1868: Thomas Griffin, gold commissioner

Add comment June 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1868, disgraced Australian gold commissioner Thomas Griffin was hanged for murdering two police escorts in the course of a robbery.

He was an Irish-born constable who parlayed decorated service in the Crimean War into emigration to Australia.

There he lodged himself in the policing ranks and by dint of energy and charm worked his way up by late 1863 to the administrative post of gold commissioner in the emerging gold rush boom town of Clermont, Queensland.

“During his four years’ residence at Clermont, Griffin became widely known in the district,” according to The Early History of Rockhampton by a working journalist who knew Griffin, J.T.S. Bird.

In addition to being physically a fine manly-looking fellow, he had a very suave and attractive manner, and readily gained the favour and friendship of those whom he desired to stand well with.* To those under him he was as a rule distant and overbearing, and was by no means well liked … Ostentation and vanity, with a fondness for display, were leading traits of his character, and were noticeable to all who knew him.

One index of his no means well-likedness was the community petition that deposed him from his post in September 1867. It seems that Griffin had formed a reputation as “despotic, arbitrary and partial,” made himself a fixture of gambling dens, and had been investigated for embezzling mining revenues that he was supposed to hold in trust.

Demoted to a lower position in the same bureau in nearby Rockhampton, Griffin immediately vindicated his critics by arranging to accompany the next “gold escort” transporting valuables between Clermont and Rockhampton, along with troopers Patrick Cahill and John Power. En route, Griffin gunned the two men down by surprise on the Mackenzie River, making off with about £4000 in notes (not gold). He then unconvincingly presented himself back in Rockhampton as having separated naturally from the party, surprised as anyone that the other two hadn’t returned. Although he participated in the initial search, he was arrested within days.

Bird has a lengthy narrative of the investigation and trial; one notable aspect was early forensic experimentation with shooting sheeps’ skulls in an attempt to model the damage done by the gunshots received by the unfortunate guards — further to demonstrating that they were murdered execution-style at close range rather than shot from a distance as a wilderness brigand might do.

Suffice to say that no matter the spattering of ruminant brains, Griffin’s foul reputation made his pretense of innocence completely untenable, even though he continued it all the way to the gallows.

After a prayer at the foot of the scaffold, Griffin stood up and Mr. Smith said:

I shall meet you at the judgment seat of God; you have but a few minutes to live, and in the sight of God who is to judge between us all, I ask you will you not acknowledge your guilt?

Griffin drew himself up and said in a resolute voice, “No!”

He went up the first of the scaffold steps two or three at a time, finishing the remainder with a firm step. Stepping on the drop, he came promptly to “attention.” Griffin told the executioner [John Hutton] he had nothing to give him, but if he saw Mr. Brown he would give him something. The hangman then asked if Griffin had anything to confess.

Griffin replied in a firm voice: “No, I have nothing to confess!”

The white cap was placed in position, and Griffin, as though impatient at any delay, said: “Go on, I am ready!” The bolt was drawn, and death followed instantly.

Griffin had frequently told Dr. Salmond and others that he would die with calm firmness, and he was as good as his word.

His was the first of nine executions recorded at Rockhampton Gaol. A week after the hanging, Griffin’s grave was robbed and his head stolen.

* One early indicator of the man’s character was his seduction of a wealthy widow on the very ship he took to Australia. After quickly dissipating her fortune, he parted ways with her by publishing a fake death notice in the newspaper.

On this day..

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

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1915: Thomas and Meeks Griffin, ancestors of Tom Joyner

4 comments September 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, a quintet of African Americans died in South Carolina’s electric chair during a 70-minute span.

Joe Malloy was put to death for killing two white men four years before; the other four executed on this date were convicted together of murdering 73-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. They were John Crosby, Nelse Brice, and — our principal concern today — Thomas and Meeks Griffin.

The Griffins were among the wealthiest blacks around, and we’ve already seen where that’s a dangerous profile to keep in South Carolina.

In this case, and even though public opinion was predictably inflamed at the aged veteran, the Griffins weren’t lynched: indeed, prominent white people in the community, such as the mayor and the sheriff, rose to the Griffins’ defense to the extent of signing a petition for executive clemency. They didn’t believe then that the thief whose accusation condemned the brothers was credible.

More than likely they suspected Lewis’s 22-year-old black mistress, Anna Davis, and/or her husband — and undoubtedly, they would have known exactly why this scandalous angle was not pursued in court.

Still, South Carolina’s governor reckoned that they’d had their day in court, the victims deserved closure, and whatever other equivalents of the familiar modern-day rationales one might care to name.

Almost surely, this distant injustice would be lost to time were it not for the Griffins’ famous great-nephew, the radio host Tom Joyner.

Joyner only recently discovered (via Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s research for a PBS documentary*) his kinship with these executed men; his grandmother had moved away to Florida to bury the family tragedy.

But the broadcaster exhumed it with gusto, and, two years ago, was able to secure a posthumous pardon from South Carolina based on the weakness of the original case. It’s thought to be the first official posthumous pardon the state has granted to any executed persons.

But we do want to extend the Palmetto State the credit due to all its sons whose signatures graced the disregarded clemency petition way back when. More than that: The State editorialized, confusedly but forcefully, against the manifest racial discrepancies in capital sentencing on the occasion of this quintuple-execution. (Oct. 1, 1915) These questions, ever present, are more sincerely grappled with in this column than we can manage today.

* You can watch the big reveal when a flabbergasted Joyner first hears about his ancestors: it’s quite a moment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notably Survived By,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,South Carolina,USA,Wrongful Executions

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