Friday, 10 September 2010

Hanging Too Good for Them?

The Old Melbourne Gaol is a forbidding looking place – which I suppose is as it should be. It is built from bluestone, a material that, in my view, (and I apologise in advance to Melbourne Grammar School, [the world's leading bluestone educational establishment?] for saying this) rarely inspires a sense of cheer.

The interior of the jail, although partly painted, (thus concealing to some extent the sombre blueness of the bluestone), is at least as gloomy as the exterior. It consists of a long stone corridor, flanked on either side by low doorways. A metal staircase at one end leads to the galleries that encircle the two upper floors. Little light reaches through the cells' small windows and there is no visible means of heating. It was freezing the whole time I was inside, and it rained ceaselessly. The steady sound of falling water only increased my sense of gloom.

I should point out, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that I did not go to the jail as an inmate, (the building has not actually functioned as a jail for many years); I went as a visitor to what has become a museum. Instead of prisoners, the cramped cells of the former institution now contain detailed displays that tell the story of Victoria's early penal history.

Melbourne Gaol, it turns out, was built in the mid-nineteenth century – hence, presumably, the archaic spelling. It was modelled on Pentonville Prison in London, which was the template for penal establishments throughout the British Empire at the time. The Pentonville design was based upon the "Pentonville method", which favoured long periods of isolation, silence and constant surveillance – designed to break the spirit so that reform could be effected. During recent repairs at the Melbourne Gaol, a subterranean, windowless "punishment cell", where inmates could be left for up to four days, was discovered, evidence that the isolation principles of the Pentonville method were enforced here with more gusto than previously thought. This does not come as a total surprise once you've seen the dreadful calico hoods that prisoners had to wear in solitary confinement – and the even worse iron masks, inflicted as punishment for outrageous behaviour, such as, horror of horrors, whistling in your cell.

What does seem astonishing though is the information that the jail's youngest inmates included: in 1859, a three-year-old called Michael Cummins, incarcerated for six months for being idle and disorderly (fairly difficult to be anything else at three, I would have thought); Robert Hall, a four-year-old, imprisoned for vagrancy; his brother, Charles, a seven-year-old, also a "vagrant"; and Thomas McNamara, aged nine, charged, once again, with vagrancy. It is details like these that prove the past really is another country: a world where children could be locked up for having nothing to do seems a very foreign place indeed.

Of course, there were far worse fates than isolation and the “Pentonville Method” awaiting prisoners at Melbourne Gaol. Not to put too fine a point on it, 135 of them ended up swinging from the jail’s gallows—which the visitor can still view on an upper level of the museum, along with the dreadful contraption called a lashing triangle. In the cells on the ground floor, the stories of some of these individuals are told. In each separate room, the death mask of one or other of the death sentence victims is displayed, along with information about their convictions.

Among the 135 who were punished by hanging, there were some who were unarguably bad. Martha Needle is one such. Also known as the Richmond Poisoner, she discovered how easy it was to make money from insurance by knocking off family members with arsenic laden food. She managed to poison her husband, three children and a future brother-in-law, before being caught and hanged on 22 October, 1894.

Frederick Bailey Deeming, the famous Windsor Murderer, is another. Deeming, whose death mask is accompanied by a cast of one of his hands, (and what a dreadful hand it seems, once we learn what deeds it did), was once considered a suspect for the crimes of Jack the Ripper. He travelled between the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and South America, with his wife Marie and four children to begin with, and later with his second wife, Emily. He arrived with Emily in Victoria in December 1891 and rented a cottage, calling himself Mr Drewin. In March 1892 when the landlord was showing someone through the cottage, (presumably after the departure of Deeming), he noticed a horrible smell. Police were called and dug up Emily's body, encased in cement and buried beneath the hearthstone. Subsequently, English police found the bodies of Marie and her four children beneath the hearthstone in Deeming's house in Liverpool. Deeming, having now promoted himself to the peerage – he was calling himself Baron Swanson—was caught in Western Australia, where he was about to marry again. Despite a plea of insanity, he was executed at the jail on 23 May, 1892.

Sadly most of the other hanging victims we are introduced to seem, at least on the face of it, less deserving of their eventual fate. In the first cell we go into we find the masks of two Tasmanian Aborigines—Bob "Smallboy" and Jack "Tummunperway". In 1839, they travelled to Victoria from Tasmania with the Chief Protector of Aborigines. When a female amongst their party (the famous Truganini, as it happens), thought she recognised a whaler who had abducted and murdered her husband, they killed him as payback. In sentencing them, the judge declared, "the punishment that awaits you is not one of vengeance but terror… to deter similar transgressions." They were hanged on 21 January, 1842 and, possibly because it was the state's first execution, the job was horribly bungled, one observer describing it as a "disgusting execrable scene."

The next cell tells the story of George Melville, a highwayman, hanged for robbery with intent to murder on 3 October, 1853. He was involved in a hold-up of the “gold trip” in Bendigo, and after his execution the prison released his dead body to his wife, who took it, decorated it with flowers and put it on display in her oyster shop, attracting large crowds. Whether or not she continued trading in oysters with him in situ is, disappointingly, not revealed—I like to think she laid him on a bed of the things and picked them out from under his corpse to serve to ghoulish clients. Whatever the truth or otherwise of that grim tableau, it was decided from then on that the bodies of the hanged would no longer be released to their families but instead would be buried at the prison itself.

An ex convict called Weachurch was the next to go to the gallows—or the next we are shown at least. He was first transported from Britain to Tasmania for theft, and it seems pretty clear from the stuff on display about him that he was either mad or driven mad by the penal system and was in need of treatment rather than execution. On the wall in his cell is a long, somewhat deranged letter that he wrote to his parents during his incarceration. It makes poignant reading: he assures them that he is certain he will soon be released, writing of his "humbel, hearnist, heartfelt prayer" in a script far more beautiful than most of us today can muster. Two thousand people are said to have gathered in Melbourne’s Royal Park to protest against his sentence, which suggests that even in 1835 there were plenty of decent people around.

Weachurch is followed by: an Italian named Bondietto, who was convicted on trumped up circumstantial evidence and spoke no English, so that, horrifyingly, he didn't even realise what was happening until two minutes before he was put to death; an Indian called Fatta Chand, a 24-year-old door-to-door salesman who was supposed to have killed his mate but protested his innocence to the end—the public's attitude to him, sadly, was rather less enlightened than it had been toward Weachurch: in fact, his hanging resulted in nothing except renewed calls for restricted immigration (how things change eh?); An Gaa, a Chinese about whom there was never any doubt that he killed his mate nor about the fact that he was utterly insane; and another 24-year-old, Fred Jordan, an ex-slave from Maryland who, although sweet natured when sober, killed his wife when drunk and whose last words were, 'No, I have nothing to say. It is no use now".

And with the story of Fred Jordan we reach the end of the row of cells on the ground floor, but not the end of the prisoners' stories. In fact, the museum curators have saved us the best for last. Coming out of the final cell doorway, we are confronted with one more deathmask, a more familiar one, belonging to the prison’s most famous inmate. It rests in a glass case at the end of the ground floor corridor–a position that captures what light there is and suggests an altar rather than an exhibit - and it belongs to Ned Kelly.

Kelly's execution took place at the jail on 11 November, 1880. Pitifully, his mother, who was also a prisoner at the time, was working in the prison laundry only a few yards away, aware of what was happening but unable to witness her son's death, (I am not suggesting she would have wanted to attend the event as a spectator, but I think any mother would have wanted to lend emotional support, if that doesn't sound too "new agey" in the circumstances.)

I never really know what I think about Kelly. The times he lived in were hard, but he was a violent man and a threat to authority in the new colony, and I am far from being an anarchist. His mother, (of whom there is a startlingly clear photograph from 1911 on display,) was, I suppose, partly to blame for his downfall, given that it was she who suggested he apprentice himself to a bushranger in the first place—Harry Power, who also spent time at Melbourne Gaol, although he escaped the gallows, dying instead by falling in the River Murray some time later. On the other hand, Kelly was not merely a thief, if the information provided about him by the museum is to be believed. According to that, he was also a kind of revolutionary, with a plan of some sort to declare the north-eastern part of Victoria an autonomous Republic. I don't know whether this legitimises his activities, but it does suggest he was a thinker of some description, as well as a crook.

Many relics of the Kellys can be seen in the jail, including two suits of the armour the gang fashioned from ploughshares (although not Kelly's own, which, in what may be a stroke of irony or merely a nice reminder of the fact that his nihilistic efforts might have prevented the establishment of such a civilised institution, takes pride of place at the State Library, which was set up by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Kelly to death.) It is almost pointless looking at them anyway: like chocolate box alpine scenes, the things are so ubiquitous as images that it is actually quite surprising to view them in the round and realise that they really do exist. They are overflowing with symbolic meaning - although what they are symbolic of exactly, I am far from certain - but it is nearly impossble to see them simply as what they are.

One item of Kelly's on display in the jail that did touch me a little though, setting up some sense of a link between the man and the present, was a green velvet sash that Kelly was given when he was about 10, after he leapt into a fast-flowing river, without any thought for his own safety, and saved a boy from drowning (given Harry Power’s eventual fate, he might have done well to keep Kelly by him longer, in the circumstances). Kelly was wearing the sash at his death which struck me as rather poignant—I’m probably getting carried away with sentiment here (this is what the Kelly myth does to you, if you don’t watch it) but I couldn’t help wondering if the object reminded him of what he might have been, rather than what he had become.

Strangely though, resonant and almost overpowering as Kelly's story is for Australians, it is not the most powerful or upsetting tale in Melbourne jail–not by a long chalk. That honour is reserved, at least in my mind, for the account of what happened to Colin Ross, which can be found in a large room right at the top of the building.

Colin Ross was convicted in 1922 of the murder of a young girl and sentenced to hang. He insisted he had not committed the crime, going so far as to persuade his warders to give him, illegally, a pencil stub, with which he scrawled the following note on the back of an envelope:

"Dear Friends outside, a few words from Colin Ross, who is going to hang an innocent man, I appeal to the people of Australia to see that I get justice. My life has been sworned away by police and wicked people. I ask you this because if they will do it to me they will do the same to you. Take this to some paper office for me please, I am an innocent man."

The note, now on display in the jail, was somehow thrown over the prison wall and found by a passer by. The guards who had supplied the means of writing it were punished. Then it was discovered that, after all, Colin Ross had been telling the truth all along. He had been framed by police anxious for a quick result and by someone with a grudge against him. Forensic evidence proved his innocence and he was pardoned. Sadly, he was already dead by then, having been hanged on 24 April, 1922. His vindication came on 27 May, 2008, almost 100 years to late

But, if Ross's tale is not enough to give the most keen devotee of hanging pause for thought, there is always the issue of whether it is fair to ask someone else to carry out the deed. Next to a room in which the only thing on exhibit is an extremely lifelike human figure with its back to the viewer, the canvas hood worn by all condemned men over its head and a leather covered hangman's noose around its neck, the stories of the first people who were given the unpleasant task of being hangmen are laid out in considerable detail.

The first we meet is Alexander Green, originally the New South Wales hangman, who completed 409 executions before going mad. After him comes Michael Gately, a convict whose claim to fame, apart from being generally hated, was that he converted from Roman Catholicism to the Jewish faith while in jail, because being a Jew brought an entitlement to Passover cake. While in life Gately seems to have retained his equanimity better than most of his colleagues, he now, supposedly, haunts the jail.

Gateley’s replacement was Elijah Upjohn, a criminal from the UK whose offences included "drunkenness" and "indecent exposure" plus, mystifyingly, "carting night soil without a license." (was this what they did before telly?) It was Upjohn who hanged Ned Kelly, but accounts from the time suggest that he had to be wound up to the act with large amounts of alcohol. After Kelly's execution, Upjohn apparently lost what little nerve he had, bungled the next hanging he presided over and retired a broken man. William Walker succeeded him but, when faced with the first hanging of a woman in Victoria, he cut his own throat instead. The man who followed him fared no better, descending into madness and ending his life convinced naked girls were chasing him down the street abusing him.

These stories suggest that, whatever we may think of the criminals who are being punished, hanging is not merely a risky business for those on whom it is practised but also a destructive enterprise for those who have to carry out the deed. There is always another victim, it seems—and that is the hangman. Of course, the leaders of some countries would advocate a sharing of the burden instead—a collectivisation of responsibility via the practice of stoning—but all I can say to them is, “Off with your heads.”


  1. Pentonville was designed and built by one of my antecedents and you are right to say that it was intended to break the prisoners' spirits so that they might be reformed. However, it was not intended to be inhumanely uncomfortable. I discovered quite recently that the prison was centrally heated in a rudimenary sort of way and each cell was designed with its own (admittedly primitive) lavatory. This design feature was soon removed from subsequent prisons, presumably on the grounds that it was too cossetting and the practice of "slopping out" still remains in some UK prisons. I find this extraordinary.

  2. Sophie: my husband is fascinated by discovering his family's history and there was a worrying few weeks where it looked like one of his antecedents might have been a guard on one of the worst of the convict ships. Luckily, this turned out to be a genealogical red herring but, reading your comment, I wondered whether the same thing had happened to you. Did you always know you were related to the Pentonville character or did you find out about it? I imagine, within the context of the time, the person in question was probably considered quite enlightened but, reading the theories - the isolation et cetera - to modern eyes the method still seems fundamentally cruel. As to the slopping out still going on, it's astonishing, especially considering the way health and safety regulations have saturated most areas of life

  3. I did already know about the Pentonville designer - he was a military engineer of some distinction and therefore, I suspect, a pragmatist above all else.

    Family history is a funny thing: from an early age I was told about the good and worthy ancestors but nothing about those who went bad - and there must have been some. Once, a long time ago, my parents were visited by a man who came to the door claiming kinship and asking for money. They wouldn't tell me who he was but I heard dark mutterings about a Remittance Man (in the old fashioned sense). Someone in the family's past must have been sent away in disgrace and he - or his descendant - had come back in the hope of a financially rewarding reconciliation. V. dark and mysterious.

  4. I never really understood what a remittance man was, although I think Australia was one of their main ports of call. As children, we were sustained in the belief, on my father's side, that we were direct descendants from someone called King Logbrog of Denmark, who would still be on the throne (or rather we would) had he not got on the wrong side of his sons, who threw him in a pit of snakes. There are so many aspects of this story that I like, but I fear not a word of it is true.

  5. what a fascinating and well written post

  6. If only all health professionals were as nice as you, Nurse