Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1825 – 1827), Friday 5 January 1827, page 4
List of prisoners tried, found guilty and executed, at Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, from the 1st of January 1823, to the 1st of January 1827 :—
April 13.— James Smith, sheep-stealing.
April 14.— George Richardson, Robert Oldham, William Davis and Ralph Churlton, sheep-stealing.
July 19.— Alexander Pearce, murder.
July 22.— Thomas Butler, sheep-stealing; Patrick Connolly, James Tierney, Isaac Walker, and John Thomson, bushranging and robberies.
January 28.— Thomas Hudson, William Allen and Francis Oates, murder.
February 25.— Henry McConnell, robbery; Jeremiah Ryan, Charles Ryder and James Bryant, murder and robbery; John Logan, attempting to shoot Mr. Shoobridge, Musquito and Jack Roberts (Aboriginal Natives), murder, and Peter Thackery, bushranging and robberies.
February 26.— Samuel T. Fielding and Jas. Chamberlaine, sheep-stealing; Stephen Lear and Henry Fry, burglary at the Surveyor General’s.
August 31.— John Reid Riddle and Thomas Peacock, murder; William Buckley, Joseph Broadhead and John Everiss, bushranging and robberies.
September 7.— John Godliman, murder.
December 12.— Jonas Dobson, murder of his overseer.
January 6.— John Johnson, burglary at Mr. F. Barnes’s; Samuel Longman and Charles Wigley, burglary; James Major, burglary and stealing an ox; William Pollock and George Harden, sheep-stealing; Wm. Preece, bushranging and robberies; and Jas. McCabe, bushranging, robberies, and murder.
January 7.— Richard Brown, James Brown, and John Green, sheep-stealing; Thomas Bosworth, Richard Miller and William Craven, burglary and stealing a boat.
May 4.— Matthew Brady, Patrick Bryant, Thomas Jeffries and John Perry, bushranging, murder, and robberies; John Thompson, murder of Mary Smith.
May 5.— James McKenney, John Gregory, William Brown, John Tilley, James Goodwin, and Samuel Hodgetts, bushranging, murder, and robberies.
September 13.— Thomas Dunnings, Edward Everitt, and William Smith, murder of Mr. Simpson, of Pittwater; John Taylor and George Watters, absconding from Macquarie Harbour and robbing soldiers of their arms; Jack and Dick (Aboriginal Natives), murder of Thomas Colley.
September 15.— James Edwards, John McFarlane, and Thomas Balfour, absconding into the woods, and robbing Mr. Holdship; John Clark and John Dadd, burglary; Patrick Brown, sheep-stealing; George Brace, bushranging and robberies.
September 18.— John Penson, burglary at Richard Worley’s; James Rowles, robbing Mr. John Dunn; Timothy Swinscow, and William Wickens, robbing Mrs. Till; Robert Cable, John Davis, John Cruit, Thomas Savell, and George Farquharson, sheep-stealing.
It will appear from the foregoing list, that from the 13th April, 1823, until the 19th of July, 1824, (a period of fifteen months) only five persons were executed — all of whom were for sheep stealing. Since which period (not three years) seventy-six! have suffered; most of whom for murder, and other very daring offences. This statement however does not include the number of unfortunate men who have forfeited their lives at Launceston; which we believe to be about thirty; therefore the total is upwards of One Hundred.
One of the connecting links between Vandemonia and Tasmania was severed on Wednesday last, when old Solomon Blay, erstwhile hangman, shuffled. Old Sol. of late years has been a constant source of interest to a certain class of the rising football-cycling generation, and his tales of the olden times would have been of some moment had they been half as truthful as they were useless. An ancient identity, cognomened Gypsy Smith, who lives out somewhere in the wilds of New Town, on several occasions has held a warfare of words with old Sol., but the Brisbane Hotel audiences were never too appreciative of anything outside the rough-and-tumble side of humanity, and in consequence these little interviews, like some others, were not prolific of much useful information. Amongst the old gentleman’s (?) effects there is a box containing about two hundred pieces of knotted rope. These are the knots cut off the ropes of every man he has hanged. They are all labelled and ticketed, and form a most interesting collection of relics for those who are that way inclined. It is averred that old Sol. never saw a man hanged. He would officiate in all the wretched details to the letter, and when the sheriff’s signal warned him that the lever working the bolts was to be moved, he invariably turned his back upon the victim. In the Hobart gaol the old gallows, now happily falling into decay, was so situated that the executioner could, by using the left hand with his right, advance a step of the right foot and screen his face from the disappearing white-capped figure. It is said that when the notorious, but wrongfully idolised Martin Cash slipped through his fingers, old Blay lamented his, as he called it, loss in unmeasured terms. Why that fellow Cash should have ever been sent to Norfolk Island to have an easy billet under John Price, a man who admired him, Solomon Blay could never understand, and on Cash’s return to this island the pair have frequently, when meeting, taunted each other with each other’s discrepancies. In Cash’s memoirs, now out of print, he refers to the defunct hangman in tones of the supremest contempt. Blay was flagellator prior to his exaltation to the office of executioner, for his expertness in which position he obtained a full pardon and pension, and referring to him Martin Cash writes: ‘Of all the wretches attached to or in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government there are none so truly contemptible as the flagellator, and in all my experiences through life I never knew a man with one redeeming feature who ever filled that odious office. I generally found them to be treacherous, cruel, and cowardly . . . . I observed a man braced up in front of the door, the flagellator having cat in hand for readiness to perform his part of the drama. The constable gave the prisoner orders to strip, and having done so, the flagellator casually asked him the name of the highest mountain in his country. The prisoner replied that Ben Lomond was considered the loftiest, and by this time he was secured at the triangles. ‘Well,’ exclaimed the flagellator, ‘I’ll make you belive in less than five minutes that you had Ben Lomond on your back.”
Solomon Blay had a mortal horror of being photographed. All kinds of inducements were offered him to attend and be seated before the camera, but the softest blandishments failed in this matter. This, it was alleged, was due to the eccentricities of a certain person whose taste for the gruesome apparently overcame his natural discretion, and who suggested that an enlargement of the old man with a frame formed of the gilded knots of the ropes which had hanged the wretches he had officiated upon would have formed an interesting exhibit for the Royal Society!
He had a distinct aversion to the figure 7. He would, on occasions when the game of hazard was being played, remark ‘seven’s the main, we’ll all throw it some day.’ His record runs in sevens. In 1837 he was forwarded to Van Diemen’s Land from London for housebreaking. In 1847 he was elevated (!) from the prison to the office of executioner. In 1857 he received a full pardon on account of his usefulness (oh save the mark!). In 1887 he turned off his last man, Tim Walker, and in the year 1897 he threw a seven himself, and handed in his record to his Maker.
It is no surprise that things were very different in the colonial era. However, it can be a shock when we discover just how different things were – especially in relation to crime and punishment.
While flogging, leg irons and solitary confinement are well-known aspects of law enforcement in the colonial era, they merely graze the surface of how grim things could get in the name of upholding the law. Below are just some examples of the way law was enforced throughout the colonial era, giving some degree of context to why many convicts resorted to bushranging.
The Bloody Code
Arising in the 17th century, the “bloody code” described the harsh stance on crime taken by the British authorities. Under this code, hundreds of offences became punishable by death ranging from severe crimes such as treason and murder, through to relatively minor ones such as property theft and creating a disturbance. The idea was to prevent crime against property by making the penalty so harsh for even minor charges that it became too big of a risk. It was later deemed that it was creating an awful waste of life, do many cases that would have been hanging offences were commuted to transportation sentences. Inevitably it was apparent that this approach was heavily slanted against the poor, but this was not acknowledged with any considerable sense of guilt or urgency to rectify the imbalance.
It wasn’t until 1823, when the New South Wales Act was passed in Britain, that Australia was able to craft its own laws. Up to this point it was British law without any regional variation to compensate for differences in circumstances between the British Isles and the Australian penal settlements. This meant that the harsh approach to law enforcement continued in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in exactly the same way as it did in the motherland.
With such a dim view of crime that positioned even the most paltry of offences as worthy of death sentences, the act of pursuing fugitives in Australia was treated more like pest control than pursuing the course of justice. Bushrangers and bolters would face almost certain death if they came across soldiers, or constables (in the early days this was the title given to men specifically employed to recapture escaped convicts), or bounty hunters. If they were not shot, they would almost certainly hang. At that stage defendants were tried before a panel of judges, trial by jury wouldn’t come into place until the mid-1820s. It was rare for a defendant to get off with a term of imprisonment rather than death, with most prisoners resigning themselves to their fate.
With a mindset such as this, it is hardly surprising that the following punishments could evolve. It should be stressed that they are not for the squeamish.
One of the most infamous corporal punishments that were doled out to convicts was flogging. This was the most simple punishment, designed as a retribution for misdeeds and as a deterrent for other criminally minded individuals.
Typically, the victim would be bound to a tripod, known as “the triangle”, with their back exposed. They would be stripped to the waist and whipped repeatedly. The instrument of torture was a scourge that consisted of a handle and nine knotted strands of rope, hardened with tar. This was referred to as the “cat-o-nine-tails”, and the long lacerations that it left behind were described as a “cat’s scratch”. The minimum number of lashes was usually 50 (colloquially known as a “tickler”), though the maximum tended to fluctuate depending on the views on the safety of such a punishment at any particular time.
The wounds from flogging were typically quite considerable. It was not unheard of for a man to receive 150 lashes and have the flesh on his back left as bloodied pulp. A doctor was always to be in attendance to monitor the convict during proceedings, once the prevalence of convicts dying from the punishment became a cause for concern to authorities. If the offender passed out he would be splashed with water to revive him before resumption of the flogging. If he remained unconscious he was taken to his cell to rest before resuming the punishment. Following the flogging, the recipient would usually be taken to the infirmary where the wounds would be washed with salt water. After a few days, when the wounds began to heal, they would be sent back to work.
Women and children were not usually flogged, though there are anecdotes of women receiving lashes. Typically they would be struck with a cane (referred to
In some cases these whips and scourges were modified to make them even more damaging. For example, on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour (also known as Hell’s Gates) the strands of the cat-o-nine-tails were laced with pieces of lead to ensure that each stroke broke the skin and inflicted as much pain as possible. This more brutal variation of the flaggellator’s tool became known as the “Macquarie Cat”.
In the case of many early bushrangers, flogging was a trigger to their taking the bush. Matthew Brady, for example, had received over 500 lashes by the time he escaped from Sarah Island. The dehumanising effect of such punishment was also a key factor in why William Westwood kicked off a murderous riot on Norfolk Island. Such was the traumatic effect of flogging on convict era bushrangers, that many, such as the Jewboy Gang, used the same to exact revenge on tyrannical masters or other authority figures.
Hanging in Chains
One of the most infamous punishments utilised by the English was “hanging in chains”. This was the practice of displaying the corpse of a freshly executed criminal in a series of iron hoops and chains or a special cage made of bars and hoops called a gibbet, in a public area to act as a deterrent to other potential miscreants.
In New South Wales, this practice was carried out on Pinchgut Island (Fort Denison) in Sydney Harbour, where one body was known to have been gibbetted publicly for four years. It is said that this, above all else, terrified the local Aboriginal peoples who believe in treating the dead body as sacred. They believed that if a body was not laid to rest, the spirit was unable to rest.
In Bathurst, the bodies of the Ribbon Boys were gibbetted along the streets. The dozen men who were hanged for treason in their attempted rebellion lined the area now known as Ribbon Gang Lane.
In Perth, Tasmania, there was an area referred to as Gibbet Hill. Here a gibbet allowed a body to be displayed as people entered and exited the township. In 1837, bushranger John McKay was hung in chains here for many months. When the body was taken down the head was removed for phrenological study.
A key location for gibbetting was Hunter Island in Hobart. A small landmass just offshore near the docks, it was the perfect place to send a message to miscreants in the old English way.
On this tiny lump convicts were executed on wooden gallows and their corpses “hung in chains” from a gibbet post on the shoreline. The bodies would remain in place until they were deemed to have had a suitable deterrent effect, whereupon they were typically buried on the island. This is what happened to the headless body of bushranger James Whitehead.
During an attempted raid on Dennis McCarty’s farm by Michael Howe’s gang, Whitehead was shot and killed by soldiers. His gang members then removed the head to prevent the soldiers or McCarty from claiming the reward on it. The headless body was subsequently taken into Hobart Town, where it was hung in chains. It seems, from some accounts, that it remained in place long enough to be joined by the severed heads of Whitehead’s colleagues George “Bumpy” Jones and Michael Howe. Governor Macquarie would express dismay that he did not have the rest of Howe’s body to display as it had been buried in a shallow grave where it fell.
Hunter Island was later joined to the rest of the waterfront by filling in the gap with dirt to create a causeway, whereupon it ceased its function as a place of execution and displaying corpses, and became an industrial area.
A Price on Their Head
In the early days of colonial Australia, when a fugitive had “a price on their head” it was very literal. Whereas nowadays such terms as “headhunter” have more figurative meanings, they derive from days when a bounty hunter would take a severed head as a receipt to the relevant authorities in order to claim the reward for the capture of a fugitive. It was far easier to carry a head in a flour sack than lug a full corpse around. Due to the “Bloody Code”, there were no qualms about killing suspects as the presumption of guilt meant that they would likely be hanged anyway.
In some cases the severed heads would be put on public display; in Hobart the heads were put on spikes on Hunter Island, where the corpses of executed criminals were also displayed in gibbets. Other times the heads would be stripped of flesh and the skull used for “medical study”.
When Richard Lemon was shot dead, his head was removed and his arrested accomplice Brown was forced to carry it into Hobart Town. Perhaps the most infamous case of this happening was Michael Howe in 1818, who was decapitated after being shot, bayonetted and bludgeoned to death by soldiers. His head was displayed in Hobart and generated much interest from the locals. A similar fate had befallen other members of his gang, and in fact when Howe’s mate, James Whitehead, was shot by soldiers the head was removed by the gang so that the reward could not be claimed.
A Fate Worse than Death?
For most condemned men it was terrible enough to be sentenced to death, but to offenders of a Catholic faith there was something that brought even greater dread: dissection.
It was commonplace for universities and medical schools to get their cadavers from the prisons, where there was a steady supply of freshly executed bodies to cut up for examination. Students and veterans alike practiced their surgical trade on the bodies, often preserving pieces in jars.
This was particularly terrifying for Catholics who believed in the resurrection, and more precisely that the body needed to remain intact for that purpose. Therefore, for Catholics the sentence of dissection meant that not only would their earthly life be cut short, but they would also be denied eternal life. The sentence was a fate worse than death, for it meant perpetual punishment in eternity.
The Art of Hanging
In Australia, the only form of execution generally carried out was hanging. At the beginning of the colonial era, hanging utilised what was called the short drop method. In some locations a condemned person would be taken to a sturdy tree, upon which was affixed a rope with a noose on the end. In these cases the condemned usually stood on the back of a dray with the noise around their neck, and they would drop when the dray was moved away. In other places there would be a gallows scaffold made, so that multiple executions could take place at once. In these cases the condemned would fall through a trap door on a shortened rope. The short drop was quite ineffective as it strangled the condemned to death, which was a rather drawn out process.
In response to the inefficiency of the short drop, a long drop method was devised. This resulted in a much quicker death when down correctly. Essentially, as the body had to fall further, the weight abruptly stopping at the end of the rope would cause the neck to snap, causing a relatively painless and instant death. However, to do it properly required many calculations to be made to account for the height and weight of the condemned and how they impacted on the velocity of the fall and in turn that would define the length of the rope. Placement of the slipknot behind the ear was also important, as this would mean a sidewards snap, which would better break the neck.
As most hangmen were merely prisoners looking for time off their sentence, many of whom were illiterate or innumerate, needless to say it rarely went smoothly. Poor quality ropes would snap. A rope that was too short would cause strangulation, while a rope that was too long could result in decapitation.
There were many botched hangings of bushrangers. One of the most infamous was Henry Manns, who was hanged for his role in the Eugowra Rocks heist. His rope was too short and he was strangled to death slowly in front of a crowd, with the attending gaolers having to yank down on his legs to try and snap his neck. One of Jack Donohoe’s accomplices, William Smith, went through the drop with a cheap, dodgy rope, which snapped. When he came too he was under the dead bodies of the other men he was hanged with, resting against his own coffin – naturally he screamed hysterically. After much deliberation it was decided to hang him again with a better rope. The second hanging went as planned.
Moondyne Joe’s Cell
Moondyne Joe was so proficient at escaping from custody that a special cell was built for him in Fremantle. However, the cramped space, combined with poor ventilation and being chained in place led to Joe becoming gravely ill. On doctor’s orders he was permitted to engage in labour outside once a day, on his own, in the courtyard.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Moondyne Joe positioned himself behind the pile of stone that had been brought in for him to smash. Once he was certain he couldn’t be clearly seen by the guard, he proceeded to smash a hole in the perimeter wall with his hammer when he was supposed to be breaking rocks. Soon he had made a hole big enough to squeeze through and made his way to freedom. By the time the guard had realised what had happened it was too late, and Moondyne Joe was off to the bush again.
Cruel and Unusual Punishments
Perhaps no other figure in penal history in Australia is as infamous as John Giles Price. Price was the son of a baronet, and had moved to Van Diemen’s Land with his wife in 1836. Through his connections he gained the role of muster master of convicts and assistant police magistrate then in 1846 became the commandant of Norfolk Island. Price was to gain his infamy for his callous and dehumanising treatment of convicts. He believed in punishing the offenders through whatever means possible to deter further misbehaviour, with the punishments ranging from the moderate to the extreme.
A perfect illustration of this is presented in the punishment of Rocky Whelan, a convict who had spent much time on the island and would later go on to become one of Tasmania’s most deadly bushrangers.
The man was a native of County Wexford, and knew me at home when a boy. He informed me that he had been seventeen years on the island, and had not the slightest hope of ever leaving it; but his trials were only then about to commence, as the next time I saw him he was handcuffed to a lamp post, his hands tied behind his back, and a gag in his mouth, secured round his head by something resembling a head-stall, and there he remained exposed to the burning sun and the attack of flies and other insects for eight hours, merely for having a bit of tobacco in his possession. Besides this treatment Whelan had been repeatedly flogged, imprisoned in the dark cells with the black gag — a favorite instrument of torture at the time — in his mouth for eight consecutive hours at a stretch, it being the opinion of the doctor that the punishment could not be applied for a longer period without endangering the life of the prisoner. This gag, Cash tells us, was generally inflicted for some disrespect, whether real or imaginary, on the part of the prisoner towards the officials, when on their tour of inspection round the solitary cells. Whelan had been reduced to a skeleton, and the wounds on his back rarely had time to heal before being opened afresh by the cat, and all for some trivial offence such as men tioned. Under this treatment Whelan finally became so callous that he seemed to regard the lash, the dark cells, and all the rest of Price’s contrivances with the most: perfect indifference.
Source: Sydney Sportsman (Surry Hills, NSW : 1900 – 1954), Wednesday 7 August 1912, page 3
Another punishment Price seemingly enjoyed applying was the “pepper mill”. This punishment usually followed a flogging and saw the flogged man sent to grind cayenne pepper into dust. The convict was required to wear a mask for his own safety. The dust filled their eyes and lungs, and even stuck to their still-fresh lacerations as they crushed the peppers with a wheel. This would be repeated until Price was convinced that the lesson had been learned.
Later, the Australian gold rush had seen the population explode, and along with it came an explosion in crime. Ironically, the prisons soon became full and the Australian authorities were in a bind about what to do with the overcrowding. The solution came in the form of the acquisition of a fleet of abandoned ships that were converted into prison hulks. In Williamstown, at Point Gellibrand, the two harshest hulks in the fleet were Success and President. Here, the worst offenders were sent to be straightened out. Their possessions were destroyed; they were stripped, shaved bald, washed and deloused; then, after being uniformed, transferred to their cell. Talking of any kind was prohibited, as was any form of reading (including the Holy Bible), and the tiny portholes kept the prisoners in almost absolute darkness.
However, things got worse if any rules were broken. Typical punishments could be reduction in rations, being chained to the boltholes on deck, being flogged, or solitary confinement in the dark cell (known as the “black hole”). Another punishment was putting offenders in a cell that was too small to stand upright in. They were then suspended by their hands from the roof just high enough off the floor that they couldn’t sit down. The porthole was just on the waterline, and water would seep in through the mesh over the hole.
Another popular punishment in the hulks was to put irons on the ankles of the offender, and to lock their hands in a device that was essentially an iron bar, tethered to a belt at the waist. This kept their hands too far apart to allow them to effectively manipulate objects, or even to feed themselves.
It should come as no surprise that many of these punishments became popular on the hulks when John Giles Price was employed as the inspector general of prisons. It would prove to be his downfall as during a routine visit to the quarry at Point Gellibrand to inspect the convicts, he incited an attack by informing a convict that under the new rules that had just been implemented, any infraction would give prisoners an extra six months onto their sentence. This convict had been reprimanded for a very minor offence and only had one month left on his sentence, but under the new ruling he would have to remain on Success for an extra half a year. The furious convicts set upon Price with their tools and beat him to death on the beach.
In the 19th century prisons began to adopt a Quaker ideal that the ultimate punishment is to leave the offender to ruminate on their misdeeds and punish themselves. To this end, prisoners were individually lodged in cells, all of which were juxtaposed to prevent the inmate looking across to another prisoner, and they were to remain in complete silence and isolation. In Port Arthur, this was known as the “model” or “separate” prison, and was reserved for the worst of the worst. While most prisoners were kept in the penitentiary, which was essentially a large dormitory, the separate prison was arranged in the panopticon style – a central guard point with corridors extending outwards to allow maximum visibility.
The “dark cell” in the separate prison took this to the next level by keeping the inmate in complete darkness. Modern studies have demonstrated that a human can spend thirty days in solitary confinement before suffering mental illness, but in the days when Port Arthur was operating inmates could be locked up in solitary for months. The bushranger William Westwood declared that after one of his many escapes he was sent by Commandant Booth to spend three months in the dark cell. The insane prisoners became a big problem for the authorities at Port Arthur and a lunatic asylum was built to house the men that had been completely broken by the treatment.
The corridors were carpeted to nullify the sound of movement, and inmates and guards wore cloth slippers for the same purpose. All verbalising was prohibited and inmates communicated with their guards using sign language. When moving around outside the cells the inmates wore calico masks that hid their identities to prevent recognition by other inmates. The result of such profound isolation and silence was that many of the prisoners began to suffer insanity, with hallucinations being a common symptom.
Many of the features of this system were adopted by prisons more broadly in the coming decades, notably the use of masks, silence and social isolation. However, in many cases these were employed only at the outset of a prisoner’s sentence to break them in, or as a punishment for rowdier inmates. Prisoners would be shifted to new cells every time they came back from work and were only referred to by the number pinned to their shirt, or their cell number.
One of the most common punishments for offenders was to be put in leg irons. This saw iron shackles being placed around the ankles, joined together with an iron chain or attached to a ball and chain. The shackles – or irons – were riveted together by a blacksmith to make it more difficult to remove them, thus making them permanent for the duration of the prisoner’s sentence (though convict-made irons tended to be far less durable than those made by professional blacksmiths). In rare instances prisoners were able to mangle the irons in order to get their feet out.
The ball and chain was more typical on convict ships, with the device being removed upon arrival in Australia. Naturally the deterrent effect came from the very real risk of the weighted iron ball dragging the offender down if they jumped overboard. However, most existing examples of the ball and chain were actually replicas made in the 1860s and later as souvenirs, when the closure of many of the penal colonies saw a thriving tourism industry develop. During this time many of the “facts” about life in the convict era were spread by tour guides looking to shock and titillate their audiences.
Typically, offenders would have heavier irons attached depending on the severity of their offence. This could be in the form of thicker irons or heavier chains; the worse the behaviour, the heavier the irons. It was reported that while he was doing time on Norfolk Island, Martin Cash was at one time made to wear shackles as thick as a man’s arm, making him barely mobile.
As the irons were permanently attached to the convict’s ankles until a blacksmith removed them, they were forced to undertake literally every action with them on, including sleeping. In order to be able to undress while wearing the irons, convict uniforms featured trousers that lacked a fly, but rather buttoned up on the outside of the leg.
It was not uncommon for some offenders to have spent so much time in leg irons that it permanently crippled their ankles and feet. The infamous Tasmanian convict Mark Jeffrey was so badly crippled by his time in irons that he required two walking sticks to be able to move or stand. Due to the way the irons would bruise and break the skin, convicts began using strips of cloth bound around the ankle and big toe to try and pad against the shackle. This was referred to as a “toe rag”, and eventually became used as a derogatory term for a former convict.
Typically, the chain would be kept from dragging along the ground by attaching a cord to the central ring and connecting it to a belt around the waist. There were variations on the theme, of course, with one being belts on the calf that kept the irons from dragging – as depicted in photos of the Clarke brothers following their capture.
Time Marches On
In time the use of capital and corporal punishment in Australia was phased out, though not until well into the 20th century in some cases. As late as 1958 men were sentenced to be flogged, the last two being William John O’Meally and John Henry Taylor. As for execution, the last person legally executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan in 1967, though the death penalty was still applicable up until 1985, when New South Wales were the last to abolish it.
Given the cruel and severe nature of many of the punishments that convicts faced, it is little wonder that so many “took the bush” and why so many bushrangers would rather have died in battle than be captured alive. There is no evidence to suggest the severity of the punishments acted as a deterrent any more than a good upbringing and fair treatment. Indeed, many commentators viewed the prisons as a breeding ground for criminals as the old hands gave tuition to the young offenders. The punishments also had a brutalising effect on many, as evidenced by the later deeds of William Westwood and Rocky Whelan following years of floggings, solitary confinement and other punishments. It seems that the socio-economic factors in crime were overlooked or misinterpreted, with crime broadly considered the province of the underclasses. Indeed, many of the crimes people were subject to these punishments for breaking were crimes against property, demonstrating that the punishments were not so much about morals as they were about preventing the poor from competing with the ruling class over wealth and resources. Not much has changed, as there are many people that continue to campaign for the reintroduction of these extreme measures for many of the same reasons.
Kilmore Free Press and Counties of Bourke and Dalhousie Advertiser (Kilmore, Vic. : 1865 – 1868), Thursday 29 March 1866, page 4
EXECUTION OF DUNN THE BUSHRANGER.Sydney Herald, 20th March
A sadder scene was never enacted in that when John Dunn, the last of the notorious trio who, setting religion and law at defiance, excited feelings of indignation, insecurity, and terror throughout the colony — died an ignominious death upon the scaffold. Sad was it indeed to see a young man cut off in the flower of his youth, before twenty summers had passed over his head, and steeped to the eyes in crimes at which humanity may well shudder; and yet it was evident from the calm fortitude displayed by the young outlaw when the awful hour of execution came, that with proper training he would have proved himself worthy of a better fate.
More fortunate than his two quondem friends, Hall and Gilbert, who fell by the avenging bullet. Dunn had the advantage of a trial, with all the solemn forms of law ; and with a levity which he accorded not to his victims he was allowed time to prepare for his appearance before the Great Judge; he was permitted, moreover, to avail himelf of the services of a clergyman of the faith which he professed, to instruct and direct him in his appeals for mercy to an ever merciful God. It is satisfactory to know that these services were not rendered in vain, but that the guilty man, whose short life had been stained with outrages and blood, gave proofs of the sincerity of his repentance, and a desire to atone for his past sins. We understand that from the time of his conviction he was most attentive to the admonitions of his religious instructor, giving no trouble to his keepers and questioning not for a moment the justice of his sentence, and was perfectly resigned to his fate. Judging from the improved physical condition which he exhibited as he left the condemned cell yesterday, morning, his mind could not have been much disturbed by the thought of his impending doom for he was much more robust than when he first arrived in Sydney. He gained in weight upwards of a stone during his incarceration in the gaol. We are informed that the Roman Catholic chaplain of the gaol, the Rev. J. Dwyer, and the Rev T. McCarthy of St Benedict’s (to whom the bushranger Vane surrendered) were with the con-demned culprit until half-past 11 o’clock on Sunday night, and that soon after they left he fell into a deep slumber and remained asleep until half-past six o’clock yesterday morning when he awoke and perforned his ablutions. He ate a hearty breakfast and having smoked a pipe of tobacco, and to all appearance enjoyed it, he was prepared to receive two of the sisters of charity, who now, paid him a visit. Between 7 and 8 o’clock the two clergymen who were with him over night again presented themselves and the two sisters bade him a final adieu. The clergymen now endeavoured by the usual religious exercises to prepare the mind of the wretched man for his approaching end, and at a few minuted to 9 o’clock the Sheriff proceeded to the cell, and with the customary formality demanded Dunns body. The two executioners then pinnioned the culprit, and the mournful cortege moved slowly from the wing of the gaol towards the gallows erected at the eastern side of the yard. Dunn who limped slightly from the effect of the wound in his leg, walked between the two clergymen and repeated after them the solemn words of prayer which they uttered. Arrived at the foot of the grim instrument of death, the condemned man proceeded without assistance to mount the steps, followed by the Rev. Dwyer, in his clerical robes, and the executioners. Upon the platform the rev gentleman read a short prayer, shook hands with the poor misguided youth who was about to pay the penalty of his crimes with his life and left the scaffold. The fatal rope was speedily adjusted, the white cap was drawn over the condemned man’s face the bolt was withdrawn, and, with the heavy thud which immediately followed, the young outlaw ceased to live.
The neck was evidently broken by the fall, for there was not the slightest movement of the muscles to indicate any life remained. After hanging about twenty minutes the body was cut down, and subsequently given to a Mrs. Picard, (who, when the dead man was an innocent infant, stood as his godmother), for private interment. Thus perished in the scaffold, by the hands of the common hangman, the last at large, and the most bloodthirsty of Gardiner’s gang. Of this once formidable band of highwaymen, which for so many years kept the colony in awe, it may not be out of place to mention, that four still survive, viz., Gardiner, the chief, who is undergoing a sentence of thirty two years’ penal servitude ; Vane, who surrendered through the instrumentality of Father McCarthy, and was sentenced to fifteen years in the roads ; Bow and Fordyce, sentenced to death, which afterwards commuted to fifteen years’ penal servitude. Peisley and Manns were hung ; the other five, namely Lowrie, Burke, O’Meally, Ben Hall and Gilbert were shot dead – Burke and O’Meally by private hands, and the remainder by the police. The last who joined the gang was the “Old Man,” who gave himself up to the police and is now in penal servitude. We understand that a short time before his execution, Dunn write a letter to the governor of the gaol, thanking him and the warders also for his and their kindness. The were between sixty and seventy persons present to witness the execution.
“I, Maurice J. O’Connor, being the medical officer of the gaol at Darlinghurst, do hereby declare and certify that I have this day witnessed the execution of Andrew George Scott, alias Moonlight, lately convicted and duly sentenced to death at the Supreme Criminal Court, Sydney; and I further certify that the said Andrew George Scott, alias Moonlight, was, in pursuance of his sentence, ‘hanged by the neck until his body was dead,’ Given under my hand this 20th day of January, in the year 1880.
(Signed) Maurice J. O’Connor, visiting surgeon.
1880 was set to be a big year as bushranging was concerned. With the Kelly Gang still at large after the humiliation of the Jerilderie raid, the New South Wales authorities had been desperate to make an example of lawbreakers and found the perfect targets in Captain Moonlite and his gang.
The previous few months had been incredibly turbulent in the lives of Andrew George Scott and Thomas Baker, known popularly as Captain Moonlite and Rogan respectively. The bailing up of Wantabadgery Station in November of the previous year had attracted much attention, but it was the subsequent siege at McGlede’s farm that sealed the fate of the bushrangers. The death of Constable Webb-Bowen from a wound he received in battle had seen the pair sentenced to death with fellow surviving gang members Frank Johns, alias Thomas Williams, and Graham Bennett. The latter two had clean records and youth on their side and after much agitation had their sentences commuted to long prison terms to be served in Berrima. There were still motions by the public, and even some parliamentarians, to have Rogan’s sentence commuted because he had hidden under a bed throughout the pitched battle that took place. Cowardly or not, the action was enough to suggest that he should not have been considered to have the same level of involvement in the crime as the others, but he had a history of crime going against him, having previously done time for larceny and horse theft in Victoria. His sentence was upheld. When Scott learned that the executive council had upheld the death penalty for himself and Rogan, he expressed dismay at the injustice of hanging his young companion, though he did not express any disagreement with his own punishment.
Of the gang, Rogan had struggled the most with his conviction. He had become irritable and morose as time went on. Rogan’s mother and sister had travelled from Melbourne to Sydney with a petition for reprieve that they hoped would gather enough signatures to cause the executive council to change their position on the case. When they visited their condemned kin in Darlinghurst Gaol the meeting descended into a screaming match and the women left in tears. The press made much of this behaviour and took it to be a sign of weak moral character on Rogan’s part. It was not typical behaviour for him, as he had always been seen as quiet and otherwise subdued. It is likely that he was merely struggling with the injustice of his imminent death. In light of this, Rev. Father Ryan doubled his efforts in bringing spiritual comfort to the young man. On 17 January, Rogan’s mother and sister left Sydney for Melbourne. Rogan was in a strange place with no kin nearby to grieve his passing. Strangely, their absence seemed to allow Rogan some peace of mind.
Meanwhile, Andrew Scott had spent much time with Canon Rich – a minister of the Church of England. They spoke at length about the scriptures and Scott described his relationship with Bishop Selwyn and Bishop Patterson; a portrait of the latter he would present to Canon Rich as a gift mere moments before his execution. Scott occupied himself mostly with writing during the remainder of his time on earth. He knew his time was short and was desperate to set the record straight regarding the latter events of his life. He also took the opportunity to record many of his thoughts and feelings. In one letter he stated:
In the silent hours of the night, when I believe myself unobserved by the gaoler, I go down on my knees and try to pray, but all my efforts have failed. I have tried several times, but find that I cannot pray with that earnestness and fervour with which I used to pray when I was a boy.
The notion of a former preacher confessing a loss of faith was certainly juicy gossip for the press who had been harassing the gaol for any morsels of information regarding the condemned men. The countdown to the execution seemed to be a very exciting event to cover for the press. One of the things that was gobbled up by the media was the frequent appearance of a mysterious woman in black. This austere woman was spotted visiting Scott several times in the gaol and the journalists wasted no time speculating on her identity. She had been instrumental in pushing for a commuting of the sentences for Scott’s accomplices and had been running around procuring Bibles and prayer books that Scott signed and dedicated to his family and friends as gifts.
Scott never seemed to indicate a fear of death, however he did express indignation at the shame of execution. In one of his letters he invoked the torturous botching of the execution of the Eugowra escort robber, Henry Manns, in expressing his misgivings in such a method of execution.
I could now go into that yard and command a company of soldiers to fire at me, but I cannot bear having to die an ignominious death on the gallows. Besides, the hangman, might not do his work well, as in the case of Mann. Why should they pinion me, and why place over my head that abominable garment, the whitecap? I should like to see how I am dying, for I am not afraid of death.
The night before their execution, Scott was visited by Canon Rich for spiritual consultation. He also received a telegram from a man named William Powell from Mannum Station in Victoria stating, “May God have mercy on your soul! Would like a reply.” As Scott had no idea who this person was he declined the request. No doubt it was some morbid souvenir hunter looking for something to add to his collection. Later he was visited by the “woman in black”, whose real name proved to be Mrs. Amess, who was permitted to stay with Scott far longer than was usual for visitors. The assumption was made that she had been affianced to Scott, an engagement publicly stated by Canon Rich, and there remained the distinct possibility that this was indeed the woman Scott claimed to be seeing when the bank at Mount Egerton was robbed – a crime he continued to deny any part in. All that could be confirmed about the woman was that she had a nine year old son and was a school teacher by profession. After his guest departed, Scott furiously scribbled out his last few letters, desperate to record his thoughts, feelings, and autobiography until 4.00am. Most of these missives would be locked up rather than reaching their intended targets. Amongst the various letters was one addressed to the mother of James Nesbitt, Scott’s partner, attempting to apologise for what happened in Wantabadgery. He also wrote to Nesbitt’s brother, requesting to be buried with his beloved Jim after his execution. Scott expressed a sense of relief at the notion that he might spend eternity with Nesbitt upon his passing. He also wrote a final goodbye to his parents in New Zealand. Canon Rich consulted with Scott and passed on a request from Rogan that Scott not make any grand speeches on the gallows the following day, which Scott agreed to do. When Scott went to his hammock he was unable to sleep and fidgeted throughout the night. Rogan had spent the evening writing and praying and slept peacefully, which must have been a welcome change from his see-sawing between anxiety and fury that had defined the previous few days.
On the morning of 20 January, there was a surprising calm that had settled over the prisoners. They ate their breakfast heartily and at 8.30am they were informed that they had only a half hour left to go until their appointment. Scott would have taken a moment to spare a thought for his parents in New Zealand; the events that were unfolding were not a great gift for his father who should have been spending the day celebrating his birthday instead of mourning the loss of a son. The six pound leg irons that had been applied to Scott’s already crippled ankles were removed. Scott merely exclaimed “Ah, that’s a relief,” then proceeded to neaten himself up. Rogan said nothing as his irons were removed, merely keeping his eyes fixed on the ground. The men were attended by their spiritual advisers – Canon Rich for Scott, and Father Ryan for Rogan. Their hangman was to be Robert Rice Howard, better known as “Nosey Bob”, an infamous executioner whose most defining physical trait was that his nose had been completely demolished from being kicked by a horse during his time running a cab business. Such a traumatic event would have killed most people at the time but not Howard; but while he survived, his cab business was dead so he was left unemployed and turned to booze. He saw a way out of his struggle when he learned that the New South Wales government was looking for a new hangman and signed up. It was a thankless job and he attempted to keep it quiet but gossip is gossip and before long the identity of the new executioner was common knowledge and Howard was ostracised for his choice of employment.
The gallows of Darlinghurst Gaol [Source: The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) 27 April 1913: 11.]
The gallows of Darlinghurst Gaol were situated in an external corner of E Wing. Inside the cell block, on the middle tier, were the six condemned cells. From condemned cell number one it was only around a half dozen paces to the scaffold. In previous years the gallows had been a removable structure that would be set up when needed. On this model, John Dunn and the Clarke brothers, among others, had expiated their crimes. Had Scott and Rogan been condemned in the time of public executions, they would have been forced to climb a long ladder to the gallows that would be set up by the prison gate on Forbes Street. Such an inelegant design owed much to the style of hanging in the previous century, wherein condemned prisoners were forced to climb a ladder then jump from the top, rather than be dropped through a trapdoor. To the baying crowds it was more entertaining that way, but to the authorities the new method was more efficient. Since then, hanging had become a precise science — performed mostly by illiterate and uneducated convicts. Scott and Rogan had the nervous wait to see if their hangman had done the calculations properly. An extra inch or more longer or shorter than required in the length of the rope could be the difference between strangling to death for fifteen minutes or having your head ripped off. Neither prospect was pretty but both had precedent.
Source: Truth (Sydney) 14 November 1897: 7.
Outside the gaol, crowds began to gather, comprising men, women and children of a mostly lower class background. It is unsure what they expected to see, but some of the local larrikins climbed trees that neighboured the gates in a vain attempt to see into the gaol, hoping to snatch even a fleeting glimpse of proceedings. People up to a quarter of a mile away climbed onto the highest roofs in an effort to see into the prison, but were also disappointed. Police had their work cut out trying to keep people at ground level. The gaol governor had stipulated that members of the press were not to be admitted to the execution and security was on high alert after rumours of a potential attempt to break in to the gaol to rescue Rogan had begun circulating.
“Nosey Bob” Howard [Source: Truth (Brisbane) 26 April 1903: 3.]
At 9.00am, Charles Cowper, the sheriff, officially requested the bodies of the condemned men, as per regulation. “Nosey Bob” entered the condemned cells and pinioned the arms of the men. They were walked the short distance to the scaffold at 9.05am where they looked out over the railing to see the rising sun over a manicured lawn. Below was the collective of officials who were there to act as witnesses. Among those attending the execution were Maurice O’Connor, the Darlinghurst Gaol medical officer; Charles Cowper, Sheriff; J.G. Thurlow, Under Sheriff; J.C. Read, principal gaoler; W. Chatfield, visiting magistrate; Miehl Burke, Chief Warder; Edmund Fosberry, Inspector General of Police; Constable John Maguire; Constable John Simmons; Constable Edward Keatinge; Senior Constable Henry Shiel; Louis C. Nickel, Coroner; Edward Smart, J.P.; Peter Miller, J.P.; Ernest Carter, J.P.; Dr. Halkett; John Stewart; Daniel O’Connor; Angus Cameron; Alexander Pinn; Alexander Tate; Rev. Macready; and T. Kingsmill Abbott.
Andrew Scott was already haggard from a night without sleep but now felt indignant that such a personal moment as one’s departure from the mortal realm was to be viewed by a horde of strangers. He glared at them, his crystal blue eyes flashing with passion one final time as he turned to his attendants.
“What does this mean? What do all these people want? I think I ought to speak.”
Scott was about to make one final farewell address, a suitably grandiose statement to tell the world of the injustices that had led to that moment, but one look across at Rogan reminded him of his promise to stay quiet. The fire in his belly smouldered and he allowed himself to feel empathy for the young man whose life had been wasted, due in no small measure from Scott’s own actions. Father Ryan administered the last rights to the Roman Catholic Rogan, while Canon Rich and Rev. Macready attended Scott in the fashion of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches respectively. The nooses were placed around their necks by “Nosey Bob” and his assistant. The hemp rope was heavy on their shoulders and draped in such a way that the sudden stop when the rope ran out would jerk the slipknot up behind the left ear and snap the neck. Scott suddenly felt his own resolve washing away like sand on a beach at high tide.
“Goodbye, Tom. We have made a sad mistake.”
Rogan did not speak. He was using his last moments to concentrate on maintaining his composure. Scott put out his hand and grasped Rogan’s fingers in one last gesture of solidarity in an effort to comfort his friend as much as himself. The customary white hoods were pulled over their heads and the hangman stood clear of the trapdoor and pushed the lever, releasing the pin that kept the trapdoor shut. There was an incredible crash as the door swung open and locked into place via the appropriate mechanisms. Scott and Rogan plummeted in freefall only a few feet. When the crash of the trapdoor stopped reverberating around the courtyard, all that could be heard was the creak of hemp. Scott’s death had been instant and all life signs were snuffed out cleanly. Rogan was not afforded the same. The rope was too slack and had not cleanly broken his neck, resulting in the young man squirming like a worm on a hook as he was strangled to death by his own body weight. After ten minutes the thrashing and convulsing stopped. Dr. O’Connor tried to alleviate the ill-feeling in the crowd by telling them that the convulsions were merely involuntary postmortem muscle spasms.
The corpses were allowed to dangle until 9.25am to ensure death had set in. After this, the ropes were cut and the bodies loaded onto hand carts. They were taken to the dead house and prepared for burial and the ropes were burned. No inquest was held as the 49 witnesses all signed a document attesting to the pair’s death by hanging. The heads and faces were shaved completely and molded by a sculptor named McGee for death masks. The casts taken from the moulds would be used for phrenological study, but also remained as trophies – mementos of the triumph of the law over the lawless.
The bodies were put in coffins by J. and G. Shying and co., undertakers. Rogan’s coffin was government issued, but Mrs. Amess had paid for a handsome black coffin to be used for the preacher-cum-outlaw. In the afternoon the coffins were loaded into a hearse and a procession headed to Redfern mortuary, which included Mrs. Gregory, the gaol missionary; Rev. Dowie; Mrs. Amess; and two warders. Both men were buried in Rookwood cemetery, Haslam’s Creek, in unmarked graves.
The authorities hoped that in time people would forget the names Scott and Rogan, but would remember the message that their execution was to convey – break the law and suffer the consequences. Despite Scott’s initial request to be buried with James Nesbitt being denied, in 1995 his remains were exhumed and reinterned at Gundagai cemetery near the unmarked graves of Nesbitt and Gus Wernicke. Thomas Rogan remains in his unmarked grave in the Roman Catholic section of the Rookwood cemetery.
As to a monument stone, a rough unhewn rock would be most fit, one that skilled hands could have made into something better. It will be like those it marks as kindness and charity could have shaped us to better ends.
As every item of news anent the Wantabagery bushranger is just now read with painful interest by newspaper readers, I think I can supply a few jottings, as yet unpublished, that may give, in some slight degree, an inkling as to the inner man of this foolhardy, conceited irritable fool. It will be remembered that A. G. Scott, before the bank robbery at Egerton, occasionally officiated as lay reader in the Church of England there. I am credibly informed, by one who was present in the church the Sunday after the robbery, that Scott offered up the following impromptu prayer during the service conducted by him:—”Oh Lord, we pray Thee, in Thy great goodness, and in accord with Thine unerring standard of dealing out even-handed justice to all men, so order and direct that the efforts made by the constituted authorities in seeking after the bank robbers may be entirely successful, and that they may be speedily brought to justice; and that the wicked and evil done by these lawless forgetters of Thee may result in good here-after.” Not a bad prayer, says my informant, to be reverently offered up by the sole perpetrator of the robbery.
Scott at one time went in a trading schooner to Fiji. The passengers rather liked the man; he was a favorite with all on board talkative and very agreeable. A spiritual seance was held one evening during the voyage. Scott was quite eloquent on the subject, and in explaining to the circle the mysteries of the phenomena, he requested the members to ask questions and the table would rap out the answers. One of the passengers enquired how many pistols Scott had about him, and the answer came “four.” Moonlite at once confessed the reply was correct, and forthwith pulled out of each pocket a miniature revolver. During the passage his great enjoyment was shooting at the sea birds. “A more pleasant and polite travelling companion,” says a fellow passenger, “could not be met with anywhere.”
I heard Scott lecture at Ballarat, and I must say I was inclined to give him credit for sincerity in the statements he made anent Pentridge. After leaving Ballarat, he lectured at Maryborough the day following. I was on my way to Sandhurst, and noticed him at the Maryborough station. I occupied a seat in the same carriage with Scott and Nesbitt, and found them both very chatty and agreeable. After this I heard Moonlite lecture at Sandhurst, and felt convinced from the remarks he there made, that a never-to-be-satisfied hankering after notoriety was the cankerworm of his life. His piercing eye noticed me at the lecture, and had I not been in company with the D——’s I doubt not I would have been honored (?) with a shake of the hand. Taking into consideration all I know of Scott, and what I have gleaned from outside sources, I am inclined to believe he (Scott) is not the hardened ruffian he is represented to be, but a foolishly-vain fellow, that would run any risk in order to be talked freely about. When Scott was leaving Pentridge, there was a letter lying awaiting him in the hands of the Inspector-General, from his father. The contents, I was assured, were of the most touching kind. The aged father implored his erring son to begin a new life on his release from prison, and acquainted him that he could be supplied with money for his immediate wants by applying to a gentleman in Melbourne, whose name was given. Scott read the letter in presence of Mr. Duncan; and, I suppose, out of a spirit of vain bravado, smiled at the contents and carelessly put it in his pocket. Captain Moonlite will soon be beyond the reach of mercy so far as this world is concerned; but those who know the man intimately are of opinion that there was not the interest taken in his case—as a released convict, when free from Pentridge—that there should have been, and that had some philanthropic kind-hearted man stepped to the front and offered a helping hand, Captain Moonlite would, instead of ending his life on the scaffold, have become a reformed man, and eventually made a good citizen. The fist has gone forth. Moonlite is to die, and so long as capital punishment is the law of the land I do not quibble with the decree; but the sooner this taking of life by the hands of the executioner is abolished, the sooner will the law-givers find out that a life-long imprisonment is a greater deterrent to crime than the hangman’s rope. I am not alone in the opinion that hanging men by the neck till dead does not act as a deterrent to crime; and from a recent leader in The Courier, I find the writer is against the death penalty.
The “British Friend” has, in connection with the Howard Association, an article on the subject, and from it I gather that the different nations of the world are gradually being educated up to the subject, and we who are abolitionists with regard to the death penalty may yet live to see it effaced from the criminal statutes of the British nation. The following from the “British Friend” will be read with interest by all those who thus believe:—”The abolition of capital punishment is both a process and a goal. In the latter aspect it is still distant, but in the former aspect it is making great progress and extension every year. For the upholders of the sacredness of human life are now sufficiently strong and numerous, in most countries, to reduce the number of executions to at least a small proportion of those sentenced to death. Even some of the victories claimed by the supporters of the gallows are of very dubious result. And it is a special objection to this extreme penalty that, beyond all others, it tends to impede or destroy its own operation. Not only does murder, by killing its victim, also remove, in general, the only witness of the act, but the peculiar difficulties connected with circumstantial evidence (where specially certain evidence is needful on account of the irrevocability of this penalty), still further impede the infliction of this, more than of any other punishment. For example, in Austria in 1876, out of 124 sentences of death, all for murder, only three were executed! Even in England, where it is claimed that capital punishment is most certain (and where it is rendered as certain as law and home secretaries can make it), it is yet the most uncertain of all penalties. For example, during the last November assizes of 1878, it was most striking to read in the Times, day after day, the results of the murder trials of that series. We find as follows:—1. Stafford Assizes, trial for wilful murder; verdict, not guilty, on ground of insanity. 2. Bristol, trial for wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. 3. Bristol, for wilful murder of two children; verdict, not guilty, on ground of insanity. 4. Leeds, wilful murder; verdict, not guilty. 5. Leeds, another wilful murder; verdict, not guilty. 6. Liverpool, wilful murder; verdict, not guilty. 7. Liverpool, wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. 8. Winchester, wilful murder; verdict, not guilty. 9. Cambridge, wilful murder; verdict, guilty—death. 10. Cambridge (again), wilful murder; verdict, guilty—death, but recommended to mercy. 11. Leeds, wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. 12. Warwick, wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. 13. Swansea, wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. 14. Taunton, wilful murder; verdict, not guilty. 15. Warwick, wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. 16. Nottingham, wilful murder; verdict, manslaughter. Thus it is evident that the deterrent power of the capital penalty, as it actually is in practice, is very limited, by reason of its extremely uncertain infliction. The upholders of the gallows argue for the deterrence of the penalty, as they would wish it to be—that is, as if it were certain. But in practice, and in inevitable practice too, it never is, nor can be, what they assume it to be theoretically.” After describing in detail the recent action of Switzerland as to capital punishment, and the misconceptions in reference to it current in this country, the report continues:— “On 14th January, 1879, two men were hanged in Pennsylvania. The Governor at the last moment sent a reprieve; but it was delivered too late at the gaol—both men had just been executed, and had protested their innocence in dying. In January, also, another man was hanged in the same State. An eye-witness writes that he was brought drunk to the gallows, and ‘literally dumped down’ at its foot, the superintending sheriff ‘smoking a cigar and shaking hands and cracking jokes with his friends,’ whilst about 200 spectators were also smoking, laughing, joking, and at times cursing.’ “
Few figures in history reach the notoriety and cultural impact of the Kelly Gang. As so much is easily available on the subject already, here is an easily digestible summary of the so-called Kelly Outbreak. For more detailed information, there is a swathe of articles available on A Guide to Australian Bushranging that examine elements of the history in more depth.
The story of the Kelly Gang begins on 15 April, 1878. Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick was sent by Sergeant Whelan at Benalla to take charge of the police station at Greta. Greta was well-known to police in the district as members of the Kelly, Quinn and Lloyd families(all related) had selections there. These families were under particularly strict scrutiny by the police due to their recidivism and suspected involvement in crimes such as stock theft. In fact, Constable Fitzpatrick had heard there was a warrant out for the arrest of Dan Kelly, the seventeen year-old son of the notorious Ellen Kelly, for his suspected involvement in horse stealing. He made it known to Whelan that he intended to arrest Dan en route to Greta police station. Despite popular understanding, Fitzpatrick was not required by law to carry a copy of a warrant with him.
When Fitzpatrick arrived at the Kelly selection, Dan was not at home so he spoke with Ellen Kelly (who was nursing a newborn), then rode to their neighbour, William “Brickey” Williamson, and questioned him about whether he had a permit for the logs he was splitting. He lingered until dusk and returned to the Kelly selection in case Dan had returned rather than riding to Greta to take charge of the station as ordered. Dan Kelly answered the door and Fitzpatrick made his intentions known. Dan agreed to go quietly with Fitzpatrick on condition that he could finish his dinner first as he had been riding all day. He denied having stolen any horses and it would later be revealed that he had been in gaol when the animals in question were stolen, corroborating his assertions. What happened next is not known for sure due to conflicting evidence. What seems to have been the case, according to popular understanding, is that Fitzpatrick possibly made an unwanted sexual advance on fifteen year-old Kate Kelly and a fight broke out. Fitzpatrick claimed that Ellen Kelly hit him in the head with a coal shovel and Ned Kelly entered the house and shot him in the wrist, accompanied by Brickey Williamson and Ellen Kelly’s son-in-law Bill Skillion who were both brandishing revolvers. Ned Kelly would claim he was never there and Ellen would indicate that Fitzpatrick was drunk and had fought with Ned and Dan. Another version of the story states that Fitzpatrick injured his arm on a door latch and claimed it was a bullet wound, cutting himself to make it look like he had removed a bullet. Regardless, Fitzpatrick returned to Benalla and lodged a report. The following day Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding an attempted murder. Ned and Dan Kelly had gone into hiding at Dan Kelly’s hut in the bush, and a £100 reward was posted for the capture of Ned Kelly for attempted murder.
While the brothers were hiding in the Wombat Ranges Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Bill Skillion were sentenced. Ellen Kelly received three years hard labour, the two men were given six years each. Days later a search party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kelly brothers. Word soon reached the bushrangers that they were being hunted and they tracked the police as they ventured into the bush from Mansfield on 25 October, 1878. Despite the fact they had constructed a fortified hut with huge logs for walls and an armoured door made of sheet metal to protect them in an ambush, they remained on edge. The Mansfield police party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas McIntyre, Michael Scanlan (of Mooroopna) and Thomas Lonigan (of Violet Town). They set up camp on the banks of Stringybark Creek, less than a mile from Dan Kelly’s hut. The following day Kennedy and Scanlan headed off to scout for the brothers, leaving McIntyre and Lonigan to tend the camp. McIntyre shot some parrots with a shotgun Kennedy had left him for the task of hunting something for supper. He returned to camp and began cooking bread. Unknown to them, the sound of McIntyre shooting had been heard and Ned Kelly decided to bail up the police. He and Dan were joined by Joe Byrne, a young man from the Woolshed Valley who had recently been involved in stock theft with Ned, and Steve Hart, a jockey from Wangaratta. Ned claimed his intention was to rob the police of their food and weapons.
In the afternoon of 26 October, 1878, the Kelly Gang emerged from the bush and ordered McIntyre and Lonigan to bail up. McIntyre did as instructed but Lonigan ran and was shot by Ned with a quartered bullet. A piece of shrapnel pierced Lonigan’s eye and entered his brain, killing him. Ned insisted that Lonigan had gotten behind a log and was about to shoot him. McIntyre would refute this, stating that there was not enough time for Lonigan to have done so. The bushrangers raided the camp, gathering what they could. Dan Kelly insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused. He ordered McIntyre to tell the other police to surrender when they returned or be shot. Joe Byrne drank tea and smoked with McIntyre as they waited. When Kennedy and Scanlan returned the gang hid and McIntyre attempted to get the police to surrender. Very suddenly shots were fired. Ned shot Scanlan in the back as his horse tried to run away. Kennedy jumped out of the saddle and began shooting with his pistol. McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and rode into the bush. Kennedy attempted to follow McIntyre and shot Dan Kelly in the shoulder. Ned pursued Kennedy and they fired at each other in a running gunfight. Kennedy was wounded and fell a considerable distance from the camp. Ned finished him off by shooting him in the chest at close range. He would claim it was a mercy killing. The bushrangers then looted from the corpses and took everything they needed from the camp before burning the tent. Constable McIntyre, meanwhile, had been badly injured as he escaped and hid in a wombat hole overnight. The following day he walked to a farm and raised the alarm.
Almost immediately parliament passed the Felons Apprehension Act, which gave them the power to declare people “outlaws”. This was based on the legislation of the same name passed in New South Wales in response to bushrangers such as Ben Hall and Dan Morgan. It meant that the outlaws were not protected by the law and could be murdered without provocation and the killer would not only be exempt from any repercussions, they would receive the reward money. Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly and their two accomplices (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart had not yet been identified) were officially declared outlaws in the colony of Victoria. £1000 was put on Ned’s capture, another £1000 was offered for the others. The assistant commissioner of police, Charles Hope Nicolson, was assigned to lead the hunt for the gang.
On 9 December, 1878, the Kelly Gang re-emerged. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station at Faithfull’s Creek and imprisoned the staff in a storeroom. That evening a hawker arrived to camp at the station and he was bailed up as well. The outlaws took new outfits from the hawkers wagon and spruced themselves up with perfume. Later, Ned held a Q&A session in the shed where he answered all the questions his prisoners had about his life and crimes. The next morning, Dan guarded the prisoners while the other gang members destroyed the telegraph lines. A hunting party was also captured and added to the prisoners in the shed.
In the afternoon of 10 December, Ned, Dan and Steve rode to Euroa to rob the bank. Dan guarded the back door as Steve went into the manager’s homestead via the kitchen. Here he was recognised by one of the servants who had been a schoolmate of his. He locked her in the drawing room with the rest of the manager’s family before heading into the bank. Meanwhile, Ned had tried to get in the front door with a dodgy cheque he had made the superintendent of Younghusband’s Station write out. When the bank clerk tried to tell him they were closed, he burst in and bailed the staff up and ordered them to give him all the money. Once the till was emptied he ordered them to open the safe but they needed the manager’s key. Ned and Steve bailed up the manager, Robert Scott, and after much hassle, including sending Scott’s wife to get the key from the study, the safe was emptied too. The outlaws then took the staff and the Scotts with them back to the station where Joe had been guarding the prisoners, and had even captured the linesman sent to repair the broken telegraph wires. The gang stayed until night time and then left, ordering the prisoners to wait until they were gone before leaving themselves. The gang escaped with over £1500 on gold and money. In response the reward was raised to £4000 and Assistant Commissioner Nicolson was replaced by Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare.
With all four gang members now officially named, it was harder for them to move around, so they got Joe Byrne’s best friend Aaron Sherritt to keep the police distracted by giving them false information. In early 1879 he informed Superintendent Hare that the Kelly Gang would be going to Goulburn. The police immediately headed for Goulburn, but the outlaws were actually heading for Jerilderie, further west. They split up and Ned and Joe went to the Woolpack Inn to get information about Jerilderie. They soon rejoined Dan and Steve and headed into the town.
At midnight on 7 February, 1879, the Kelly Gang woke the Jerilderie police up and captured them. They locked the police in their own lock-up cell and planned their next heist. The next day Ned and Joe disguised themselves as police reinforcements and went through the town with one of the constables. They made note of where everything was. Later, Joe and Dan traced the telegraph lines and got their horses shod. The next day Dan guarded the wife of the town’s Sergeant as she decorated the town hall for mass. The gang then began to round the townsfolk up and imprisoned them in the Royal Hotel. Joe went into the bank via the back door and bailed up the staff. Ned and Steve soon appeared. They robbed the till, but again had to get the manager’s key for the safe. Steve was sent to find the manager and caught him having a bath. Eventually the safe was opened and emptied. Ned began destroying records of the bank’s debtors and the bank staff were added to the prisoners in the hotel. Ned and Joe had written a letter that was to be published in the local newspaper, but the local news editor had run out of town once he realised the Kelly Gang were robbing the bank. Ned gave the letter to one of the bankers to be passed onto the press. The gang soon headed off with £2000 pounds of stolen money and gold. This caused the New South Wales government to contribute another £4000 to the reward.
For months the gang seemed to disappear. During this time Aaron Sherritt kept the police distracted by hosting watch parties at the Byrne selection every night. Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor was sent from Queensland with a party of native police. The native police were feared for their incredible tracking abilities and their discipline. During the latter months of 1879, Superintendent Hare took ill and was replaced by Assistant Commissioner Nicolson. Nicolson stopped the watch parties and relied on a syndicate of police informants to keep track of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately a lot of information the police received was either outdated, false or cases of mistaken identity. The media criticised the police for their apparent ineptitude.
At this time the outlaws had begun to collect steel plates, mostly plough mouldboards, in order to craft bulletproof armour. Ned Kelly would claim his original intention was to wear the armour during bank robberies as the banks were now all guarded by armed soldiers. Each gang member had their own suit, but mystery still surrounds who made the armour. Many believe it was made by blacksmiths or by the gang themselves.
The gang had also been very reliant on their sympathisers for fresh horses, food, shelter and information. The proceeds from the bank robberies had all gone to their supporters. The most prominent sympathisers were Tom Lloyd, Wild Wright, Paddy Byrne, Ettie Hart and the Kelly sisters. Aaron Sherritt was a sympathiser too, but many of the gang’s other supporters thought he was working for the police and had told the gang to murder him. Sherritt’s family had actually been working as police informants, his brother Jack Sherritt in particular, but Aaron had remained a supporter of his closest friend. Nevertheless, the rumours were persistent and Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly frequently tested the Sherritts by giving them useless information to see if it reached the police. When Superintendent Hare returned as head of the pursuit, he re-employed Aaron to take watch parties to spy on Mrs. Byrne. When the threats against Aaron became worrisome, Detective Michael Ward, one of the heads of the hunt based in Beechworth, had arranged for Aaron to be guarded day and night by police. Meanwhile, Ned Kelly had decided to escalate the conflict with the police and take out as many of them in a single go as possible. He planned to lure them out on a special train and derail it. A commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut would cause the police, who were based in Benalla, to go by train to Beechworth and resume the hunt with a fresh trail. In order to get to Beechworth they had to pass through Glenrowan, where the train line would be broken on a treacherous bend, causing the train to fly off the tracks. The intention seems to have been to murder the police on board in order to force the government to stop pursuing the gang out of fear.
On 26 June, 1880, Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne bailed up a German neighbour of Aaron Sherritt named Anton Wick. They took him to Sherritt’s hut and used Wick to lure Aaron to the back door. When Aaron opened the door Joe murdered him, shooting him twice with a shotgun. Aaron died instantly. The four police constables that had been assigned to protect Aaron cowered and hid in the bedroom. Joe and Dan tried to force the police out of the bedroom for two hours before giving up and riding off to join Ned and Steve at Glenrowan.
At Glenrowan, Ned and Steve bailed up a team of quarrymen and some plate-layers to pull up a section of the train track. Ned also captured Ann Jones, proprietor of The Glenrowan Inn, and her daughter Jane. The prisoners were taken to the gatehouse where Joe and Dan arrived at around five in the morning. At daybreak the prisoners were split into two groups: women and children were kept in the gatehouse to be guarded by Steve, everyone else was taken to The Glenrowan Inn. Throughout the day more prisoners were captured as Ned waited for the police. To keep the prisoners occupied there were sporting games held at the inn, card games were played inside, drinks flowed freely and there was even a dance in the bar room. Still, there was no sign of police. As it was a Sunday, no civilian trains would be running and Ned expected the police to arrive as soon as they heard the news of what had happened at Aaron’s hut. What Ned had not discovered was that the news of Aaron’s murder did not reach the police in Benalla until after lunchtime. The police took a long time to make any arrangements but as dusk approached, arrangements were made for a special police train to be sent to Beechworth.
That evening Ned decided to bail up the local policeman, Constable Bracken. Thomas Curnow, the schoolteacher, had been trying to convince Ned he was on his side all day and Ned finally agreed to let Curnow take his sick wife home when they went to capture Bracken. As soon as he got home, Curnow gathered materials to help him stop the train. He took a candle and a red scarf and rode off to the train line. Back at the inn there was more dancing and after midnight Dan Kelly told everyone to head home. However, Ann Jones stopped them from leaving so Ned could give a speech. As Ned was talking the police train finally arrived and stopped at the station. Curnow had used the lit candle behind the red scarf as a danger signal and warned the train about the damaged line. The Kelly Gang donned their armour and prepared for battle. Constable Bracken escaped and ran to the train station where he informed Superintendent Hare that the gang were in The Glenrowan Inn. The police headed to the inn and a battle commenced.
In the initial exchange Superintendent Hare’s wrist was smashed by a shot, Joe Byrne was shot in the calf, and Ned Kelly was shot in the foot and his left elbow was smashed. As the battle continued, the prisoners tried to escape. Jane Jones led a group of women and children to safety after she had been hit in the head by a police bullet and her little brother had also been mortally wounded by police fire. Over the next few hours, Ned escaped into the bush, most of the women and children escaped even though the police continued to try and shoot them, and Joe Byrne was killed by a police bullet to the groin. Police reinforcements continued to arrive throughout the early hours of the morning and just before sunrise Ned Kelly reappeared behind the police lines.
Ned fought the police for almost half an hour before Sergeant Steele blasted his unprotected knee. He was captured alive but badly wounded. Dan and Steve remained in the inn. At ten o’clock the rest of the prisoners were let out. By this time people from all around had descended upon Glenrowan to watch the siege. At three in the afternoon the police decided to burn the inn down to flush Dan and Steve out. They had previously ordered a cannon to be sent from Melbourne to blown the inn up but it had not yet arrived. As the inn was set on fire a Catholic priest, Matthew Gibney, ran inside to rescue anyone that was still in there. Joe Byrne’s corpse was dragged out and the dead bodies of Dan and Steve were found in the bedroom but could not be retrieved before the fire took hold. Another civilian shot by police, Martin Cherry, was rescued from the fire but only lived long enough to be given the last rites. After the fire had stopped, Dan’s and Steve’s bodies were retrieved. They were charred beyond recognition. The onlookers crowded around to get a good look at the dead bodies and to grab any souvenirs they could. Photographers captured images of many of the scenes.
Ned Kelly was taken to Benalla, where Joe Byrne’s corpse was strung up against a door of the police lock-up to be photographed. Ned was then sent to Melbourne Gaol to be treated for his wounds but was not expected to survive. Meanwhile, Dan and Steve were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the police taking the bodies away from the families. Months after Glenrowan there were still bullets and bits of shot being removed from Ned’s hands, feet and limbs. When he was deemed fit, he was sent to Beechworth for a committal hearing. Authorities were worried that having a trial in Beechworth would mean there was a strong likelihood of there being sympathisers in the jury so in order to have the best chance at convicting him, he was transferred back to Melbourne for his murder trial.
The trial in the Supreme Court was quick and Ned Kelly was found guilty of murdering Constable Thomas Lonigan and sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry, the judge that had sentenced his mother to gaol in 1878. While he was held in Melbourne Gaol to await his execution, his sympathisers tried to get a reprieve. Petitions with tens of thousands of signatures were gathered and there were protests and riots in the streets of Melbourne. Kate Kelly met with prominent politicians to beg for mercy but the Executive Council were unmoved and the sentence was upheld. Ned dictated several letters from his cell in order to make his version of events heard. As he was unable to write due to his injuries another prisoner was made to write for him. On 11 November, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol. Thousands of people gathered outside the prison and Ellen Kelly worked in the prison laundry within earshot of the gallows. After his execution, his body was taken to the dead house, his head was shaved and a cast made, then his body was removed to be dissected by university students. The remains were buried in the gaol.
The Kelly Gang was not prolific by a far stretch. They did fewer robberies than the Hall Gang; they murdered less people than Jimmy Governor; they were not at large as long as Captain Thunderbolt; and there were not as many members as The Ribbon Gang. But what distinguished the Kelly Gang was that there was a political element to their story that was unprecedented, and a sophistication to their operations that surpassed similar feats from the “golden era” of bushrangers. Most people believe bushranging ended with the Kelly Gang, but in fact bushranging continued well into the 1920s before it began to evaporate.
Certainly the armour is a powerful piece of iconography and it encapsulates a lot of what makes the Kelly story so unique. In almost 100 years of bushranging, starting with Black Caesar in 1788, nobody had thought to protect themselves from bullets. Ned Kelly mixed the best bits of old fashioned bushranging with a fresh, more methodical approach: to prevent being shot they made armour; because mail coaches were not lucrative targets they robbed banks; they destroyed telegraph lines to prevent information reaching the police quickly; to gain sympathy they gave speeches and wrote letters to the press and politicians; to prove they were not cold blooded murderers they performed intricate heists with no bloodshed. They were bushrangers that didn’t act like typical bushrangers and that made them a cut above the rest.
Because the Kelly Gang came from the selector class and so many people identified with them, they became representatives of people in a way not seen since Jack Donohoe became the hero of the convict class. They came to represent everything one group of people tried to suppress, at the same time as being everything the other group wanted to be, which struck a chord and captured the imagination. Even now, they capture that same spirit because a lot of the class conflict in the modern day is merely a mutation of what it was then and stems from the same things. People will always be able to find something in the Kelly Gang they either love or hate because they have transcended history and become part of the cultural tapestry.
The master and his apprentice occupied the hangman’s cell, intently focussed on their macabre lesson.
‘The knot is instrumental in the breaking of the spine, son. There is no room for error on placing the knot,’ advised the master.
A man in his fifties, the master was growing older, developing a bald patch at the crown of his scalp and his hands trembled constantly, affecting his script, his grip and his ability to tie a noose. It was time to hand his unenviable livelihood away. He had been responsible for 19 executions at the gallows just four paces outside the door, most of them having been clean and instantaneous, yet he had learned some hard lessons too. He would be present for his apprentice’s first execution, and no more after that. It was important that the younger man learnt fast and thoroughly.
The apprentice looked at the coil of rope his master offered in his outstretched hand, trying to come to terms with the gravity of this new vocation. Mixed emotions welled within his stomach and his chest – fear, nausea, sadness, empathy, an immutable thirst for justice – and binding all of that was a steely sense of resolve.
The master, hands trembling under the weight of the rope, tried to read behind the young man’s eyes. ‘Take the rope, son.’ The apprentice looked up from the coil of rope and the men’s eyes met.
‘I remind you sir,’ said the apprentice, ‘that I wish for you to not call me that.’
‘Ah yes, forgive me son,’ responded the master, oblivious to his continued offence. ‘I do it out of mere habit.’
‘It would please me if you would break the habit. My mother graces Heaven because my father is a wretch – ‘
‘Aye, that is true,’ the master interrupted.
‘ – and I would prefer not to be reminded of my connection to any father, except that of my only true father now; the good Lord in the kingdom of Heaven.’
The master watched his reflection in his pupil’s glassy eyes. The apprentice held his eye, attempting stoicism, but a single tear betrayed him by springing from his eye and free-falling down his face, followed by a trembling lip and a single sob, before quickly recovering his composure. The master felt his own eyes fill up for the man, but managed to hold back the water.
‘Not many men get to legally avenge their mother’s death,’ said the master. ‘You need to take the rope, before my hand gives out.’
The apprentice took the rope.
‘Let’s see what your noose looks like,’ said the master, taking a small wooden stool from the corner and drawing it into the centre of the room before sitting on it. The apprentice kneeled, and uncoiled the rope, feeling the fibres of the hemp strands run through his palms as he let it uncoil to the floor. He took one end of the rope, and made a large loop, folding the tail of the rope back along the edge of the noose. The master watched closely, every flick of the apprentice’s finger and every turn of the rope. The result was a fine noose.
‘That’s good work, son. A capital job indeed. Now rise and fit it round my neck.’
The apprentice looked up at the master, and then rose to a standing position. When he had accepted this new vocation, he was riding a wave of righteous anger, as were all others in the Clifton Hills community. Christian decency demanded an eye for an eye, and his poor murdered mother should be avenged. The apprentice had readily presented at the State Executioner’s office volunteering his services to hang the wretched devil who confessed to the bloody affair. He hadn’t foreseen any possibility that in the following weeks, as the emotional wave ebbed, that shades of grey might wash out what was initially a black and white picture. Now he stood in a chilled, bluestone cell in the gaol, the trap only six paces away, the lever only three. The ominous cypress beam dominated overhead, decorated with the scars and patina left behind by forty-four previous executions, the most notable being that of Ned Kelly’s eleven years earlier.
Now as he was about to place a noose around another human being’s neck for the first time, the conflicting emotions resurfaced. He was able to muster enough mettle to slip the noose over his master’s crown. The master inhaled sharply as he felt the rope slide past his ears, and the rest of his body joined his hands in the trembling.
‘Now slide the knot around to the left ear, right under the jaw there. You want the knot to sit firm against the jawbone, else the rope might not draw tight right enough and you’ve got a death by strangulation on your conscience.’
‘My conscience is my own worry,’ said the apprentice, terser than intended.
‘Ah, that it is my boy. Your emotions are justified in wanting to inflict a painful and miserable death, but you will be under close scrutiny from the sheriff and the warden, and a decapitated body or a man writhing in agony on the end of this rope for minutes on end will reflect poorly on my craftmanship.’
The knot rested secure under his left ear, firm but tight.
‘Now we must move to the scales. A correct weight is imperative for knowing how far to let the drop.’
Both men moved to the scales, where the master stepped upon them and demonstrated the correct procedure for an accurate measurement.
Moving to a wooden bureau, the master opened a narrow book and showed his apprentice the table of drops.
‘Greater minds than ours dictate the length of the drop, son.’
‘The British Home Office,’ said the apprentice, reading from the top of the table.
‘No drop should exceed eight feet.’
‘That’s right,’ replied the master. ‘Although I think they guess as much as we once had to.’
‘What’s your meaning?’ asked the apprentice.
‘Well, the rule is that all deaths must be instantaneous without being unnecessarily violent, even when they clearly aren’t. Abide by this chart my boy, and the surgeon won’t question your methods, despite any bungling. I’ve found it to get the job done more often than it turns to suffering, so maybe there’s something in it. Still, seeing a man kick and struggle for twenty minutes at the end of this rope is something that will stay with you.’
‘So what does the chart say for your weight?’ asked the apprentice.
‘Well son,’ began his master, ‘the scales say 13 stone 1 pound. That makes me 183 pounds, so by the book the length of the drop must be four-foot-seven.’
The apprentice’s eyes scanned the chart, looking at the rows of numbers. He was literate enough, knew his arithmetic and his reading, though he wasn’t so good at writing, but could get by well enough as to appear educated. Looking at the way the rope sat around his master’s neck, the apprentice pondered the alternatives to a precise and clean break. The rope sat a little lower than a short but deep, stitched wound on the master’s throat.
‘And what of your wound? How will it hold up to the drop?’
‘Ah, I reckon it will give out soon enough, but if you place the knot correctly, I’ll be dead before I’m aware of it, and if the chart holds true there won’t be enough force to tear my head entirely from my shoulders.’
‘Should I practice caution and make the drop shorter to save it from tearing from your shoulders?’
‘By God’s mercy, absolutely not!’ hissed the master. ‘And don’t get any notion of raising such concerns with the surgeon either. I’ve seen his meddling in my trade have grievous consequences. I won’t be the victim of one of his arbitrary decisions to change the state of things. The Heavenly Father knows I did what I did, though I don’t, but I’ll face him in fair judgment. I ought not have to go and suffer a cruel mortal death unless He wills it himself. You follow that chart son, you place this knot exactly as it is now and leave the rest to the Lord. Do you understand me?’
‘As you’ll have it,’ said the apprentice flatly.
A brief moment of silence fell before the apprentice spoke again.
‘Why did you kill her?’
Now the master’s eyes betrayed his emotions, and whilst he abstained from sobbing, his tears flowed freely.
‘I cannot even remember doing it, though I know that I did. I loved your mother, I did. My heart was her kingdom. While I was riding the tram down Bourke Street, I saw her walking in the street, arm in arm with Thomas Hogan. I took her out walking, to have a proper conversation about it with her, and when she told me she would never love me, that her love was for only Hogan, it was the devil himself bringing hell up to Earth for me to suffer here. It was the devil took control of my body. I was cast outside and the devil crawled inside me and it was he that slashed your mother’s throat. I’ll swear it on the Bible if you bring one to me.’
‘It was you. You are the devil!’ shouted the apprentice, enraged by his master’s blame-shifting.
‘Right you are, I suppose you are right. It was these trembling hands that held the razor on that cursed night, and I stand before you now ready to pay my debt to you, and to her, and to the righteous people of the colony.’
‘You tried to commit suicide and escape your true justice.’
‘I tell you again it was the devil inside me, son. I have never been capable of such inexcusable sins. I would never wilfully commit such unholy crimes. My faculties had abandoned me.’
‘You’ve made an orphan of me,’ said the apprentice. ‘In one despicable act, you’ve robbed me of my mother and my father.’
‘This is true,’ said the master, ‘but you still have your father until that trap swings open.’
‘That trap will swing open. I will pull that lever with a sure and steady hand, and I will watch my father, the devil, plunge to his rightful place. Until then, him and I have nothing to speak of, except our lessons.’
The master wiped the tears from his cheeks, smiled at his son one last time, and began demonstrating how the white hood was to be fitted to the condemned.
William Westwood’s tale is one of a misguided youth who finds himself whisked away from all he held dear to endure a lifetime of punishment and lawlessness in Australia. He took to the bush as a teenager and soon became one of the most renowned highwaymen in Australian history under the pseudonym Jacky Jacky (alternatively written in the press as Jackey Jackey), but met a grisly end on Norfolk Island ten years after first arriving in New South Wales. What follows is a concise, summarised account of his life and bushranging career.
William Westwood was born on 7 August, 1820 and was raised in Manuden, Essex; he was the eldest of five siblings. As a youth he fell in with bad company and began acting up. At fourteen he had his first conviction: twelve months hard labour for bailing up a woman on the road and stealing clothes from her. Westwood’s accomplice Ben Jackson got off lightly with a flogging.
When he got out of gaol, Westwood went straight for a time, but was soon in court again as a result of stealing a coat, which he then pawned off. As this was his second conviction he found himself, at the age of sixteen, being transported with 310 other convicts on the convict ship Mangles on 18 March, 1837, for a term of fourteen years. Westwood was a surprisingly refined young man, with a decent education for the time and a strong grasp of language; he conversed freely with anyone he came across. He was described as standing at 5’5″, ruddy complexion, brown hair and grey eyes; a scar on the right side of his upper lip, another on the back of his right hand, a blister mark between the breasts and several tattoos — left arm: illegible blue mark, 7 Aug 1820, 3 Jan 1837; back of left hand: figure of the sun. The tattoos were likely either made while serving time in gaol or while waiting to be transported. Indeed, one of the tattoos was the date he expected to end his sentence and return to England.
When he arrived in New South Wales he was sent to Hyde Park Barracks. He was kept here until given his assignment. He was eventually assigned as a servant to Phillip King at Gidleigh Station, Bungendore. Westwood, now seventeen, endured a harsh journey from Rooty Hill to the place he was to work off his sentence. Days were hard and nights were spent sleeping on bare ground, chained to the axle of the supply wagon. Eventually he arrived at the station to start work, and it was here that he would spent the next three years under overbearing and tyrannical masters. He was always testing the boundaries, and after being spotted in town one night, having sneaked out of his quarters, was dragged back to Gidleigh and given fifty lashes. This only strengthened his resolve to rebel.
After suffering at the hands of his master, who saw fit to have him beaten and whipped at even the slightest offence, as well as being short changed on his already inadequate supplies and rations by the overseer, in 1840 Westwood absconded again. When he was inevitably caught, he was given another fifty lashes and sent to work in an iron gang near Goulburn. Conditions here were even worse than at his first assignment, but he knew it would be fleeting and expected to be sent to a new assignment when he was done.
After his stint in the iron gang was done he was sent back to Gidleigh, much to his dismay. The routine played out again: Westwood absconded, was caught and given fifty lashes. The next time, Westwood wanted to make sure he stayed at large. He and two other convicts gathered enough supplies to last them until they got clear away, then, on 14 December 1840, they bolted.
It wasn’t long before Westwood fell in with the notorious bushranger Paddy Curran. The pair were associated from their time as convicts, and Westwood was eager to have a crack at bushranging. Unbeknownst to Westwood, Curran was extremely violent and his morals were diametrically opposed to Westwood’s in just about every way, but none so conspicuous as his attitude to women. As the story goes, during a house raid, Westwood walked in on Curran in the process of raping the lady of the house. Westwood struck Curran, preventing him from proceeding, and threatened to shoot him. Westwood decided he would rather work alone than associate with such a despicable person.
As Westwood got the hang of highway robbery, news of his daring began to spread through the region, though much of it was pure fiction. On one occasion it was said that he bailed up a commissary and upon discovering the commissary’s wife was in the coach, opened the door, swept the ground with his cabbage tree hat in a gentlemanly manner and invited her to dance with him – a request that she obliged. This and many other anecdotes have no tangible evidence to back them up however. Some accounts attested to his masterful horsemanship, likely honed while he worked as a groom at Gidleigh as part of his assignment. In one story he reputedly bailed up a man in Goulburn and implored him to note the time, then a few hours later he bailed up another gentleman near Braidwood, almost 100 kilometers away, and implored him to do the same in order to set a personal record. Again, this is not likely to be anything other than a flight of fancy. His taste for race horses was nigh on insatiable, with him stealing such creatures from Terrence Murray and several others in the region, either on the roads or from farms. He attributed his success in evading capture to his choice of fine horse flesh over the run down nags the police rode. Among his crimes, he robbed the Queanbeayan mail, and robbed Mr. Edinburgh among several others on the Sydney road. In fact, he took a particular liking to robbing mailmen as the takings were often rather good.
By his own account, there were several close shaves with police, including one where a supposed friend had taken money from him to purchase a Christmas dinner, but had instead procured the constabulary. On another occasion he narrowly avoided capture by hiding in a tree. Westwood had become a fly in the ointment to law enforcement, but it would only escalate.
On the afternoon of Monday 11 January, 1841, Jacky Jacky stole a black mare from Mr. McArthur before attempting to rob a mailman that night at Bungonie, whereupon shots were fired. The next day he raided a store at Boro Creek where he procured fine garments and dressed himself in haute couture so that he may cut a fine figure while about his nefarious deeds, including a rather fetching top hat. Such was the extent of his outrages that the entirety of the mounted police in the region, trackers included, were led by Lieutenant Christie and a Mr. Stewart in hot pursuit.
On 13 January 1841, things came to a head when a man arrived in Bungendore, shouting that he was being chased by a bushranger who meant to shoot him. Sure enough, Jacky Jacky soon arrived on a stolen horse, riding through Bungendore for fully an hour and a half, stopping only to have a chat with a man named Eccleston. Soon word reached the local magistrate, Powell, who went with his brother Frank and a local man named Richard Rutledge to capture the infamous bushranger, despite a distinct lack of weapons with which to defend themselves against the armed bandit. Alas after the posse hesitated in approaching the rogue, he caught wind of them and mounted his steed, riding off at full gallop. The men gave chase. A man named William Balcombe was riding ahead with Revered McGrath in a gig. Stopping the gig in the road, McGrath and Balcombe got out and Balcombe confronted the bushranger, McGrath also pulling a revolver on him. Westwood surrendered, complaining that he could have gotten away if his musket were not in such poor shape.
The desperado was escorted back to the local inn where he was detained. However, Jacky Jacky was not ready to go down without a fight and during the night he overpowered one of his guards and stole his weapons. He bolted out of the inn and across the plains. This did not go unnoticed and Frank Powell saw the fugitive legging it through the open space. Powell fired a pistol at Westwood without effect and gathered more firearms from inside before heading off in hot pursuit with a postman, who had become embroiled in the affair by accident. Soon Jacky Jacky was once more apprehended. But the next day while being escorted to Bargo Brush, Westwood escaped custody on foot. He made it a mile away before being recaptured. Not in the mood for any nonsense, the police tied Westwood to his horse for the remainder of the trip. That night, Westwood broke out of the lock up and stole the guard’s weapon and ammunition before taking a horse and riding to freedom.
The beginning of the end came when he called into the Black Horse Inn on the Berrima Road. Westwood casually walked in and ordered refreshments. He then proceeded to bail the place up. Folklore tells that he was served by Miss Gray, the publican’s daughter, who recognised that this man with pistol braces and fine clothes must be the infamous Jacky Jacky. She screamed and pounced on the bushranger, who fought to throw the girl off as she called for her mother and father. All three tried to restrain Westwood who shook them off time and again until a man named Waters, a carpenter that had been repairing shingles on the inn’s roof, entered and knocked Westwood out cold by striking him on the head with a shingling hammer. In truth it was Grey, the publican, and two assigned servants, Waters and McCrohan, who subdued the bushranger, who took two fierce blows to the head with the shingling hammer to go down. With Westwood captured, the Grays earned themselves a cool £30 reward and Westwood was quickly locked up in Wooloomooloo Gaol.
Westwood was put on trial for robbing the store at Boro and was sentenced to penal servitude for life. He was sent to Darlinghurst Gaol but was shortly caught trying to escape. He was then imprisoned on Cockatoo Island where he organised a party of twenty five other convicts to join him in an escape attempt. Escape from Cockatoo Island was considered impossible, but the impossible was no deterrent for William Westwood. The gang subdued a guard and tied him up. Breaching the boundaries they made it to the water and were about to risk sharks and drowning to swim to Balmain but were deftly captured by the water police. The New South Wales government had had enough of the troublesome Englishman and sent him to fulfill his sentence in Van Diemen’s Land with his co-conspirators. Perhaps Port Arthur could take them down a peg or four.
As the story goes, while being sent to Tasmania, the convict men were put in the brig of the prison ship, naked and shackled in an attempt to prevent any attempts to escape. This of course failed and the men broke free from their cages and tried to reach the deck. Soldiers battened down the hatches and kept things thus until arrival at Port Arthur. When the hatches were opened the prisoners were unconscious in the brig, having been denied food and adequate oxygen due to the captain’s decision not to risk opening the hatches to take food to the men during the several day trip.
Despite Port Arthur’s reputation as an inescapable prison, William Westwood managed to escape from Port Arthur multiple times. Most occasions resulted in a few days of freedom at most. In one attempt at freedom with two other convicts, the trio waded naked into the waters at Eaglehawk Neck. Westwood’s companions were taken by sharks and, in his panic, Westwood managed to lose his clothes after his bundled gear was swept away in the waters as he crossed. He was found days later wandering naked and starving.
Such repeated misbehaving saw him put in solitary confinement for almost three months. When he emerged he was assigned to the commissariat. At this time he helped rescue a boatload of soldiers after their vessel had capsized. His reward was to be sent to Glenorchy Probation Station. Here, as could be anticipated, he once more escaped on 31 July, 1845. This time he successfully took to bushranging with two others. They travelled up through the Tasmanian Midlands in an attempt to reach Launceston, where they planned to steal a boat and sail to Sydney. They became hopelessly lost and were unable to find a boat, resulting in one of the men leaving their company after getting lost, while the other remained until they reached Green Ponds, whereupon he left for fear that Westwood would shoot him as he was the designated guide through the bush and had only succeeded in getting them stranded in unfamiliar territory. When Westwood found himself alone again, he continued on foot towards Launceston, hoping to find a way off the island, but was recaptured before reaching his destination. By this time he was suffering a bout of deep depression and posed no resistance.
Now having exasperated the Van Diemen’s Land government too, he was sentenced to death. The penalty was altered to penal servitude for life on Norfolk Island and Westwood found himself once more sailing to exile, this time headed to what was referred to as the Isle of Despair.
In February of 1844, there was a change of administration at Norfolk Island. Alexander Maconochie, the previous man in charge, had firmly believed in the benefits of rehabilitating offenders rather than simply punishing them, and to this end he reduced work hours, including a work-free Sunday, and created a “marks” system that meant that good behaviour would be rewarded. Flogging incidents were decreased but still strictly enforced in cases of sodomy, which were rampant throughout the prison. Perhaps the most significant measure Maconochie had brought in was vegetable patches. Inmates were given small gardens within which they could grow their own sweet potatoes and other vegetables, and were also given cooking pots and utensils so that they could cook their own meals, allowing them to eat in their cells in privacy. Only able to enact these reforms with the 600 newest inmates, the reforms were still considerably effective, with morale high and major incidents in the prison reduced. Despite Governor Gipps’ recommendations to the government to continue Maconochie’s residency at Norfolk Island, the decision had already been made and Major Joseph Childs became the new Commandant. As a military man with wide campaign experience, and a strict disciplinarian, he decided to institute a few changes to bring the convicts under his thumb. To this end incidents of flogging were increased, hours of labour were also increased, rations were reduced and the small gardens the prisoners were allowed, and the produce they had been growing therein, were banned. In a half-hearted attempt to respond to complaints the administration allowed convicts a cup of peas and a cup of flour every day. Unsurprisingly this was not met with the gratitude that was expected by the administration and Childs set in place a proclamation whereby food was to be served in bulk and individual cooking was prohibited. When the inmates were at work their utensils were confiscated on 1 July, 1846.
This was the final straw and Westwood incited a work party to take up arms against the guards and administration of the island. Approximately 1,600 inmates joined in. Armed with a cudgel, Westwood claimed first blood when he clubbed a particularly despised guard to death. He then took up an axe and headed to the barracks, followed by a seething horde of convicts. Here he entered the kitchen and murdered the cook and upon spying two sleeping soldiers in an adjoining room, used the axe to stave in the skull of one soldier, which alerted the other. The soldier, seeing Westwood before him with the bloodied axe, begged, “Please, think of my wife and children!” to which the unrepentant bushranger replied, “Wife and children be damned.” Westwood then killed the soldier as brutally as the others. Still not satiated, but needing a moment of respite from the mayhem he had caused, Westwood filled a pipe with tobacco and had a smoke while the convicts rampaged around him. Westwood, having had his respite, took up his axe and headed for the commandant’s building. Bursting into the building with an escort, Westwood sought out the commandant. The commandant had secreted himself in a small storeroom adjacent to his office. Westwood tracked him down and took a swing at him, narrowly missing the commandant’s head as he ducked to avoid the blow. Managing to escape, the commandant roused a force of troops that descended upon the marauders and subdued them.
Westwood and thirteen other key figures in the riot, including bushranger Lawrence Kavanagh, formerly of Cash and company, were tried in September and charged with the murders. The evidence was irresistible and twelve of the men were sentenced to execution by hanging.
The morning of his execution, Westwood wrote a letter to the reverend of Port Arthur and also wrote a declaration that he was the only party guilty of the offence that all twelve sentenced men were condemned for. On 13 October, 1846, William Westwood was hanged for his crimes. He was twenty-six years old.
A cast was supposedly made of his face and is the only visual record we have of the dashing young outlaw, despite its contended authenticity. Westwood was buried with the other hanged men in a mass grave called Murderer’s Mound on the boundaries of the prison. Such was the impact of the riots that the commandant was fired from his post and calls were made for the Norfolk Island penal colony to be shut down and the inmates transferred to Port Arthur. In a sense, Westwood has succeeded in bringing about a change in how convicts were treated, though he would not live to see the closure of one of the most brutal and dehumanising prisons in the British Empire.
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?
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.