Today is the anniversary of the death of Robert Rice Howard, the hangman for New South Wales from the 1870s until 1904, who died on 3 February 1906.
Less than two years earlier, Howard had given up his post as executioner, and a good salary of £156 per annum (roughly equivalent to $150,000). After a quiet, if short, retirement Howard passed away at his home in Bondi 115 years ago from endocarditis and senile decay. Howard was buried at Waverley Cemetery with his wife, a child and a grandchild. His death certificate states he was 74 years old and lists his occupation as a ‘retired civil servant’, but everyone knew that he was a hangman and had dispatched felons on scaffolds across the state for around 28 years.
When you think about hangmen, it’s hard not to speculate about the sort of person who would sign up to do that sort of work. Even when the felons presented to the executioner to be ‘sent off’ are known to have committed atrocious crimes, it makes no sense to respond to violence with more violence. So, what type of bloke puts their hand up and says: ‘I will do this, I will send people through a trap door to hang by the neck until they are dead’?
Well, in the earliest days of the colony it really was about finding someone who was willing to do it, even if they didn’t want to. A man could escape the gallows himself by becoming the hangman. Over time, not all the hangmen were pulled from the ranks of convicts but there was no escaping the fact that it was the most reviled job in the colony. The work itself, and the associated ostracism from all levels of society, saw many hangmen turn to drink. The stereotype of the drunkard executioner was well established by the late eighteenth century. Some of Nosey Bob’s predecessors were also violent on and off the job, a few were committed to lunatic asylums, some died young or in extreme poverty on the streets, others simply disappeared.
The man known as Nosey Bob was different. Having lost his nose – hence Nosey Bob – after an encounter with a vicious horse in which he came off second best, he lost his successful cab driving business. What’s an unemployed man with a wife and six children to support to do in Sydney in 1876? Howard started off as an assistant executioner and was soon promoted. He did the worst job in the colony, but he appears to have tried to retain the best of himself. In his mid 40s when he became a hangman, Nosey Bob made an effort to stay a family man, raising his children as a single dad after his wife passed away in 1878. He was not known as a violent person (although when someone attacked his pet dog in 1882, he did strike back with the leg of a chair). He stayed sane and while he did enjoy the occasional beer or gin, he was never accused of being drunk at work. Though not extremely wealthy, he was a landholder with property in Bondi and Richmond. He drew a pension and voted in elections. A man who liked to potter in his garden and go fishing, he also had a reputation for being kind, and helping those who had found themselves down on their luck.
He was also good to animals. He was quick to defend his dog, and he rescued a horse from the old Woollahra Pound and trained him to make a return trip to a local establishment. The horse carried a billy with sixpence in it to the pub, and then – walking more slowly – a billy full of beer home.
Despite being an executioner Howard was, really, kind of ordinary. Would you have Robert Howard as the headline speaker at a careers day? Probably not. But if you wanted to catch up with one of the great identities of colonial Sydney, you could do
worse than sit and have a drink with Nosey Bob.
Head to the Dictionary to read Rachel’s entry on Nosey Bob here. She’s also working on a biography of his life and the history of capital punishment in the late 19th century in New South Wales that will be published by NewSouth Books.
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 & Alex here (skip to 135.3!), and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.