Friday, October 26, 2012

One Murder and a Double Hanging

A sensation overtook the northern port city of Townsville in March 1887.  Public interest was focussed on the local Police Court where John Harrison and Ellen Thompson were accused of murdering William Thompson, the woman’s husband, six months earlier. 

Mossman River ca. 1892

William “Billy” Thompson owned a sugar plantation on the Mosman River where he lived with his wife. Harrison was staying on a nearby property.

John Harrison and Ellen Thompson, under committal for trial for the murder of the latter's husband at Port Douglas, were brought down under escort to Townsville on 6th instant.

There were (says the Bulletin) quite a number on the wharf were surprised at the great disparity in the age of the two prisoners, Harrison, who is a married man, a deserter from H.M.S. Myrmidon, being about 30, and Mrs. Thompson about 50. Both appeared to be quite unconcerned and, in fact, the female prisoner appeared to be more pleased than otherwise with the evident sensation she created.[1]

Ellen Thompson

The deceased was originally thought to have committed suicide but suspicions were raised by neighbours and acquaintances who were aware of the situation of the trio. Thompson was much older than his wife. She in turn, at fifty years old, was twenty years Harrison’s senior.

The affair between Ellen Thompson and  Harrison was well-known and openly flaunted in front of old Mr. Thompson. Several witnesses told of Billy Thompson’s repeated requests that Harrison leave. At the trial a witness recalled one such occasion.

A week before witness went to Thompson's place, with Harrison and Patrick Moran; when there Thompson said to Harrison, "I thought that you were gone;" Harrison said, "Not yet, Billy;" Thompson spoke in an angry tone, but Harrison was more mild; Thompson said, "If you are not gone I will shoot you," and Harrison went up to Thompson and said, "Look here Billy, you needn't think I'm frightened of you; I've made away with many better men than you;" Thompson   said, "You —, you ought to be ashamed of yourself to come here annoying an old man like me." [2]

After Billy Thompson’s death, Harrison and the widow Thompson were living openly together in his house. The wife of a Chinese cook who lived nearby testified that she has asked Ellen Thompson if Harrison had killed her husband.

Jane Le On, married woman, wife of Le Ou, a cook, deposed that in October last she lived on the Mosman River, within 100 yards of Thompson's place; since Thompson's death the prisoners had lived in Thompson's house; witness had her meals there for eight weeks; on one occasion witness and Mrs. Thompson were talking, when witness said, "Do you think that Harrison killed your       husband?" Harrison was living in the same house with her then; she said, "Yes, I think he would do anything for money, don't you think so?" witness said "Yes," and said, "Do you think he did it by himself?" she said that she thought a kanaka helped him.[3]

The most damning testimony came from a prisoner who shared a cell with Harrison in Townsville Gaol. He recounted how Harrison had told him the he had murdered Billy Thompson at Ellen’s urging to get possession of the sugar plantation.

Townsville Gaol ca.1885
Henry Oubridge, a clerk, deposed that he was lately in Townsville Gaol, serving a sentence of three months; one night prisoner asked witness to draw his blanket down to the corner where he was lying; witness did so, and prisoner then said, " What do you think of my case?" witness said, "I know nothing about it;" he knew that Harrison was charged with murder, but did not know the facts of the case. 

 Prisoner said, "Between you and I, I knocked old Thompson over; we tried to poison him twice, but it took no effect; I had a row with old Thompson, and packed up my swag and went away; after about two hours I came back, and then Mrs. Thompson encouraged me and tempted me to do away with the old man; I fired at him without effect, he was then lying down on the ground, and turned round to Mrs. Thompson and said to her, "You are sending me to my death;" she mocked and   laughed at him, and said, "Jack, go at him again;" prisoner then said " I sent a bullet right through his head;"

Witness then asked him why he should do such a thing as that; he said, "There was sugar hanging to it; ... I don't care for her, it’s the sugar I want."[4]

There were several dramatic scenes during the trial most involving Ellen Thompson, particularly when her dead husband’s exhumed head was presented as evidence.

The accused was remanded till Wednesday to allow of the body being exhumed, and on being examined a bullet was found embedded in the skull. The discovery caused intense excitement, and the Court was crowded when the hearing of the case was proceeded with.

The proceedings of the Court were suddenly brought to a close by the violence of the female prisoner, who screamed hysterically when her dead husband's skull with the bullet embedded in it was produced in court. She appeared to be in a dreadful state of mind, but the male prisoner was stolid and unconcerned.[5]

[1] Morning Bulletin Tuesday 8 March 1887

Planting Sugar Cane in the Mossman District

The trial concluded with jury bringing in a guilty verdict against both prisoners. Harrison remained silent but Ellen Thompson gave a long and rambling speech which caused a sensation in the crowded courtroom.

In reply to the usual question as to whether she had anything to say why the sentence of the Court should not be passed upon her, she exclaimed, with raised voice, accompanying her utterances with excited and vigorous gesture:

"Yes, I have a lot to say, and I would have said a lot before, but the police wouldn’t let me. I consider this a very unjust Court. I was completely ruined by losing my husband. I would not encourage murder for a thousand pounds." She went on to say that in her early life she had struggled hard for a living, and after thirty years in the colony she had gone on the Mossman with "old Billy Thompson," a poor, miserable old man.

She had worked hard for him. "I'm a brick, every inch of me!" she loudly and excitedly exclaimed. She said the old man was not fit to be a husband for a black gin, but he was so jealous of everybody that she could scarcely live. Everybody knew she was a credit to North Queensland, and when she was gone it would be found that she did not murder "Billy Thompson."

Every word said against her was false. "Here I am," she said," "penniless and miserable-not a shilling in my pocket, and the farm gone." If she had wanted to get rid of old Billy Thompson she could have "chucked" him into the river to the alligators long before. She then prayed for vengeance upon her enemies, and asked "why shouldn't a poor unfortunate miserable woman have a chance?"
Townsville Courthouse

For about three quarters of an hour the prisoner poured forth a torrent of words, sometimes with a touch of rugged eloquence, sometimes with a grotesqueness which, notwithstanding the solemn nature of the occasion, made many spectators smile. The speech, which was disconnected and rather contradictory, was interrupted occasionally towards its close by the prisoner sitting down for a moment and then starting up and beginning afresh. The crowd hung attentively on every word, one or two members of the jury being apparently very much affected, and his Honour sat out the oration in perfect silence, every opportunity being afforded the prisoner of saying all she wished. When sentence of death had been passed she thanked the judge.[6]

The condemned couple were later take by steamer to Brisbane and were executed at Boggo Road Gaol.  In the manner of the time, the last moments of the couple were reported in detail in the press. Ellen Thompson was the first to mount the scaffold.

She bore up bravely to the last, and even when standing on the scaffold her fortitude was remarkable. Attended by Father Fouhy, she stepped on to the drop, and her voice was unshaken as she said, "Good-bye everybody; I forgive everybody from the bottom of my heart for anything they have wronged me in this world. I never shot my husband, and I am dying like an angel."

Only once, within a few seconds of the fatal moment, was there a perceptible quiver in the unhappy creature's voice, when with almost her dying breath she murmured, "Oh, my poor children; take care of my children will you, Father". The next instant her body was swinging in mid air.[7]

The Scaffold at Boggo Road Gaol
Harrison made no pretension to innocence in his last moments.

Harrison is said to have been a soldier in the British army. To Archdeacon Dawes, who was with him during his last hours, and with whose ministrations he appeared deeply impressed, he stated that both he and the woman were implicated in the death of Thompson, but that although he did fire the shots which killed him it was done in self-defence.

When standing on the scaffold he spoke not a word, and in the expression of his features could be traced not the slightest evidence of fear or nervous excitement.[8]

Ellen Thompson was the last woman executed in Queensland.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Brisbane Courier 14 February 1887
[2] The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 11 May 1887
[3] The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 11 May 1887
[4] The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 11 May 1887
[5] Morning Bulletin Monday 16 May 1887
[6] Morning Bulletin Monday 16 May 1887
[7] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 14 June 1887
[8] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 14 June 1887

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Nonagenarian Chinaman

In 1840s and 50s a contentious topic of discussion was the issue of the importation of Chinese labour into the Colony. On the one hand there was the dire shortage of workers on large pastoral properties and on the other the innate aversion of the European population to Asian “heathens”, popularly referred to as “Celestials”. Eventually the use of “coolie” labour was seen as a necessary evil.

An editorial in the Sydney press summed up the general feeling.

Were there a prospect of obtaining from the shores of the mother country, a supply of able bodied labourers, commensurate to the wants of the Colonists, never would our voice or pen be raised to advocate the introduction of an alien race: but as we are now situated, we must have Coolies or Chinese labourers, or we retrograde at a swift pace, and that retrogression will be marked with the complete overthrow of every important interest in the community.[1]

The Nonagenarian Tommy Delong, Ipswich 1899
One of the alien arrivals in 1842 was a 33 year old Chinese man who would come to be known as Tommy Delong.  Many years later, Tommy recalled his ignoble disembarkation in Sydney, to a journalist in Ipswich.

Having reached the age of 33, Tommy resolved to seek fortune in the Southern El Dorado, and accordingly took a ship for Sydney, where he landed in 1842.

Like most of his countrymen, when he arrived in Australia he could not speak a word of English, and suffered the usual consequences of such ignorance.

When he left the ship, the sailors by way of a “lark" induced him to sit on a wheelbarrow. They then wheeled him off and tipped him into Port Jackson.

As Tommy weighed 14st. 11lb. at the time he made a considerable splash, but fortunately he could swim, and, possibly to the disappointment of his tormentors, he managed to make his way to the shore, not much the worse.[2]

Tommy was soon assigned to work as a cook on a remote station, where he was paid much less than his European workmates.

The "new-chum Chinaman" began his career as a colonist by acting at cook on Boolling station,       where he worked for five years at the munificent wage of 3s. per week and food. Chinese immigration in those days was in its infancy and the "Johns" were not so wide awake to the full value of their labour as they are nowadays.[3]

Chinese cook working in makeshift kitchen

In 1850 Tommy made his way to the burgeoning Moreton Bay district and eventually settled in Ipswich where he would remain for the rest of his long life.

Again he worked around the district as a cook during the shearing seasons, and as a storekeeper in Ipswich.

The year 1850 saw him landing in Brisbane from the barque Emma, with his capital safely in hand. He started business at Little Ipswich, and removed later on to Waghorn-street, where he continued until the Government resumed his "stand" for rail way purposes.

Soon after his arrival in Ipswich he married his second wife, by whom he had two children. [4]

Ipswich in the 1870s
Tommy’s new wife Mary was not Chinese but of Irish extraction and the marriage got off to a rocky start.  This appears to have been mainly due to the interference of Tommy’ new in-laws.  After four months, Mary left the marital home and had her husband charged with assault.

Reflecting the mores of the times, Tommy was only bound over to keep the peace while his wife Mary was admonished by the magistrate for disregarding her marital duties.  Furthermore her relatives were warned against aiding and abetting her.

Mary Delong charged her husband with assaulting her. The defendant, a Chinese, has been married to the complainant about four months; but they have frequently quarrelled in consequence of complainant's too great intimacy with a reputed relative.

Witnesses proved that the defendant had struck her, and the bench required defendant to enter into sureties for keeping the peace but at the same time impressed on the complainant that if she chose to marry a Chinese she was bound to perform her conjugal duties, and conduct herself with propriety; that as a wife she was bound to go home when her husband desired her to do so; and that the parties who had harboured her had acted very improperly.[5]

Tommy and his wife Mary managed to stay to together until her death some years later.

Brisbane Street looking west from corner Ellenborough and Brisbane Streets, Ipswich, ca. 1898

In 1899, his long life was celebrated in the local press and he seems to have been a well liked local “character” about the streets of Ipswich.  Significantly the writer refers to the continued attitude of European Australians to “Chinamen”.

Tommy has continued in his dual occupation of shopkeeper and generally useful man until the present time. He still does odd jobs, but is too old for constant work, though he is remarkably active and upright in spite of his four score and eleven years.

He is of genial temperament, ever ready to laugh at a joke, and being quite an institution In Ipswich, everyone has a pleasant greeting for him when passing.

Brisbane Street, looking east from the Town Hall, Ipswich, 1899
The portrait which we reproduce was specially taken in Ipswich a few weeks ago by Mr. B. Taylor. It shows a remarkably intelligent-looking Chinaman, as good and useful a citizen of Queensland, in spite of his nationality, as many a white Australian who professes to despise his race.[6]


From the 1870s all Australian colonies prohibited Chinese immigration. 

Chinese already residing in the Australian colonies were not expelled and retained the same rights as their fellow citizens.

This legislation would later be known as the "White Australia Policy" and would not be fully withdrawn until the 1970s, a century later.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012

[1] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Tuesday 1 February 1842
[2] The Queenslander Saturday 26 August 1899
[3] The Queenslander Saturday 26 August 1899
[4] The Queenslander Saturday 26 August 1899
[5] The North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser Tuesday 7 June 1859
[6] The Queenslander Saturday 26 August 1899

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gothenberg Gold

The Wreck of the Gothenberg

On the twenty-fourth of February 1875, the Steamer Gothenberg was making her way from Port Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia. At the time the Northern Territory was administered by South Australia and the most practical way to travel between Adelaide and Darwin was by boat, the alternative being a long overland trip. The Gothenberg had been contracted to carry the mails the two capitals.

The Steamer Gothenberg
On board were eighty-five passengers and thirty-five crew. Only twenty-two would survive.

Among the passengers was the Queen's Bench of South Australia, including Mr. Justice Wearing who were returning from holding sessions at Darwin.

In the captain’s cabin was a strongbox containing 3000 ounces[1] of gold, the property of the English, Scottish, and Australian Chartered Bank.

Details of just how the “Gothenburg” came to grief were recalled years later by 83 years old retired engineer, Mr. T. C. Pengelly, a crewman on one of the rescue boats, the Bunyip.

The vessel called at Townsville after leaving Darwin, but in negotiating the reef off Cape Upstart mistook for the passage an indented portion of the reef known as 'The Horseshoe." The result was that the forward portion of the hull was driven high up on the reef, and as the back of the vessel   broke, the after part fell into the water.[2]

Cape Upstart 1843,  by Edwin Augustus Porcher
A detailed account of the wreck of the Gothenberg was published in 1911.

She was running under both steam and sail before an increasing gale in which she rolled heavily.     Suddenly the rolling ceased and the passengers were just congratulating themselves on the fact, when the Gothenburg ran on to a reef 40 miles north-east of Port Denison, and 28 miles N.N.E. of Cape Upstart. Sails were at once taken in and the passengers all ordered aft.

Attempts to refloat the vessel failed, and a gale of such severity was blowing that further disaster came upon the travellers before the boats could be brought into use. The steamer swung round broadside on to the reef and the heavy seas swept her decks, washing off sheep, dogs, and everything not fast on the deck. The port boats had already been  lost in a vain endeavour to reach the starboard side and the starboard boats were swinging in the davits, containing food and water, ready to receive the women and   children, but the ship heeled over so much   that the boats could not be lowered. [3]

First reports of the disaster appeared in the Brisbane press a week after the disaster. A steamer happened to come across a lifeboat contained four crew members of the Gothenberg.

News of what seems, with present information, to be a serious catastrophe, is brought by the “Leichhardt”, steamer, which arrived from the North last night. A few hours after leaving Bowen harbor the “Leichhardt” picked up a boat containing four men, named Harry Nelson, fore-cabin steward; Salvee Hermonson, A.B.[4];   William Burns, lamp-trimmer; and Joseph Hudson, coal-trimmer, of the steamer “Gothenberg”, from which the boat had been washed away twenty-four hours' previously. [5]

The Leichhardt immediately changed course and steamed to the wreck but found no survivors amid the mangled remains of the Gothenberg.

The Gothenberg under full sail and steam
The Leichhardt, on the men's story being told, at once reversed her course and steamed for the spot where the Gothenberg had been left by the boat. The scene was reached the same afternoon, and the wreck of the Gothenberg discovered sunk nearly to the eyes of the lower rigging. The funnel was gone and the fore-mast toppling. 

A boat's crew was sent to search the rigging, but not a living soul was found, the only signs being parts of a lady's shawl, a comforter, and a straw mattress, hanging to one of the yard-arms. From tho masthead of the Leichhardt an anxious lookout for the other boats was kept, but not a sign of them was in sight.[6]

Over the next days and weeks other survivors were found on nearby islands and atolls but the total loss of life was finally put as ninety-eight souls.

Understandably, the news of the wreck spread quickly though the colony and reached the ears of two enterprising men in Brisbane. They were particularly interested in the mention of gold on the abandoned boat. Putwain owned the only diving apparatus in the colony and Captain Phillips was the master of the Florence Irving then berthed in Brisbane.  

Recognising the potential profits in salvaging the gold, they formed a partnership and set sail for the wreck. Putwain later told his story.

“We were cast adrift from the Florence Irving when near the scene of the wreck at noon the same day, and the steamer proceeded on her voyage to the Northern Ports. The wreck was found lying with her head N.E. and S.W., with a strong list to port, the stern in about ten fathoms of water, and the bows in about five fathoms, with her foremost yards lying awash.

Diver Putwain in the Wreck of the Gothenberg
(Illustrated Sydney News, Thursday 8 April 1875)

I found much difficulty in getting down, in consequence of the strong current and heavy wash on the reef, and finding it was impracticable to go down from the boat I rigged a temporary stage from the maintop of the steamer, which was a few feet out of water.

I then descended for the second time, and took a short survey of the ship. I found her broken abaft[7] the fore chains, and the funnel partially down, but the deck is not started abaft of where she is broken, and the captain's cabin was broken away except the roof and combings.

After a diligent search, I found the box supposed to contain the gold on the lee side of the combings of the captain's cabin, and at once slung it, and placed the box in a convenient position for hoisting to the surface.”[8]

Putwain then came upon a gruesome scene, two women locked in a deathly embrace, their long hair swirling with the current.

 I then endeavoured to descend the cabin stairs, but could only get down a few steps, in consequence of not having sufficient length of tube, but here a melancholy sight presented itself, for at the port side of the vessel, and at the foot of the saloon stairs, I saw the bodies of two women, one apparently having her arm around the other.

I was anxious to get to the spot to obtain, if possible, a portion of their hair (which was flowing loosely around them) or some other relic that might be identified by their friends and serve as a memento of their loss, but unfortunately I was unsuccessful for reasons previously mentioned.

Finding that at this time I could not do further good at the wreck and after making the gold secure in the boat I proceeded to Bowen, and duly reported all the circumstances to the authorities, and deposited the gold in the Australian Joint Stock Bank.[9]

Bowen Queensland ca. 1873, looking towards the sea.

Having left the gold at the bank, Putwain and his partner pursued their claim for their share of the value of the gold under the rights of salvage from an abandoned vessel. Negotiations started before the Admiralty Court in November that year.

The Admiralty Court is engaged in the salvage case of the gold in the "Gothenberg."

The Bank offered Putwin £1000, which he refused, asserting his expenses reached nearly £500 and the value of the salvage was between £9000 and £10,000.[10]

After Putwain rejected the initial offer, a long legal battle ensued which ended with a ruling by the Privy Council in London in 1877. The ruling was reported in The Times.

The Times (London, England), Friday, Jan 12, 1877

This was an appeal from a decree of the Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Queensland of the 1st of December, 1875, in a suit for salvage.

The respondents asserted that in this act of salvage they had incurred large expenses, and they claimed £4,000 for the recovery of the gold. The bank tendered them £1,000, which they refused, and the suit was then instituted, the Judge, in the result, awarding the respondents £2,909, being one-third of the value of the box, £302 for expenses, and the costs of the proceedings. From that decree the present appeal was preferred.

Sir Robert Collier, Member of the Privy Council 1870, caricature.

For the appellants it was contended that the amount awarded was excessive and, in the real circumstances of the case, out of all proportion to the services rendered; that the narratives of the salvage and of the risks run were much exaggerated; and that the respondent Phillips was not a salver; and was not entitled to be a party to the suit.

On the other hand, it was urged that but for the services of the respondents the gold would have been lost, that great risk to life and property was incurred, and that the decree was justified by the evidence.

Their LORDSHIPS, after a brief deliberation, intimated their intention to advise Her Majesty to affirm the decision of the Court below and to dismiss the appeal, with costs. [11]

 © K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] About 85kg., worth over £9,000 in 1875 and more than 25 million dollars at 2012 prices.
[2] Townsville Daily Bulletin Thursday 9 April 1936
[3] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 28 March 1911
[4] Able Seaman.
[5] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 2 March 1875
[6] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 2 March 1875
[7] To the rear.
[8] The Queenslander Saturday 20 March 1875
[9] The Queenslander Saturday 20 March 1875
[10] The Northern Miner Saturday 20 November 1875
[11] The Times (London, England), Friday, Jan 12, 1877