Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The long drop

(WARNING: This post contains photographs of a mechanism of legal execution.)

Noose & chair Fremantle Prison

This is the gallows within the grounds of Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.

The prisoner was brought in through a door out of frame to the right of this picture, escorted by the chaplain and prison warders. He was made to stand on the closed platform of the gallows. The hangman and his assistant, the doctor and the prison governor came in through the second door, in the back right hand corner of the building. The total of people present in the building was thirteen, twelve and the prisoner.

Gallows Fremantle Prison

Most hangings at Fremantle Prison were carried out on a Monday morning at 8AM.

The gallows building contains nothing else. It's a tiny building next to the small block of solitary confinement cells, almost unnoticeable in the maze of buildings within the prison walls.

Before the prisoner was brought in, the hangman and his assistant had to test the trapdoor to make sure it would open when the lever was pulled, make sure the rope wasn't stretchy, work out from the prisoner's weight and height how long to make the rope and a few other things.

There was no drawing the thing out. It was to be got over and done with carefully but fast. "Once everything was in place the event happened very quickly. The time from leaving the condemned cell in Solitary Confinement to the actual hanging was around 60 seconds." (Freo Prison website)

The chair was to support a prisoner too sick or too frightened to stand.

The rails were for the prison warders. They each hung onto a rail with one hand and onto the prisoner with the other, boxing him in to keep him from struggling while the noose was fitted about his neck.

There were no family members or press present, no witnesses other than the official ones and the minister of religion requested by the prisoner.

Around the rope of the noose is a sleeve of leather. It prevented rope burns on the neck of the hanged man. This was a consideration for the family of the prisoner. After the hanging was officially declared the body was handed over to the family outside the gates of the prison.

The long drop Fremantle Prison

It is from the gallows the expression "the long drop" comes and this picture shows you just how long a drop it was. Thirteen feet from the platform (open in these pictures) to the floor below. Such a long drop is to help make the hanging quick.

After the drop the hangman and the doctor went down the thirteen steps into the pit and checked that the prisoner was fully dead. The last rites were then carried out by the chaplain or whatever minister of religion had been nominated by the prisoner.

The gallows building in Freo Prison was "only place of legal execution in Western Australia between 1888 and 1984. During that time 43 men and 1 woman were hanged there."

Every prisoner hanged was hanged for murder.

The only woman hanged at Fremantle was Martha Rendell. She was tried in 1908 and hanged on the 6th of October 1909. She was convicted of the murders of her children by "swabbing their throats with hydrochloric acid after they had complained of sore throats because she was jealous of the attention her husband gave them. Rendell protested her innocence to the last." (Freo Prison website)

Eric Edgar Cooke was the last person hanged at Freo Prison. They did him on the 26th of October 1964 and he's buried in an unmarked grave at Fremantle cemetery. Same cemetery where most of my family are buried.

Cooke was a serial killer. My Nana used to tell us horror stories about this guy when we were kids. In Perth in January 1963 there was a series of random shootings in the wee hours of the morning.

It was summer and people didn't lock their doors then apparently. Perth was considered a very safe place to live. On the hottest nights some people even slept out on their verandas. Cooke went round with a rifle and shot random strangers, most of them in their beds asleep. People were terrified and locksmiths were suddenly doing a roaring trade and politicians and police commissioners were hauled over the coals in the newspapers every day.

They caught him in November that year and tried him for a single murder. He confessed to more than eight more murders and five hit-and-runs. (ADB)

After Cooke, sentences for hanging were commuted to life imprisonment and no-one else was hanged in Western Australia. Capital punishment was taken off the WA law books in 1984. (Freo Prison website)

The last person hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan in 1967. He was hanged in Pentridge in Victoria.

Ryan went straight after a bit of teenage petty theft but in his late twenties he got into debt gambling and started forging cheques. He was convicted but got a good behaviour bond instead of a stretch in the nick. But he kept offending and lead a break-and-enter gang turning over shops and factories. He was picked up again twice in the next few years and his missus divorced him while he was inside the second time.

In 1965 Ryan and another prisoner broke out of Pentridge nick and killed a warder in the process. They were picked up in 1966. It was Ryan who picked up the rifle and fired the shot and it was Ryan who was done for murder. The other guy got manslaughter.

Ryan was hanged at 8AM on the 3rd of February 1967 in Pentridge gaol. "Calm and composed on the scaffold, he addressed his last words to the hangman... 'God bless you. Whatever you do, do it quickly'. He was buried with Catholic rites in an unmarked grave in the grounds of Pentridge gaol." (ADB)


TrainSpotty said...

Hi Spike, great writeup on Freo Prison. Did you get to see the TV miniseries on ABC here "The Shark Net" which was a bloody good view from another lad who grew up during those times. Have a peek at :


Later.. TrainSpotty.

Suzanne44 said...


Spike said...

Thank yer, Trainspotty. Forgot to bung that link in the post. Saw The Shark Net. It was bloody good. Nearly as scary as my Nana's stories :)

Suzanne, thank yer. The whole prison I found very interesting. Not often you get to see inside a nick.

Unless you've been a Bad Dog obviously :)

Anonymous said...

There is some considerable doubt as to the actual guilt of ryan, the victorian coppers - indeed all australian coppers - being the endemically corrupt, bullying bastards that they are, may have killed their own, albeit through incompetence, and framed ryan.