Spotlight: The Botched Execution of Donohoe’s Mate

In 1827 Jack Donohoe teamed up with two fellow convicts named George Kilroy and William Smith. Taking to the bush they robbed a man named Plomer. Found guilty of highway robbery, the trio were sentenced to death but Donohoe escaped from Bathurst Gaol and avoided his appointment with the hangman. What happened to his mates?

EXECUTION.

William Johnson, for murder, and two other criminals, named Kilroy and Smith, for highway robbery, underwent the awful sentence of the law on Monday last. The unhappy men abstained from addressing themselves to the multitude assembled for the purpose of witnessing the dreadful spectacle. Though silent, they appeared extremely devout. The Reverend Messrs. Cowper and Horton attended Johnson and Smith, whilst their hapless associate, Kilroy, received consolation through the Reverend Mr. Power, the Roman Minister. At about 20 minutes to ten o’clock, the fatal signal was given the pin that supported the drop was withdrawn, the drop fell! Horrible to behold, however, the rope that was to have suspended the centre culprit, Smith, snapped about half way, and the unhappy creature fell senseless against the foot of the gallows, whilst the other two were apparently dead in an instant. After a few moments the wretched man recovered, to be again susceptible of all the horrors of his situation. He did not appear to suffer much in his body from the dreadful fall but dismay, and anguish the most bitter, were portrayed in his looks. He was relieved from the broken cord, and supported on one of the coffins, when the Reverend Mr. Horton resumed the task of attempting to impart spiritual instruction to the unhappy man’s mind, by directing him to look to ” another and a better world.”

As it was impossible to fulfil the sentence on the culprit, until the other bodies were suspended the usual time, the Sheriff, accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Cowper, proceeded to Government-house, and acquainted the Governor with the heart-rending occurrence, for the purpose of ascertaining whether it were possible that clemency could be extended. HIS EXCELLENCY, however, who was aware of the painful consideration which the case of the unhappy criminal, Smith, had received by the Executive Council, and as he had committed no less than three highway robberies (one of which was attended with extreme violence, and that in one day, though he had only arrived in the Colony in August last-we say, HIS EXCELLENCY was reluctantly constrained to declare that he could not interfere with the operation of the law; and everyone must feel satisfied, if mercy could have been exercised with propriety, the life of this hapless wretch would have been spared. When the Sheriff returned to the press-yard, and announced to the unhappy man that the law must take its course, he seemed no way horror-stricken at the result of the application which he understood had been made in his behalf. Whilst the bodies of Johnson and Kilroy were lowered from the gallows Smith was removed; and, upon the bodies being placed within the coffins and the drop re-adjusted, Smith was assisted to the platform, when his earthly sufferings speedily terminated.

‘Ere this painful subject is dismissed, we cannot help remarking that this constitutes the second or third accident of the kind that has occurred within the last two or three years, and as it is a circumstance of that description wherein casualty should be always carefully prevented, we feel it our duty to condemn the practice of hazarding the possibility of increasing the sufferings of hapless criminals, who have justly forfeited their lives, by not, having recourse to those kind of instrument — that species of cord or rope — which would ensure the speedy destruction of life. Bale rope, we are informed, and indeed it has been proved in several instances, is not adapted to the executioner’s purpose; and we have no doubt, in future, that the sufferings of a poor wretch will not be prolonged, nor public feeling harrowed up, by a repetition of that which, we hope and trust, will never again occur in this Country.

“Execution.” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842) 26 March 1828: 2.

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