09 June 2017

The Hempen Halter: Criticising the Boggo Road Gallows

The following article criticising the gallows used at Brisbane's Boggo Road prison appeared in the tabloid newspaper The Truth on Sunday 12 July 1903. Some very harsh words were also written about prison superintendent Vivian Williams. The Truth had an editorial line that was strongly against hanging, a position that had firmed after the unpopular execution of Patrick Kenniff six months earlier. This article contains the usual strident polemics that the reporters of the Truth specialised in, but it does give some very fascinating details about the execution process that were usually missing from reports of hangings.

Boggo Road execution. (Truth, January 1903)

Facts Concerning the Boggo-Road Gallows.
An Out-of-Date Death Machine.
A Relic of the System.
Red Tapeism and False Economy.

The illustration of the hanging of Sow Too Low, which appeared in our last issue, was intended to convey to the minds of the good people of this State the scandalously out-of-date machinery used for the execution of condemned criminals. If those who have a copy of our last issue will turn to the picture of the gallows they will better understand the drift of our criticism.

The trap upon which the condemned man stands is a heavy iron-bound and clamped wooden door which is carefully set to drop instantaneously from beneath his feet, the moment the lever is pushed forward by the alert man-butcher. It takes four or five men to set the trap, which is a most dangerous and out-of-date machine. Some of these days it will collapse and kill several of the officers who are compelled in pursuit of their duties to move about on it. We have heard several complaints about its cumbrousness.

It is customary before an execution to set the trap and go through the ceremony of hanging a dummy figure. This is done in order to ascertain that everything is in proper working order before. The condemned criminal is brought forth from his cell and led on to the trap. And, by the way, right here we think it pertinent to remark that the wretched authorities of our gaol institutions instead of learning wisdom with the passage of time, appear to be becoming actually more conservative and retrogressive.

The gallows erected in the now gaol for women at Boggo-road is precisely the same as that in 'B' wing in the men's gaol. Every fault and defect in the old scaffold has been carefully reproduced in the new structure. The cumbrous, painfully, slow method of releasing the dead body from the noose has been repeated with photographic detail; so, too, is the old silly blunder in the placement of the lever for releasing the trap: The lever is not shown in our illustration, but it is placed to the right of the drop, and instead of being pulled it is pushed. The condemned man walks up the short flight of stairs leading to the scaffold. Arrived at the top he turns abruptly to the right in order to stand upon the trap. In doing so he passes so close to the lever that if he made a sudden plunge or stumbled he could not help touching it, which resembles those in use in railway signal boxes, and springing the trap. In the event of such a contingency happening, the condemned man would have to be taken back to his cell, and the execution postponed until a half a dozen able bodied men set it once more.

This defect could be altered at a slight expense, but the pinch book policy of the Philp push* prevents this necessary amendment being made.

But the most serious defect in the arrangements for executing a criminal is the cumbrous system of lowering the body from the gallows into the coffin. After the body has hung 10 or 15 minutes, the doctor feels for the pulse and formally pronounces life extinct. The hangman meantime is standing silent and erect in a little alcove just behind the lever. As soon as the doctor has signified his verdict, the coffin is brought in from the hearse, and placed right beneath the suspended cadaver.

Vivian Williams. (Truth, 12 July 1903)

Now it is that the most painful part of a painfully gruesome function, is performed.

Many people are under the impression that the rope is cut, and the body detached. This is a popular error. As soon as the gaping coffin is placed in readiness to receive the broken necked, limp clod of human clay, the hang man issues from the alcove with a light ladder on his shoulder. This he places at the edge of the gallows well-hole, the top resting against the cross beam, from which hangs the pendent rope. Simultaneously a number of warden on the floor of the third tier of cells lower a block and tackle. The man butcher carefully mounts the ladder, and connects the hook in one of the links by which the rope is fastened to the cross-beam. This having been accomplished, the warders haul upon the tackle and the swaying body gradually mounts up in a series of awkward, spasmodic jerks. The hangman then disconnects the links, and the corpse is held suspended by the warders until Hudson** descends the ladder and the flight of stairs and stands ready to receive the body whose soul he has just sent speeding to its Maker. By another series of jerks and jumps the corpse is lowered into the coffin, the undertaker seizing it by the feet and the hangman by the head. When the rope slackens he unloosens the noose and slips it from the limp neck. It is then quickly hoisted out of sight by the warders, the coffin lid is screwed on, and the box taken speedily away and hidden in a hole.

It is the crudest and most cumbrous arrangement that can well be conceived. The writer has seen a better arrangement in a backblock slaughter-house for the disposal of the carcase of a pithed bullock. Of course, it is useless to point out this fact to the powers that be. Superintendent Vivian Williams is armed with the necessary power to have the alterations suggested made, but he is one of the old order, an admirer of 'the system,' bound hand and foot with red tape, and absolutely invulnerable to the dictates of common sense or the lessons of experience. No improvement can possibly take place unless this fossil is superannuated and the position filled by a vigorous, practical man who has spent many years on the gaol staff.'

Robert Philp was premier of Queensland 1899-1903.
** Samuel Hudson was the official executioner in Queensland at the time.

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