On 21 September 1852, illicit grog dealer, snappy dresser and murderer Francis Green was the last man to be publicly hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.
Green (also known as John Brown) was 32 years old when he was arrested for the murder of his partner in their sly grog trade, John Jones (also known as Hayes, or ‘the Tinker’), at Buckley’s Creek on the goldfields near Bathurst.
Green was an efficient murderer (unusual in colonial New South Wales), shooting his victim on 10 March 1852 and ‘inflicting a wound on the back of the neck, whereof the said John Jones instantly died’.
He was also a neat and tidy murderer. He complained at Goulburn that he was being forwarded to Sydney ‘with no clean shirt’, his clothes having been taken by police into evidence. Some money had been found on him when he was arrested and the local Justice of the Peace ordered that ‘a small portion of it might be expended by the prisoner in procuring a shirt’. At his trial in early August, he ‘was most respectably attired in a black dress coat and trousers, a light vest, black hat &c’.
The Empire wrote of how, even as Green faced his death and ‘was called forth to face the fatal platform’, he ‘still retained his wonted coolness and self-command. He had previously attended to his personal appearance with more than ordinary care, and his shoes becoming accidentally soiled, he deliberately changed them; and dressed in white, with a small cross attached to his neck, he firmly mounted the scaffold…’
Green was of great interest to newspaper editors and their readers and, as reported by Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Review, so were the crowds who had gathered to watch him hang at the gaol’s public gallows outside the Forbes Street gates, The press had become increasingly critical of the morals and conduct of those, particularly women, who would attend a public hanging:
‘The morning of Tuesday broke dark and gloomy, with a drizzling rain; but this in no way diminished the number of spectators, which was of about the usual average—the proportion of females to the sterner sex being nearly three to one. We noticed one carriage in particular, tenanted by women of respectable exterior, and who, we believe, have hitherto ranked as such, drawn up immediately in front of the drop; its inmates displaying the most disgusting eagerness to source the best situation for witnessing the forthcoming tragedy.’
Green’s final statement at his trial had proclaimed his innocence:
‘May I be permitted to make one more remark. I am perfectly innocent of this charge, and if I am executed, I shall only add one more to the number of victims who have fallen on circumstantial evidence’
Although he later confessed to accidentally killing Jones, his statement highlighted the moral issue behind the greater debate of the day: the fight to abolish the death penalty altogether, as both a public and private punishment.
The decision of the New South Wales Legislative Council to perform judicial executions as private rather than public events was innovative but still controversial. There was a general consensus that public executions were uncivilised and were, as Gregory Woods has noted, ‘associated with the hated convict era’. Yet there were those who believed that the ultimate sentence of the law was also the ultimate deterrent against crime and laws concerning the death penalty in the colonies required royal assent. Imperial authorities, who did not ban public executions in England until 1868, were not enthusiastic supporters of the new Australian policy, but finally Act to Regulate the Execution of Criminals 1855 (NSW) was signed and proclaimed on 10 January 1855.
It is sometimes claimed that Green was the last person to be publicly hanged in New South Wales, but while Darlinghurst had two gallows, one private and one public, many other prisons across the state did not have these additional ‘indoor’ facilities, and the practice continued after 1852.
Arguments for and against capital punishment continued, often vigorously, until it was eventually outlawed in all Australian states and territories in the late 20th century and legislation was passed by the federal government in 2010 prohibiting its reintroduction.
References and further reading:
Beck, Deborah, Hope in Hell: A History of Darlinghurst Gaol and the National Art School (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2005)
‘The Buckley Creek Murder’, Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, 7 August 1852, pp1–3, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/59775102; ‘Law Intelligence’, Empire, 3 August 1852, p2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/60134731
‘The Murder at the Turon’, Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser, 8 May 1852, p4, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/101732377 ,
‘Police Intelligence’, Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser, 8 May 1852, p4, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/101732377
Gregory D. Woods, A History of the Criminal Law in New South Wales: The Colonial Period, 1788–1900 (Annandale: Federation Press, 2002)
Barry York, ‘Capital Punishment in Australia’, Unbound: National Library of Australia magazine, June 2017, https://www.nla.gov.au/unbound/capital-punishment-in-australia
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales 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!