1951: Jean Lee, the last woman to hang in Australia

Add comment February 19th, 2018 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Jean Lee, an attractive 31-year-old redhead, made history as the last woman to hang in Australia when she went to the gallows in Pentridge prison in the Coburg suburb of Melbourne in Victoria state on the morning of Monday, February 19th, 1951. She and her two male companions were hanged for the murder of 73-year-old dwelling house landlord and bookmaker, William “Pop” Kent.

Jean Lee was apparently quite intelligent and a bit rebellious at school and had a succession of dead end jobs from which she soon left or was fired.

She married at 18 and lived with her husband for about nine years before leaving him and entrusting her daughter to her mother. She had a relationship with a petty criminal who got her into prostitution with American servicemen. He acted as her pimp whilst she worked to support them both.

She left him for another professional criminal, Robert David Clayton, with whom she fell deeply in love. As is so often the case, she became caught in a downward spiral. She was in love with a criminal who abused her and used her in his criminal activities.

These centered principally on what was known as the “badger game.” Lee, at the time, a voluptuous and attractive woman would pick up men and get them to a hotel room, their own home, or a car where she would appear to be about to have sex with them. Once they were semi-naked and vulnerable, Clayton would appear in the role of outraged husband and demand money from them. Usually the victims handed over their ready cash but kept quiet for fear of their wives finding out or of being ridiculed — so it was a fairly safe bet. If they were not forthcoming Clayton would beat them up. It was a scheme that had worked well, although at least two previous cases had been reported to the police.
On the evening of November 7th, 1949, Lee, Clayton and a third accomplice, Norman Andrews, whom Clayton had met in prison, saw William Kent in a Melbourne hotel lounge. Jean Lee had several drinks with Kent and soon succeeded in persuading the old man to take her back to his apartment where she tried to pick his pockets.

However, Mr. Kent, although inebriated and quite elderly, was of sterner stuff. He put up a fight with Lee which was ended when Clayton and Andrews entered his room. Mr. Kent was systematically kicked, beaten and tortured over the next hour in an attempt to get him to reveal where he kept his money. His hands had been tied behind his back and his thumbs tied together with bootlaces. He had been repeatedly stabbed with a small knife and was finally manually strangled.

The trio were soon arrested at their hotel and bloodstained clothing was found in Lee’s and Andrew’s rooms. At police headquarters, they were questioned in separate rooms where each initially denied their involvement and then started to blame the others.

They came to trial on March 20th, 1950 at Melbourne’s Criminal Court and the proceedings lasted six days. As each had tried to shift the blame on to the others in their statements to the police, the trial judge Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy explained the law of “common purpose” to the jury, i.e. that when three people take part in a violent robbery and murder they are all equally guilty, irrespective of which one had actually strangled Mr. Kent. The jury took less than three hours to find them all guilty and they were sentenced to death. Lee became hysterical whilst Clayton shouted abuse at the jury.

Their appeal was heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal and was upheld by a two to one majority decision on the 23rd of June 1950. The Appeal Court ruled that their statements to the police had been obtained improperly as the statement of one was used to extract confessions from the other two. They were thus granted a retrial. However, this was not to be as the High Court overturned the Appeal Court and reinstated the convictions and sentences.

There was considerable protest, led by left-wing and feminist groups, when Lee was sentenced to death. However, it seemed to primarily be against the execution of a woman by hanging, rather than the execution of women per se.

Lee would became the first woman to be hanged in Victoria since Emma Williams in November 1895. She had aged noticeably during her time in prison and suffered violent mood swings — now abusing her wardresses, next begging them for an alcoholic drink. She told one of her wardresses: “I just didn’t do it. I haven’t enough strength in my hands to choke anyone. Bobby was stupid but the old man was trying to yell for help. None of us meant to kill him.”

It was decided that Lee should be the first to hang at 8 am, the two men being executed two hours later.

She was heavily sedated as she shuffled under escort to a double cell near the gallows. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5′ 7″ and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly.

Sheriff William Daly was required to read the death warrant to her. She collapsed on seeing the hangman and his assistant — both wearing “massive steel rimmed goggles [with a] soft felt hat … to ensure that they were not recognised in the future”. A doctor examined her and found she was unconscious. However, the execution had to proceed so Daly continued to read out the details of her conviction and sentence although she would not have heard a word of it — if she had, she would have spotted a mistake (the date on which she had been sentenced).

Because of her state of collapse, the executioner pinioned her arms in front of rather than behind her back as was normal. His assistant then pinioned her legs with a strap whilst he put the white hood on her head, and they carried her from the cell the few yards to the gallows where she had to be placed on a chair on the trap. Her head drooped to her chest and the executioner had to pull it back in order to adjust the noose correctly.

The flap of the hood, which was to cover her face, had been left open. At a signal from the sheriff, the executioner dropped the flap to obscure her face, stood back from the trap and pulled the lever. The trap fell and both she and the chair plummeted through. The chair had been secured to the gallows by a cord and although it fell with her, the two parted company at the end of the drop leaving her suspended normally. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5’ 7” and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly. The knot was positioned under her left ear and death was said to be “instantaneous”. At 8.05 am the prison doctor found no heartbeat. The death certificate was signed at 8.20.

Two hours later Clayton and Andrews, both mildly sedated, shared her fate.

Capital punishment ended in Australia with Victoria’s next execution, that of Ronald Ryan on the same gallows at Pentridge prison on the 3rd of February 1967.

A recent book, Jean Lee: The last woman hanged in Australia by Paul Wilson, Don Trebl and Robyn Lincoln casts doubt on the justice of her conviction and execution based upon the police interrogation methods and her part in the murders.

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1936: Edward Cornelius, vicarage murderer

Add comment June 22nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Edward Cornelius hanged at Victoria’s Pentridge Gaol for the vicarage murder.

The Murder at the Vicarage also happens to be the title of Agatha Christie’s very first Miss Marple novel, published several years before the very real vicarage murder of Rev. Cecil.

One lonesome night the preceding December, Cornelius, a mechanic, turned his spanner on the aged head of plain-living 60-year-old Rev. Harold Laceby Cecil of St. Saviour’s — the horrible conclusion to Rev. Cecil’s 18-year ministry in Fitzroy, then one of Melbourne’s roughest neighborhoods.

Cornelius’s motive was robbery, and it was hardly the first time that Rev. Cecil had been braced for the few quid in donatives he kept on hand for charity cases. Though undeterred from his mission, Cecil was philosophical about repeated robberies: “I will get them, or they will get me.” According to Cornelius’s confession, it was the getting that got Cecil killed: surprised in the course of a midnight stealth pilfering of the vicarage study, Cornelius grabbed the tool of his other trade and clobbered the intercessor, repeatedly: there would be 17 distinct head wounds discerned by investigators.

He fled the vicarage with £8 and few gold and silver trinkets. Some, like a silver watch, he would discard as too incriminating; others, like a gold crucifix, he pawned to obtain ready cash and readier eyewitnesses against him.

A death-house chum of similarly notorious Arnold Sodeman — the two passed Sodeman’s last hours on earth together, playing draughts — Cornelius followed the latter’s steps to the same gallows three weeks later.

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1895: Emma Williams, Frank Tinyana, and Jackey

Add comment November 4th, 2016 Headsman

From The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Nov. 5, 1895:

Melbourne, November 4.
Emma Williams, who was convicted of the murder of her child at Port Melbourne on August 13 last, was executed in Melbourne Gaol this morning in the presence of about a dozen persons.

Public excitement was aroused over the murder when it was first discovered owing to the callous and unfeeling way in which the deed was done and the careless attitude of the mother afterwards. The victim, who was only two years of age, was taken by its mother to the pier in the Sandridge Lagoon, where she tied a stone to its body and pushed it into the water.

After her conviction the Anti-Capital Punishment League made strenuous efforts to obtain a reprieve, chiefly because the condemned woman alleged that she was pregnant.

Medical examinations did not support that statement, and it was discovered on Friday last that the condition which lent color to the woman’s statements was produced artificially.

At first Williams treated her terrible sentence with apparent unconcern, being buoyed up with the hope of reprieve; but when that expectation had passed she became most devout and earnest in her attentions to the ministrations of the gaol chaplain (the Rev. H. F. Scott), by whom she was attended to the scaffold. She expressed great sorrow for the crime she had committed and for the loose life she had led.

She remained in that frame of mind to the end.

When the sheriff demanded the body of the prisoner from the governor of the gaol at the door of the little cell alongside the gallows this morning she walked calmly on to the drop, but her face was blanched and wore a terrified expression.

In answer to the usual questions from the sheriff as to whether she wished to say anything Williams answered “No,” in a low but firm voice.

The white cap was immediately drawn over her face and the rope adjusted, and then, as Roberts, the hangman, turned to pull the lever, she exclaimed, “Oh, Lamb of God, I come.”

The next moment the drop fell, and at that moment Williams uttered a nervous, plaintive exclamation that was not quite a scream. Then all was over. The whole of the proceedings did not occupy more than a quarter of an hour, and death was instantaneous.

The dead woman had a very eventful career, having been married when she was 14 years old. At 15 she bore a daughter, who is still living. Her husband left her, and afterwards died in the Melbourne Hospital, while the widow continued a career of dissipation. Her daughter was adopted by a friend of her husband, and the child which she drowned was born after his death.

She was born in Launceston, Tasmania, where her mother still lives.

Brisbane, November 4.
A double execution took place at the Boggo Road Gaol this morning.

Jackey, an aboriginal, was hanged for the murder of a Javanese, Jimmy Williams, at Mount Morgan, and Frank Tinana [or Tinyana -ed.], a Dative of Manila, was executed for the murder of Constable Conroy, on Thursday Island. The men behaved well in prison. Jackey was able to recite prayers taught him by the Bey. Mr. Simmonds, and Father Dorrigan attended Tinana, who admitted having committed murder. He said he bad a jealous quarrel with another colored man, in which Constable Conroy attempted to arrest him. He then stabbed Conroy to death.

During the past few days both condemned men ate and slept well, and this morning they partook of breakfast. When they came upon the scaffold Tinana was agitated and seemed afraid. Neither man spoke.

The preliminaries were quickly arranged and the bolt was drawn. Death, in each case was apparently instantaneous. When Jackey, whose height was nearly 6 ft, fell blood burst from his nose and stained his white cap.


Diagram from an 1880 memorandum the British government sent to colonial authorities in Queensland detailing procedures for the cutting-edge long drop hanging method.

No colored men were present to witness the execution, which was carried out in the presence of the usual officials. Jackey left a letter to a woman who is looking after his child, telling her to take great care of the infant, to bring it up as a white man’s, and not to let it drink rum or go to the blacks’ camp. Tinana left a letter coached in terms of great affection to his wife.

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1862: Thomas Sanders, rapist

Add comment October 31st, 2016 Headsman

Thomas Sanders was hanged on this date in 1862 at Melbourne Gaol.

An ex-con at Norfolk Island, Sanders took to the bush with another man named John Johnson and in 1862 perpetrated a terrifying home-invasion raid upon the farm of Henry Cropley. They spent five hours there, eating, relaxing, and terrifying the family, comfortably remote on Keilor Plains from any possible source of help. Nobody died — but Sanders too a liking to the family serving-girl Mary Egan and raped her. Egan gave the evidence about her harrowing ordeal — and subject to Sanders’s own direct cross-examination* — just three weeks before Sanders hanged:

The tall man was standing in the middle of the room. I turned to look at him, and he told me to turn my face away, and put a chair for me against my master and missis. He then told the other man to “tie my master’s hands up,” and pulled a rope out of his pocket, and tied him up. He afterwards told me to get up and make tea. I got up and stood at the fire, but was so frightened I could not make tea.

When I saw my master tied up I began to cry, and the little man came up and told me to “shut up,” at the same time pulling a pistol out of his pocket. Sanders then searched the rooms. I saw him as I was standing at the mantelpiece. Johnson was walking about the kitchen with a double-barrelled pistol in each hand.

I thought they were then going away, but they came back again, and Sanders saw the ham hanging up in the kitchen. After they had had their own supper, Sanders sent Johnson to ask me if I would have any. I said I would not.

They had been drinking a bottle of port wine and some spirits. I then heard them go into my rom and pull out my little box. Sanders then said it was time to put the girls to bed.

He told my missis to go into her room, and then came back and took the cradle in. He stopped there some time. I can’t say how long, and then came out, and said to me, “You, girl, you go to bed.”

I went in, and he followed me into my room with the candle.

I was going t bed with some of my things n, and he made me get out and take off everything, except my chemise.

He then tied me hand and foot to the four corners of the bed, and as my foot slipped while he hurt my ankle, I kicked him in the face.

He then said, “Oh, you —- little wretch; I’ll give it to you for that.” I ceased to resist him, as I saw it was no good, and my master had told me to do what he told me. I did not resist him, because he had pistols in his pocket and he said if I did not do what he ordered me he would blow my head off, and would think no more of my life than a cat’s.

He ordered me then to be quiet, and tied my hands behind me. He then brought the other man in, and said, “Isn’t she an enticing little devil.”

I didn’t hear the other man say anything.

They then went out, and took the candle with them, and, after remaining a few minutes, Sanders returned, and said, “Now, my good girl, I’ll give it to you for kicking me in the face.”

It was in the dark. I could not see him, but I knew his voice. I think he was undressed.

He got into bed, and I said to him, “For God’s sake not to do anything t me, for I was a poor orphan girl.”

He did not seem to hear, but I spoke loud enough for my master and mistress to hear.

I then heard him at the foot of the bed, and he asked me “if I had any relations in the colony.”

I said “Yes, I had brothers and uncles.”

He said he didn’t care, and then he had connection with me.

I said, “God help me; there is no help.”

(The witness here described the circumstances, and was almost unable to proceed from agitation. They distinctly proved that a rape was committed.)

Afterwards I begged him to untie me, as the flesh was rising over the ropes, and hurt me. He then untied me.

I never told any one afterwards, as I never dreamt they would be taken up. I afterwards told the doctor everything.

The witness here looked round, at the desire of the Bench, and said, “These are the two men. The one (pinting to Sanders) is the man who had connexion with me.”

* Egan was credited with maintaining her composure admirably under the trying circumstances, but at noe point Sanders asked a question “of such a brutal nature that her firmness, which had been remarkable, gave way, and she had to be removed, in a fainting fit, from the court. The prisoner Johnson made some remark, and Sanders exclaimed “Oh, she’s well tutored!”

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1853: Three for the McIvor Gold Escort attack

Add comment October 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1853, three bushrangers hanged in Melbourne Gaol for the sensational (and very nearly successful) McIvor Gold Escort attack.

Our hanged trio’s crime traces to the mad 1850s gold rush to Victoria, mainland Australia’s southwesternmost province* and more specifically to the McIvor Creek diggings near Heathcote. Gold was struck there late in 1853; by the next year, the place was heavy with prospectors. And gold, why, we know what gold does to men’s souls.

The notes are eternal but gold sings her siren song in every major and minor key; where she calls men, haggard and desperate, bearing pickaxes and gilded dreams, she also beckons in another register to their counterparts bearing ready sidearms and black hearts. Miners after a different name.

On July 20, 1853, some 2,300 ounces of gold extracted from the McIvor diggings were dispatched with an armed guard from the Private Escort Cmpany on its regular run to Kyneton. Here was a mother lode for characters who could stake it.

The July 20 gold escort encountered a blocked road and six desperadoes waiting in a well-orchestrated ambush: without bothering to demand the escort stand and deliver, the robbers opened fire on their prey, wounding four of the troopers — non-fatally, but enough to compel submission — and killing the coach driver, William Flookes, ere they looted the dray of treasure worth near £10,000.


19th century illustration of the attak on the McIvor gold escort.

When news of the incident reached McIvor, 400 outraged miners formed up in posses and set off in pursuit — but the robbers had planned their strike cunningly and were well ahead of the chase. Racing away through wilderness, they paused to divide their spoils near Kilmore and proceeded to Melbourne, where they scattered themselves and were able to duck a sweeping but essentially blind manhunt for several weeks.

Joseph Grey, George and Joseph Francis, William Atkins, George Wilson, and George Melville were perhaps on the verge of completing the caper by August 13 when George Francis got cold feet and turned himself into the police — shopping all of his confederates into the bargain.

Joseph Grey, the wiliest of the bunch, was cautiously changing his address every single night — and so George Francis’s information did not nab him. Grey managed to stay ahead of the search and make good an escape with his share of the booty: he was never caught.

The remaining four — including Joseph Francis, George Francis’s own brother — were all speedily snapped up.

A twist in the plot occurred when star witness George Francis slashed his own throat, leaving the crown with a virtually empty case until brother Joseph fulfilled the informer’s place, piously declaiming against the shootings as more crime than either Francis had bargained for. This self-serving pap came in for uproarious pillory by the defense barristers when the surviving Francis took the witness stand — “with your own person in danger, you would sacrifice your mother and tell any lie you rpoor intelligence could invent!” — but the stool pigeon’s evidence stuck, corroborated by accounts from the troopers who survived the ambush.

Atkins, Wilson, and Melville hanged together at Melbourne Gaol sixteen days after their judge donned the black cap. Melville’s wife availed her right to claim her husband’s body and scandalized Melbourne’s authorities by cheekily garlanding the corpse in flowers and putting it on display in her oyster shop on Little Bourke Street, charging half a crown per gawk. Melbourne Gaol’s hanged thereafter were exclusively buried within the prison yards itself, and Parliament soon legislated this as a nationwide requirement.

* While the gold rush brought many boom towns that expired with their associated mineral veins, it boomed the frontier town of Melbourne right into the gigantic metropolis it remains today.

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1876: Basilio Bondietto

Add comment December 11th, 2013 Headsman

From the Dec. 12, 1876 Argus (Melbourne, Australia):

EXECUTION OF BONDIETTO.

Basilio Bondietto, who was tried and convicted at the last criminal sittings of the murder of Carlo Comisto, at Sandy Creek, on or about the 4th of September last, underwent the extreme penalty of the law within the walls of the Melbourne Gaol yesterday morning.

Bondietto was a Swiss, and Comisto was believed to be an Italian. They both lived together for about eight months on a selection of Comisto’s near Sandy Creek, their principal occupation being charcoal burning. About the 4th September Comisto told some neighbours that he intended proceeding to Melbourne, to make arrangements for the sale of firewood. He was never seen alive afterwards.

Bondietto when questioned as to his partner’s absence, gave several contradictory accounts, stating at one time that he had gone away with a woman, and again, that he had a quarrel with an Englishman and after a drinking bout had run away.

Suspicion being aroused, the hut where the two men lived was searched, and several stains of what was sworn to be human blood were found on the woodwork about the place. Human blood was also found on an axe outside the hut, and in the remains of the charcoal kilns a quantity of bones were discovered, some of which Professor Halford was able to swear belonged to a human body.

Boot nails, trousers buttons, and buckles were also discovered in the same place, which taken in conjunction with the blood stains and the disappearance of Comisto, left little doubt that the man had been murdered and his body afterwards consumed in one of the kilns.

At the trial, which took place before Mr. Justice Stephen, Bondietto was ably defended by Mr. Wrixon, but after a very careful investigation, extending over three days, the jury found the prisoner guilty. Since the verdict was announced strenuous exertions have been made by a number of persons to obtain a mitigation of the sentence, but without success. A very careful consideration was given by the Executive to all the circumstance, and it was determined that there was no reason to interfere with the course of justice.

Ever since his conviction the condemned man has been assiduously attended by the Rev. Fathers O’Malley, Lordan and Donaghy, he being a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The reverend gentlemen were able to converse with Bondietto in his native language, and exhorted him to entertain no hope of a reprieve but to prepare for the fate awaiting him. To those exhortations he paid great attention, and for some time past spent a considerable portion of each day in prayer.

Since his conviction his demeanour in the gaol has been generally of a composed character, although now and again he would break out into cries of “miserecordia,” and indulge in indistinct mutterings.

He evinced a hearty appetite for all his meals, the gaol allowance being scarcely sufficient to supply his wants. He professed to be altogether ignorant of English, although it was sworn by several witnesses at the trial that he could make himself understood in that language when living in the neighbourhood of Seymour.

The only English word that he seemed able to utter in gaol was “tobacco,” of which a certain quantity was allowed him. Of his antecedents very little has been discovered. It is known that he had resided in the colony for a number of years, and that he had a long acquaintance with Comisto, whom he has been executed for murdering.

He was about 60 years of age, of a spare form, hollow lantern-shaped jaws, black whiskers, and piercing eyes. There was a considerable look of imbecility in the countenance, but he appeared to be of sound mind.

The sentence was carried into effect at 10 o’clock yesterday morning. Shortly before that hour the sheriff (Mr. Wright), accompanied by the under sheriff (Mr. Ellis), arrived at the gaol, and, according to the usual form, handed his warrant for the execution to the governor of the gaol, and demanded the body of Basilio Bondietto.

Mr. Castieau handed to the sheriff the formal protest of Sir George Stephen against the execution, until an appeal was made to the Imperial authorities.

The sheriff was then conducted to the condemned cell, where Bondietto was confined. Immediately afterwards the hangman Gately entered from an adjoining cell, and performed the duty of pinioning the culprit. Bondietto all the time seemed to be exerting himself to the utmost to meet his fate with fortitude but it was evident that he was suffering terribly.

The pinioning, which took a considerable time, being completed, the white cap was put on but not drawn over the face, and the condemned man was led by Gately to the scaffold, the sheriff and governor of the gaol following in the rear.

On the platform the culprit was met by his spiritual counsellors. The form of service of the Catholic Church suitable to the occasion was read by Rev. Father Lordan, whilst Father O’Malley held the crucifix before the eyes of the condemned man.

Bondietto was asked by the latter reverend gentlemen if he had anything to say in public before quitting the world. He made some reply which was altogether unintelligible, and it was evident from the wild stare of his eyes that his whole thoughts were engrossed by the dreadful situation in which he was placed.

The rope was quickly adjusted round the neck of the culprit by Gately, but the executioner forgot to follow the usual practice of drawing the white cap over the face of the condemned.

After adjusting the rope, Gately stepped back and drew the bolt. Death was almost instantaneous, there being very few writhings of the body and the features did not appear much discomposed. After hanging for a short time, the body was cut down, and in the afternoon an inquest was held by Dr. Youl, the city coroner, when the usual verdict was returned.

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1942: Eddie Leonski, the Brownout Strangler

3 comments November 9th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, a boyishly handsome G.I. named Edward Joseph “Eddie” Leonski was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, Australia.

Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.

This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)

Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”

Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:

Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.

According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.

On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.

Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.

But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.

Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.

At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.

McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.

A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.

Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.

“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”

A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.

Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.

Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.

The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.

Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.

When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)

Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:

That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.

Very Norman Batesian.

Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.

Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”

His remains were moved several times before finally finding a permanent grave in a military cemetery in Hawaii. The Australian modernist artist Albert Tucker made a painting titled “Memory of Leonski.” The film Death of a Soldier is based on his crimes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Rape,Serial Killers,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1892: Frederick Bailey Deeming, Bluebeard

6 comments May 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1892, Frederick Bailey Deeming was hanged in Melbourne, Australia for the murder of his second wife, Emily Mather. She was not his only victim; he’d also murdered his first wife, son and three daughters.

Deeming was born and raised in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the UK. One of seven children, he was reportedly a “difficult” child. He later claimed he’d spent years in mental hospitals as a youth, something his brother disputed.

Deeming ran away to sea at sixteen and began committing crimes, mostly thefts. Wherever he went, he swindled and stole from people.

Deeming married Marie James in 1881 (his brother married Marie’s sister) and they moved to Australia. They went on to have four children.

In 1888, Deeming and his family moved to South Africa. His movements around that time are unclear, but he was definitely back in England by November 1889, and separated from his wife and children, who lived in another city.

Deeming bigamously married Helen Matheson in 1890, and deserted her shortly after the honeymoon. He visited his wife, gave her some money and told he was going to South America and would send for her and the children once he’d settled. Before he left he conned some jewelers in Hull; as a result, he was arrested upon his arrival in Montevideo, Uruguay and sent back to England to serve nine months in the clink.

In 1891, after his release from prison, Deeming took the name “Albert Williams” and leased a house in the village of Rainhill. A woman and several children were seen visiting him; he claimed they were his sister and her children.

The woman and children disappeared — off to an extended holiday, Deeming said. A short time later, complaining that the drains were defective, Deeming had the floor of his house re-concreted.

In fact, the “sister” was his first wife Marie and the “nieces” and “nephews” his own children — Bertha, 9, Marie, 7, Sidney, 5, and Leala, 18 months. And in fact, they were “vacationing” permanently, under the concrete floor. Authorities believe he killed them on or about July 26, 1891.

By that time, Deeming was already courting Emily Lydia Mather. They married on September 22 and by December 1891 had up and moved to Melbourne.

Emily didn’t make it past Christmas before Deeming had her entombed under the fireplace.

In January 1892, Deeming moved to Sydney. On the way he met a delightful young lady named Kate Rousenfell. He gave her several expensive gifts, including jewelry he’d stolen while he was in Melbourne, and proposed marriage. She agreed and said she would join him in Western Australia when he moved there.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Miss Rousenfell was cheated of her bridegroom by Deeming’s March 11 arrest for Emily’s murder.

Emily’s body had been discovered on March 3, after the house’s owner, investigating his new tenant’s complaints of a strange smell, raised the hearthstone. Her throat had been cut and her skull was fractured. When Deeming was taken into custody, he had some of her things with him, including her prayer book.

The murder case received extensive publicity and when those back in England heard of it, they decided to have a look at Deeming’s former home in Rainhill. There they dug up the bodies of Marie and the four children.

At his trial, Deeming claimed insanity and brain damage from epilepsy and tertiary syphilis, and said his dead mother’s spirit had ordered him to commit the murders.

He told the jury that Marie wasn’t dead and had, in fact, left him for another man. In the three weeks between the verdict and the hanging he penned his biography and some bad poetry. English publishers offered him £1,000 for the rights to his writings, but the Australian government had them all destroyed.

There have been suggestions, in Deeming’s time and ours, that he was the serial killer Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered and mutilated a handful of London prostitutes in 1888. The fact that evidence indicates Deeming was in South Africa at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders hasn’t stopped the speculation. He allegedly told his cellmates he was the Ripper, but when asked directly by the authorities, he refused to answer yes or no.

Deeming’s skull and death mask are still on display in the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Theft

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1880: Ned Kelly

2 comments November 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1880, legendary bushranger Ned Kelly hanged at Melbourne Gaol.

The Dick Turpin of Australian outlawry — in the sense that he’s the first name on the marquee — Kelly was the son of an Irishman shipped to Van Damien’s Land on the British convict transportation plan.

Setting down in Greta, Victoria the Kelly family cultivated a keen reputation for criminality (e.g., see this 1880 newspaper article; also, here).

When Ned was all of 11, pa died doing a six-month prison stint at hard labor for stealing a neighbor’s cow, and it wasn’t much longer before young master Edward was making the acquaintance of the law himself: arrested for assault in 1869 at age 14; arrested once again the following year as an accomplice to the bushranger with the pornstar name, Harry Powers; imprisoned later in 1870 for three years for receiving stolen goods … and then he got into the family horse-rustling racket upon his release. Crime and gaol were just part of Ned’s world.

So was police antagonism.

The man’s famous last years started with what reads as a trumped-up run-in with a cop who turned up at a station complaining that the Kellys had shot him. (The Kelly story is that he got fresh with Ned’s sister and got whacked by a shovel.) Whatever the facts of the matter, it sent Ned and his brother Dan into the bush as fugitives.

At Stringybark Creek, the “Kelly gang” got the drop on the police posse sent to arrest them, and three officers died in the firefight. Now there was real trouble.

An 1878 “Felons Apprehension Act” immediately proscribed the men, making it “lawful for any of Her Majesty’s subjects whether a constable or not and without being accountable for the using of any deadly weapon in aid of such apprehension whether its use be preceded by a demand of surrender or not to apprehend or take such outlaw alive or dead.”

The ensuing two-year saga was a captivating cycle of dramatic robberies, escalating government bounties, state hostage-taking in the form of imprisoned family and friends, and Kelly’s own Joycean self-vindication.

he would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly bilit left the ash corner deserted the shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed massacreed and murdered their fore-fathers by the greatest of torture as rolling them down hill in spiked barrels pulling their toe and finger nails and on the wheel. and every torture imaginable more was transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself all of true blood bone and beauty, that was not murdered on their own soil, or had fled to America or other countries to bloom again another day, were doomed to Port Mcquarie Toweringabbie norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyrany and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land.*

The hunt culminated in a cinematic shootout at the Glenrowan Inn, Kelly an accomplices entering the fray clad in bulky but effective homemade body armor they’d literally hammered out of ploughshares. (It’s thanks to the armor’s protection of his head and trunk that Ned Kelly survived the Glenrowan siege so he could be hanged instead.) Now on display at the State Library of Victoria, it’s the most queer and recognizable artifact of an era that was already then slipping into the past.

Ned Kelly in his armor (left), and the logo of the Victoria Bushrangers cricket club patterned after it (right).

I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life or that one fault justifies another; but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way that will lead them to soften the harshness of their thoughts against him and find as many excuses for him as he would plead for himself.

-Ned Kelly, during his trial

This cut no ice with the men who judged him guilty of murder, but the brawler, cop-killer, bank-robber Kelly seems to have found a way to tell that story to posterity and its thoughts have softened very much indeed.

Everything from his hardscrabble upbringing to his romantic man-against-the-world criminal career to his iconic robot-suit armor to his existentially heroic last words “such is life” equips his image for posthumous appropriation. He seems one-half charming anachronism, one-half hirsute postmodern avatar, especially when you go sculpt a mailbox out of him.

131 years dead today, Ned Kelly remains very much alive in memory. To this day, descendants and supporters lay flowers at the Melbourne Gaol where he hanged, and the recent decision to release his remains for reburial (as Kelly himself requested) made national headlines.

As to Kelly in the wider culture … well, you can’t escape him.

* All this Celtic stuff because the cop whose allegation started the trouble was named Fitzpatrick.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Ireland,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines

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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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