The Bloody, Bloody Hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison

Article by Christopher Dawson, MPHA (Qld)

There are a couple of points I always like to make on my 'Hangman's Walk' cemetery tours. The first is that hanging could be a messy and unpredictable process, despite the concerted attempts to make sure the rope broke the neck and caused a quick, 'clean' death for the prisoner.

The second point is that newspaper reporters of the late 19th century did not hold back when it came to describing gory events in minute detail. A Brisbane Telegraph article about the hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison at Brisbane's Boggo Road prison demonstrates both of these points very well.

Prison photographs of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, 1887. (Queensland State Archives)

The lovers had been sentenced to death for the murder of Thomson's husband, and were hanged one after the other on the morning of Monday 13 June 1887. Ellen, a mother of six whose hard life had aged her well beyond her 41 years, was the first to go. After a lengthy walk-through of the early morning events, the article eventually reached her last moments alive:
"The fatal white cap was placed over her head, and the ropes fixed around her neck. Her face thus veiled she said in accents calm and wonderfully clear, "Good-bye, everybody, I forgive everybody. I never shot my husband, I never did anybody any harm, I will die like an injured angel." 
A few earnest words from the clergyman, and at a signal the executioner, whose hand rested on the lever, gave one powerful pull. The massive trap door on which she stood groaned and opened, and the next moment the thin, attenuated form of the unfortunate woman hung in mid air, her small kid boots peeping out from under her black dress. 
For one moment her knees were drawn upwards, then they relaxed, and she never moved again. But what a sickening sight! Blood trickling down her body and patterning in large drops on the hard cement floor. It increases in quantity, and at length trickles down in a stream, and the whole floor is covered with a woman's blood. Examination afterwards proved that the jugular vein in the neck was severed by the rope, hence the flow of blood. Sawdust and shavings were laid down to absorb the blood, and after the body had hung about a quarter of an hour, it was lowered into a coffin which had been in waiting close by.

Hence a phrenologist*, who was present, performed a sickening operation. The white cap, which was put over the head for the express purpose of hiding the contortions of the face, was removed, and while two female warders were compelled to soil their hands with blood by holding up the head - and this in the gaze of some 20 persons - the gentleman referred to made certain measurements of the dead woman's hard by means of a tape measure.

There are cases where such investigations might be of use to science, but in the present case we can see no necessity for thus exposing to the public gaze the hideous, contorted, blood-besmeared face of a decrepid, little woman, who, from a physical point of view could scarcely lift a 28-lb weight. If such things are to be permitted, they might be done in a less public manner than they were this morning. 
Ellen Thompson specially requested that she might be buried in the dress in which she was hanged. Her wish was complied with, and as the little withered body lay in its coffin, bathed in gore, her hands clasping a crucifix which had been placed there before death, and her face besmeared with blood still exposed to public view, the sight was one that no man would ever wish again to see."
Ellen Thomson went down in history as the only woman hanged in Queensland.

Once Ellen's body was removed from the scene, John Harrison, aged 25 years, was led from his cell. He would have heard every detail of Ellen's ordeal, but he remained solid and silent on the scaffold, and was dropped the trapdoor. Once again, the Telegraph reporter imbued his writing with a dramatic flavour:
"Not a muscle moved, nor a quiver from the body, but strange to say the same occurrence took place as with the woman, namely, the severance of the jugular vein. Simultaneous with the thud, the blood spurted out and ran in a stream down the body as it hung dangling from the beam lifeless and motionless. The snow-white cap was in a moment saturated with blood. It ran down the culprit's white trousers and reddened the floor just as in the previous case, and the spectators were for the second time that morning the witnesses of a ghastly sight, which in the cold of morning made their blood curdle. 
The sawdust... which had been put down after the fall of blood from the woman served the purpose of stopping the further flow along the floor of the blood which fell from Harrison."
Most executions around this time did result in quick, bloodless deaths, so it was a remarkable coincidence that both prisoners suffered the exact same wounds. It also reflected poorly on the skills of the hangman, William Ware, who was conducting his third hanging. He would have measured the couple and taken their weights as part of his mathematical calculations to provide the exact right length of 'drop' through the trapdoor to break their necks without further injury. Maybe he overcompensated with his next execution, in which the prisoner was not dropped far enough and ended up being strangled to death by the rope.

Ellen and John were buried in adjoining graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery. John was first, receiving an Anglican burial service by the Rev. Archdeacon Dawes. Later that day Ellen was interred with a Catholic service by the Rev. Father Fouhy. These graveside services meant that the ground there was now considered to be blessed. It was small compensation for two lovers whose lives - and deaths - had been anything but blessed.

Phrenology was a 19th-century pseudoscience, the practitioners of which believed that measurements of the skull and brain could reveal detailed information about personality. They occasionally had access to the corpses of executed prisoners.

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