Dumbing Down Death Penalty History

Article by Christopher Dawson, MPHA (Qld)

The 100th anniversary of the last hanging to take place in Queensland fell on 22 September 2013. In the scheme of things that might not be a big deal to a 21st-century populace because capital punishment has slipped into the 'dark ages' of our memory, a time beyond living history. It barely even made the news when capital punishment was abolished here in 1922, so why should people care now? Truth is, the subject of hanging has become little more than a macabre historical curio in Queensland.

Even so, it might be fair to expect that reflections on the hanging of Ernest Austin (the last person to die on the gallows here) would perhaps place it in the historical context of declining support for capital punishment in the 1910s, with considered input from criminologists, legal experts, or professional historians.

Unfortunately, this did not happen, For example, the first half an article in a free 'Quest' newspaper featured a local 'ghost tours' owner talking as though Austin was a monster from 'Scooby Doo'.
"Stories have been told over the past century of a ghost who would laugh maniacally, shriek like a banshee and look down upon prisoners from the upper floors of the Boggo Road Gaol. The ghost is said to be the spirit of convicted child murderer Ernest Austin, who has been "haunting" the jail since he was put to death in 1913 - the last man in Queensland to be hanged.
It was then (very spuriously) claimed that this was now the "country's oldest continuously told prison ghost story", and that;
"It was said that late at night you could see him standing up on one of the upper floors of the jail looking down at you. In the 1940s, it was also being said that Austin's last words included laughter, and that the ghost would have this maniacal laugh just like him."
The remaining part of the article was little more than a sales pitch for the ghost tours guy. The Brisbane Times website, which is usually a bit more credible, had a short audio clip along the same 'lines, again devoid of any historical analysis (and barely a mention) of the actual execution itself. A short Channel 7 news item was little better.

Putting aside the facts that the Austin ghost story is pure invention and the execution took place in a prison building that was demolished in 1978 (an inconvenient and unmentioned truth), it needs to be asked why was the significance of the abolition of hanging was ignored? Queensland was, after all, the first part of British Empire to do so. Why weren't any historians consulted for these pieces? The answer seems to be lazy journalism and perhaps a broader societal disinterest in the subject of capital punishment. Maybe some junior reporters and interns facing a deadline were happy just to accept dubious media releases designed to present Boggo Road as some kind of 'haunted house' attraction.

The Queensland public, and historians, really do deserve better treatment and analysis of our history.

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