The Gallows Beam, once used to hang people at Boggo Road Jail. Picture: News Corp Australia
The Gallows Beam, once used to hang people at Boggo Road Jail. Picture: News Corp Australia

Sexist truth behind the last woman legally hanged

Ellen Thomson secured her place in history when she swung from the gallows at Boggo Road Gaol on June 13, 1887, yet in another era, this hardworking and kind-hearted mother would have lived to meet her grandchildren.

As the only woman to be executed in Queensland, Ellen Thomson's story has been told many times, from her part in her husband's murder to the blood-drenched horror of the gallows when her jugular vein was severed.

An illiterate Irishwoman who had been abused and manipulated, she may not have been the scarlet woman portrayed. Despite headlines proclaiming she would die with her lover, her last thoughts were for her orphaned children as she clutched a Crucifix and prayed.

Ellen, a small woman - 149cm and 48kg - had grey hair that belied her 42 years. With 27-year-old John Harrison, she was charged with the murder of her 66-year-old husband William Thomson.

There was little, if any, evidence to confirm it was a crime of passion. In fact, on the eve of his execution Harrison confessed it was he alone who had shot and killed Bill Thomson in self-defence. They had argued not for love of Ellen but for Thomson's farm. "I don't care for her. It's the sugar I want," Harrison allegedly said.

His admission wasn't enough to save Ellen's reputation - or neck.

The odds were stacked against her. Court notes reveal some bias even before the case began. She was assigned an inexperienced country solicitor who apologised for not being up to the task; there were 197 depositions for the Crown - some apparently paid to ensure a conviction; police admitted blunders in the initial investigation; she was before the renowned "hanging judge" Pope Cooper and the jury was all men.

Ellen Thomson, hung in 1887 for murder of her husband, William Thomson, 24 years her senior. Picture: Townsville City Libraries
Ellen Thomson, hung in 1887 for murder of her husband, William Thomson, 24 years her senior. Picture: Townsville City Libraries

She demonstrated her own simple-minded innocence when she replied "thank you" after her death sentence was handed down.

Ellen was 11 when she arrived in Goulburn from County Cork with her widowed mother and sister, and 16 when she married 37-year-old William Wood in 1862. They had five children: Victoria who died at age four, John, Ella, William and Maria who was born after her father died in an accident in 1871.

Struggling to support her children, the young widow set off north and found work as a washerwoman at Cooktown during the Palmer River gold rush.

In about 1878, she became a housekeeper for farmer Thomson in Port Douglas, and they married in 1880, a year after the birth of her daughter, Helen.

But the relationship fell apart and Ellen's wish to give her children a better life was scuttled. One son, ill-treated by his stepfather, was sent to his father's family. Another went to work on the road gangs and her teenage daughter left after Thomson threw a kerosene lamp at her. He was furious that she wouldn't marry his brother, a man in his 50s.

In the week before Ellen's date with the hangman, John W. Knight, an ex-Police Magistrate and principal officer of Customs at Port Douglas, made a plea on her behalf.

The Boggo Road gallows where criminals were hanged. Picture: State Library of Queensland
The Boggo Road gallows where criminals were hanged. Picture: State Library of Queensland

 

He said he had known her at Cooktown and could testify she had administered to many sick miners.

The Mayor of Brisbane, at the request of a number of citizens, asked the Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave to commute her sentence. Ellen herself wrote to the Governor begging for mercy.

"Consider my character and the dreadful lies sworn against me. When you were visiting Port Douglas I was one of the women who followed you on horseback. I asked Sir Samuel Griffith for a schoolmaster, to bring my children up the right way, as my husband was so cranky. I banished all the children so that they would not annoy the poor old man."

The grave of Ellen’s husband William Thomson. Picture: Supplied
The grave of Ellen’s husband William Thomson. Picture: Supplied

She also demanded the government give her children £500 each if her innocence was ever proven, and that Pope Cooper never be allowed to sentence another woman without hearing both sides of the story.

As she was led to the gallows, Ellen continuously repeated her protestations of innocence. Her voice was unshaken as she said, "Goodbye everybody … I never shot my husband, and I am dying like an angel."

With her final breath she murmured, "Oh, my poor children; take care of my children will you, Father?"

Her daughter Ella, who turned 20 only weeks later, gave birth to Ellen's granddaughter, Ann, four months after the execution. A different time and a different court and she would have been there.

If you have historic photographs or stories worthy of a Way We Were, email dotwhit@hotmail.com

Originally published as Sexist truth behind the last woman legally hanged

John Harrison, supposed lover of Ellen Thomson, the only woman executed under Queensland Law. Picture: Supplied
John Harrison, supposed lover of Ellen Thomson, the only woman executed under Queensland Law. Picture: Supplied

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