This entry contains a lengthy description of the execution of two indigenous prisoners
I’m rather embarrassed that I’ve fallen behind with my weekly summaries of what happened in Port Phillip at this time in 1842. Largely it was because I’m aware that during the week 16-23 January the first executions in Port Phillip took place after being heard in Justice John Walpole Willis’ courtroom, and I want to write about them in some detail even though I have written about them before here and here. Somehow my desire to do the event justice has meant that I haven’t done it at all.
Tunnerminnerwait (also called ‘Jack’) and Maulboyheener (called ‘Bob’), whose exploits were being reported in my weekly round-ups in during November (see here and here) and December 1841 (see here and here), were hanged on 20 January in front of a crowd estimated to number 5000. This first execution – significant not only because it was the first, but also because it involved indigenous prisoners- was reported in minute detail in the three Port Phillip newspapers. It was, as the Port Phillip Herald proclaimed “one of the most important events which has yet taken place in our province”. And so, this week in Port Phillip concerns only the execution.
It’s important to remember that writing about an execution follows a well-honed path. (In fact, much of the reporting of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s executions in Bali in April 2015 followed much the same structure). There are reports about the days leading up to the execution with particular emphasis on the night before; measurements of prayers offered up and food ingested; a report of the morning of execution day; the journey to the execution place; the execution itself, then the disposal of the bodies.
The days preceding and the night before
The prisoners throughout the time which elapsed between trial and punishment, were lodged in the gaol at the west end of Melbourne, and from the day that their fate was ratified by the Governor, and made public in the province, were visited by several of the curious, besides most of the protectors, the Wesleyan missionaries, and the ministers of all denominations in Melbourne. (Port Phillip Gazette 22 Jan 1842)
There was particular interest in the prisoners’ appetites. A prisoner who displayed a hearty appetite was seen to be insufficiently penitential:
[Bob] slept soundly each night previously to his execution. On Wednesday evening he silently but impatiently rejected the food placed before him, and neglected to smoke, a practice in which both he and his companion had been allowed to indulge since their incarceration. Jack… sustained the most perfect indifference to the last moment; he has slept soundly and long ever since his imprisonment and been apparently in good spirits. On the night preceding his execution he eat [sic] plentifully, consuming half a loaf and three panikins of tea, repeatedly talking and laughing; he then enjoyed his pipe with the most perfect indifference, which, after having used for some time, he offered to Bob, this the latter rejected by waving his hand impatiently, and turning from his companion who only laughed and coolly replaced his pipe in his own mouth. (Port Phillip Herald 21 Jan 1842)
Because British Law and ‘ Divine Justice’ were intertwined, it was important that execution be seen to have a religious element lest it be merely revenge. The men were attended by the Anglican minister, Reverend Thomson.
When the Rev. Mr Thomson visited and remained with them the greater art of the night, Jack assumed a more serious demeanour, and both the prisoners listened attentively, particularly Bob, to the prayer of the worth clergyman. Bob appeared much affected by the remarks and admonitions of Mr Thomson, frequently sobbing and moaning loudly, and expressing his conviction that he should suffer Divine Wrath for the murder he had committed. Jack was apparently attentive, but evinced no signs of agitation. (PPH 21/1/42)
It is important to note that Maulboyheener (Bob) was perceived to be the more penitent prisoner, while Tunnerminnerwait (Jack) was seen as the ringleader whose insouciance threatened to make a mockery of the whole procedure.
Bob was lively, pliable, and capable of affection, Jack was sullen, but daring, the latter was the leader in all the depredations that closed in their ignominious death; the former revolted at the crimes committed, but was compelled to submit: Bob had imbibed clearer ideas of religion, and was affected at the last by the terrors of his situation. Jack was evidently sceptical of the simplest truths of Christianity, and doggedly retained his firmness to the moment of death. (PPG 22/1/42)
On Wednesday night, that preceding the execution, the prisoners presented the greatest contrast in their demeanour; Bob was dejected; Jack thoroughly indifferent. The former made at this time a most important confession; it was to the effect, that he took no part in the murder, until threatened by Jack who placed & loaded musket to his head when commanding him to fire on one of the whalers-; even then, however, he would have refused had not the women bidden him remember the murder of their relatives at Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land by the white people, and, thus incited him to a revenge which all considered justifiable. (PPG 22/1/42)
The morning of the execution
It’s just as well that they slept soundly in the nights leading up to their execution, because Rev. Thomson surely stayed around for a long time- until 2.00 A.M.!- on the evening before:
After the Reverend Gentleman left them (about 2 o’clock in the morning), the prisoners slept for two hours. At half past 4 or 5 o’clock their breakfast was prepared and handed to them, which was heartily partaken of by Jack, who eat about three pounds of bread, and drunk two panikins of tea; Bob declined eating anything, and when pressed, only drank a little tea. Jack here, as before mentioned, lighted his pipe and smoked for some time, after which the prisoners were washed, shaved and dressed; their gaol clothes were replaced by clean trowsers, shirts and stockings, during which preparations he seemed perfectly unconcerned and even gay; he laughed heartily when his attendant was assisting him to put on the stockings, and expressed his unconcern at his approaching fate, saying that after his death he would join his father in Van Diemen’s Land and hunt kangaroo; he also said that he had three heads, one for the scaffold, one for the grave and one for V. D. Land; his companion remained totally silent during these arrangements. (PPH 21/1/42)
Then followed another religious ceremony, attended this time by the rest of the prisoners of the gaol.
At seven o’clock the Sheriff, the Rev Mr. Thomson, and several of the Magistrates visited the gaol, when Mr Wintle the gaoler, immediately summoned all there inhabitants thereon to attend divine service in the yard of that building, after which, about 10 minutes to 8 o’clock a covered cart, with two grey horses, was drawn up to the gaol door, and the prisoners having shaken hands with Mr Wintle, walked quietly into the vehicle, which effectually screened them from observation. (PPH 21/1/42)
The prisoners were in a travelling van belonging to Mr. Robinson, and in which, concealed from public gaze, they were drawn from the goal to the place of execution ; the van was a small carriage frame, drawn by two horses and covered in with painted cloth stretched round on poles fastened to the the corners of the frame ; they were preceded and guarded by a body of mounted and border policemen, and were accompanied on the way through Lonsdale-street by several hundreds of people, who joined and merged with the dense mass round the gallows. The Sheriff, the Governor, and other officers of the goal, the chaplain, and chief constable, came up at the same time; and superintended the dreadful preparations. (PPG 22/1/42)
The scene at the gallows
At an early hour on Thursday morning, myriads of men, women and even children were to be seen wending their way in the direction of the new gaol on the eastern hill, in the rear of which a temporary gallows had been erected for the execution of the Van Diemen’s Land aborigines Bob and Jack, convicted of murder at the late criminal session of the Supreme Court, all apparently anxious to gratify that feeling of morbid curiosity which renders an execution a treat to the lower orders of the British. (Port Phillip Patriot 24/1/42)
From the earliest hour of the morning crowds of people began to gather round the gaol and to take up what they considered the most favourable situations for viewing the spectacle. At the commencement, and throughout the scene, the greatest levity was betrayed, and the women, who made by far the greatest proportion, had dressed themselves for the occasion. The side end walls of the gaol which were nearest the gallows were crowded with human beings; the trees in the vicinity had their inmates, and by eight o’clock the assembly numbered upwards of three thousand souls. Between eight and nine accessions to the crowd of spectators were momentarily received, and the most disgusting spirit betrayed in scrambling for places ; several even jumped upon the coffins, which stood at the font of the gibbet, in their eagerness-to watch any movement connected with the event. (PPG 22/1/42)
The concourse of people here assembled amounted to between 4 and 5,000, the greater proportion of whom were women and children, and, from the laughing and merry faces, which were assembled (assisted by the appearance of several horsemen, and some in topboots,) the scene resembled more the appearance of a race-course than a scene of death. The walls and body of the new gaol were literally packed with spectators, as anxiously awaiting the awful scene about to be enacted, as if it were a bull-bait or prize ring. (PPH 21/1/42)
The crowds were so thick that Captain Beers had to clear the way:
The hour fixed upon for the spectacle was eight o’clock, and a little be-fore that time Captain Beers, with a detachment of the military, made his appearance on the spot and soon succeeded in clearing a passage at the point of the bayonet for the cavalcade which was seen approaching. (PPP 24/1/42)
On their arrival at the foot of the gallows the prisoners were removed from the van and directed to kneel while the Rev. Mr. Thomson read prayers, which done, their arms were pinioned and they were conducted to the scaffold, to which they were with difficulty got up owing to the steepness of the ladder and their being unable to use their hands. The gallows was formed of two upright posts about twenty feet in height with a cross beam at the top to which the ropes were attached; the scaffold was formed of a plank two feet wide fastened to the gallows at the one end by a hinge, and supported at the other by a prop which being pulled away let fall the drop. (PPP 24/1/42)
On the arrival of the van, two constables stepped up to hand the prisoners out, and the start back which Bob gave showed the terror inflicted by the sight of the unexpected populace; he came out, however immediately, after trembling violently, followed by Jack, calm and imperturbable to the end. It was gratifying to see the universal kindness with which they were treated, soothed by every one round, and tenderly handled even by the executioner. On coming out of the van, their arms were tied behind them slightly, and prayers commenced by the minister in attendance. Bob’s agitation increased with every passing moment, and his moans were terrible to bear. They knelt together with the clergyman, while he prayed joining at intervals in a few words which they understood. On rising again Bob’s feelings broke out in the most heartrending groans ; the terrified and piteous looks he threw around him, pressing against everyone that spoke to him as if to catch at some chance of salvation, was terrible to witness ; he trembled violently, while, the sweat burst from his face in the agony of his sufferings. At length every thing was completed, their arms were securely bandaged, and they were directed to mount the scaffold. (PPG 22/1/42)
I don’t want to go into as much detail as the newspapers did, but Maulboyheener (Bob) was extremely distressed, while Tunnerminnerwait continued to be impassive. However, the Gazette did note:
It was at this time that Jack, who was already standing in his appointed place, and whose eyes had been left uncovered at his own request to the latest moment, might have been seen fixing his eyes on some native blacks, who had taken their stations in the branches of a tree close to the gallows, to witness a sight to them so novel and impressive; it was the only sign of interest or anxiety he had expressed during the occurrences of the morning…(PPG 22/1/42)
I wonder who these ‘native blacks’ were. As Tasmanians, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were outsiders to the Port Phillip indigenous tribes as well. What was their relationship with the other tribal groupings in the district? I don’t know.
When the drop finally fell Jack’s sufferings were almost instantaneously at an end, but Bob struggled convulsively for several moments before death came to his relief, owing to the partial displacement of tho noose, and his fall being broken by the bungling manner in which the scaffold was struck away. (PPP 24/1/41)
The bodies were allowed to hang the usual time (one hour), and on being cut down were placed in shells provided for that purpose and interred outside the new burial ground. Thus ended the short career of two young and able bodied men, who in the course of six weeks Committed several extensive burglaries, and wantonly fired at and wounded four (two dangerously) white men, who had never given them cause for offence, besides murdering the two sailors at Port Fairy, for which they suffered. May their fate have a beneficial effect upon the Aborigines of the province. (PPH 21/1/42)
Editorial opinion at the time
The Port Phillip Herald which carried the longest report of the execution also published a lengthy editorial. Although expressing a degree of sympathy for Bob in particular, it declared
Of the justness of the sentence, and of the policy of its enforcement, there cannot rest a doubt on the minds of those who have attended to the whole circumstances of the case.
It warned that
It is possible, but we consider extremely improbable, that the aborigines will attempt to revenge the act, and, goaded on by the dark and untutored passions of their nature, take summary vengeance upon the white population…
But this danger had to be weighed against
…the absolute certainty that had a milder punishment been inflicted, the colonists would have declared – and declared with truth, that there was in this colony one law for the black and another for the white man … the white population would take upon themselves to obtain, directly and immediately, that justice which they had seen instructed by precedent they could not secure at the hand of the Government; and would not the result be, that instead of two murderers having suffered the extreme penalty of the law which justice awarded to their crimes, hundreds would fall before the incensed settlers, whose sole defence lay in themselves. Open warfare would result…. [PPH 21/1/42)
Port Phillip prided itself on its ‘civilization’. It’s in reading such editorials that you realize just how fragile that ‘civilization’ was. ‘Retribution’ and ‘dispersal’ were open secrets.
How’s the weather?
The top temperature for the week was 80 (26.7) with light airs and fresh breezes. Fine agreeable weather, but frequently cloudy. And somehow it seems fitting that on the 20th, the day of the execution, it rained.
It was worth waiting for! Given how casually white settlers engaged in ‘dispersal’, and that in Tasmania that dispersal was on the way to being total, it is interesting that the newspapers were so concerned about all the proper forms being observed in this case.