Public Executions

The death mask of cannibal Alexander Pearce, taken after he was executed (AOT, PH30/1/2722)

Public Executions began in 1806, when Thomas England of the New South Wales Corps was the first person to be executed in Van Diemen's Land. Over the following decades people were hanged for a wide range of crimes, including murder, robbery, sheep-stealing, rape, forgery and sodomy. Under British legislation most of those executed for murder received the additional sentence of either dissection or gibbeting, which was reserved for this crime alone. Until mid-century, all Tasmanian executions were performed in public (and sometimes en masse), in the belief that witnessing such punishments would deter others from breaking the law. However, as elsewhere in the British world, Tasmanian executions were popular events which did not serve an obvious deterrent effect. Some hangings were particularly controversial. In 1826 two Aboriginal men, 'Jack' and 'Dick', were executed for murder amid debates about the lawfulness of subjecting Aboriginal people to the British legal system, and when there would be no Aboriginal witnesses present.

In 1830, Mary McLauchlan became the first woman to be executed in Van Diemen's Land. A convict, she was assigned as a servant and within two months had been impregnated by 'a person of better education and higher rank in society than herself'. After her baby was born and found dead in the Female Factory, McLauchlan was charged with murder. Pronounced guilty, she was sentenced to both death and dissection, for a crime that rarely received that punishment in Britain at that time. Public hangings ceased in Tasmania in 1856, following their abandonment in New South Wales (1853) and Victoria (1854). They had come to be seen as barbarous spectacles. From then on, executions were performed more privately. Tasmania's last execution took place in 1946, and capital punishment was abolished in 1968.

Further reading: H MacDonald, Human remains, Melbourne, 2005; R Davis, The Tasmanian gallows, Hobart, 1974.

Helen MacDonald