You might remember that during May there had been the trial of the Plenty Valley Bushrangers and having been found guilty, three of the four remaining bushrangers were sentenced to hang (one was killed during capture). Even though Judge Willis urged immediate execution as a lesson to all would-be bushrangers, this was a highly improper suggestion as the Governor in Sydney had to give his approval first. So much of June 1842 was spent waiting to hear from Sydney whether the prerogative of mercy would be exercised, and if not, when the execution would take place.
It has been fifty years since there has been an execution in Australia, the last being Ronald Ryan‘s hanging on 3 February 1967. However, Australians had a taste of the detailed reporting and in my view, the sheer bloody-mindedness of state execution with the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia in 2015. Although 173 years separate the executions, many of the narrative tropes about execution – particularly those related to penitence and religious conversion – were just as present in 2015 as they were in Port Phillip in 1842.
In June 1842, although the excitement of the trial had abated, there were ongoing short reports about the condemned men in jail. On 20th May the Port Phillip Herald reported that the condemned criminals were visited daily by three different clergymen, the Anglican minister Rev Thomson, Rev James Forbes the Presbyterian minister, and Rev. Stephens, the Catholic priest. The paper reported that the culprits had not, as yet, shown the slightest sign of repentance. In fact, one was annoyed at his spiritual instructor questioning him about the number of robberies he had committed. They were confined together in a room about 10 feet square, the same as occupied by the “black murderers”recently executed in January. They were heavily ironed, with a constable in the room day and night and a guard at the door.
On 24th May, the Herald reported:
Since our last notice of these unfortunate men, we are happy to learn from the Rev. Mr Forbes, who is unceasing in his visits at their cell, that they are shewing a marked improvement in their conduct, and attend now with much interest to their religious exercises. [PPH 24/5/42 p 3]
By June 7, they were reported as being “all truly penitent”. They sent for Mr Fowler, who had been shot through the cheek and ear during the capture of the bushrangers. They “fell on their knees and begged his forgiveness. Mr Fowler of course forgave them” [PPH 7/6/42]. Eventually the overland mail brought the news that the men were to be hanged on 28th June.
On the day of execution, the men were woken before day break by Rev Forbes, and Rev Wilkinson, the Wesleyan minister who was now included in the clerical contingent. The sacrament was administered to Jepps and Ellis by the Rev Mr Thomson. Just before 8.00 a.m. they were taken into the yard and their irons were struck off. Jepps and Ellis undertook this with fortitude, but Fogarty wept bitterly for friends left behind rather than for despair of death. The open cart drew up to the door, bearing the three cedar coffins. The men, who were “decently clothed” did not wear the white gowns worn by the indigenous prisoners Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener who had preceded them to the gallows four months earlier. They did, however, wear white caps. At 8.00 a.m. the order was given to ‘mark’ and the procession headed off with the military at the front and the mounted police at the rear. Reverends Thomson, Forbes and Wilkinson walked arm-in-arm in front of the soldiers, while Rev Mr Stephens was on horseback. The route was a mile in length, and unlike with the aboriginal prisoners who travelled in a covered wagon, the men were visible to all on the back of the cart, sitting on their own coffins, during the half-hour trip. At the top of Lonsdale Street, the prisoners were ordered to look over their right shoulders to see “the fatal spot where their career of life was to be closed”. Jepps and Ellis knelt on the ground with the “three reverend gentlemen” and prayed, while Fogarty was engaged with the Catholic priest at a short distance. [PPH 1/7/42]
The Rev. Mr Forbes appeared more painfully distressed than the poor victims of misdirected talents themselves; he had been led to take a great interest in the fate of Ellis, and had been unceasing in his endeavour to bring him to that sincere state of repentance which is the mainstay of the Christian creed [PPG 29/6/42].
One of the tropes of execution scenes is the ‘last dying speech’ ritual, conducted at the base of the scaffold. In this heavily orchestrated performance, the speech was always a moment of unpredictability because neither the clergy nor the authorities could control what the condemned prisoner was about to say. But they need have had no fears about Jepps.
About nine o’clock, the prisoners having concluded the prayers, Jepps, taking a final adieu of his spiritual advisers, turned to the assemblage, and in a short but emphatic appeal to young men, exhorted them to take warning by his untimely end, of the fearful consequences of bad company, and the wretched end that awaits all who like him, deviate from the path of rectitude. He expressed himself resigned to his fate, and died in the belief of the Lord Jesus Christ. [PPG 29/6/42]
The Catholic Priest administered the sacrament to Fogarty on the drop, after which “he seemed more composed” while the Episcopalian minister read aloud the service for the dead. At the appointed signal the executioner pulled away the platform and the men were “ushered into eternity”. The Gazette reported that the men died in less than a minute, the scaffold having been “under the Sheriff’s directions, been constructed so as to avoid any of the extremely painful incidents which marked the last execution in the province.” [PPG 29/6/42] . However, the Patriot reported that Fogarty suffered about three minutes after the drop fell, in consequence of the knot of the rope shifting. [PPP 30/6/42]. According to the Patriot,
a company of the native police under the command of Messrs. Dana and Le Soeuf arrived from the station on the Merri Creek shortly after the drop fell. The men looked clean and well, and appeared to observe the awful sight before them with terror and dismay [PPP 30/6/42]
Reports of the numbers in the crowd varied between 1000 and 2000. The Patriot reported that very few women were present, while the Herald was shocked that so many females were present, although they were of the “rank of servant”. The Herald also complained that the men remained on the scaffold until the burial service had been concluded so that the crowd could see “the recumbent position of Ellis, the convulsive start of Jepps and the open and closing of the hand of Fogarty.”[PPH 1/7/42]
And so, the second batch of executions in 1842 were completed. It was not to be long until the next execution was to occur, the last in Port Phillip for several years.