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

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