Posts filed under 'Australia'

1889: Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales

Add comment January 8th, 2020 Headsman

The last woman hanged in New South Wales, Australia was the “Botany Murderess” Louisa Collins, on this date in 1889.

A transport convict’s daughter from near Merriwa, Collins was accused in the courts and the common run of opinion of murdering both her husbands with arsenic — first Charles Andrews, 13 years her senior and father to nine of her 10 children* — and then Michael Collins, the lover with whom she scandalously fell into bed while husband’s body was still warm, and indeed before: desperate to relieve the financial pressure of their large family, Charles and Louisa had taken in boarders, of whom Michael Collins was one — at least until Charles threw him out for getting too familiar with the lady of the house.

The fact that this adulterous couple immediately shacked up (and, as our principal’s surname will have signaled, shortly thereafter wed) after a stomach ailment felled the husband set tongues a-wag and eyebrows a-cock. The subsequent death of Michael and Louisa’s only child together,** and then of Michael himself, could not but appear confirmation of the very worst.

Although accused, she was only convicted once over the course of four trials.

Where murder is concerned, any one will do for the law no matter the conviction ratio. But the chain obviously smacks of an unseemly jury-shopping, facilitated by the first three panels’ failure to reach any verdict rather than acquit outright and cinched by the Crown’s convincing the court to admit at her last trial previously-barred testimony.

The hard evidence remained stubbornly circumstantial as usual with arsenic cases: her paramour and an insurance policy on her husband supplied a motive that was positive but far from dispositive, and the alleged means was nothing more than a commercial pest controller called Rough On Rats whose presence in the house would have incriminated half of Australia.† (Arsenic was also used in the sheepskin tanning industry where both of Louisa’s late men sweated their daily bread.) Neighbors fleshed out these bare bones with eye-of-the-beholder judgments against Louisa’s comportment, such as the insufficient-mourning canard that’s still a staple of wrongful convictions.

Moreover, Louisa Collins’s case became enmeshed in the era’s web of gender politics: the campaign soliciting clemency on grounds of femininity overlapped but also contradicted the simultaneous campaign for women’s suffrage, goring oxes left and right.

That gore still spatters latter-day observers of this still-fascinating affair, who in recent years have enjoyed two different volumes illuminating the respective silhouette-halves that Louisa Collins presents posterity: a woman railroaded (Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (author interview)); and, cold-blooded murderess (Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, by Carol Baxter (author interview)). There’s also a recent historical novel, The Killing Of Louisa, by Janet Lee (author interiew).

Two things that all parties can agree on: first, that her quadruple prosecution makes for a troubling legal spectacle — “a collusion between the prosecution and the state and the judiciary to keep her going to trial until the desired result,” as Baxter put it; and second, that Collins’s eventual hanging at Darlinghurst was a ghastly botch. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported how

The executioner signalled to his assistant to pull the lever, but the handle refused to move. It could be seen that pressure was applied, and also that the pin which held the handle in its place was fast in its slot. The assistant endeavoured to remove the pin, but failed, and in a few seconds a mallet was used. Four or five blows were applied Mrs Collins meanwhile standing perfectly upright and motionless-before the pin gave way.

The delay caused could not have been short of one minute, when the lever moved and the body fell through in a slightly curved position. After one swing to the side and in a moment it was suspended perpendicularly, with the face towards the yard. There was a slight spurt of blood, followed by a thin stream which ran down the dress and spotted the floor beneath. Nearer examination showed that the strain of the drop had so far opened the neck as to completely sever the windpipe, and that the body was hanging by the vertebra. Slowly the body turned round on the rope until the front part faced the doorway, and there it remained stationary until lowered by the executioner on to a wicker bier. Death was instantaneous. After hanging for 20 minutes the corpse was conveyed to the inquest room, and again given over to the female warders.


Poor service: hangman Robert Rice Howard, aka “Nosey Bob” after a distinctive disfigurement of that appendage courtesy of a horse’s backheel.

* Seven of these nine children by Charles Andrews survived infancy. At the time of the alleged murders, five of these children still shared the house with their parents.

** The possible murder of the infant Collins child wasn’t on Louisa’s charge sheet but remains an understandable suspicion.

† As a brand name for arsenic, Rough On Rats became a ready resource for numerous aspiring suicides and homicides.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1943: Four Aussie escapees, at the Hotel Tacloban

Add comment December 25th, 2019 Headsman

Christmas Day of 1943 witnessed the demoralizing beheadings of four Australian POWs in the Japanese camp near Tacloban on the Philippines island of Leyte.

This camp held Aussie and British war captives, but its definitive account titled The Hotel Tacloban* comes from the mouth of a lone American mixed in among them — witness to the cross-cutting tensions in this little world between the two nationalities, and between enlisted men and officers. Of notable import for this episode is the campwide resentment of the ranking British officer, one Major Roland Leeds Cumyns.

By the account of our American interlocutor, Cumyns “was the most arrogant, most conceited son-of-a-bitch I’d ever come across in my life; an impossible officer who was thoroughly convinced that God was an Englishman.” Worse, he embodied the class snobbishness of the privileged caste from whom British field officers were drawn and shamelessly aligned himself with the Japanese camp commandant Captain Yoshishito. The Australians in particular, for whom British class prerogatives were not imbibed with mother’s milk, abhorred him. “Pampered, primped and preened, the Major wholeheartedly believed that it was his manifest destiny to ascend to the pinnacle of his profession,” sneered our American observer, who fraternized mostly with the Aussies. “The Major took every opportunity to attend to his own creature comforts while flaunting his disdain for the plight of the Australians.”

On Christmas Eve, our four principals — names of Travis MacNaughton, Justice “Jassy” Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, Aussies all — escaped from the Hotel Tacloban. Maybe they would have acted differently had they but known that the U.S. invasion of the Philippines would begin on the beaches of Leyte itself just ten months hence — but then again, ten months in this particular camp might have been worth the risk of one’s life. U.S. Army rangers who liberated the prisoners apparently wept to behold the “monstrous degradation” of their condition.

So thrilled that night by news of the breakout that the British and Australian sections competed in belting jovial renditions of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Waltzing Matilda”, the camp by Christmas morning was tense with nervous anticipation. And as feared, right around daybreak, all four escapees were driven up on a flatbed truck, “badly beaten, blindfolded and bound in chains.” The entire camp was called to assemble for what came next, not excepting those in the infirmary who were carried out and propped up by their unwilling comrades, for “no ones was to be spared the executions.”

When everyone was present, Captain Yoshishito advanced and stood impassively beside the Major, both of their backs turned indifferently on the open space separating them from the four condemned Aussies on the back of the truck. With Yoshishito was the Executioner, a scabbard hanging from his hip, its tip dragging along the ground, the handle on the ceremonial sword itself almost a foot long and tucked up under his arm. Expressionless, their hooded eyes darting left and right, Yoshishito’s lieutenants stood poised and alert in front of Travis, Jassy, Larry and Tommy.

Tommy was reacting the worst; he’d gone completely to pieces. He was crying hysterically and had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the guards. Jassy and Larry were sobbing to themselves, struggling hard not to collapse. Travis was the only man who had not broken down. Standing ramrod straight, no sign of fear visible on his bearded face, he calmly asked that his blindfold be removed. The Major, with Captain Yoshishito’s approval, granted Travis’s request, and one of the Japanese officers untied it and pulled it off. And even though he stared directly into the rising sun, Travis didn’t blink. His eyes were glowing fiery red.

The guards separated the men four paces apart. They motioned for Travis to kneel in the dust with his head bent forward and he did so, without hesitation. The Executioner drew his sword and moved beside him. Dawn cast long shadows across the prison yard — the moment seemed arrested by the level sun.

I wanted to look away as I watched over the shoulder of the man standing in front of me, but there was some crazy compulsion to see. Try as I might, I couldn’t move my eyes from the blade on the ceremonial sword, which was long and slightly curved, but neither heavy nor thick nor ornate. Both hands on the hilt, the Executioner raised it above his shoulder, the sunlight momentarily glinting off the steel, then he brought it down.

I closed my eyes when he hit Travis — I couldn’t watch anymore after that — I just stood there with my eyes shut tight, hating myself and shivering inside, wanting desperately to cover my ears with my hands. But that wasn’t allowed, and three more times I heard that awful sound (the little bastards saved Tommy for last, for the devastating psychological effect), and then there was silence. Merciful silence. And in that absence of sound that followed the beheadings of Travis MacNaughton, Justice Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, there wasn’t one man, Brit or Aussie, who didn’t know deep in his heart that the Major had to go. Speaking for every man there, Sgt. Major Goodhall, good soldier of the disgraced English Army, a man who’d been turned inside-out by his commanding officer’s treachery, a man who could no longer stand idly by while his honorable world crumbled around him, with utter contempt, turned and spit in the Major’s face.

Stunned speechless, his eyes blinking rapidly and his jaw muscle twitching uncontrolably, the Major quickly wiped the spittle away, then proceeded to strip Goodhall of his rank and ordered him placed under arrest. “Was there to be no end to the insults heaped upon him?” he seemed to be thinking. The man was insane.

Captain Yoshishito was astounded. It was inconceivable to him that ordinary soldiers of any army would demonstrate even the slightest hint of disrespect to their commanding officer. Such acts of defiance ate away at the very foundation upon which the chain of command is structured. Yoshishito stood there bewildered, regarding the situation with total disbelief — genuinely grieved that his brother officer, our lovely Major, had once again been publicly disgraced. Regaining his senses, Captain Yoshishito quickly signalled to his lieutenants, who selected eight Australians at random to dig graves and bury the dead. Then, speaking through a Filipino interpretor, he notified us that we were to be denied the right to conduct funeral services, that there would be no general issue of rice for the next two days, and that only the minimum water ration would be distributed, British officers excluded. The Australian officers were offered the same exemption, but flatly turned it down.

No one waited to be dismissed. Everyone just turned around and walked back to their huts.

The camp’s Aussie enlisted men drew straws the following morning for the responsibility of visiting their collective judgment on Major Cumyns. As night fell on Boxing Day, two of them garroted Cumyns in his tent, while their American adoptive comrade stood lookout.

* The Hotel Tacloban is by the American journalist Douglas Valentine, drawn from his conversations with (and primarily in the voice of) his father, the actual POW — also named Douglas Valentine. It’s a brief and compelling read, and it had an importance to the younger Valentine’s subsequent path quite surpassing the fact that it was his first book: Valentine’s empathetic portrayal of military men and the grim realities of war impressed CIA Director William Colby so much that Colby facilitated Valentine’s requested access to dozens of agents involved in the notorious Vietnam War-era assassination campaign, the Phoenix Program. The resulting interviews in turn led to Valentine’s still-essential tome The Phoenix Program and a subsequent career focus on the Agency which has produced (along with a great many articles) a book about intelligence coordination shaping the War on Drugs titled The Strength of the Pack, and the more recent volume, The CIA as Organized Crime. In Valentine’s own estimation, “Tacloban was key to unlocking the CIA’s door.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1789: Ann Davis, the first woman hanged at Sydney Cove

Add comment November 23rd, 2019 Headsman

The first woman hanged in colonial Australia was Ann(e) Davis, on this date in 1789.

Convicted in London “for feloniously stealing, on the 27th day of April, eight pair of silk stockings, value 8s. the property of James Atkinson,” Davis was one of 101 female convicts transported to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet aboard the Lady Penrhyn.* Davis would have been in the crowd of onlookers the year before when the fledgling colony conducted its very first execution.

This spectacle did not un-sticky Davis’s fingers, for she was sentenced in Sydney Cove for again plundering wardrobes to the tune of

four linen shirts of the value of twenty nine shillings and six pence; one cheque shirt of the value of four pence; one linen waistcoat of the value of two shillings; two cambrick handkerchiefs of the value of three shillings; one silk waistcoat of the value of two shillings; one dimety waistcoat of the value of eighteen pence of the goods and chattels of the said Robert Sidaway; and one linen bed gown of the value of two shillings; one linen apron of the value of eighteen pence; two linen caps of the value of sixpence; one piece of a cap of the value of one penny; one muslin handkerchief of the value of six pence; and one pair of linen pockets of the value of one penny of the goods and chattels of Mary Marshall in the same dwelling house.

Davis attempted to plead her belly, failing to impress a jury of matrons impaneled to scrutinize her for pregnancy.

Seaman Jacob Nagle piteously recorded her end:

Some time after this, one of the wimen [Ann Davis] stole some wet clothes and was condemned and hung. She strove to bring a free man in guilty that belonged to our ship that was on duty on shore, it being proved by a number of witnesses that he was innocent and new nothing of it. Otherwise, she might have been saved, as the Governor left it to Captain Hunter, but he would not for give her, and when brought to gallos, leading her by two wimen, she was so much intocsicated in liquor that she could not stand without holding her up. It was dreadful to see heir going to aternity out of this world in such a senceless, shocking manne.

As noted by Australia’s Dark Heart the experience of dispatching this creature might have been especially traumatizing to the colony’s unwilling executioner James Freeman — for he was found roaring drunk a few days later and punished with 100 lashes.

* After discharging its human cargo, the Lady Penrhyn proceeded upon further circulating in the Pacific and the Far East; in 1788, she sighted and named the Cook Islands atoll of Penrhyn.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1842: The prisoner-mutineers of the Governor Phillip

Add comment November 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1842, four men hanged in Australia for the mutiny on the Governor Phillip.*

In this abortive rebellion, a dozen prisoners being carried on the aforenamed brig off the coast of Norfolk Island capitalized on the inattention of their guards and attempted to commandeer the vessel. By every account it was an unpremeditated affair, simply an attack of opportunity when the prisoners realized they’d been carelessly left free on the deck with only two guards, who were speedily thrown into the drink. (One drowned.)

Their aspirations at this moment ran along the lines of Fletcher Christian: merely to escape.

“Captain Boyle, I want to make a proposal with you,” one of the mutineers shouted at the momentarily deposed skipper while the latter was barricaded in his cabin. “Give us provisions and sails, and we’ll take the boat and leave you.” No deal was struck; instead, within a matter of minutes, the crew and guards rallied and took back the ship. It was the least they could do since, as one news article put it, “it certainly says little for their vigilance or prowess that such an attempt could have been made with any chance of success by a handfull of unarmed men.”

Five prisoners and the one drowning guard died in the scrap.

The seven surviving mutineers were left to stand trial for piracy, four — John Jones, John Sayers, Nicholas Lewis and George Beaver — of them ultimately consigned to the gallows at Sydney. (Two reprieves and a non-prosecution spared the remainder.) They arrived thence “so firm, yet in so resigned and devotional a state of mind” for they had “gradually become aware of their awful situation and received … those aids and consolations of religion” whilst “fully acknowledging the justice of the law.”

* The ship was named for Arthur Phillip, who commanded the First Fleet that founded the first British penal colony in Australia in 1788 — the germ of the eventual city of Sydney. (Named for Phillip’s patron, the Viscount Sydney.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy

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1860: George Waines, forensically boned

Add comment July 16th, 2019 Headsman

From the Melbourne Argus of 14 July 1860:


The case of the convict [George] Waines appears to excite considerable interest in the public mind, especially since it has become known through our columns that he made a confession which had not previously been made public. We are now in a position to place before our readers the confession of the wretched man, and also the fact that his death-warrant has reached the sheriff, to be carried into execution on Monday next. [Monday, July 16, 1860 -ed.]

Upon a careful perusal of the confession, it will be found that the prisoner’s version of the whole circumstances connected with the crime would, if true, very materially alter the character of the offence for which he is condemned to die. It will be remembered that the hypothesis presented to the jury was that the prisoner went to the house of the Hunts, and in cold blood murdered them in order to escape a pecuniary liability. [Waines owed them 50 quid. -ed.]

His confession now made, under sentence of death, would show a state of things so entirely different, that had he revealed the facts in the first instance, the probabilities are, although in strictness of law the act might have amounted to legal murder, a jury would have been inclined to find a verdict of the lesser crime of manslaughter, or, at all events, that the Executive would mitigate the punishment to that of the minor offence. It is remarkable also that, although Waines admitted to several persons the fact of his having murdered the Hunts, the circumstances attending the commission of the crime were never clearly elicited until his present confession; and, indeed, as, far as they were elicited, a reference to the evidence would go to show that the deed was perpetrated under the smart of an imputation cast upon his wife.

The second point on which the confession, if true, would affect his case, is as to the identity of the bones of Mary Hunt. According to his statement, it would appear that every vestige of the remains of that unfortunate woman was destroyed before he exhumed the body of her husband, thereby showing that the medical testimony was wholly at fault in convicting him of the murder of Mary Hunt. With regard to this last point the convict is most anxious that the fact should, before — or even after — his execution be investigated; and certainly with regard to the science of medical jurisprudence, it is most desirable that such a course should be adopted, even with a view of proving whether or no the conviction is not a wrongful one. In the administration of criminal justice the slightest irregularity has frequently been held sufficient to warrant a commutation of punishment. A remarkable instance of this is on record where a learned judge, in sentencing a man to death, omitted to direct that he should be buried within the precincts of the gaol, the consequence of which omission was that the prisoner was set at large.

The convict, by his confession, offers to state what “he did with the bones of Mary Hunt,” on receiving an assurance that the bones which were deposed to as being hers should be subjected either before or after his death to surgical examination.

At the interview with which Waines was favoured the wretched man made the following extraordinary and startling statement. He confessed to having murdered both the man and wife in the manner detailed in his written statement, and that he buried them as therein mentioned. After a lapse of eight months, finding that inquiries were being made about the Hunts, he, understanding that he could not be found guilty if the remains were not identified, proceeded to disinter the bodies, with the intention of burning them to ashes. The night which he chose for this purpose happened to be bright moonlight, and his description of the dreadful scene is horrific in the extreme. His mind had been for a considerable period in a dreadful state, and at midnight he proceeded to his revolting task. He first disinterred the body of Mary Hunt, which he describes as being in a state of decomposition, with the rotten clothes clinging to the bones. On that lovely night he lighted a fire, and putting the ghastly remains on it, burned every vestige to ashes.

After having done so he found one piece of bone, a few inches in length, which, in his desire to destroy every trace of the unfortunate woman, he took up and pulverised with his hands.

The prisoner states that, having so destroyed every trace of the wife, he next proceeded to exhume the body of the husband, with the intention of destroying it in like manner. He so far succeeded in his horrid purpose as to disinter the body, when he became on that lovely moonlight night so perfectly horror-stricken, that he says he was wholly unable to proceed with his terrible work. He states that then, finding himself so perfectly unnerved, he hurriedly gathered the bones together, put them in a sack, and, rushing to the banks of the river, threw them into a waterhole. At this time the moon shone out brightly, and the wretched man states that, standing on the banks for a few minutes, he saw the sack with its ghastly contents rise to the surface. Horror-stricken as he was, he pulled it ashore, and filling the sack with earth and stones, finally sunk it. He admits that when in prison he made the confession to Brown, the detective, which led to his conviction; but it certainly is now a serious question whether, if this confession be true, a conviction of this kind ought to be confirmed, seeing the frightful consequences that might ensue from persons being found guilty of murder without clear proof of the corpus delicti.

In this case Waines was, on the surgical evidence that the bones were those of a white woman, convicted of the murder of Mary Hunt. If his confession be true — and under the circumstances there can scarcely be any reason for doubting it — the bones were those of a man, and although he confesses to the crime, it is not difficult to perceive how easily an innocent man might be convicted on similar testimony.

The following is the confession, as stated in the letter of Waines to his counsel:

Melbourne Gaol, July 8.

As a poor unfortunate prisoner now under sentence of death, which sentence I believe to be irrevocably fixed, I hope you will pardon me for taking the liberty of writing to you. I wish to inform you that, before I die, I have got what I think a duty to perform, likewise a request to make; and to show you that it is what I think as much a duty as a favour, I confess at once that I am guilty of the murder of Mary Hunt but not wilfully, as Brown stated in court. At the same time, I do not feel justified in doing it; but I hope, by a deep repentance and sorrow for my past conduct, and by faith in Jesus Christ, who died to save sinners, of whom I am chief, that the Lord will pardon my sins. It was not done for the money; I had no call to do it for that; it was done for Mrs. Hunt calling my wife a b—- w—-. After I had paid Hunt all that was due to him, he asked me if I would let them have the hut to live in for a fortnight. I told him I could not, as I had got a married couple coming the next day, and they would want to live in it. With that Mrs. Hunt spoke up, and said, “That’s the doings of that b—- w—- at the Wannon. She knows that I want to stop in the hut until you come from Portland.” When she said that, I was just going to the wood-heap with the axe in my hand, and I struck her over the head, and she fell. Hunt was at the wood-heap at the same time, and took up a lump of wood, and ran at me to strike me, and I struck him instead; and that is the way they carne by their death, which I was very sorry for; but I could not call back what was done. I thought once of confessing it; but I afterwards turned afraid of it, thinking I might be blamed and executed for it, as though I had done it wilfully. I afterwards buried them in separate places, for eight months. I then took the body of Hunt, and put it in the river. I never cut it up. The bones came separate when I took them out from where I buried them. As for Mary Hunt’s body, I can call God to be my witness that there never was a bone of Mary Hunt’s in the river, nor yet before the coroner’s jury. And I can say with truth, that had the witnesses sworn nothing but the truth, although I was guilty, neither judge nor jury would have found me so. I do not say this to screen myself; if I did, I should not plead guilty. The doctors not being so clever as they profess to be, and knowing they must pronounce it to be one of the two, they pronounced it to be that of a female, which I can call God to be my witness that there is not one female bone among them. I will make a full confession to the public, with the hope that it may be a warning to some one who may not have sufficient guard over his temper as was the case with myself. I think it my duty, and my request is, to beg of the Government to have the bones brought to Melbourne, which, if they would, I know they have got the means of proving what they are, and I am as certain as I am of my death that there is not one female bone among them. If the Government will do that, I will then tell them where Mary Hunt’s body is. My conscience tells me that it is quite as equal a duty of the Government to have the bones tested as what it is of me to make a confession. The expense would be very little, and time very short; and although I be guilty, it might be the means of saving some one that was innocent at some future time, by being a caution to Government how careful they ought to be, in a case of life and death, in taking a doctor’s evidence, by giving a random guess at a thing I am certain they do not understand. I have no doubt but they will try to keep the Government from doing it on account of their own credit. If the Government will not do it on account of delaying my execution — if they will only promise me to do it after I am dead, and bring the same to the eyes of the public, I will then tell them before I die what I did with Mary Hunt’s bones. I am convicted of my own confession [Waines was entrapped by a detective who posed as a fellow-prisoner and elicited his admission -ed.], and I think it ought to be proved, which it might have been if they had taken my words for it. When they pronounced it to be a female, at the first I told them it was not, and the evidence of Chaffe will show it. He swears that I told him it was that of a man — and that I can swear, and swear the truth, till the last moment I have to live. What I said with reference to Hunt’s going away, it was quite natural I should say to clear myself if I could. But what I say now the Government, if they wish, can prove to be the truth; and if they will, I think they might still have mercy on me, and save my life, when they prove the truth of my statement and the doctor’s error. Even if they do not save my life, it will be some satisfaction for them to know that the doctors were wrong. If I were not certain that they are, I would not say so. I know the doctors in Melbourne can prove it; and, therefore, I should only be keeping myself longer in suspense, which would be worse than death. As to other charges which have appeared in the papers, I can only say, with a clear conscience to my last moment, they are all lies, raised by my enemies with the hope, in my opinion, of poisoning the mind of the Government, from fear that I should have a chance of escape by the point of law which was reserved. I was never charged with anything in my life before of which I need fear anyone knowing. I hope the Government, after convicting me by my own statement, will feel it their duty to prove my statement thoroughly correct, when they have got the means of doing it so easily; and if they do, I call God to be my witness, they will find what I have stated to be the truth.

GEORGE WAINES.


Sir, I am quite satisfied that you have done all you possibly could in defending my cause and trying to save my life, although you were unable to do so. For what you have done, may the Lord bless you!

I think, sir, if you would be so kind as to ether see or petition His Excellency the Governor, he might grant my request, and have the remains of the body brought to Melbourne. If he would, I call God to be my witness that they will find them to be as I have stated. If you will do so, I am quite certain that whatever extra charge you make for your trouble, either Mr. Scott or my poor wife will pay you, whether you save my life or not. I admit the sentence is just as regards my guilt, but I think, as regards the law, my life ought to be spared. I think it quite unreasonable to execute a prisoner for the murder of a woman on the evidence of the body of a man, which man I was not tried for. Had they tried me for the murder of the man instead of the woman, I should never have written this.

Sir, – will you please to let me have an answer to this,

Your obedient servant,

GEORGE WAINES.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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1919: Frank Willis, but not by Bill Fisk

3 comments May 27th, 2019 Headsman

The futile last appeal of Australia-born artillerist Frank Willis — before his execution at La Havre a century ago today for killing a British policeman — ran thus:

I am 20 years of age. I joined the Australian Army in 1915 when I was 16 years of age. I went to Egypt and the Dardanelles. I have been in a considerable number of engagements there, & in France. I joined the British Army in April 1918 and came to France in June 1918. I was discharged from the Australian Army on account of fever which affected my head contracted in Egypt. I was persuaded to leave my unit by my friends and got into bad company. I began to drink and gamble heavily. I had no intention whatever of committing the offences for which I am now before the Court. I ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future.

This young man’s shooting detail was to have been commanded by Second Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the King’s Liverpool Regiment the father of the great Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. Fisk has written frequently about his father’s refusal to conduct the execution, which the son says cost his father his military career and was also “the noblest act of his life” although it made no difference at all to the fate of Frank Willis.

Thanks to the investigatory exertions of the Great War Forum, it appears that “Frank Willis” was a pseudonym, and the true name under which this man joined and deserted the Australian army before his British enlistment was Richard Mellor. Mellor’s mother spent the rest of her life vainly petitioning authorities for information about her son’s fate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,History,Murder,Shot,Soldiers

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1942: The Laha Massacre

Add comment February 20th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, 200-plus Australian and Dutch prisoners captured after the Battle of Ambon earlier that same year were summarily executed near Laha Airfield on present-day Maluku, Indonesia. It was the last and the largest of a series of POW executions in the days following the February 3 conclusion of the battle; collectively, they’re known as the Laha Massacre.*

The individual incidents, timelines, and body counts of the several incidents are reported with a good deal of variance and conflation in the sites describing these horrible days, but the evening of February 20 as the consummating atrocity appears to me solidly attested — as does the destruction of a Japanese minesweeper during the battle (by this time, an event that was a couple of weeks past) as one of the motivations. The Japanese officer tasked with conducting the butchery, a Captain Nakagawa, recorded the event in a grim diary entry. (According to Ambon: The Truth About One of the Most Brutal POW Camps in World War II and the Triumph of the Aussie Spirit, Nakagawa did not approve of the executions, but he obeyed his orders.)

The prisoners of war were brought by truck from the barracks to the detachment headquarters, and marched from there to the plantation. The same way of killing was adopted as before, i.e. they were made to kneel down with their eyes bandaged and they were killed with sword or bayonet. The poor victims numbered about two hundred and twenty in all, including some Australian officers.

The whole affair took from 6 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Most of the corpses were buried in one hole, but because the hole turned out not to be big enough to accommodate all the bodies an adjacent dug-out was also used as a grave.

LOS NEGROS, March 9 (A.A.P.-Reuter) — The Australian War Crimes Court here yesterday heard how Japanese sailors beheaded, bayoneted and shot 200 Australian war prisoners at Ambon in February, 1942.

The massacre lasted four hours.

The prosecutor, Major Alex Mackay, of Perth, told the Court, “The Australians were killed in a spirit of revenge.

They were all killed, so no one could live to tell the story of the massacre.

The Japanese sailors whipped themselves into a frenzy and shouted the names of dead comrades during the killings.

THREE CHARGED

Before the Court are Navy Sub-Lieutenant Takahiko Tsuaki, Warrant-Officer Keigo Kanamoto, and Seaman Shikao Nakamura — all charged with having murdered Australian prisoners.

The names of other former men of the Japanese Navy appear on the charge sheet, but these men have evaded arrest.

Major Mackay said the prisoners were not blindfolded.

They did not know they were going to be executed until they arrived at the side of prepared mass graves.

They had been told they were going swimming.

AFTER SHIP SANK

Major Mackay said the massacre occurred soon after a Japanese minesweeper had struck a mine and sunk in Ambon Bay.

About 20 Japanese were killed.

Survivors of the ship’s company took part in the execution.

One Australian, an officer, managed to loosen his bonds and to seize a rifle from a Japanese, said Major Mackay.

He levelled the rifle at one of his captors and pulled the trigger. But the rifle was not loaded.

Another executioner shot and killed the officer.

“LENT MY SWORD”

In a sworn statement, one of the accused, Kanamoto, said:

Every executioner, without exception, shouted names of fallen comrades and cried ‘in revenge of so-and-so’ as he swung his sword.

Kanamoto denied having executed anyone. He said he lent his sword to a friend so he could take part in the execution.

“Brandishing the naked blade, he let out a yell and brought the sword down,” said Kanamoto.

A head rolled into a prepared pit.

He then beheaded another victim. This time the sword cut too well. The blade, in full swing as it cut off the prisoner’s head, almost touched and wounded my leg.

“MADE TO KNEEL”

In his sworn statement, Tsuaki, another of the accused, said some of the victims were made to kneel facing the grave, and then were bayoneted from the back through the heart.

Another witness said he looked into a grave and saw the bodies of about 20 executed prisoners-of-war.

“I heard some faint moans from inside the grave.”

The trial is expected to last a week.

Tsuaki admitted conducting an execution, “to set a good example to others”: “Observing all the rules of Japanese swordsmanship, I beheaded the victim with one stroke.” He and Kanamoto were both convicted; Kanamoto caught a prison sentence, while Tsuaki was one of five Japanese hanged as war criminals and then buried at sea on June 11, 1951.

These five were the last death sentences of Australia’s controversial post-World War II war crimes proceedings.

* This massacre on Ambon is not to be confused with the 17th century Amboyna Massacre at the same island.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Execution,History,Indonesia,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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1909: Martha Rendell

Add comment October 6th, 2018 Headsman

For the last time ever, Western Australia executed a woman on this date in 1909. Her name was Martha Rendell, and she had allegedly murdered up to three of her partner’s five* children.

Although they never got the legal document, we might as well call Rendell and Thomas Nicholls Morris man and wife: the two moved in after Morris’s previous marriage failed, presented themselves as one another’s spouses, and had the four kids call Rendell “mom”. They lived together in a downscale district in east Perth, steps away from an open drain fed by industrial runoff.

And if what they charged her with is true — for Rendell would always deny it and her denials have had found traction with some from her time to ours — then nasty stepmothers of fairy tales might have sued Martha Rendell for defamation of character. Indeed, her step-motherliness clearly weighed against her in the public mind.

In 1907, four of the children took ill with diphtheria. After a relapse, seven-year-old Annie died; the death certificate would put it down to “epilepsy and cardiac weakness” (both diphtheria symptoms). Her little sister Olive, still weakened by her bout with diphtheria, contracted typhoid and bled and vomited to death in August of that same year. The doctors who treated these girls didn’t suspect anything untoward but the following year when yet a third of the children (Arthur, 14) also died of apparent typhoid. Doctors on this occasion conducted an autopsy, curious to find evidence of poisoning — an autopsy that Rendell attended and ordered halted partway through, an action that would play very culpably at her eventual trial.**

Said trial was not to be triggered until the following spring, when another son, George, fled the house to the protection of his natural mother, and told a nightmare tale of the mean stepmother painting the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid and serving them suspicious bitter tea that sent them to their sickbeds.

“In hindsight George’s story seems highly implausible, the feverish imagining of a vengeful mother and stepson newly reunited,” argues a Rendell defender who situates the Morris household’s catastrophe amid a wider social panic over the corruption of Perth’s feminine mores, embracing everything from prostitution to baby farming.

The horrific caustic action of hydrochloric acid was not the sort of stealthy killer chosen by poisoners nor did it fit with the gradual wasting noted by the children’s doctor. And how could the woman have forced a youth of fifteen to submit to such cruelty? If Rendell had used diluted solutions of the acid (and it came to light after the trial that this was a home remedy used as a mild antiseptic and sometimes applied to the throat to treat diphtheria) then how had this uneducated woman calibrated the children’s dosages to create symptoms to fool Perth’s most respected doctors?

The strength of feeling bordering on mass hysteria that lay at the heart of public frenzy about this woman was exhibited in the shrill crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse. Some women even invaded the Morris cottage when it was opened up to auction the contents and souvenired every household item, even the auctioneer’s hat so that only ten pounds were raised for the couple’s legal defence.

Little concrete evidence was ever produced against her — was it thanks to that aborted autopsy? — but neighbors grown prejudiced against the scarlet villainess would color remembrances of her conduct in testimony that also told on themselves as peeping toms: this time a failure to nurture and that time a glow of outright pleasure at a crying child.

Much subtext surfaced in text. The arresting officer noted her “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.” One appalling newspaper editorial reviled her as “a type that is seldom encountered in English speaking races … she represents a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost. Like aboriginals, the Martha Rendells of this world must kill.” It was scarcely a novel formula for anathematizing the female criminal.

It was only Arthur for whom she was formally condemned but after the five-day trial she was popularly understood as responsible for all three of her dead stepchildren. But not all the public, for a vigorous albeit unsuccessful clemency campaign specifically citing doubts about the case’s evidence grew around her during her few short weeks awaiting the gallows. Those doubts have never since been categorically dispelled.

Legend holds that Martha Rendell still haunts Fremantle Prison where she hanged, in the form of a ghostly apparition of her face peering out from a stained-glass window.

* There were five children still in the house. Thomas Morris also had four older children, making nine total.

** Martha Rendell had also fallen ill during the course of treating her children. This of course was read by prosecutors as a feint to deflect suspicion.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,The Supernatural,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1841: The Jewboy’s Gang

Add comment March 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1841, Australian bushranger Edward “Teddy the Jewboy” Davis was hanged in Sydney along with five others of his gang. The reader may guess the chief’s distinguishing demographic characteristic, and some lists mark him the only Jewish bushranger.

He’d been transported from England in 1833 at the age of about 16, for a trifling theft. “Obsessed by the idea that he had been wronged when he was transported and governed by an indomitable desire for freedom,” Davis began repeatedly escaping from his penal assignments only to be repeatedly captured.

Indefatigable as Monty Python’s Swamp Castle King, he just kept trying until he got it right.

By 1839 the young Hebrew had formed a seven-strong outlaw gang plundering New South Wales’s future wine country, the Hunter Valley. Their captain seems to have brought along from the old country the romantic conception of a cavalier-thief, as this charming account of one of their raids suggests, wherein the victim “says he was treated in the most gentlemanly manner by them, and that he never spent a happier night in his life.” The stylish marauders, we find, dressed themselves “rather gaudy, as they wore broad-rimmed Manilla hats, turned up in front with abundance of broad pink ribbons, satin neck-cloths, splendid brooches, [and] all of them had rings and watches.”

They kept by a sage policy of Davis’s to eschew deadly violence for fear of bringing down the authorities’ wrath, but they didn’t quite keep to it well enough. One of their number, John Shea, slew a man in December 1840, and a posse hunted them down the very next day, and interviewed in jail, “Davies said that he would always oppose the shedding of blood, for he knew if they once committed a murder they would not reign a week; whilst saying so he looked at the other four men,* and said, you now see we have not reigned a day.”

Edward Davis, 26, Robert Chitty, 37, James Everett, 25, John Marshall, 27, Richard Glanville, 31, and the 27-year-old Shea were hanged behind Sydney Gaol on the 16th of the following March.

The notoriety which the crimes of these men has attained drew together a large concourse of spectators to witness their execution. The entrance to the Gaol, in George-street, was besieged for admission long before the arrival, at nine o’clock, of a strong military guard from the barracks, and so great was the pressure of the crowd, that it required the unremitting exertions of Captain Innes to preserve order. At ten minutes past nine, the culprits were strongly pinioned, and conducted from the cells to the area in front of the drop, where they knelt down. Chitty, Everett, Marshall, and Glanville, were attended by the Rev. William Cowper and the Rev. John Elder. The Rev. Mr. Murphy, Catholic Priest, accompanied Shea; and Davis (being of the Jewish persuasion), was attended by Mr. Isaacs, Minister of the Jewish congregation in New South Wales. All the culprits (if we except Everett), deeply lamented their having committed the crimes for which they were about to die, and acknowledged the justice of their sentences. Everett ascended the scaffold hurriedly, and in an evident state of excitement. He was followed by Chitty, Marshall, and Glanville, all three of whom, on reaching the scaffold sung the first verse of the Morning Hymn, to be found in many editions of the book of Common Prayer, commencing “Awake my soul, and with the sun.”

This act of devotion, we have since heard was entirely spontaneous, not having been suggested, or even expected by either of the reverend gentlemen, who attended to administer the consolations of religion according to the rites of the Protestant Church. The ropes were speedily adjusted, and the white caps drawn over the faces of the wretched criminals; in the short interval which elapsed before the withdrawal of the fatal bolt, Marshall and Glanville were engaged in loud and apparently fervent prayer, and we observed the culprit Davis (who was attired in a suit of mourning), thank the Jewish Minister for the attention paid him in his last moments. The struggles of all the men were of short duration; the immense crowd dispersed peaceably. It will be remembered that these men were apprehended, chiefly through the active exertions of Mr. Day, Police Magistrate, Maitland.

* A fifth accomplice was captured a short time afterwards and joined his mates on the gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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