19 November 2016

Dumbing Down 'Death Penalty History'

The 100th anniversary of the last hanging to take place in Queensland fell on 22 September 2013.* In the scheme of things that might not be a big deal to the 21st-century populace of the Sunshine State, because capital punishment has slipped into the 'dark ages' of our memory, a time beyond living history. It barely even made the news when capital punishment was abolished here in 1922, so why should people care now? Truth is, the subject of hanging has become little more than a macabre historical curio in Queensland.

Even so, it is still something of a milestone, so what did we get in the news about the hanging of Ernest Austin, the last person to die on Queensland gallows? Was it placed in the historical context of declining support for capital punishment in the 1910s? Was there considered input from criminologists, legal experts, or experienced crime-and-punishment historians? Did we learn anything at all about the actual execution itself?

How a ghost tour business dumbed down the cenetenary of the abolition of capital punishment in Queensland with made-up ghost stories.

Unfortunately, the answer to all those questions is 'no'. What we got instead was a newspaper article with a 'ghost tours' owner talking as though Austin was a monster from 'Scooby Doo'. The first 60% of an article in Quest newspapers ran like this:
"Stories have been told over the past century of a ghost who would laugh maniacally, shriek like a banshee and look down upon prisoners from the upper floors of the Boggo Road Gaol. The ghost is said to be the spirit of convicted child murderer Ernest Austin, who has been "haunting" the jail since he was put to death in 1913 - the last man in Queensland to be hanged. 
Gaol manager Jack Sim said the story of his execution and the ghoulish stories told about the infamous prisoner after his death were now the country's oldest continuously told prison ghost story. Both prisoners and wardens would retell the story to their peers, with the first known mention back in the 1930s. 
"People have continued to talk about this ghost and its presence in the jail from not long after the execution of Ernest Austin" he said. 
"It was said that late at night you could see him standing up on one of the upper floors of the jail looking down at you. In the 1940s, it was also being said that Austin's last words included laughter, and that the ghost would have this maniacal laugh just like him."
The remaining part of the article is just a sales pitch for the tours. The Brisbane Times website, which is usually a bit more credible, had a short audio clip along the same lines, again totally devoid of any historical analysis (and barely even a mention) of the actual execution itself. A short Channel 7 news item was little better.

For now, let's ignore the fact that the Austin ghost story is nonsense (as shown here) and that the execution took place in a whole other long-demolished prison building (an inconvenient truth for the tours). Why was the significance of, or the reasoning behind, the abolition of hanging ignored? Queensland was, after all, the first part of British Empire to do away with capital punishment. Why weren't any real historians consulted for these pieces?

Fortunately, some people took the subject seriously, including the Supreme Court of Queensland museum team. Their 'Path to Abolition: A History of Execution in Queensland' exhibition presented a mature and professional look at the whole subject, devoid of cheap stunts but brimming with considered research and a strong grasp of the educational needs of visitors. Needless to say, the Brisbane media were largely uninterested.

Maybe the whole sorry episode with the dumbed-down 100th anniversary news is reflective of a broader societal disinterest in the subject of capital punishment. Maybe some junior reporters and interns facing a deadline are happy just to accept self-promotional sensationalist media releases at face value. Maybe these reporters don't want to do the harder legwork of presenting real history. Because, no matter what some people might try and tell you, ghosts are not history.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in September 2013.