When Prisoners Swallow Metal

May 25, 2018 0 comments
Article by Christopher Dawson, MPHA (Qld), January 2014

Sometimes you see old prison artefacts and you just stare at them in utter disbelief. This happened last week when I saw, for the first time, a little collection of wire contraptions that had been swallowed in prison by John Andrew Stuart, who was convicted of the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing mass murder in 1973. He famously protested his innocence and did what he could to the delay the trial, including hunger strikes and sewing his lips together with wire.

John Andrew Stuart.
Before court appearances he would sometimes swallow wire crosses that would then lodge somewhere in his digestive system, necessitating his immediate removal to hospital for surgery. Some of these wire crosses have since finished up museum collections.

Swallowing wire involved getting two bits of steel wire which were bound together in the middle with elastic bands, tightly packed in bread to facilitate easier swallowing, and down the throat it went. As the bread dissolved in the stomach, the wires would open up and catch somewhere in the stomach or intestines. The pain must have been quite horrible.

I’ve seen some of these retrieved crosses before, rusted old bits of wire in little jars, but the new ones in the Queensland Prisons Collection were quite unlike those. Some were actually double hooks fashioned from large safety pins (discretely obtained in hospital or the prison laundry perhaps), and they were huge. The hook in the photo below would be about 6cm long and is shown here close to actual size.

A wire hook retrieved from the digestive system of JA Stuart, 1970s (Qld Prisons Collection).  
Imagine knowingly and willingly swallowing that with the aim of injuring yourself...

Cut in half, the pins were bent back and sharpened to form hooks, and much like the crosses they were bound together with elastic. After being carefully swallowed, the spring mechanism of the safety pin would activate after the elastic started to dissolve and then the fun would begin.

Stuart would have been taking a big risk swallowing these objects, as it is not hard to imagine it having tragic consequences.

One visitor to the Queensland Prisons Museum was especially interested to see these, as he had been selected for jury service on Stuart’s murder trial, but missed out when the trial was delayed after Stuart swallowed one of the wire crosses.

We have six of these objects pulled from inside JA Stuart and now mounted in a display case in the Queensland Prisons Collection. They are currently being used as a prop in public talks and will form part of a display in the museum, where no doubt visitors will stand and stare at them in horrified silence before swearing, much like I did.

If you have any old prison artefacts, the Queensland Prisons Collection is the best place to donate them to.

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