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    South Australia - Crime, Law and Punishment

    Capital Punishment

    Also see Adelaide - Gaols, Reformatories and the Law for an essay on some "Notable Executions".

    Capital Punishment

    (Taken from Geoffrey H. Manning's A Colonial Experience)

    The Lesson of the Scaffold

    In the 19th century, in nearly every country in which capital punishment was inflicted, the criminal suffered in public. There is no doubt that the original intent of this publicity was to strike terror into the minds of the evil disposed; further, it was also considered to enhance the severity of the punishment. A public execution was something more than a death: it was a death of open disgrace and popular infamy.

    In this manner the penalty would be regarded as additionally severe and the admonitory lesson as additionally impressive. The natural extension of the same principle led to the dismemberment of notorious criminals and the public exhibition of their mutilated remains. It was all done to render the law terrible and to strike deeper dread into those who might have an intention to violate it.

    In later days the publicity of an execution was advocated as a kind of guarantee to the criminal and the public that the sentence of the law would be carried out honestly. But this is a comparatively modern notion; in the ancient days of sanguinary rule very little of this scrupulousness was entertained. Life was cheap, law was brutal, popular morals were degraded and the only ideals of public execution were vengeance and example.

    Vengeance enough, unquestionably, in those Draconian days; but as far as for example, the anticipated result was absolutely inverted. The 'lesson' operated as an inducement to crime and, as the lessons occurred more frequently, so did criminal education ripen more rapidly. The spectacle of men and women hanging became a fruitful occasion of fresh crime, fresh executions, and fresh 'examples'. Governments read backwards every sign of the times and continued sowing dragon's teeth and reaping armed men.

    Public Executions

    Perhaps I should not exceed the limits of sober estimate in recording the opinion that a public execution is the most demoralizing spectacle which any civilized nation ever presented, or ever could present to the gaze of the community. Yet, by fatal inversion of judgment, and by willful ignoring of experience, that which brutalises the people beyond example was vindicated on the plea that the interests of the State required an impressive lesson.

    These events were, to some citizens, an occasion for entertainment and a family friend, Sarah Hannam, recounted to me when as a thoughtless, carefree child she raced with her brothers from their home in Thebarton to see a hanging. Crowds, she said, were present and such an event was looked upon almost as an outing.

    The proposal to adopt the principle of private executions in South Australia in 1858 excited in the minds of many persons a deep feeling of horror, that urged them to strenuous opposition to any interference with the long-hallowed institution of public hangings. The idea of privacy in these punishments was denounced as utterly inconsistent with the object of deterring from crime by example of the felon's doom.

    It was in vain, in reasoning with persons who took this ground, to show that all experience proved that public executions had no deterrent effect whatever; that the vilest criminals habitually congregated to witness these revolting scenes; that jokes upon the dying wretches' struggles were bandied about; that the air resounded with blasphemy, obscenity and brutal laughter; that innumerable robberies took place at the very foot of the gallows and that these dread spectacles stimulated crime and occasioned outbursts of the most revolting depravity. The answer to all this was that so many persons were brought together to see the result of a career of crime, and that in spite of all unfavorable appearances, the effect must be wholesome. The minds of a mass of people were impregnated with this popular belief. The old fear that the execution of criminals condemned to death under the private system would be a matter of uncertainty, has long been dismissed as chimerical. There is a distinction between privacy and secrecy. Justice is now secured, while the public is spared those revolting spectacles so long and so justly declaimed against.

    The Debate on Capital Punishment

    I do not intend to write at length on the debate which, to the best of my knowledge, has waxed and waned in South Australia since settlement in 1836. During the 1860s there was a continuous effort to amend the laws of England with respect to the infliction of capital punishment for murder. It is scarcely necessary to point out that between two murderers there may be a wide world of difference as to their guilt, and where guilt differs so widely, surely punishment should differ too? The fact that some murderers were far guiltier than others had, in bygone ages, led to the special severity of punishment. The ordinary death penalty was thought not severe enough and torture before death, or specially painful or degrading modes of death, were resorted to.

    Under the influence of the same considerations, notorious criminals were hung in chains, or quartered and disemboweled. All this, as far as British law was concerned, had, happily, passed away; but still there was the principle upon which it proceeded. In 1867 Mr Walpole's government enacted a Bill which provided for the death penalty only in respect of five categories of intent; all others came under the heading of 'manslaughter'. During the 1870s the debate flared again in South Australia and many public meetings were held. The following were two arguments put forward - they revealed a growing consensus within the community for the abolition of capital punishment:

    However, there were some who were totally opposed to its abolition; for instance a spokesman for the Catholic Church propounded:

    In contradiction, a newspaper Editor showed some compassion and insight in respect of legal murder being implemented at the behest of the State:

    In 1871 the royal prerogative was in the hands of men who stood adjudged by the people as unworthy to conduct the routine business of government. And yet they were, by an application of an obsolete theory, held competent to overrule the law, reverse the recommendation of the jury, to annul the sentence of a Judge and to exercise a general dispensing power with regard to the laws of the country, which could never be tolerated but for the fiction that those Lilliputian Executives really represented the Queen.

    The action of the Executive, in granting reprieves to several condemned men in the 1890s, showed the gradual change that was taking place in the colony, while an extract or two from parliamentary debates suggests that public attitudes were gradually permeating all sides of the political spectrum in the hallowed halls of North Terrace:

    Finally, in 1895 the editor of the Advertiser suggested that:

    We are a generation remarkable for our tender and considerate treatment of criminals. The roughness and brutality of old-time methods have disappeared. Humanitarianism has given us the conception of a prisoner as one to be reformed as well as punished. We are done with vindictive penalties. A man is no longer hanged for stealing a sheep and, in a few cases where capital punishment is imposed, we put the convict out of the world almost with an apology for taking so grave a liberty.

    Today, capital punishment is still reserved in practically the whole of the 'civilised' world as the lot of those criminals who willfully and designedly take the lives of innocent fellow-creatures. England and Russia hang the murderer with the rope; Germany, Austria and Switzerland sever his head from his body by the means of the sword, and France and Belgium by the guillotine, which of course is only a machine-like form of the sword; Spain chokes him to death by the garrote and America makes away with its murderous criminals by means of an electric current.

    Whilst all Christians acknowledge the authority of the Bible, they differ widely in the interpretation and construction of the verses generally relied upon in this argument - 'Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord' - It is no mere phrase for pulpit thunderings, but is a wise, humane, and essential doctrine for communities as well as individuals. But it is said the safety of society demands the exaction of the extreme penalty. I answer, with all the emphasis I can command, that public safety demands the immediate abolition of capital punishment.

    If life is so sacred that there is no corner of the earth in which a known murderer can escape the laws of extradition, how, in the name of all that is sane, can the State be justified in taking life? If punishment, moreover, can deter the incarceration in a lunatic asylum, or a gaol 'for the term of his natural life', it is an infinitely more appalling punishment than to be called upon to face a sudden, awful death at the hands of the common hangman. To take life, because life has been taken, is criminally inconsistent and undermines that belief in the sacredness of human existence which the law seeks to protect. I view the infliction of capital punishment by the State with undiminished horror.

    The gospel of a 'life for a life' is an extreme application of that most brutal of all Jewish tenets, ?an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?. It would be difficult to find any topic which brings into stronger light the silliness of human nature. Some are still found to argue on a verse in Genesis that the Deity is in favour of executing murderers, but no other criminals. It is probable that this verse has actually helped to determine our criminal law to this day. 'He took a life, he ought to swing for it' says the man in the street. But the State, no more than the individual, has no right to exact revenge.

    Under a regularly constituted government, I incline to the opinion that the punishment of death might be wisely, and safely, and in all cases, be abolished. The punishments to be substituted may be debated, but with regard to the fundamental question - 'Have we any right to abolish the penalty of death and could we safely make the experiment?' - I reply to both in the affirmative, for the spirit of our age revolts against capital punishment.

    I put the following questions to the parliament:

    To the first I would reply that I believe he does not, or he would be deterred from his terrible act; to the second I also reply it does not, and in support of my opinion state that it is a fact that when the crime of horse stealing in England no longer attracted the death penalty the crime itself became less frequent. My answer to the third is, I believe the object of punishment is, or should be, deterrent and remedial. Capital punishment, I hold, fails in either case.

    Today, the advocate of the abolition of capital punishment is still unpopular, but the lust for blood has not prevented a gradual change in the criminal code - the public is hovering on the brink. It is undecided whether to retain the principle in case of need or, having gone so far, to take the plunge and abolish capital punishment altogether. We cannot execute death on the mere probability of a Divine command: its absolute certainty is essential. In the name of human life I call upon parliament to remove this terrible blood stain from our Statute book.

    General Notes

    Also see Adelaide - Gaols, Reformatories and the Law.

    A comprehensive article entitled "Wig and Gown" appears in the Advertiser (special edition),
    1 September 1936, page 52.

    An eye-witness account of the first hanging in South Australia is given in the Register,
    11 July 1887, page 7h,
    18 December 1900, page 7a; also see
    30 July 1887, page 6b,
    5 January 1901, page 33d.
    "The Old-Time Skeleton" is in the Register,
    2 June 1892, page 5c.
    A "gallows" tree, situated on the parklands between the River Torrens and the Adelaide Oval, is discussed in the Observer,
    7 and 14 November 1903, pages 24e and 23e.

    Early hangings are commented upon in the Observer,
    20 March 1926, page 16b.

    "The Hangman and the Gallows" is in The Examiner,
    14 May 1853, page 9b.

    "Holidays and the Hangman" is in the Register,
    22 and 26 December 1855, pages 3e and 2f.

    "Private Executions Bill" is in the Register,
    28 September 1858, page 2f,
    2 October 1858, page 2f.

    Early hangings are commented upon in the Observer,
    20 March 1926, page 16b.

    Reminiscences of the hanging of Curran & Hughes are in the Register,
    16 December 1887, page 7g.
    The finding of human bones believed to be of former bushrangers, Curran and Hughes, hanged in Adelaide is reported in the Register,
    2 June 1892, page 5c.

    A lecture by David McLaren on this subject is in the Register,
    19 December 1840, page 4; also see
    12 August 1843, page 5a,
    23 October 1844, page 3b,
    22 March 1845, page 3a-b,
    9 April 1845, page 3d,
    3 May 1845, page 4b,
    17 June 1846, page 4b,
    29 August 1850, page 3d,
    2, 6, 9, 10 and 28 September 1850, pages 2d-3a, 3e, 3b, 4a and 4a.

    Also see SA Gazette & Mining Journal,
    5 September 1850, page 2b,
    Adelaide Times,
    14 May 1853, page 3e,
    27 December 1854, page 2d;
    Southern Australian,
    25 March 1845, page 2e,
    15 April 1845, page 2e,
    13 May 1845, page 2c,
    South Australian,
    3 November 1846, pages 4d-5c.

    The execution of "the seventh European... in South Australia" is reported in the Observer,
    19 March 1853, page 3e.

    "The Death Penalty in South Australia - Old Time Tragedies" is in the Chronicle,
    1 September 1894, page 7.

    "The Lesson of the Scaffold" is in the Register,
    28 December 1854, page 2d.

    "Public Executions" is in the Observer,
    16 December 1854, page 8b,
    10 July 1856, page 2d,
    21 November 1857, page 6g,
    19 June 1867, page 2a,
    29 June 1867, page 1e (supp.),
    28 August 1868, page 2d,
    2 and 7 September 1875, pages 7d and 6f,
    17 and 24 January 1883, pages 5g and 6d,
    "Hanging" on
    18 January 1900, page 7b.
    Information on public hangings is in the Observer,
    20 March 1926, page 16b.

    An editorial headed "Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    22 December 1854, page 2d; also see
    27 and 28 December 1854, pages 2h and 2d,
    24 February 1858, page 3e.

    "Ho;idays and the Hangman" is in the Register,
    22 and 26 December 1855, pages 3c and 2f.

    "Private Executions Bill" is in the Register,
    28 September 1858,
    2 October 1858, page 2f.

    "Execution of Criminals" is in the Observer,
    9 October 1858, page 6b.

    "Execution of Seaver the Murderer" is in the Register,
    12 and 26 March 1862, pages 3h and 2h,
    15 March 1862, page 6a.

    Also see Register,
    11 March 1862, page 2h,
    6, 9 and 10 December 1862, pages 3a, 3c and 3e,
    11 October 1858, page 3b,
    15 December 1862, page 3d,
    9 July 1864, page 2f,
    14 April 1866, page 2f,
    9 May 1866, page 2d,
    22 August 1866, page 2d,
    27 May 1867, page 2f,
    21 November 1867, page 2f,
    18 May 1871, page 2c,
    27 August 1868, page 2b,
    10 January 1874, page 5a,
    7 March 1874, page 11d,
    4 March 1874, page 3c,
    10 August 1874, page 3a,
    30 and 31 July 1877, pages 6e and 6g,
    4 August 1877, page 13e.

    "Execution of Malachi Martin" is in the Register,
    26 December 1862, pages 2g-4e-6e.

    "Murder and Capital Punishment" is in the Express,
    25 May 1867, page 2b,
    "The Punishment of Death" on
    14 November 1871, page 2b,
    The Irish Harp,
    22 August 1873, page 4a,
    "Capital Punishment" on
    16 January 1874, page 4b.

    "The Execution of Elizabeth Woolcock" is in the Express,
    30 December 1873, page 2b,
    Observer, 3 January 1874, pages 2f-6e.
    "The Hanging of Women" is in the Advertiser,
    30 December 1893, page 4e,
    "Women on the Scaffold" in the Register,
    1 October 1909, page 4c.

    An interesting exchange of letters, primarily between R.C. Mitton and W.H. Burford, on the subject of "Capital Punishment", is in the Register in 1874 -
    15, 17, 19, 22, 24, 29 January, pages 6a, 5f, 5f, 5f, 6c-d, 7f;
    6, 12, 16 February, pages 6f, 7a, 6f;
    5 and 19 March, pages 7c and 7b.

    "Execution of William Ridgway" is in the Chronicle,
    3 January 1874, page 10e, Express, 2 January 1874, page 2f
    "Execution of Charles Streitman" on
    28 July 1877, page 9e,
    4 August 1877, page 13e.

    "Recommended to Mercy" is in the Express,
    5 January 1874, page 2c.

    "Abolition of Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    9 and 15 January 1874, pages 6c and 6a,
    4 March 1874, page 6a,
    9 January 1874, page 3b,
    13 August 1891, page 3e.

    The foundation of an abolition society is reported in the Express,
    13 October 1908, page 1h.
    13 October 1908, page 6d.

    "Capital Punishment" is in The Irish Harp,
    28 August 1874, page 3a.

    "Recommended to Mercy" is in the Chronicle,
    10 January 1874, page 11g,
    "Commutation of Sentences" on
    6 September 1879, page 5b,
    "Execution of Burns" on
    27 January 1883, page 5b,
    "Capital Punishment" on
    27 January 1883, page 13d.

    "Execution of Streitmann" is in the Register,
    25 July 1877, page 4f,
    24 July 1877, page 2d.
    "Execution of Douglas Burns" in the Observer,
    20 January 1883, page 29b.

    The execution of Hugh Fagan is reported in the Register,
    17 April 1878, page 5c.

    The execution of the Chinaman, Mah Poo, is reported in the Observer,
    17 November 1883, page 34d.

    "Execution of Mah Poo" is in the Register,
    12 November 1883, page 7a.

    "Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    1 November 1895, page 7g.

    "Capital Punishment a Failure" is discussed in the Register on 28 June 1878, page 6d; also see
    24 July 1878, page 3g,
    29 July 1878, page 6g,
    17 August 1891, page 7f,
    26 and 31 October 1891, pages 4f-7a and 6b,
    2 November 1891, page 6g,
    15 August 1891, page 30a, Advertiser,
    13 August 1892, page 9f,
    13, 14 and 15 July 1893, pages 4f, 5h-6b and 4d.

    "Hanging versus Electricity" is in the Express,
    16 January 1889, page 2b.
    "Execution by Electricity" in the Register,
    8 August 1890, page 4f.

    "The Death Penalty Suspended" is in the ,
    26 March 1891, page 5a.

    "Ghastly Relics of Early Hangings" is in the Register,
    17 August 1891, page 7f.

    "Murder and the Death Penalty" is in the Register,
    2 July 1895, page 4f.

    "Murderers Black and White" is in the Observer,
    8 July 1893, page 25a,
    "The Death Penalty" in the Chronicle,
    8 July 1893, page 4e.

    An article on hangings in South Australia is in the Observer,
    1 September 1894, page 44b;
    it also includes the names of those who were reprieved.

    Also see Register,
    12 September 1894, page 7b,
    3 October 1894, page 6g,
    2 July 1895, page 4f,
    18 July 1895, page 6g,
    1 November 1895, page 7g,
    3 and 16 July 1897, pages 4e and 4g,
    26 November 1906, page 7f,
    22 October 1907, page 4b,
    3 July 1908, page 4c,
    19 and 22 August 1908, pages 4c and 4h,
    13 October 1908, page 6d,
    17 March 1910, page 6e.:

    "The Prerogative of Mercy" is traversed in the Register,
    30 August 1882, page 4d,
    18 August 1892, page 4d,
    21 October 1891, page 2b,
    13 July 1893, page 3e,
    18 September 1892, page 5g,
    18 and 24 October 1901, pages 4c and 4d.
    The subject is discussed further in an editorial on
    6 July 1893, page 4f:

    "Abolishing Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    13 August 1891, page 4h.

    "The Supreme Court Rules" is discussed in the Advertiser,
    5 October 1893, page 4f.

    "Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    1 November 1895, page 7g.

    "Murder and the Death Penalty" is in the Register,
    2 July 1895, page 4f.

    "The Execution of Brown" is in the Register,
    25 August 1894, pages 4f-6a.

    An editorial in the Advertiser on 6 November 1895, page 4f says, inter alia:

    Capital punishment is discussed in the Weekly Herald,
    2 August 1895, page 4e,
    16 September 1895, page 4c.

    "The Death Sentence" is in the Observer,
    10 July 1897, page 41e.

    "Execution of Horton" is in the Register,
    13 May 1904, page 4g.

    "Execution of Bonfield" is in the Register,
    6 January 1905, page 5a.

    "The Punishment of Murder" is in the Register,
    6 January 1905, page 4e.

    Comments on the subject are in the Advertiser,
    22 February 1905, page 10h,
    1 March 1905, page 6d,
    9, 10 and 13 November 1906, pages 6b, 10e and 6b,
    19 August 1908, page 8e,
    15, 22 and 30 March 1910, pages 8b, 11f and 14b,
    21 September 1912, page 18f,
    31 July 1914, page 9a.

    "The Doomed Murderer" is in the Register,
    16 and 17 November 1906, pages 4d and 7c,
    "Habibukka Executed" is in the Observer,
    24 November 1906, page 42e.

    "The Death Penalty" is in the Register,
    22 and 31 October 1907, pages 4b and 8c.

    "Should Coleman Be Hanged?" is in the Register,
    16, 19 and 23 June 1908, pages 6b-8f, 7e and 3d-6b,
    2, 3 and 7 July 1908, pages 5b, 4c-5a and 6e,
    1 August 1908, page 9g.

    "Two Old Criminal Cases [reprieved murderers]" is in the Register,
    8 July 1908, page 3f.

    "Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    19 and 22 August 1908, pages 4c and 4h.

    "Women on the Scaffold" is in the Register,
    1 October 1909, page 4c.

    "Execution of Robins" is in the Register,
    17 March 1910, page 7g.

    "Murder and Murders" is in the Register,
    17 May 1910, page 6c; also see
    26 April 1912, page 4c,
    5 August 1914, page 4e.

    "A Death Sentence Commuted" and consequential comment is in the Register,
    1, 10, 14, 16, 20 and 21 January 1919, pages 4c, 6b, 5a, 6i, 4h and 6c-7c,
    18 and 25 April 1919, pages 7a and 9e:

    "The Death Penalty - The Abolition Urged" is in the Register,
    18, 22, 25 and 28 April 1919, pages 7a, 4b, 7c-9e and 4b,
    15 September 1925, page 8d.

    "The Brutality of Hanging" is in The Mail,
    26 April 1919, page 2a.
    Also see Register,
    26 and 28 April 1919, pages 6f and 3g-4b,
    1 and 12 May 1919, pages 5g-9f and 7d,
    8 November 1920, page 6d,
    18 November 1920, page 6f,
    27 and 30 August 1921, pages 9f and 7c,
    15 September 1925, page 8d,
    29 July 1926, page 8c,
    5 August 1926, page 8c,
    23 March 1927, page 6e.

    "Sentenced to Death" is in the Register,
    10 February 1922, page 6d

    "The Case for Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    2 April 1923, page 6g; also see
    The Mail,
    7 July 1923, page 3g,
    1 and 28 April 1924, pages 7e and 8g,
    18 and 27 June 1924, pages 8f and 15c,
    25 October 1924, page 20h,
    11 December 1924, page 8f,
    19 March 1925, page 14g,
    16 September 1925, page 8h; also see
    The News,
    17 and 21 June 1924, pages 6f and 8a,
    12 July 1924, page 4c.

    "Misplaced Pity for Murderers" is in the Register,
    16 June 1924, page 8d.

    "The Commuted Death Sentence" is in the <>Register,
    3 July 1924, page 8d.

    "Labour and Capital Punishment" is in the Register,
    11 August 1924, page 7c,
    "Safeguarding the Murderer" on
    24 April 1925, page 8e; also see
    23 November 1927, page 12g,
    15 December 1927, page 13b,
    19 January 1928, page 12f,
    3 and 4 July 1928, pages 17a and 8f,
    20 October 1928, page 19f.

    "The Law and the Murderer" is in the Register,
    5 December 1927, page 8e,
    10 and 20 December 1927, pages 7d-e and 15a,
    3 July 1928, page 8e.

    Also see Advertiser,
    30 and 31 October 1929, pages 22d and 14d,
    2 and 5 November 1929, pages 22e and 22c,
    2 November 1929, page 2a,
    31 January 1930, page 24e,
    5 and 28 February 1930, pages 18g and 20g,
    4 March 1930, page 14e.

    "Does Capital Punishment Deter the Murderer?" is in The News,
    15 May 1936, page 6c.

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