer in 1968–9, is that the victim was Jack’s own long-lost brother, returning home anonymously to surprise his family after making his fortune abroad. In any case, Jack’s ghost still haunts the spot, and the story still circulates vigorously.

It is hard to tell just where history merges into legend in a tale like this. The murder is certainly factual, as are the names of murderer and victim. That the corpse should be displayed in an inn would be quite normal procedure at that time. That it would bleed when the murderer approached was a common popular belief, and witnesses might have persuaded themselves that they saw it happen, though it is (one hopes) unlikely that such an observation would be admitted as ‘proof’ in a court of law. Live gibbeting, at this date, is surely impossible, while the theme of a robber unwittingly killing his own brother is known to be an international legend.



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008

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