1967: Ronald Ryan, the last hanged in Australia

15 comments February 3rd, 2010 Headsman

At 8 a.m. in Melbourne this date in 1967, as a moment of silence was observed across Australia, Ronald Ryan was hanged in Pentridge Prison for killing a guard during a prison break. He would be the last man put to death Down Under.

Ryan, a small-time thief, broke out of that selfsame Pentridge Prison’s lower-security districts with fellow-prisoner Peter John Walker late in 1965, prompting a high-profile holiday season manhunt.

Still, with capital punishment fading in Australia — and especially in Victoria, where nobody had hanged since 1951 — even the jury that doomed Ryan thought its sentence was strictly pro forma. Eleven of them later joined nationwide petitions for clemency when Liberal Premier Henry Bolte made plain his intention to let the hanging go forward.

Though Bolte did in fact gain seats at the next polls, the anti-hanging campaign had a breadth hard to comprehend forty-plus years later.

A media witness recalled that he “came away from Pentridge Prison in 1967 firmly opposed to capital punishment,” and some form of that sentiment seemed to take throughout Australia. Its state and federal governments abolished their various death penalties over the ensuing generation.

Ryan’s hanging “ensured that no government anywhere in the country would politically risk imposing the death penalty again,” the criminal’s biographer said.

It also gave the man a lasting foothold in Aussie popular culture. Clips from a couple of subsequent films made about him can be seen online here and here.

Ryan’s attorney, Philip Opas, has continued to maintain his man’s innocence. (pdf)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Political Expedience,Popular Culture

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1915: Veljko Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic and Misko Jovanovic, Archduke Ferdinand’s assassins

12 comments February 3rd, 2009 Headsman


“Executions as a consequence of the Sarajevo assassination”. From the Visual Archive of Southeastern Europe.

On this date in 1915, three of the Black Hand conspirators who had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo the previous June were hanged for treason and murder as the World War that assassination ignited engulfed Europe.

You could say it was too little, too late.

Ironically, the gunman who actually got the Archduke, Gavrilo Princip, was too young to receive the death penalty under Austro-Hungarian law — barely short of his 20th birthday,* a more liberal standard for capital responsibility than even present-day human rights standards require.

In fact, that was true of five of the eight student nationalists convicted; the Slavs’ barbarous oppressor accordingly punished them for murdering the heir to its throne and involving it in a ruinous war with prison sentences of no more than 20 years. Three of the underaged five (Princip included) contracted fatal tuberculosis cases in custody during World War I; the other two, Cvijetko Popovic and Vaso Cubrilovic, outlived the Habsburg Empire by decades.

Three remained, old enough to swing for turning Europe into a charnel house: Vaso’s older brother Veljko (a schoolteacher), Danilo Ilic (a newspaper editor) and Misko Jovanovic (a businessman).

But if their names aren’t familiar, and their comedy assassination plot succeeded almost in spite of themselves, these forgotten radicals still rank among the midwives of modernity for the global cataclysm unleashed by their deed, for its calamitous aftershocks of nationalism and ideology, and for the second war that succeeded the horrors of the first.

According to John S. Craig’s Peculiar Liaisons, Gavrilo Princip left his poetry scrawled on the wall of his cell.

Our ghosts will walk through Vienna
And roam through the palace
Frightening the lords

All things considered, he sold himself short.

* There seems to be some uncertainty as to Princip’s actual date of birth, so he might in fact have been 20 years old. The court, at any rate, took him for 19.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Terrorists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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