Wednesday, 12 June 2013

THE DOUBLE EXECUTION - Ellen Thompson & John Harrison

**NOTE: The following is the exact transcript of an article published in The Brisbane Courier, page 3, from the 14th of June 1887 - I have taken the liberty of inserting related photographic material within the article body for effect.  Ellen Thompson's & John Harrison's presumed guilt or innocence aside, the following article (written by a member of the Press who was present at the execution) provides a very detailed & troubling insight into the act of execution in Queensland around the turn of the century.**

 The Gallows within Boggo Road Gaol's Number 1 Division,
in 1903 (State Library of Queensland).


Shortly after 8 o'clock yesterday morning the two prisoners, Ellen Thompson and John Harrison, who were convicted at the April Criminal Sittings of the Northern Circuit Court of the murder of William Thompson (husband of the female prisoner) near Port Douglas on the 22nd October last, and who were sentenced to death by His Honour Mr. Justice Cooper, suffered the extreme penalty of the law.  Some considerable time before the hour appointed for the execution, the gaol officials, and those whose various duties required their attendance to witness the fearful spectacle, began to arrive, but the attendance of those whose curiosity led them to make application for passes for admission was very small.  The rumours which had been current for some weeks previously respecting the almost unprecedented conduct of the female prisoner and her frequently expressed determination to resist all attempts to hang her had created a great deal of public excitement.  But, although the condemned woman all along placed entire confidence in the belief that the Governor of the colony would at the last moment grant her a reprieve, her demeanour, when it was at last made clear to her that all hope was past, was anything but uproarious or unwomanly.

Both she and Harrison rose at an early hour yesterday morning.  Shortly after daylight the prisoner Thompson was attended by two Sisters of Mercy, whose ministrations she appeared thankful to receive, and to whom she continuously repeated her protestations of innocence of the crime for which she was about to suffer the penalty.   While denouncing the Governor and the Executive for refusing to grant a commutation of her sentence, she admitted that from a legal point of view she might be guilty of the charge of murder, but urged that morally she was as innocent as an unborn babe.  Her version of the tragedy was briefly that her husband and Harrison had been quarrelling, when she, with the intention of making peace between them, in a jocular spirit remarked to Harrison that if he did not shut up, the old man, meaning Thompson, would shoot him.   Harrison immediately took up the revolver, saying, "Will he? Well, I will have first shot," at the same time firing.

Throughout the morning Mrs. Thompson conducted herself with the greatest respect towards the Sisters of Mercy, and also towards Father Fouhy, who visited her in the last half-hour of her life.  She bore up bravely to the last, and even when standing on the scaffold her fortitude was remarkable. Attended by Father Fouhy, she stepped on to the drop, and her voice was unshaken as she said, "Good-bye everybody; I forgive everybody from the bottom of my heart for anything they have wronged me in this world. I never shot my husband, and I am dying like an angel."  Only once, within a few seconds of the fatal moment, was there a perceptible quiver in the unhappy creature's voice, when with almost her dying breath she murmured, "Oh, my poor children; take care of my children will you, Father".  The next instant her body was swinging in mid air.

Harrison, is said to have been a soldier in the British army.   To Archdeacon Dawes, who was with him during his last hours, and with whose ministrations he appeared deeply impressed, he stated that both he and the woman were implicated in the death of Thompson, but that although he did fire the shots which killed him it was done in self-defence.  When standing on the scaffold he spoke not a word, and in the expression of his features could be traced not the slightest evidence of fear or nervous excitement.


The main gaol building is a gloomy place at the best of times with its lofty ceiling and its tiers of cells and the scanty light that steals in through the few long-barred windows and falls on iron-barred doors and iron-barred ratings, and on the cold stone floors and walls.  It is gloomy and depressing even when the sunshine streams in of a summer day, and when lightsome birds wing boldly in through the unglazed windows and perch twittering on the iron-barred doors, but it was gloomier still upon this cloudy blustering June morning when a little crowd gathered quietly on the ground floor and gazed silently at the ready scaffold on the tier above.  For a tragedy was to be enacted with this gloomy building for a theatre, and the ominous-looking scaffold which crossed from side to side for a stage; a tragedy in which two fellow-creatures would be the prime actors, and in which that mysterious thing which men call Law would move as Fate.  And one was to be a woman; a pitifully wicked woman.

She crossed the yard from the little hospital building so quietly that one could hardly imagine she was walking to her death with a companion woman, a female warder it appeared, by her side, and a guard, for form's sake, behind.   She walked with head bent a little and with hands clasped, in neat black garments, and with black bonnet thrust back a little from the drawn and haggard face, the face of a woman whose whole life has been passed in ceaseless toil.  She had been brutal and violent, giving free vent to the bitterness of a despairing heart, shocking all who heard her with her blasphemies, and deafening the ear of mercy with unseemly cries; it was thought that there would have been a struggle on the gallows.   But humanity prevailed at the last moment, and Ellen Thompson, murderess, died quietly and died "game".  Vile as the crime was, however necessary murder for murder may be, there is something that inspires esteem in the courage of the fellow-mortal who fears to die, who longs to live, and who yet, brought to bay, can stand unflinchingly on the edge of eternity.  "I'll soon be in a world where they won't tell lies about me," she observed, as she mounted the steps and disappeared up the inner stairway which leads to the condemned cell.  When she appeared again it was as an actor in an awful scene.

 Ellen Thompson (Queensland State Archives).

One heard the priest's voice raised in prayer as 8 o'clock drew near, the gloom seemed to deepen, and the wind seemed to moan passionately as it came in through the bars.  A sturdy warder, pale-faced, stepped on to the scaffold, there was a rustle, the prayer sounded louder, and in a moment the murderess stood on the trap, under the fatal rope.   She was white as marble, and her teeth set hard, but she never faltered, and she looked such a poor little woman as she stood there waiting to die.   Her hands were clasped still, and she held a little crucifix in the right one; she protested her innocence, she bade good-bye to her children, and then she prayed in Catholic fashion − not passionately, but as one who labours under a burning sense of wrong.  She never moved from where she stood, but she swayed as one fainting when the noose was drawn about her neck, her hand clasped convulsively over her crucifix, and it seemed as though her lips, under the death-cap, moved silently in prayer.  The strapping warder, who stood on the scaffold, held out his hands to steady her, but she braced up in a moment and did not fall.   The executioner shook the rope to clear it, he and the warder stepped to the side corridors.  At 8 precisely the bolt was drawn.   Her last thought was for her children.  Thud!  That was the only sound, for the wind had lulled, and nobody seemed to breathe.  Ellen Thompson fell straight as an arrow through the trap, her knees drew up spasmodically, and then Ellen Thompson's body dangled lifeless.  The rope had cut into the neck, severing the jugular vein, and in a moment a patch of red appeared on the white cap and a crimson stream poured over the black dress, falling in a pool on the stone floor.   It was pitiful before, but it was still more pitiful now, this execution.

The woman who had accompanied her across the yard washed the hands from the blood which stained them.  A coffin was placed on the blanketed earth which two prisoners had brought in and heaped over the crimson pool.  They lowered her tenderly, removed the rope from her neck, and the execution was over.  It had not taken fifteen minutes altogether.  The executioner is a tall, gray-bearded, gentlemanly-looking man, whom no one would take for the holder of such a vile action.  He is businesslike and he never shrank, as the warders did, from the touch of the dead woman. But he felt annoyed when in the interests of science the cap was removed for Professor Blumenthal to measure the head.

John Harrison (Queensland State Archives).

It was 8:20 when Ellen Thompson's plain coffin was carried away and when the trap was shut again, and when the rope lay ready for another victim.   The little crowd that the first execution had sickened waited quietly, and talked in subdued tones; but had it not been the duty of officials, doctors, and reporters to see it all over the crowd would have melted away.  They talked of ghastly things; the doctors of how the bleeding happened; the officials of whether or not Professor Blumenthal should have been permitted to measure; some of the woman's guilt, or some of her possible innocence.   And always everyone kept looking at the stage beyond, beneath which a mound of earth now rose like a grave, and in every man's mind was the conviction that whether the death penalty be right or not, hanging is a barberous and a brutal thing.  As 8:30 approached there was another rustle without, but through the doorway Harrison could be seen, treading the path which his paramour had trod half an hour before.  He passed to the stairway in a moment; surprisingly soon he reappeared as the woman had done and stood where she had stood when she last thought of her little ones.  He looked like a man as he stood on the trap without a tremour, without even a paling of the face or a twitching of the eyelids.  He looked tall, and straight, and sailor-like, in coloured shirt and moleskin trousers, and he looked straight in front, after casting his eyes about.  He had a peculiar face, with rather receding forehead, and with bushy eye-brows, which nearly met, and he had heavy sensual lips which looked rather out of place with his long face and with the sandy beard which grew thinly on the cheeks.  He never spoke a word that could be heard below, though he had shaken hands as he stepped on the scaffold with those who had to slay him.  There was the same formula of feet-tying and cap drawing and rope-setting; the official stood clear again, and even as Archdeacon Dawes prayed, the trap opened again, with a sharp click, and the rope fairly rang as the heavy weight of the condemned straightened it.  And again the same throat-cutting happened; though less profuse, the bleeding was enough to dye cap and clothes, and to drip sickeningly from the dangling feet to the ground.  We reporters came away, and left him hanging.

But beyond these unfortunate accidents the executions were perfect of the kind, killing instantaneously.   After the spasmodic drawing up of the knees neither of the executed moved a muscle, a most unusual thing.  Dr. Ellison states that the spine was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae, at which point the medulla oblongata, or presumed seat of life, is situated.  This was ruptured, and death must have been instantaneous.   The long drop, such as used by the present executioner, aims at dislocation at this spot, for if it happens lower down death results from asphyxiation, and the suffering of the condemned is needlessly increased beyond what it might have been had asphyxiation alone been attempted, which is the aim of the short drop.

Professor Blumenthal found that the respective measurements of Ellen Thompson's and Harrison's brains were: largest measurement, 22¾in. and 21½in., and from neck to root of nose 13in. and 13½in. A phrenological examination showed that in the woman combativeness and destructiveness were both large, the domestic affections were fairly full, the animal or selfish propensities were full, the moral propensities were small, and sexual love−amativeness, exceedingly large.  In Harrison combativeness was exceedingly large, destructiveness large, amativeness rather small but tending to sensuality, as shown by the noticeably heavy lips. His domestic affections were also small.   Judging from this it would seem that the woman was the moving spirit in the plot, and that her passion for Harrison inspired her.  She was active, cunning, and masterful, capable of doing kindly acts and of attachment to her children.  Harrison, on the contrary, cared for nothing but himself, and wanted old Thompson's money far more than he did old Thompson's wife.

Several theories are advanced as to the cause of the severance of the veins which occurred in both cases, the most plausible being one ascribing it to the thin skin of the executed persons, for the drop itself was the same as that used some weeks ago for Pickford, who, although much heavier than the woman Thompson, met with no such injury.  It should also be said that in spite of the disgust which the very idea of the bleeding naturally causes, there would seem to have been far less suffering than had the spine been dislocated elsewhere and the neck not been injured.


The woman Thompson addressed two letters to the Governor as follows:

"H.M. Gaol, Brisbane, 4th June, 1887.− On my knees I beg for mercy. Consider my character and the dreadful lies sworn against me.  When you were visiting Port Douglas I was one of the women who followed you on horseback.   I asked Sir Samuel Griffith for a schoolmaster, to bring my children up the right way, as my husband was so cranky.  I banished all the children so that they would not annoy the poor old man.   I swear by the cross I now hold in my hand that —'s evidence is a lie, and made up by himself. . . . . Do as you think proper with me, but have mercy on the unfortunate man who is innocent.  On my dying oath, my husband's door was shut when I looked up from my own house after I heard the shot and his moans.– ELLEN THOMPSON."

"H.M. Gaol, Brisbane, 8th June, 1887.– I have already made a pitiful appeal to you on behalf of the young man, John Harrison, whom I believe to be innocent.  It meant ruin and poverty for me to lose my husband, and I will never consider it a murder, when I am dying on the gallows; it will be the taking of my life that will be the murder.  Our lives, I know, were completely sworn away through false swearing.  I have three demands to make of the Government: Firstly, in the event of my innocence being proved, that each of my four children receive the sum of £500; secondly, that all my statements be returned to me, that I may destroy them; and thirdly, that Pope Cooper may
never be allowed to sentence another woman in Queensland without first hearing both sides of the story.  I want these requests to be granted in writing, and Mr. Knight and the Rev. D. Fouhy are to be trustees for my children.   If these demands are not granted I will stick out for my rights at the foot of the gallows; if they are I will walk on to the gallows like an angel.– ELLEN THOMPSON."


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