IN 1880s Australia, the execution of male criminals was not uncommon, but far fewer women were made to face the gallows. When Ellen Thomson was hanged on 13 June, 1887, she was not only the first, but the only, woman ever to be executed in Queensland.
She had arrived in the colony of New South Wales in 1858, as Ellen Lynch, aged 14 or 15 and went with her mother and sister to Goulburn where her mother was engaged as a housekeeper. In 1862, by then 19, Ellen married William Wood, sixteen years her senior and by 1871 she had had five children (one of whom died aged 4 of scarlet fever) and she was now a widow.
Leaving her oldest son to be brought up by her sister-in-law at Castle Hill, she took the three younger children to far north Queensland and the Palmer River goldfields. Hoping to find work (and perhaps a husband) she settled in Cooktown, earning her living as a laundress for miners coming to and from the diggings. Whether it was the roughness of the frontier town, with its sixty-five hotels and probably as many brothels, or because she gave birth to an illegitimate son in 1876, the following year she moved to Port Douglas. There, gold had been discovered on the Hodgkinson River so there was work for a laundress and Ellen continued to support herself and the children. Eventually, however, she took a position as housekeeper for one William Thomson. His selection being ten miles north and inland from Port Douglas meant she could give the children a proper home.
William was twenty-one years older than Ellen, but they must have been in a relationship, because in 1879 she gave birth to a daughter, supposedly his. In late 1880 she married him but the marriage was not happy. William was not a success as a farmer, and may also have been a heavy drinker, given his health was not good and was prone to depression. At one point he consulted a doctor for tumour of the liver, which suggests some form of swelling and given the diagnostic capabilities at the time, may well have been alcohol related. He was known to hold strong, racist views particularly against the Chinese, some of whom leased plots on his land. He was jealous and possessive of his wife and he could also be violent, having on one occasion hurled a kerosene lamp at his step-daughter and a knife at Ellen.
Further south, in Townsville, in September 1885, an able seaman from HMS Myrmidon, John Harrison, jumped ship. Three months later he married in Townsville, but with a price on his head, he headed north to the Daintree in search of work. By September of 1886, he was working with a snagging party on the Mossman River near Thomson's selection, but an accident to his hand from a rifle forced him to give up snagging and he started working for Thomson as a labourer.
On 22 October 1886, William Thomson was found dead and John Harrison and Ellen Thomson came under suspicion. They insisted Thomson had committed suicide, but the community closed ranks. Age differences between the pair, were played up, hinting at scandal, Harrison was 27 at the time, Ellen mid-40s.
Ellen had assumed under the terms of her husband's will she would inherit the property, but Thomson had since made a new will leaving her with only his personal effects. The property was bequeathed to his brother Thomas, to whom he also left custody of the child Helen or Nellie, despite having suspected that she was not his. Ellen and Harrison went south to see a lawyer about custody and on their return to Port Douglas on 6 January 1887, they were arrested.
The trial was held in Townsville Supreme Court in early May of that year.
The law at the time, did not allow accused persons to call character witnesses on their own behalf,
nor were they allowed to take the stand during trials but were only allowed to cross-examine Crown witnesses.
So with 197 depositions supporting the Crown case the trial was almost a forgone conclusion.
To aggravate matters, Justice Cooper was known for his harshness in criminal cases and he was clearly prejudiced against the pair. Notes he made during the trial show him as biased, almost contemptuous, especially of the female prisoner.
They start by saying Ellen had lived a happy life with her husband until a younger man appeared on the scene after which she was prepared to give up everything for him and turn against her husband.
He described her as a "loose woman" and Harrison as "her latest fancy man", adding: "They were tried before Justice Cooper, the evidence left no room for doubt as to their guilt." Yet for some reason these lines were crossed out at the time, as if they were written a little too hastily, perhaps before the jury had retired to deliver its verdict? In his instructions to the jury, His Honour explained the law as it pertained to guilt before and after the fact and to first and second degree murder. He then read out his full, clearly biased notes, before the jury retired.
Justice Cooper also allowed the evidence of an ex-prisoner who had been charged with perjury, and who was re-arrested during the trial for larceny. As well, he insisted on admitting the evidence of Chinese witnesses saying, "They are an observant race", when their evidence was often repetitive, even at times, suggestive of collusion.
When a verdict of guilty was delivered, the pair were asked if they had anything to say before sentencing and Harrison remained silent. Ellen, however, according to the judge, "launched forth into an impassioned oration which for a time stupified the people in the court room." His Honour had no choice but to hear her out. She started by describing her early life and later, as William's wife before suggesting a number of possible causes of his death. All this time she was tying herself in knots, which only made her appear more guilty. Justice Cooper referred to her confusion in his notes.
Appearing for the Crown was Mr Virgil Power, a practical, brilliant and witty advocate and opposing him was Mr Leu, a Swiss lawyer and partner in a firm of country solicitors. He clearly felt inadequate for the job, even apologizing to the jury for his lack of experience in such cases.
The victim, William Thomson, was portrayed by the Crown and the press as vulnerable and helpless at the hands of the accused but perhaps he was not all he seemed. Seven witnesses, including Chinese and a South Sea Islander, stressed he was sober on the day of his death. This seemed an odd choice of word unless the opposite tended to be the norm. Far from being a good step-father, William had over the years effectively driven away all of Ellen's children. One was taken by the authorities and placed in a government orphanage, another was sent to live with his grandmother, a third left to work on a road gang and a daughter ran away to be married.
Ellen was known as hard-working, gregarious, perhaps even flirtatious but still a devoted mother with a strong sense of justice. She felt restricted by her lack of education as she could neither read nor write. This was no doubt why she rode out with other women in the district to meet the Governor when he passed through, hoping to persuade him to provide a school for their children.
In the 19th century, a woman who broke the mould of docile and obedient wife, mother or daughter was regarded as abnormal. So it was hardly surprising the press chose to portray Ellen as a scarlet woman. They made references to the number of children she had, never once mentioning that she was a widow when she arrived in Port Douglas. The implication was they were all illegitimate, possibly even from different fathers. The papers also indicated that being much older than Harrison, she had probably led him astray, adding he might even have been a bit "simple" to have done her "bidding" in murdering her husband. The wife who murdered her husband, whatever the circumstances, was deemed a monster and many times worse than her male counterpart. The community quickly overlooked William's shortcomings and condemned his long-suffering widow.
The case is interesting, not for any legal precedent, but because the evidence does not seem to support guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It would appear there were enough inconsistencies to make a jury uncertain as to their verdict. The doctor's original report of suicide was changed after an autopsy to murder, and yet the autopsy raised other questions, such as, did the bullet split in two? When two other doctors were called in to corroborate cause of death, their opinions differed slightly.
Then before sentence was passed, a strange thing happened. A lone juror stood and asked permission to address the Bench. Speaking only for himself, he said he believed the pair to be guilty, but wished to plead for clemency on behalf of the female prisoner on the grounds that she had endured a very hard life. The judge's notes refer to this request as clemency for both prisoners, but the newspapers claimed the juror was pleading only on behalf of Ellen. The judge told the man he would refer the request to the appropriate authorities and promptly sentenced both prisoners to death.
In the week before the execution, Mr J.W. Knight, Harbour Master and Customs Official of Port Douglas wrote two letters to the press hoping to gain public sympathy for Ellen. He said he had known her in Cooktown and described her as hard-working and kind and he appealed to the women of Queensland to show their support in not allowing one of their own sex to be hanged. The editor printed the letters, adding a terse footnote that in his opinion she deserved to hang.
Ellen probably knew nothing of these letters, and it is unlikely she would have been aware that in the same week a group of prominent Brisbane businessmen, none of whom knew her, sent a telegram to the Governor asking for her sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. His Excellency responded by saying it was too late and the execution would go ahead as planned.
She may well have been an accessory before and / or after the fact and she admitted before she died that she thought she and Harrison could have managed the property between them. As for the so-called affair, both said they didn't love the other, so it seems more a case of proximity and convenience, than anything stronger. She and Harrison knew each other barely two months before the murder, and Harrison had only worked for Thomson about a fortnight, which hardly suggests a grand passion. Besides, he appears to have been a strong-minded, selfish young man out for what he could get from life and prepared to grab any opportunity.
Harrison openly declared he had done away with "better men" than William, but in his final confession he said he goaded William into killing himself and a struggle ensued. He then turned the gun round and made William fire. He said Ellen took no part in the murder, but she was in on the plan. Ellen, however, could not understand, not having pulled the trigger herself, how she could possibly be guilty of murder and she went to her death protesting her innocence.
It was not a fair trial, even by the standards of the day, with a hanging judge, who was clearly biased, a clever Crown Counsel and 197 depositions on one side, and an inexperienced country solicitor and no witnesses on the other. It was easy to see which way the scales would drop. Certainly with today's laws of evidence and a smart lawyer, a jury might not have been able to deliver a verdict ofguilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Initially, Ellen could only mark documents with her X, but she learnt to write her name and her writing started off boldly on statements she signed soon after her arrest. As the execution date drew nearer, however, there was a gradual deterioration in the letters and her signature ended up as little more than a shaky scrawl.
Shortly before 8 am, on Monday the 13 June 1887 a party that included the Principal Gaoler, Captain John Jekyll, warders, a priest, and two Sisters of Mercy, led the tiny woman from her cell. As the group crossed the prison yard, a strong wind blew back her black bonnet to reveal a face that was pale and drawn. She had been restless of late, even at times angry, swearing and blaspheming, but if the press were hoping for bad behaviour that day, they were disappointed. She gave no trouble, and having been handed a crucifix by Father Fouhy, the prison chaplain, the trap was dropped. However, her height, a tiny 4 feet 9 inches, was too small to fit on the scale used for calculating hangings and the execution went terribly wrong. Those forced to watch were horrified as her jugular was cut and blood seeped up the white hood covering her face and poured down the front of her dress, dripping onto the sawdust below. Soon after, having made a mess of one hanging, the executioner over compensated in hanging Harrison with the same ghastly result.
Once each had been cut down, they suffered the further indignity of having their skulls examined by a professor of Phrenology keen to prove avarice on the part of Harrison and an over-developed sexual appetite on the part of Ellen, thus perpetuating the image of the "scarlet woman".
Ellen did have one victory, however, after death. Before she died, she had asked Father Fouhy to take care of her children, in particular the youngest. After the execution, Nellie became the subject of a custody battle between the priest and the Acting Land Commissioner, Richard Owen Jones, whom some said was the child's biological father. Ellen had both admitted and denied the child's paternity on different occasions and there is no proof either way. In the end the court ruled in favour of Ellen and her wish that the child be sent to a convent and brought up in the Catholic faith, was granted.
Thomas inherited William's debts along with his property and left Jones to act as bailiff, but Jones forgot to pay the rent on the property and as a result the land became forfeit.
Thomas had erected an ornate headstone in William's which stands to this day, but Ellen Thomson and John Harrison lie in unmarked graves in a south Brisbane cemetery.
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