The Hangman’s Rope

Here in Australia, we are a bit preoccupied with capital punishment at the moment. Two Australian drug traffickers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, are facing imminent death by firing squad in Indonesia. There has been a good deal of moral outrage about their fate, which is understandable since it is nearly 50 years since the last execution took place in Australia.

In February 1967 Ronald Ryan was hanged in Melbourne after he was found guilty of killing a prison officer during a botched escape attempt. This was the first hanging in Victoria since 1951, and it was controversial. There were some doubts about whether Ryan had fired the fatal shot, and Premier Henry Bolte seemed much too eager to make political capital out of the affair. Bolts made much of his resolute stand against ‘do-gooders’, a coalition of opponents of the death penalty that included The Age newspaper, the churches, academics and students and most of the legal profession.

Vigil for Ronald Ryan

Unionists at a vigil for Ronald Ryan

There are some intriguing similarities between Henry Bolte and the Indonesian President Joko Widodo, both of whom decided to revive the use of capital punishment after a long period when it was in abeyance. Law and order always plays well to the local electorate, and Bolte surfed a populist wave by hanging tough. He did well at the next election, and no doubt the Indonesian President also hopes for a similar bounce in the polls by executing foreigners who have been on death row for a decade under his ‘softer’ predecessors.

Victorians in the 1960s were divided over capital punishment, and there were many, perhaps a majority, who liked Bolte’s obduracy on the issue. Scratch many voters today and things probably haven’t changed all that much since Ryan died. We seem to have reached a point where the public doesn’t like judicial killings, especially when foreigners kill Australians, but some at least of that same public are ready to form an extra-judicial lynch mob, especially when egged on by a feral media against the most loathed categories of offenders, such as pedophiles.

Once, though, capital punishment was almost universally accepted in Australia. When British colonists arrived in 1788, they brought with them a ferociously bloody rule of law – the Bloody Code – that used the death penalty to punish a wide range of offences, including such arcane crimes as setting fire to haystacks and destroying fish ponds (both acts of rural rebellion against the gentry) as well as for theft of goods worth more than a shilling. Many of the convicts who arrived in the early days had received death sentences that were commuted to transportation.

In the early days of the convict colony, men and women were hanged for murder, but also for stealing food – whereas the colony’s first pedophile, Henry Wright, was treated much more leniently – I wrote about him here. Food was in short supply in 1789, so the authorities thought the only way to stop people stealing was to put the fear of death into them. Death was the ultimate deterrent in a society without a police force or strong locks on the doors. Whereas David Collins, the deputy judge advocate who dealt with Wright decided there was no need to execute a man who raped little girls, because he didn’t think this was a crime that would recur, and so there was no need to use punishment as a deterrent.

Punishment as a deterrent is often the last refuge of a judicial system where the chance of being caught is very low. In 18th century England the chance of catching any individual criminal was low – so authorities ramped up the punishment accordingly in the hope that ‘salutary terror’ would do what a non-existent police force failed to do. Maybe the Indonesians feel that way about drug smuggling, just as the Australian government uses cruelty as a deterrent against people smuggling, in the absence of any other way of stamping it out.

The Bloody Code was gradually modified in Britain and in Australia, often in parallel with improved policing. With the end of transportation, corporal punishment and hangings ceased to be public events, and were conducted more discreetly behind prison walls – though as late as 1855, the Aboriginal warrior Dundalli was publicly hanged in Queen St., Brisbane, because the authorities thought only a public execution would act as a deterrent to the non-literate Aboriginal population, who gathered to watch his death.

cartoon of the end of the death penalty in Queensland

Queensland abolishes the death penalty. From The Worker, 27 July 1922. Premier Theodore (ALP) ended capital punishment against the wishes of conservative forces, such as the businessman and socially conservative woman we see there. 

Generally, there was little public opposition to the idea of the death penalty in colonial Australia, and well into the 20th century. Queensland was the first state to get rid of capital punishment, in 1922, but most other states continued with it into the post-World War II era, like Victoria only wheeling it out occasionally for political purposes. Only very gradually have people come to see capital punishment as morally repugnant – and some call for its reintroduction, even now.

So let me introduce a forgotten campaigner against the death penalty. Joseph Phelps Robinson died of scarlet fever in 1848, aged 33, so it is not surprising that he has been forgotten, but in his day he fought a solitary battle to end capital punishment in New South Wales.

Robinson arrived in New South Wales in 1842, the partner of the much more flamboyant Benjamin Boyd in the Royal Bank of Australia. Robinson was a Quaker, one of very few resident in New South Wales at the time, and the Quakers were early and admirable opponents of the death penalty.

Robinson bought squatting runs across New South Wales, include Beaudesert Station southwest of Brisbane. In 1844 he was elected to the Legislative Council as a member for Port Phillip. In the Council he fought for his Quaker principles: he wanted each session to be opened with prayer, he supported a non-sectarian education system, and he supported various philanthropic causes, such as the Sydney Bethel Union and the Mechanics Institute.

Every year, when the budget for police and gaols was brought before the Legislative Council, Robinson moved a motion: ‘that the disgusting item for two executioners, and the equally disgusting charge for coffins, rope, &c, be struck out’ of the estimates.

Most years, he never found a seconder for his motion.

Note: Details on Joseph Phelps Robinson come from my book, Ben Boyd of Boydtown (1988, 1995).

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