Etymology online gives a description for the verb “The etymology of Gawk” as follows:
“stare stupidly,” 1785, American English, of uncertain origin. Perhaps [Watkins] from gaw, a survival from Middle English gowen “to stare” (c. 1200), from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse ga “to heed,” from Proto-Germanic *gawon, from PIE *ghow-e- “to honor, revere, worship” (see favor (n.)); and altered perhaps by gawk hand (see gawky). Liberman finds this untenable and writes that its history is entangled with that of gowk “cuckoo,” which is from Scandinavian, but it need not be from that word, either. Nor is French gauche (itself probably from Germanic) considered a likely source. “It is possibly another independent imitative formation with the structure g-k” (compare geek). From 1867 as a noun. Related: Gawked; gawking.
I wonder what people might have gawked at in the late 18th century for the term to have come into usage. It might have been public punishments, such as with the public burning of Hugh Latimer in Oxford in 1555. Public violence against criminals and subversives is a topic that Michel Foucault attended to in the chapter “Spectacle of the Scaffold”. Alternatively, one could think of the magicians, fortune tellers and snake charmers in historic squares such as in Jemaa el-Fnaa. Much like contemporary tourists gawking at astronomical clocks in Prague (photo).