Friday, October 5, 2012

“Black Steve” Spared from the Gallows

In the northern port town of Townsville in the 1880s, Jacob Stevenson, an Afro-American known locally as “Black Steve” was by all accounts a well regarded character. His popularity would one day save him from the gallows.

Flinders Street Townsville ca. 1889
In June 1885, Stevenson took part in a welcome ceremony for the Queensland Premier Sir S. W. (Sam) Griffith.

At the landing at the wharf in Flinders-street there was a large concourse of people assembled, and on the Premier stepping on to the landing he was greeted with enthusiastic cheers. The school children dressed in white and blue formed an avenue to the gateway, and strewed flowers as the Premier passed through.

Wreaths of evergreens were held over the heads of the Ministers as they passed to the vehicles awaiting them. A beautiful triumphal arch was erected at the gateway with the word "Welcome."[1]

Townsville ca. 1887

Playing the role of a slave, “Black Steve” appeared in chains atop the arch.

Over the arch was the Union Jack, alongside which a blackfellow stood chained. On Mr. Griffith landing, a sailor who stood alongside the boy knocked off his chains, and held up a flag on which was inscribed "Griffith and   Liberty."[2]

Sir Samuel Walker "Sam" Griffith, Premier of Queensland, 1886

Further detail was provided in a reminiscence three years later.

Some three years ago Sir S. W. Griffith received a great ovation on his landing there. The Reception Committee had erected a triumphal arch over the entrance to the wharf, and on the top of it crouched Stevenson naked, all but a sort of Indian mat round his waist, and loaded with chains.

As the Premier landed the band struck up "See the Conquering Hero Come”, a man-o' war's man, cutlass in hand, struck off the "bondsman's" chains, and Stevenson rose to his feet free and unfettered.[3]

Two years later “Black Steve” was back in the news, this time on a much more serious nature. A local white woman had accused him of rape.  As was normal in such cases, the newspaper report did not go into detail about the trial. No mention is made of the evidence presented other that the alleged victim’s statement.


At the Circuit Court to-day, before Mr. Justice Cooper, Jacob Stevenson, an American negro, was found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. The evidence showed that he entered the residence of a washerwoman named Bevis at night, and after he had accomplished the deed the woman followed him and saw him run under a gas lamp, thus being enabled to recognise him again.[4]

The steamer, Birksgate
Black Steve soon found himself on board a steamer making its way south to Brisbane at the gallows at Boggo Road Gaol. He was convinced his fate was sealed.

Fifteen prisoners, including Jacob Stevenson, sentenced to death for rape, have been sent to Brisbane by the steamer “Birksgate”. Since being sentenced Stevenson has not eaten any solid food, and has wasted almost to a skeleton. While being put on board the tender he never ceased praying.[5]

As "Black Steve” languished in a cell awaiting the hangman, he did not realise that his friends in Townsville were taking steps to save his life.  A petition was received by the governor containing thousands of signatures, including those of the jurymen.

Prison van at the entrance to Brisbane Gaol
On behalf of Stevenson, a long and powerfully written petition signed by nearly 2000 persons had been presented to his Excellency the Governor. The alleged character of the woman Bevis was clearly set forth in the petition and it was significant that the eleven living jurymen had signed the petition praying that the Governor would not allow the death sentence to be carried out. 

This petition and all the circumstances of the case having been considered the Governor, on the advice of the Executive Council decided to grant a full pardon to Stevenson.

Stevenson, who was at once released accepted his pardon calmly but was evidently glad to escape the ignominious fate which had appeared imminent.[6]

Boggo Road Gaol gallows
“Black Steve” at first failed believe he was to be freed. This would be understandable given his American background.

Stevenson from the time that he was sentenced regarded his doom as fixed, and when in the Brisbane Gaol he was told that he was pardoned he refused to believe the good tidings. He afterwards said that when his irons were struck off and he was led out of his cell he believed he was being taken out to execution.[7]

Even though he had been spared from the gallows and returned to Townsville, ‘Black Steve” died the following year – of natural causes.

From the Townsville papers we learn that Jacob Stevenson the American negro, who it will be remembered was sentenced to death a few months ago and who afterwards was liberated, has just died. This man was quite a well known character in Townsville.[8]

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] Warwick Examiner and Times Wednesday 17 June 1885
[2] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 16 June 1885
[3] The Brisbane Courier Monday 11 June 1888
[4] The Brisbane Courier Saturday 30 April 1887
[5] The Brisbane Courier Friday 13 May 1887
[6] The Brisbane Courier Friday 3 June 1887
[7] The Brisbane Courier Monday 11 June 1888
[8] The Brisbane Courier Monday 11 June 1888

No comments:

Post a Comment