Review: ‘The Unforgiving Rope’

The Unforgiving Rope: Murder and Hanging on Australia’s Western Frontier
Simon Adams

Have you got one of those relatives, the kind who insists that the answer to all the world’s problems is to bring back hanging? You know who I mean. They usually live in a fantasy land called the Good Old Days. Yes? Well, I have just the Christmas present for them.

Simon Adams’ study of hanging in WA from 1844 until 1909 does not come to any shocking conclusions. From the first establishment of the Swan River Colony, Indigenous people and ethnic minorities felt the noose tighten more often than white, Anglo settlers. The book walks through and around the stories of executed Aborigines – who could still be hanged publicly long after the spectacle had been abolished for any other criminal – convicts and Irish Catholics, Chinese, Japanese, Afghans and bad mothers. It is not a simple catalogue of the dead. Adams zooms in and out to give us the wider cultural, legal and historical picture in addition to the specifics of each chosen case. Technological advances in the execution process and changing views on the public display of the execution are discussed. He has also travelled to the crime scenes and pored over the archives.

Adams opens the book with a description of the 1844 hanging of a fifteen-year-old boy called John Gavin/en at Fremantle. The boy was a Parkhurst Apprentice. This meant that he was not strictly a convict; he was a juvenile offender who had been pardoned because it would obviously be more useful to the Empire to have him labouring on a farm in the colonies rather than clogging up Parkhurst prison. He was publicly hanged for murder on the basis of his confession and the testimony of the victim’s mother. What a great start.

However, as Adams argues, the attractions of the law and exemplary justice to a group of people on the edge of the world are understandable even if we find them abhorrent today. Control, order, safety. Respectable men must be able to carry on their business and respectable women must be able to walk the streets. Rape was a capital crime in the late 1800s and Chapter 4, which looks at rape, illustrates an 1862 case in detail. It was one of six rape cases where the death sentence was imposed. Twelve other sentences of death for rape were commuted to life. Adams suggests that fears about those ‘sub-human’ Irish convicts and the imbalance in numbers of men and women in the colony led to the hanging of Joseph McDonald for raping another man’s wife. By comparison, other rapists had their sentences commuted because the rights of Indigent nine-year-old girls and Aboriginal men were less important. As Adams says in his introduction, ‘We see our history at its most unedifying’.

The first men to be hanged in the West were the Batavia mutineers (1629) and the last man to be hanged, in what was also the last Australian state to abolish hanging, was the serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke (1964). Adams wisely leaves that story out in order to focus on the less infamous. The story of Cooke has been the basis for other books by Robert Drewe and Estelle Blackburn. The story of Tagh Mahomet’s murder at the Coolgardie Mosque in 1896 was also described by Hanifa Deen earlier this year. Martha Rendell, the last woman to be hanged in WA, has become the subject of a novel by Anna Haebich. Crime spices things up and gives us good stories. It adds the darkness we need to horrify and fascinate. What differentiates Adams’ book is a historian’s care for the details and the supporting references – but he also tells a good story. This is a very readable book which uses hanging as a focal point for a wider study of Western Australia. I accept that you probably won’t convince your problem relative that stringing ‘em up is not the answer, but you just might make them think.

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