“The head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather”
A bookbinder by trade, 21-year-old James Cook owed money to John Paas who travelled up from London to Aylestone in Leicestershire to collect the outstanding sum. On 30 May 1832 a fire was spotted in Cook’s workshop in Wellington Street, but since he often had great fires for his trade no one took any notice.
At 8pm that night Cook went to the Flying Horse pub where he drank and caused consternation when he produced a wallet full of money. At 10.30pm he returned to his workshop where he stayed until 4.30 the next morning. The following evening at 10pm the neighbours became concerned because the fire was still burning. They broke in and found human flesh burning in the grate.
Cook told them that it was horsemeat for his dog but when they found parts of John Paas’s body and items of his clothing in the workshop, Cook was arrested. He had beaten Paas to death with an iron bar and then, after returning from the pub, had dismembered the body with a saw and meat cleaver. Freed on bail, Cook made a dash for freedom. In those days it was the responsibility of the victim’s family to help with the search for criminals and Paas’s family enlisted the help of two Bow Street Runners.
Cook was arrested in Liverpool where he was about to board a ship bound for America. He was tried on 8 August and pleaded guilty. At 9.30am on 10 August 1832 Cook was executed in front of Leicester jail before 30,000 people.
Wellington Street, Aylestone, Leicestershire, England
Wednesday 30 may 1832
His corpse was then placed in a 10 m (33 ft) high gibbet in Saffron Lane near the Aylestone Tollgate. It was said that 20,000 people passed beneath.
A contemporary report has it, “The head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather, and the cap in which he had suffered was drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon [11 August] his body, attired as at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the place of its intended suspension.”
James Cook thus became the last man to be gibbeted in Britain. However, the locals objected to the sightseers and after three days Cook’s body was removed and buried. A replica gibbet is still on show at Guildhall, Leicester.