Any event that involves a large number of people, no matter how carefully planned, carries a risk of something going wrong. People run late. People turn up who you were not expecting. Very occasionally, someone starts a brawl.
Hangings in colonial Sydney, from the mid-1850s, were typically ordered affairs. With executions carried out behind gaol walls, there were no rowdy crowds to try and control. There was a neat procession including the prisoner, the executioner and a clergyman. There were various representatives from the sheriff’s department, a medical officer, a few journalists as well as some official witnesses. The prisoner to be hanged was usually well behaved. Newspaper reports routinely detailed the ‘firm steps’ or the ‘visible tremor’ of the condemned, but generally noted how well the felon held up.
Every now and then however the prisoner defied these expectations and rebelled. The horror of the death penalty goes beyond the mere fear of death or pain or indignity. It is not just the brutality but the macabre, cold-blooded politeness of the ceremony, in which the person whose neck was going to be broken is supposed to collaborate in a nice, sensible manner, as if it were a matter of a minor surgical operation. When Thomas Kelly was led out to the scaffold at Darlinghurst Gaol, on 2 January 1872, he was in no mood to swing from the end of a rope.
Thomas Kelly had been doing time at Parramatta Gaol for a robbery he committed at Deniliquin in 1869. While he was cutting up sandstone as part of a work gang in the stonemason yard, the overseer William McLaren asked the men to try and cut the pieces smaller. Kelly flew into a rage and struck McLaren in the head with a hammer. McLaren survived, although it was touch and go for a few weeks, and Kelly was transferred to Darlinghurst where he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to death. Kelly thought that this was all a bit unfair and he insisted no real harm had been done.
When the 30-year-old stood on the scaffold, there was no stoicism or noble dignity on display at all. His arms were pinioned, or corded, a standard safety measure, but his legs were free and he ‘made a desperate attack on the hangman, known as Bull, kicking him in a very ‘vital part’ of his anatomy. Bull was obliged to retire, apparently in great agony and incapacitated from taking further part in the proceedings’. Bull’s assistant, Franks (no relation to this blogger) stepped in. Kelly wasn’t done though, and he grabbed the clergyman who was there to provide him with spiritual guidance in his last moments. ‘I’ll not be hung; I do not deserve it’, Kelly cried. It was a serious situation. The scaffold was quite high, and a fall could kill someone. Let’s just say a few gaol warders became involved at this point.
So, once Bull had found safety, the clergyman was nowhere to be seen and Kelly was lying on the trapdoor of the scaffold. There was no time to waste. The bolt was drawn, and Kelly was sent tumbling through the trap. In the chaos, the noose around Kelly’s neck had come loose and had slipped into the wrong position. Franks frantically adjusted the rope while Kelly was dangling, but it took about ten minutes for Kelly to die. He was blamed for his own suffering: ‘It is only right to state that this dreadful scene was solely attributable to the wretched man’s own conduct’.
And the hangman Bull? He was back to work in June, but ‘he looked thin and pale, and has evidently not quite recovered the effects of the murderous assault upon him, committed by Kelly some months back. He looks anything but a stalwart man’.
Stay safe everyone. Workplaces can be dangerous.
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!
For more Dictionary of Sydney, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Jess here (skip to 136!), and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.
This year the 2020 Conference and Annual Meeting of the Australasian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres, will be held online at the State Library of New South Wales
Join a fascinating array of speakers as they examine the various ways in which the humanities enrich our lives and contribute to a wide variety of fields including medicine, law and the environment.
This event is open to all – academics, students, independent scholars, those working across the cultural sector and anyone with an interest in the important roles that the humanities play in the world today.
The conference will commence with a Public Lecture by Professor Mark Ledbury on the evening of Wednesday 2 December 2020. This will be followed by keynote addresses, panel sessions and lightning talks over Thursday 3 December and Friday 4 December 2020.
See the full program and register online on the State Library of NSW website here: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/research-and-collections/research-and-engagement/humanities-and-conference