1844: John Gavin, the first European hanged in Western Australia

Add comment April 6th, 2020 Headsman

John Gavin/Gaven, a 15-year-old who had been transported from England just months before, hanged at Fremantle on this date in 1844. This was the day between Good Friday and Eastern Sunday, and Gavin was the first European executed in the new settlements of Western Australia.

Working as a farmhand, Gavin yielded to an impulse to murder the farming family that held his indenture — an impulse to whose explication Gavin was not equal during the three days between his trial and his hanging.

He slew the family’s strapping 18-year-old son, George Pollard, thinking this would leave the mother defenseless thereafter; instead, the woman was defended by Gavin’s wracked conscience which drove him to a half-hearted suicide attempt and a meek surrender.

The Perth Gazette and Western Australia Journal, April 6, 1844:

CONFESSION OF THE MURDER OF GEORGE POLLARD.

To all parties it must be most consolatory to know that, on Friday night and Saturday morning the unfortunate criminal confessed his guilt, and this in so ample and sincere a manner as to leave not a doubt on the mind of Mr. Schoales, who received that confession, that anything remained behind. The substance of the confession was that, the first thoughts of committing the crime arose in his mind within five minutes of the execution of the deed, that it was a sudden instigation, one which had been paralleled, but not frequently.

The boy sat down to dinner with his victim without a thought harboured in his mind of harm towards him. He had made up his mind to murder the mother of the family that afternoon, and as he commenced his work about the farm while the lad Pollard was sleeping, the thought flashed across the mind of the prisoner, that, if he murdered the woman first, then a lad stronger than himself remained on the premises able to take him prisoner, and that, to secure the fate of the woman, and his own safety, he must first kill the lad.

In explanation of the circumstance of his clothes being wet, the unfortunate lad stated that he went to the river, not to drink, nor to wash the blood from his clothes, but to drown himself, but that his courage failed him, such was his feeling and remorse at the act he had committed. He could state no possible reason why he compassed the death of Mrs. Pollard.

EXECUTION.

The convict was transferred to Fremantle Jail on Thursday afternoon, where he was attended with the utmost attention by the Rev. George King. On Good Friday the Rev. gentleman was in prayer with the lad before the hours of service, and again in the afternoon, and to an advanced hour of the evening. On the same evening, Mr. Schoales placed himself in communication with the boy, remaining with him during the time that the clergyman was affording the consolations of the Church. Extreme penitence, the utmost contrition, and the fullest confession, marked his behaviour. At daylight Mr. Schoales was again in attendance, and Mr. King attended at an early hour.

At eight o’clock, A.M, the preparations were complete, which were made with every attention to the proper execution of the sentence, at the same time ensuring the least possible suffering to the unfortunate lad. The prison bell then began to toll, and the melancholy procession set out from the condemned cell to the scaffold: the Sheriff and his deputies and constables, the Rev. G. King, reading appropriate passages of Scripture, the prisoner, supported by Mr. Schoales, and lastly, more constables closed the train. The boy was deeply affected, and was assisted up the steps to the platform. From this time the proceedings were rapid, and at ten minutes after eight the cart moved forward, and the criminal was launched into eternity. So light was the body, that with a humane attention, heavy weights were attached to the legs of the sufferer, a precaution the propriety of which was evinced in the fact, that apparently the pangs of the unhappy boy were very few. Having hung for an hour, the Sheriff resigned the custody of the body to Mr. Schoales, who had it cut down, placed in a decent shell, and removed for the purpose of interment.

The place of execution was about ten yards on the left of the jail, looking towards the Church. The assemblage of people was not very great, and proper precautions for decent behaviour on such a solemn occasion were taken and provided for, by the presence of the Constables and a detachment of Her Majesty’s 51st L. I., who kept the ground.

After death, an excellent mask of his face and cast of the skull were taken, for the purpose of furthering the ends of science. The head we understand is of extraordinary formation; the anterior organs being very deficiently developed, while the posterior organs are of an enormous size.

At 4 o’clock P.M. the body was committed to the earth, in the sand hills a little to the southwest of the Court-house, accompanied by Mr. Schoales alone, and carried by a fatigue party of the prisoners of the jail. There, without rite or ceremony, the remains of this miserable lad were inhumed, but though the place of his sepulchure be unknown to all yet may God grant that the awful example made on so young a lad, may ever be before the minds of all of us young or old.

Many idle reports are in circulation with the usual rapidity and volubility of public rumour. It has not been hesitated to be said, that he had confessed previous murders in England. We do, on good authority, contradict this most positively.

The whole of his previous life was fully detailed, and although it shewed a sad catalogue of guilt, yet we unhesitatingly say that this was the first and only time of shedding blood; the crime for which he has suffered is bad indeed, why then indulge in the vain, silly, and false insinuation of imaginary guilt? Why belie the memory of one who has departed from among us by the gossiping retailment of every inventtion that rises in the minds of foolish people, who seek to raise themselves to some temporary importance by asserting a more peculiar knowledge of the “facts” than is possessed by the public at large. We may say in a few words, the boy’s faults were many — let them sleep in his grave.

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

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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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