[Editor: This article, about hangmen in Victoria, was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 28 March 1903.]
The School of Gately.
[For The Bulletin.]
When Victorian hangman Gately disappeared beyond human ken, the choice of the experts fell upon John Upjohn, a benevolent-looking old fellow who had grown to be loved whilst serving innumerable sentences for trivial offences. Among the aspirants for the position, Upjohn’s appointment was regarded as a gross piece of favoritism, and loud were the complaints of political patronage. The age of Upjohn was regarded as a disqualification, for he was well into the seventies on the date of his elevation to the scaffold. But the authorities had had enough of ambitious youngsters. The temporary hands who had endeavored to replace the great Master of the Profession — Gately — had shown how untrustworthy they were, and it was properly decided to secure a staid, sober man whose grey hairs were a guarantee that he would hang conscientiously and flog with care.
Upjohn was of the school of Gately, which is as distinct in the art of execution as that of Rubens in painting. Long years he had sat at the feet of the master, and watched him turn off malefactors with the certain touch of the born artist. At times he had respectfully begged to be allowed to assist the great man, and had helped at the preliminary rites of soaping and weighting the rope. This latter ceremony is performed on the day prior to the execution, the rope hanging for some hours with a hundredweight of bluestone at the end, to prevent its stretching at the moment of stress. It was Gately whose mind conceived the idea of weighting the rope. His predecessors had been content to obtain the article from the stores and chance it. The genius that was the faculty of taking infinite pains took no chances. After the weighting was finished, Gately would spend hours soaping the rope until it was pliable as string, and, at these times, Upjohn would stand by respectfully with the hot water and the tin of soft soap.
But unlike Gately’s, Upjohn’s private life was marked by extreme respectability. There was none of the wild infidel abandon that marked Gately’s days of freedom about the intervals that Upjohn spent at liberty. Both in and out of prison, he was a devoted attendant at church, and even his crimes were accomplished with due respect for the conventions. Like Benvenuto Cellini and other artistic geniuses, Gately feared neither God nor man. Upjohn was the earnest craftsman rather than the artist. His talent was acquired by dint of study and practice and assiduity. Gately was the man to wonderingly admire and envy; Upjohn the man to hold up as an example to the young.
He had none of Gately’s grim, primitive humor. After he turned off a Western District murderer, found guilty of killing two of his mates and beheading them to prevent identification, Gately informed the reporters that the culprit remarked in the privacy of the condemned cell: “ I done six of them altogether.” The news created an immense sensation, but those who knew the eminent hangman realised that the old man’s desire for dramatic effect was at the bottom of the alleged confession. Upjohn, the upright hangman, was incapable of such deceit.
Yet the name of Upjohn, the tradesman, will live in the hearts of the people when that of Gately, the artist, is forgotten. For it fell to the former during his term of office to be the executioner of Ned Kelly, the last of the bushrangers. He was 80 years of age at the time, but, fully impressed with the dignity that attached to the slaying of a great outlaw, he waited upon the medical officer of the gaol and took lessons in the anatomy of the neck. His devotion was rewarded by a triumph in strangulation. Kelly, 29 years old at the time, was dull-witted and morose, exhibiting, during his lifetime, none of the romantic attributes of the traditional outlaw. In death, he rose to the heights of cynicism, and stepping on the drop with the epigram, “Such is life,” he was neatly and instantaneously killed.
The story of Kelly’s death was Upjohn’s stock-in-trade until he went his own way to join those he had sent before. Seated on the handle of the wheelbarrow that he was wont to wheel about Coburg, he would describe the last hours of the last bushranger to the delight of the juvenile population of the suburbs, making a collection on promising occasions to “defray expenses.” At last, when his palsied hand could no longer be trusted to give the lever that sharp, smart pull that is the requisite of a perfect execution, Upjohn was passed into private life and shortly afterwards died — some say from grief at separation from his work.
Upjohn’s place was taken by Jones — short, thick-set, bull-necked, and manifestly deficient in brain power. A house-painter by trade, Jones graduated for the hangmanship through the great university of crime. But he was not a criminal in the true sense. Jones was a sexual offender, and an attempted offence on a child caused him to relinquish the painting of houses for a term in Pentridge, where he visited the triangles to be scourged by Upjohn’s deputy. Having acted as assistant at the later hangings of Upjohn, Jones proved to the authorities that he knew the business and was appointed to the vacancy. He was not a genius in execution and flogging. But he did his work to the best of his ability, and took a keen interest in his jobs. In the museum of Melbourne Gaol is a scrap-book belonging to Jones, which contains all the newspaper cuttings descriptive of the murderers who passed through the drop in his time. The volume also includes the history of many crimes not expiated on the gallows; but that was not Jones’s fault. He had anticipated a capital sentence, and if maudlin sentimentalism led to acquittal or commutation, he could not be blamed for the tame and incomplete endings to the stories. Personal profit did not enter into his enthusiasm, for the office of hangman was abolished in his time, and that of “gaol messenger” substituted for it. In place of receiving £5 and the defunct’s suit of clothes, the messenger was now paid £2 a week all the year round, and was expected to do any hanging and flogging that was necessary.
Another treasure of the Melbourne Gaol museum is a small note-book containing particulars about every man whose life Jones took. It is illuminated, like one of the missals of the Middle Ages, in ornamental texting, which showed that, had Jones not chosen to be executioner, he might have fallen to preparing addresses for ex-mayors. In private life Jones scarcely took his calling as seriously as his predecessors. He would discuss it with anybody, however lowly, and laugh over it. He was the sort of man who is called a “jolly little chap,” and those who did not know him, generally mistook him for an undertaker’s assistant.
Just as Upjohn enjoys fame through hanging Kelly, so will Jones be remembered as the slaughterer of Deeming. In reality, the greatest act of his life was his manner of leaving it. Over a score of years had passed without a woman being sent to the gallows in Victoria, when Mrs. Knorr, a large, fat young Englishwoman, who had earned a precarious living after the manner of stray young women in strange lands, decided to turn respectable and make larger profits by slaughtering superfluous infants. This business she carried on until one day the police unearthed a multitude of small bodies, and the lady was sentenced to death. From the time of the trial Jones worried over the fact that he’d have to hang a woman. Developing an unexpected streak of sentiment, he made up his mind that he would not do so, and followed the movement for a reprieve as closely as the friends of the convict herself. Hoping against hope, he took no action until four days before the fatal Monday morning. Then he realised that the last chance had gone, and, scorning to abandon the office which he had so brightly adorned, he cut his throat in his bath. His end proved that the hangman washed himself just like any common mortal.
Among the mourners at Jones’ funeral was a tall, dark, young man with a black moustache — a man almost as handsome as the villain in a melodrama. He was well dressed, and a certain air of distinction marked him. When he spoke, his words showed him to be a man of refinement. This was Jones’ particular intimate, who had helped him to pinion the prisoner and draw the white cap at many an execution — a mysterious personage, who chose to veil his identity under the nom de rope of “Roberts.” So well and favorably was he known that the mantle of Jones fell promptly upon “Roberts,” and he won his spurs by turning off Mrs. Knorr with all the skill of his predecessor.
“Roberts” had a history. He was the son of a big English brewer and had had a public school education. Coming to Australia with £5000 to start a business, he had promptly squandered it in riotous living, and, after a brief period as a traveller and a suburban publican, joined the police force. There he was the idol of the city. His face had a place in many a society heart, beside that of Charles Ryley. After a couple of years in the force Roberts left to try his luck with a further remittance, but the luck was ill-starred and he had to find a living as temporary warder at Pentridge. There he was so taken by Jones’ method of flogging that he struck up an acquaintance, which developed into a warm friendship. Soon they became associated professionally, and thus it was that “Roberts” acquired the ability which led him to inherit the office of his departed friend. But, in spite of his success as a hangman, “Roberts,” delicately nurtured as an English gentleman, failed at his first flogging, and after six strokes the prospective recipient of the dozen was cut down to await a more able performer. “Roberts” felt the reflection bitterly and, setting to work with a cat, he spent the early mornings in the parks flogging gum-trees until, in a week, he was able to satisfy the gaol doctor that he could draw blood with the best of them. When the malefactor was next triced up, he was able to pronounce an opinion as to the difference of the last half-dozen and the first. From that time onwards, no breath of suspicion rested on the name of “Roberts.” During his term, he hanged three women. But, like so many others, he finally fell in with evil companions, and, one day, failing to keep his engagement, another hangman had to be looked for.
The other was found in a middle-aged suburban shopkeeper, who had long had aspirations for the profession. Gibbins was his name, and, in conversation with cronies, he had often been heard to deplore the lack of opportunities in modern life. In the golden Elizabethan age, he was heard to say, no less than 20,000 persons went to the scaffold. In the present degenerate times, a whole year sometimes passed without a hanging. There was no chance for a man who wanted practice as an executioner nowadays, and the whole of Melbourne might be filled with mute, inglorious Gatelys for all the chance they had to display their talent. When Gibbins received, one day, a blue envelope in reply to his frequent applications, he was able to rush home to his wife and family, excited and elated, with the good news that he had been installed as hangman.
Gibbins resembled none of those who went before him. He dressed well, spoke well, and fed well, being portly in form; he seldom referred to his calling. Like “Roberts,” he had had no experience of gaol life; but success spoiled him, and in place of continuing a devoted husband and father, he began to lead a fast life. In the pursuit of pleasure he offended against the Amended Crimes Act. To-day Gibbins lies in Pentridge. A few weeks ago, when he had to hang Tisler for the Dandenong murder, he came out in prison clothes, with the beautiful waxed moustache and the short side-whiskers he formerly wore, as evidences of respectability, stripped from his face.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 28 March 1903, p. 35 (columns 1-2)
Benvenuto Cellini = (1500-1571), an Italian author, goldsmith, and sculptor (an 1838 Italian opera, called “Benvenuto Cellini”, was inspired by his life story)
capital sentence = a death sentence imposed by a court of law, the punishment of death imposed by a court of law
cat = cat of nine tails (also known as a “cat o’ nine tails”, or simply “the cat”), a short whip with nine endings (tails) used to whip offenders as a punishment (especially used in the prison system and in the armed forces)
Charles Ryley = Charles Ryley (1857-1897), a British baritone, who gained a widespread popularity when he worked in Australia during 1890-1895
commutation = (in the context of crime and punishment) to change a legal penalty, punishment, or judicial sentence (especially a death sentence) to one which is less severe (by order of an appropriate legal authority)
cronies = close friends, particularly friends of long standing, especially used regarding older people (in modern times, it often refers to the friends of people in politics or business who have received favours) (singular: crony)
Deeming = Frederick Bailey Deeming (born in England, 30 July 1853; died in Australia, 23 May 1892) was a murderer who killed his first wife Marie, and their four children, at Rainhill, England, on 26 July 1891, and then killed his second wife, Emily Mather, at Windsor, Melbourne, on 24 December 1891; he was tried in Melbourne and found guilty, and was hung on 23 May 1892; Deeming is suspected by some to have been the infamous English serial killer Jack the Ripper
defunct = no longer in existence, no longer functioning, no longer living, no longer operating, no longer working correctly, not active, not in use and not expected to be in use again; dead, extinct; (in the context of capital punishment) the deceased, the person put to death by order of a court of law
dint = force, power (usually expressed in a phrase as “by dint of”, e.g. “by dint of hard work”); a dent, depression, or hollow in a surface; to mark a surface with dents, depressions, or hollows; (archaic) blow, stroke (especially one delivered in a fight with a weapon)
disappeared beyond human ken = died and went to a place beyond the limits of human knowledge and understanding, died and went to Heaven
the drop = (in the context of a hanging) the section on a gallows or scaffold through which the condemned person is dropped, usually through a trapdoor, or through two trapdoors joined in the middle and released with a bolt (the latter has been recommended, as the opening of two trapdoors enables a direct drop down, to allow the condemned’s neck to break easily, whereas a single trapdoor is likely to result in the fall of the body on a bit of an angle or direction, which can diminish the effectiveness of the jerk of the rope on the neck)
epigram = an amusing, concise, and witty expression (often satirical); a short saying or a brief poem which expresses an idea in an amusing, clever, funny, ingenious, or witty manner
expiate = to make amends, to make reparation, to atone; to pay the penalty for a wrongdoing, to accept punishment or to punish oneself in order to cleanse, extinguish, or relieve one’s guilt or seek redemption; to purify with religious or sacred rites; (archaic) bring to an end, to finish, to wind up
gaol = an alternative spelling of “jail” (prison)
ken = knowledge, perception, understanding (also means “know”, particularly as used in Scotland)
malefactor = someone who breaks the law, a criminal; someone whose behavior is evil or wrong; someone who maltreats, harms, or does ill against someone else
maudlin = excessively affectionate, emotional, or sentimental in an effusive, foolish, silly, or tearful manner, especially after having drunk a significant quantity of alcoholic beverages; excessively overwrought, self-pitying, or feeling sad and sorry for oneself, especially during a period of drunkenness
Melbourne Gaol = a gaol (jail) in Melbourne, opened in 1845 (closed 1924, now a museum)
missal = a prayer book; a book of prayers and religious devotional texts; a book containing the prayers, readings, rites, and songs for the celebration of Mass in the Roman Catholic Church (derived from the Old French “messel”, meaning “book of the Mass”)
Ned Kelly = Edward “Ned” Kelly (1854-1880), Australian bushranger
nom de rope = a humorous reference to the “nom de plume” (pseudonym, an assumed name) of a hangman
Pentridge = Pentridge Prison in Coburg (the suburb itself was previously named Pentridge), just north of Melbourne; Pentridge Prison was opened in 1851 (closed 1997, now a housing development), whilst the Melbourne Gaol had been opened in 1845 (closed 1924, now a museum)
pinion = to secure or tie a person’s arms (from “pinion”, referring to a bird’s wing); (in the context of a hanging) to secure or tie the arms of the condemned person so that his or her arms would not flail or thrash about, nor attempt to grab the rope, during the hanging procedure
Rubens = Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a Flemish artist
score = twenty (sometimes used in conjunction with a cardinal number, e.g. “threescore”, “fourscore”) (may also refer to an undefined large number)
slaughtering superfluous infants = carrying out abortions
Tisler = August Tisler, who murdered Edward Sangal, in Dandenong (Victoria) on 8 August 1902, at the behest of Sangal’s wife, Selina Sangal, with whom Tisler had been having an affair; Tisler was hung on 20 October 1902
traveller = a commercial traveller, a travelling salesman
triangle = a whipping triangle (also known as a flogging triangle or a lashing triangle), a triangular structure (commonly made of wood; the simplest of which was a tripod of wooden beams) upon which someone was placed (shackled or tied) in order to be easily or efficiently whipped (these structures were typically used in prisons to inflict corporal punishment upon convicted criminals or convicts)
trice = to haul, hoist, or raise up something (e.g. a sail) and to fasten, lash, secure, or tie it with a line or rope, especially one of short length (the word is commonly used in conjunction with “up”, e.g. “to trice up a sail”); (archaic) a pulley, a windlass (can also mean: a very short period of time, an instant, a moment, e.g. to do something in a trice)
white cap = (in the context of a hanging) a white linen cap, with a long piece in front covering the face and neck; it was standard procedure to place such a cap over the head of the condemned, thus shielding the viewers from seeing the horrible contortions of the condemned person’s face as he or she died
wont = custom, habit, practice; accustomed; apt, inclined