15 March 2018

Stories of Women in the Cemetery: Getting the Balance Right

I recently co-hosted an 'International Women's Day' night tour at South Brisbane Cemetery, along with cemetery historian Tracey Olivieri. We basically split the tour, doing alternating spots, and did our own research for the graves we were stopping at. It was about halfway through the tour when it hit me just how downright grim my stories were. Probably around the time that one of the people on the tour asked me if there were going to be any 'upbeat' stories.

'The Women of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, 9 March 2018. (C. Dawson)

To be fair, I had managed to make something of a running joke about the tone of my material, from the point that my first stop opened with 'this is going to be a bit depressing', followed by the stories of three women who had committed suicide by throwing themselves in the Brisbane River (at different times).

Then came the story of Ellen Thomson - hanged for murder - and then a woman who died after having an illegal abortion. By this point I was reconsidering some of my remaining material, including the woman who had four of her kids die before she went blind, and the alcoholic woman who was a prisoner when she gave birth to a stillborn child and then died herself three days later. Last of all was the woman who drowned herself in the river a few months after she saw her toddler burned to death.

As I said, downright grim stuff. I did drop a couple of stories, mainly to save some time, but it does raise important questions about how we tell the stories of women in history. It might be a cemetery, but should I be taking it easy on the 'women as victims' angle?

To begin with, I do have a natural preference for the 'dramatic' in these tours. I'm not comfortable telling mundane stories; 'This guy was an accountant from Yeronga, and then he died of old age'. I need my stories to have a bit of a kick to them. 100% accurate, but memorable. Other cemetery tours I have created include 'Hangman's Walk' - exclusively about capital punishment - and 'Gruesome Graveyards' which features stories of hangings, grave robbing, murder, and general bad luck. So the tour content was partly related to my usual approach. 

There is, however, a problem that we in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery have been aware of for some time. When researching a place like 'our' cemetery - which was largely shunned as a burial ground by the rich and famous of colonial Queensland - it can be difficult to find the stories of many of the women in there. Because of the regressive social conditions of the time, most of them were in the background, working in the home, while on their headstones many are defined simply as 'wives' or 'mothers'.

This was an era when women didn't have many basic rights, such as voting, or take prominent roles when a man could do the job. For example, the first female MP in Queensland was elected in 1929. She lost in 1932 and there wasn't another one until 1966. Before then, there would have been hundreds of male politicians, who are now clogging up the best spots in cemeteries all around Brisbane.

The women you notice the most in the colonial records tend to have died particularly tragic deaths or were the spouse or parent of a successful man. There are, however, quite a few who were independently successful or performed inspiring acts. And there are others whose life experiences can tell us a lot about everyday life in old Queensland. We did mention some of those in the tour, but perhaps there should more be of these stories.

At the same time, we don't want to hide the fact that life was often hard for women, sometimes too hard, simply because they were women. This can still be the case today. And telling the sad stories of wasted lives gives more context to the more inspiring stories. The task is to find the right balance.

Coming out of the International Women's Day tour, one of the jobs of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery will be to research and document the stories of more of the women interred in the cemetery. We will be hosting a couple more 'women's tours' in the coming months, and hopefully we'll have a few more success stories that don't end - fingers crossed - with the subjects jumping in the Brisbane River. 

20 December 2017

The Bloody, Bloody Hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison

There's a couple of points I always like to make on my 'Hangman's Walk' cemetery tours. The first is that hanging could be a messy and unpredictable process, despite the concerted attempts to make sure the rope broke the neck and caused a quick, 'clean' death for the prisoner.

The second point is that newspaper reporters of the late 19th century did not hold back when it came to describing gory events in minute detail. A Brisbane Telegraph article about the hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison at Brisbane's Boggo Road prison demonstrates both of these points very well.

Prison photographs of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, 1887. (Queensland State Archives)

The lovers had been sentenced to death for the murder of Thomson's husband, and were hanged one after the other on the morning of Monday 13 June 1887. Ellen, a mother of six whose hard life had aged her well beyond her 41 years, was the first to go. After a lengthy walk-through of the early morning events, the article eventually reached her last moments alive:
"The fatal white cap was placed over her head, and the ropes fixed around her neck. Her face thus veiled she said in accents calm and wonderfully clear, "Good-bye, everybody, I forgive everybody. I never shot my husband, I never did anybody any harm, I will die like an injured angel." 
A few earnest words from the clergyman, and at a signal the executioner, whose hand rested on the lever, gave one powerful pull. The massive trap door on which she stood groaned and opened, and the next moment the thin, attenuated form of the unfortunate woman hung in mid air, her small kid boots peeping out from under her black dress. 
For one moment her knees were drawn upwards, then they relaxed, and she never moved again. But what a sickening sight! Blood trickling down her body and patterning in large drops on the hard cement floor. It increases in quantity, and at length trickles down in a stream, and the whole floor is covered with a woman's blood. Examination afterwards proved that the jugular vein in the neck was severed by the rope, hence the flow of blood. Sawdust and shavings were laid down to absorb the blood, and after the body had hung about a quarter of an hour, it was lowered into a coffin which had been in waiting close by.

Hence a phrenologist*, who was present, performed a sickening operation. The white cap, which was put over the head for the express purpose of hiding the contortions of the face, was removed, and while two female warders were compelled to soil their hands with blood by holding up the head - and this in the gaze of some 20 persons - the gentleman referred to made certain measurements of the dead woman's hard by means of a tape measure.

There are cases where such investigations might be of use to science, but in the present case we can see no necessity for thus exposing to the public gaze the hideous, contorted, blood-besmeared face of a decrepid, little woman, who, from a physical point of view could scarcely lift a 28-lb weight. If such things are to be permitted, they might be done in a less public manner than they were this morning. 
Ellen Thompson specially requested that she might be buried in the dress in which she was hanged. Her wish was complied with, and as the little withered body lay in its coffin, bathed in gore, her hands clasping a crucifix which had been placed there before death, and her face besmeared with blood still exposed to public view, the sight was one that no man would ever wish again to see."
Ellen Thomson went down in history as the only woman hanged in Queensland.

Once Ellen's body was removed from the scene, John Harrison, aged 25 years, was led from his cell. He would have heard every detail of Ellen's ordeal, but he remained solid and silent on the scaffold, and was dropped the trapdoor. Once again, the Telegraph reporter imbued his writing with a dramatic flavour:
"Not a muscle moved, nor a quiver from the body, but strange to say the same occurrence took place as with the woman, namely, the severance of the jugular vein. Simultaneous with the thud, the blood spurted out and ran in a stream down the body as it hung dangling from the beam lifeless and motionless. The snow-white cap was in a moment saturated with blood. It ran down the culprit's white trousers and reddened the floor just as in the previous case, and the spectators were for the second time that morning the witnesses of a ghastly sight, which in the cold of morning made their blood curdle. 
The sawdust, &c., which had been put down after the fall of blood from the woman served the purpose of stopping the further flow along the floor of the blood which fell from Harrison."
Most executions around this time did result in quick, bloodless deaths, so it was a remarkable coincidence that both prisoners suffered the exact same wounds. It also reflected poorly on the skills of the hangman, William Ware, who was conducting his third hanging. He would have measured the couple and taken their weights as part of his mathematical calculations to provide the exact right length of 'drop' through the trapdoor to break their necks without further injury. Maybe he overcompensated with his next execution, in which the prisoner was not dropped far enough and ended up being strangled to death by the rope.

Ellen and John were buried in adjoining graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery. John was first, receiving an Anglican burial service by the Rev. Archdeacon Dawes. Later that day Ellen was interred with a Catholic service by the Rev. Father Fouhy. These graveside services meant that the ground there was now considered to be blessed. It was small compensation for two lovers whose lives - and deaths - had been anything but blessed.

* Phrenology was a 19th-century pseudoscience, the practitioners of which believed that measurements of the skull and brain could reveal detailed information about personality. They occasionally had access to the corpses of executed prisoners.