20 December 2017

The Bloody, Bloody Hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison

There's a couple of points I always like to make on my 'Hangman's Walk' cemetery tours. The first is that hanging could be a messy and unpredictable process, despite the concerted attempts to make sure the rope broke the neck and caused a quick, 'clean' death for the prisoner.

The second point is that newspaper reporters of the late 19th century did not hold back when it came to describing gory events in minute detail. A Brisbane Telegraph article about the hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison at Brisbane's Boggo Road prison demonstrates both of these points very well.

Prison photographs of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, 1887. (Queensland State Archives)

The lovers had been sentenced to death for the murder of Thomson's husband, and were hanged one after the other on the morning of Monday 13 June 1887. Ellen, a mother of six whose hard life had aged her well beyond her 41 years, was the first to go. After a lengthy walk-through of the early morning events, the article eventually reached her last moments alive:
"The fatal white cap was placed over her head, and the ropes fixed around her neck. Her face thus veiled she said in accents calm and wonderfully clear, "Good-bye, everybody, I forgive everybody. I never shot my husband, I never did anybody any harm, I will die like an injured angel." 
A few earnest words from the clergyman, and at a signal the executioner, whose hand rested on the lever, gave one powerful pull. The massive trap door on which she stood groaned and opened, and the next moment the thin, attenuated form of the unfortunate woman hung in mid air, her small kid boots peeping out from under her black dress. 
For one moment her knees were drawn upwards, then they relaxed, and she never moved again. But what a sickening sight! Blood trickling down her body and patterning in large drops on the hard cement floor. It increases in quantity, and at length trickles down in a stream, and the whole floor is covered with a woman's blood. Examination afterwards proved that the jugular vein in the neck was severed by the rope, hence the flow of blood. Sawdust and shavings were laid down to absorb the blood, and after the body had hung about a quarter of an hour, it was lowered into a coffin which had been in waiting close by.

Hence a phrenologist*, who was present, performed a sickening operation. The white cap, which was put over the head for the express purpose of hiding the contortions of the face, was removed, and while two female warders were compelled to soil their hands with blood by holding up the head - and this in the gaze of some 20 persons - the gentleman referred to made certain measurements of the dead woman's hard by means of a tape measure.

There are cases where such investigations might be of use to science, but in the present case we can see no necessity for thus exposing to the public gaze the hideous, contorted, blood-besmeared face of a decrepid, little woman, who, from a physical point of view could scarcely lift a 28-lb weight. If such things are to be permitted, they might be done in a less public manner than they were this morning. 
Ellen Thompson specially requested that she might be buried in the dress in which she was hanged. Her wish was complied with, and as the little withered body lay in its coffin, bathed in gore, her hands clasping a crucifix which had been placed there before death, and her face besmeared with blood still exposed to public view, the sight was one that no man would ever wish again to see."
Ellen Thomson went down in history as the only woman hanged in Queensland.

Once Ellen's body was removed from the scene, John Harrison, aged 25 years, was led from his cell. He would have heard every detail of Ellen's ordeal, but he remained solid and silent on the scaffold, and was dropped the trapdoor. Once again, the Telegraph reporter imbued his writing with a dramatic flavour:
"Not a muscle moved, nor a quiver from the body, but strange to say the same occurrence took place as with the woman, namely, the severance of the jugular vein. Simultaneous with the thud, the blood spurted out and ran in a stream down the body as it hung dangling from the beam lifeless and motionless. The snow-white cap was in a moment saturated with blood. It ran down the culprit's white trousers and reddened the floor just as in the previous case, and the spectators were for the second time that morning the witnesses of a ghastly sight, which in the cold of morning made their blood curdle. 
The sawdust, &c., which had been put down after the fall of blood from the woman served the purpose of stopping the further flow along the floor of the blood which fell from Harrison."
Most executions around this time did result in quick, bloodless deaths, so it was a remarkable coincidence that both prisoners suffered the exact same wounds. It also reflected poorly on the skills of the hangman, William Ware, who was conducting his third hanging. He would have measured the couple and taken their weights as part of his mathematical calculations to provide the exact right length of 'drop' through the trapdoor to break their necks without further injury. Maybe he overcompensated with his next execution, in which the prisoner was not dropped far enough and ended up being strangled to death by the rope.

Ellen and John were buried in adjoining graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery. John was first, receiving an Anglican burial service by the Rev. Archdeacon Dawes. Later that day Ellen was interred with a Catholic service by the Rev. Father Fouhy. These graveside services meant that the ground there was now considered to be blessed. It was small compensation for two lovers whose lives - and deaths - had been anything but blessed.

* Phrenology was a 19th-century pseudoscience, the practitioners of which believed that measurements of the skull and brain could reveal detailed information about personality. They occasionally had access to the corpses of executed prisoners.

19 December 2017

A 2017 Cemetery Tour Gallery

It has been a big, big year for the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery. I'm reluctant to say the biggest ever, because back during 2005-10 the group was made up of just three women who tidied, photographed and recorded every single grave in the cemetery, and then successfully lobbied to get removed headstones returned, all of which amounts to one of the Labours of Hercules.

The last few years have been very quiet on the cemetery front, but back in May we incorporated the group and commenced a new range of night tours, once a month. They got bigger and bigger, and we ended up with six in six weeks, all sold out.

Mixed in with all this were a few other events, including our 'Midwinter Family Day' in June, 'Tombstone Folk' in September, and 'Graveyard Explorer' in October.

Here are a few images from this year. So many good memories for us. Thanks to everybody who visited the cemetery with us this past year - we hope to see you again in 2018!

'Midwinter Family Day', South Brisbane Cemetery, 18 June 2017. (FOSBC)

'A Cemetery by Torchlight' tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 28 July 2017. (FOSBC)

'Gruesome Graveyards' tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 25 August 2017. (FOSBC)

'Tombstone Blues', South Brisbane Cemetery, 22 September 2017. (M. Wilson)

'Tombstone Blues', South Brisbane Cemetery, 22 September 2017. (FOSBC)

'Hangman's Walk' tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 13 October 2017. (FOSBC)

'Gruesome Graveyards' tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 27 October 2017. (FOSBC)

'Graveyard Explorer', South Brisbane Cemetery, 29 October 2017. (FOSBC)

Private group tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 10 November 2017. (FOSBC)

'Hangman's Walk' tour, Toowong Cemetery, 12 November 2017. (FOSBC)

'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 24 November 2017.

'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 1 December 2017. (FOSBC)

Private group tour, South Brisbane Cemetery, 15 December 2017. (FOSBC)

17 December 2017

Mums and Dads Pay a Hefty Price at Boggo Road

This very telling graph reveals how much various 'crime and justice' heritage sites around Australia currently charge school groups to visit. I'll discuss aspects of this below.

School group prices, heritage 'crime and justice' sites, Australia, 2017. (C. Dawson)

So Brisbane's Boggo Road costs $30 per student, making it a hefty 2.5 times more expensive than anywhere else in the country. This is rather surprising, as those other places include much bigger and better sites, such as the world-heritage-listed Port Arthur and Fremantle Prison, and also Melbourne Gaol. In terms of size and significance, Boggo Road is more aligned with places like the old prisons at Adelaide, Maitland, and Dubbo

There isn't even a museum at Boggo Road, and a significant part of the site is currently closed and in need of refurbishment. Meanwhile, the Port Arthur price includes two-day, all-buildings access AND a harbour cruise! Many other sites feature museums and have professionally-developed education programmes in place.

So what's the underlying difference between Boggo Road and the rest of the places here? What makes it so much more expensive?

The straightforward answer is that the other places are managed by not-for-profit government-linked entities. This includes both state and local governments. Some are managed by the not-for-profit National Trust. Boggo Road, on the other hand, is managed on an interim basis by a private business. This is a direct result of former premier Campbell Newman's controversial and secret decision to hand management to a small business in 2012. It is worth remembering that Boggo Road is a publicly-owned asset.  

It is also worth noting that until 2005 (just prior to a six-year closure when the surrounding site was redeveloped), Boggo Road was run on not-for-profit lines and school groups were charged just $4 per student. And that is when there were museum exhibits there, and almost all the buildings inside were accessible.

Now, I'm a father of four and I have long experience in receiving letters from school about upcoming excursions that require payment - including for the school bus. So that $30 entry fee to Boggo Road would be topped up with a few dollars more for transport. For a part-day trip with a short tour, that's a lot to ask for many parents. To be blunt, slugging mums and dads in this manner smacks of short-term opportunistic greed, but it does provide strong evidence for my argument that the five-year Campbell Newman experiment has failed and Boggo Road needs a different approach to management.

St Helena Island is not included in this list because the price package includes a necessary boat trip to the island.

11 December 2017

A History of Queensland Bunyips (Part Two): The 20th Century

By the end of the 19th century, the possibility that the mysterious 'bunyip' could be a real zoological entity had been generally dismissed, and it had taken its place firmly in the realms of Australian folklore as a mythical beast. Although there had been numerous recorded sightings of strange unidentified creatures in the waterways of Queensland since the arrival of Europeans, the descriptions varied widely and the reports were unverified (see my article on Bunyip sightings in 19th-century Queensland). There was also no biological evidence, such as skeletal remains, scat or fur, to support claims that the bunyip was a real animal. Despite this, the concept of the bunyip was established in popular culture and reports of new sightings lingered well into the 20th century.

There were also ongoing attempts to provide rational scientific explanations for past encounters. This was evident when the noted ichthyologist J. Douglas Ogilby addressed a meeting of the Royal Society of Queensland in 1904, on the subject of ‘A Chelydroid Tortoise Identified with the Bunyip’. He argued against identifying ‘bunyips’ as seals, carpet snakes or musk ducks, and claimed that the Chelodina longicollis (Snake-necked Turtle) could be involved in some alleged bunyip sightings:
‘…acknowledged retiring disposition of these tortoises and their selection as a 'dwelling-place of the loneliest and most desolate swamps - and waterholes,' from which they seldom emerge, fully accounted for the rarity of its appearance, and, coupled with superstitious fear, for the ignorance of its habits among the aborigines; while their ferocity, when cornered, which perhaps in bygone times caused the death of a chief, would account for the universal terror in which this animal was held, vivified and heightened by the glamour of centuries. Mr. Ogilby also drew attention to the curious but undeniable fact that there were many waterholes, to all human appearance similar to others in the neighbourhood, on which wild fowl refused to alight, and he deduced from this that these holes were inhabited by chelydrids, and experience had taught the birds the danger of settling thereon. Mr. Ogilby concluded with some recent stories of the appearance of the bunyip, tending to show that it is in reality a gigantic freshwater tortoise.’ (The Week, 29 April 1904)
The former politician and journalist Archibald Meston was present at this talk and congratulated Ogilby on his 'ingenious' argument, but maintained that the bunyip was no more than 'a good deal of imagination connected with the supposed presence in deep dark pools of a dangerous wild beast'. Meston had been on an expedition to the Bellenden Ker ranges, south of Cairns, in 1899 and heard Aboriginal people talk about a deep pool where a 'long-necked monster who used to swish about in the water, especially at night time'. He suggested that such a disturbance could have merely been a large fish eating a water bird.

The Bellenden Ker ranges.

So academic discussion of the bunyip around this time seemed to be concerned with finding rational explanations behind the folklore or - as such stories were called in the Brisbane Courier in 1908 - 'the equivalent of the mumbo-jumbo of Central African tribes'. Nevertheless, occasional reports of sightings continued to appear in the news, such as one near Gayndah in 1909, in which three young girls out looking for calves saw a creature 'trot or flounder along, until it took its refuge in the Baronne waterhole'. One of the children reportedly 'resorted to that feminine defence in crisis - hysterits'. The girls' parents and other adults subsequently searched for the animal and found nothing but tracks. This was enough to impress one man who maintained a nightly search for the creature. A local fisherman also claimed to have seen the bunyip, which he refused to fire at at since 'he reckons it is a spirit'. The animal was described as being 'the size of a calf with a ewe neck, and short reddish hair, resembling that of a retriever'.

This report prompted Mr F. Williams, a resident of nearby Torbanlea, to publicly recount an incident from a few years earlier. His station was home to a number of lagoons, some about 20 metres deep, and he claimed that one day his wife and 18-year-old daughter saw two creatures that looked like 'little men with longish black hair', the larger one being just over a metre tall, come out of a waterhole, run towards them for a 100 metres, then turn around and head back to the water. His three teenage sons reported seeing a very similar creature on the waterbank during the following year, and during a drought there were similar sightings at the Brushwood lagoon a few kilometres away.

Another alleged sighting occurred in 1910 at Coalstoun Lakes, near Biggenden, in the North Burnett. An amateur photographer took some shots of the lake, and when developing the film he noticed some kind of animal, which was subsequently described in one newspaper:
'Its appearance vaguely suggests a shovel-nosed shark taking - which a shark has never been known to do - a hop, step, and a jump over the surface of the water. It has a dorsal fin, a large terrifying eye, and a mottled skin. Indeed, it might be compared to a dugong, or sea cow, flying through space.' (Brisbane Courier, 19 January 1910)
'Shovel-nose shark' is an early term for 'bull shark', which are known to jump on occasion, although it would be near-impossible for such an animal to find its way to the Coalstoun Lakes from a river system.

Coalstoun Lakes National Park Queensland.

There was another sighting in 1910 when Reg Randall claims to have seen a bunyip while pig shooting on Moreton Island. No description was given, although Reg and his brother were said to have been organising a follow-up search party.

Things were quiet on the bunyip-spotting scene for some years afterwards, but talk of crocodiles in Gold Coast waterways during the late 1920s stirred up interest again. Reports soon began to emerge of strange sights and sounds in the swamps and lagoons near Merrimac. There had been stories about bunyips in this area for decades, including one from a local resident who had been shooting ducks there in 1886 and claimed to see have seen 'a monster with a very big rough mane coat and an enormous big rough long bushy tail' that dived among the water weeds near the bank. A local squatter offered £1,000 to anyone who could get the bunyip dead or alive, prompting some serious search parties. The eventual conclusion was that the creature was probably a crocodile.

The alleged Merrimac bunyip. (Brisbane Courier, 29 March 1929)

Public curiosity about the local bunyip grew during the the development of a housing estate in North Burleigh area in the 1920s. There were reports of a loud 'boom - boom - boom' noise coming from the swamp each night following the construction of the Miami Hotel (1925) and a sanitary depot in the swamp area (1930), although these sounds were sometimes not heard for 12 months before starting up again. According to one local resident, reminiscing in 1938, 'local aborigines would pull up camp when the booming noises came from the swamp, referring to the 'Debil Debil'.' This large Yugambeh camp was on the 'old Racecourse flat midway between Burleigh and West Burleigh'. 

These events prompted Fred Garland to recall mysterious happenings at Yalebone Creek, between Roma and Surat, about 60 years earlier:
'At that time the creek had an unfathomable water hole, which both blacks and whites were afraid to approach. Every night a tremendous splash, like the fall of a mountain of rock into the water, was heard, and, although venturesome persons had endeavoured to ascertain the cause of the splash, the mystery was never solved. Mr. Garland also states that the late Mr. A. Meston spent some time at Coombabah, between Brisbane and Southport, endeavouring without success to shoot a monster that was supposed to inhabit a creek there.' (Brisbane Courier, 24 June 1932)
The 290 residents of the small country town of Thargomindah (1,100 km west of Brisbane) were alarmed by reports of a strange creature lurking in nearby Lake Dynevor in the winter of 1941. News spread far and wide and for a few months newspapers around the country followed the story of this new and mysterious ‘bunyip’. A shire clerk claimed that about 20 people had glimpsed it, including a local postal inspector and station manager, who had both had chased it by boat one morning before it disappeared into some rushes. They saw the creature from about 90 metres away in weak dawn light and described it like this:
‘It was nothing like anything I’ve seen… The head was black and at least a foot long, and the animal was grunting and splashing a lot. From the size of the head I would say it was about 6 feet long. I was told that many years ago a seal was seen in the Dynevor chain of lakes.' (The Mail [Adelaide], 2 August 1941)
Lake Bindegolly National Park, near Thargominda.

Hunters and photographers searched for the 'bunyip', and travellers took time out to stop by hope for a sighting:  
‘Last week two of the animals showed themselves at the same time to a party of sightseers. ‘They were as alike as two peas, and we weren’t seeing double,’ said one of the party. ‘They were black, about 2ft. 6in. long, with heads like dogs, and very prominent ears. They swirled away as soon as they spotted us. Probably one was male and one female, but we couldn’t tell from where we were, about 50 yards away. They looked just the same.’ (Sunday Mail, 17 August 1941)
Carnavon’s Northern Times then reported another interesting description of the creature.
‘Mr. R. R. Smith, of Thyangra, who claims to have seen the ‘bunyip,’ said it was about three feet long, two feet six inches around the body, representing a football in shape, but tapering to the head and tail… The head was like that of a pug dog, but more pointed, and appeared to have strings or fibres hanging down from the upper lip. Its colour was mousy brown, with a definite polish, and it seemed to be rather inquisitive.’Sightings seem to have stopped around September 1941 and interest in the saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip soon waned. It was never seen again, and the search parties gave up their pursuit of it.
Reports of sightings died off in September 1941 and the bunyip was soon forgotten. In retrospect it is likely that what was seen there was either dingoes or foxes out to raid the nests of water birds, or other species of birds attracted by the expanded post-rain lakes. The musk duck was mentioned at the time as a likely candidate. 

Around this time, two boys saw a carcass floating floating upstream with the tide in the Mary River, Maryborough. They described it as being:
‘about 10 feet long, with a long snout, almost like a bill, about two feet long, and fitted with teeth an inch long... It was neither alligator nor dugong, although the body was similar to a dugong with large flippers. An outstanding feature was the creature's huge eyes. It appeared to have a tough hide, with barnacles clinging to it. In colour the body was greenish brown above and yellow underneath. The creature had been dead for some time.' (Maryborough Chronicle, 25 August 1941) 
This appears to have been no more than a badly-decomposed marine creature, although the 'bunyip fever' of the day prompted speculation about cryptids. The bunyip story associated with a waterhole at Mulgidie, near the tiny town of Monto (Upper North Burnett) was mentioned in newspapers a few years later, after subterranean rumblings caused nearby cattle to flee. The waterhole is just over a kilometre long and 20 metres wide, and on occasion is known to bubble and gurgle. There are stories of 'disappearing cattle and eerie sensations throughout the generations'. Some Aboriginal elders believe the hole is connected to a network of underground waterways. There seems to be little evidence of sightings, but local tradition has spawned an annual 'bunyip festival' in what seems to be an attempt to attract visitors to the area.

Bunyip figure at Mulgildie (Mulgildie Bunyip Festival)

One of the last reported 'bunyip sightings' in Queensland occurred at 18 Mile Swamp on Stradbroke Island in 1950, when four workmen heard a loud splash and saw 'something big' dive into the water. They described it as having 'a pointed snout and long floppy ears… it seemed to be four or five feet long with a thick body. It has black and had a long neck and long ears like a spaniel.' It left a large wake before emerging in some rushes and then disappearing into the waters again.

The second half of the century saw a dearth of Queensland bunyip sightings. Zoologically, the creature had its day - in mainstream science anyway - and it even lost status as a feasible cryptid as creatures such as the 'yowie' took hold of the imagination of the researchers of mythical beasts. The numerous sightings of yesteryear came to nought under the crushing weight of a lack of hard evidence. People catching glimpses of wild animals they couldn't identify are no longer prone to throwing the word 'bunyip' around, and newspapers generally lost interest in the tired cultural trope a long time ago. The bunyip did remain a character in children's media, most famously in Jenny Wagner's 1973 book 'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek'.

If the animal has survived as a going concern anywhere, it is in the Indigenous Australian stories that have circulated from as far back as anyone can remember. Aboriginal people around Beaudesert, south of Brisbane, continue to share their knowledge of local bunyip places with the public, giving the lagoons there an aura of mystery that would have been more common around other Queensland waterholes a century ago.

For most of the State, the mystery of the bunyip faded away a long time ago.

06 December 2017

Walking Among the Dead

"Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres - palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay - ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who've died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn't pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time." (Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One, 2004)
It has been all quiet on the blogging front in recent months, but in the meantime I've been up to my armpits in running cemetery night tours.

The tours are a community partnership between the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (BRGHS) and the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (FOSBC). Basically, the BRGHS provide legal cover for the tours, while monies raised help develop the FOSBC so they can undertake heritage and history projects.

South Brisbane Cemetery night tour, December 2017 (C. Dawson)

These things only started back in March, with me and my good friend and cemetery historian Tracey Olivieri picking up where our Moonlight Tours left off in 2013 - walking groups of people around the South Brisbane Cemetery at night, discussing general history and particular people along the way.

This year we also developed a range of other tours, so apart from the general cemetery history covered in our 'Torchlight Tour', we added 'Gruesome Graveyards' featuring some of the more dramatic stories associated with the place, a 'Hangman's Walk' looking entirely at capital punishment, and more recently the 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, welcoming back our tour guide colleague Liam Baker. We even ran a sold-out 'Hangman's Walk' over at Toowong Cemetery, and a 'Tombstone Folk' evening folk concert at South Brisbane.

The selling point for these tours has been that we tour guides have in-depth knowledge of what we are talking about, so people are free to ask us questions and have a chat as we go around. And judging by the feedback, this is what people want, as opposed to the kind of tours that feature a guide who knows little beyond the script and avoids any 'out of character' conversation with the guests. Our informal but knowledgeable approach has earned plenty of rave reviews, and the rising attendance levels speak for themselves. At first we were aiming at one tour per month, to see how things went. The first tour was quiet - 8 people - but it picked up to around 20 people for each of the next few tours, and then we hit the current patch of nine sold-out tours in a row (even with six tours in six weeks).

Where to from here? The plans for 2018 are to continue tweaking the tours here and there to make them even better. We have a lot of ideas (too many ideas!) and the trick is working out what is viable and worth devoting time in the calendar to. What we (and other groups) can offer in cemeteries is restricted by limited access to the popular slots of Friday and Saturday nights. While we have access for two Friday nights per month at South Brisbane, all other such nights both there and at Toowong are effectively locked up for now by a small business. Hopefully this situation will change in future if the Brisbane City Council are to fully realise their very worthwhile vision of opening up municipal cemeteries to a wider range of community cultural use.

All-in-all, we've shown that the BRGHS and FOSBC are more than capable of running successful tours. We've REALLY enjoyed taking these tours, but are looking forward to a short summer break among the living after all our work this year.