Ellen Thomson holds the dubious distinction of being the only woman ever executed in Queensland. Her life was abruptly ended on June 13th 1887 when she was hanged at the infamous Boggo Road Gaol, having been sentenced to death for the murder of her husband William Thomson the previous October. Her so called ‘partner in crime’, John Harrison, was hanged on the same day.
Considered a victim of the society in which she lived at the time, there are many even now, including her descendants, who believe that she did not get a fair trial? Having been found guilty of murdering her husband, in the eyes of the law, it was thought she suffered a huge miscarriage of justice through the courts with, a clearly bias judge, a very smart prosecutor and an inexperienced defence lawyer combining to provide a dire result.
Ellen arrived in Cooktown with three of her children in tow as a widow during a time of huge excitement with the gold rush attracting people from all over the country. She worked as a laundress to the miners coming in from the diggings, but the conditions would have been far from ideal. The gold mining areas were muddy, dusty and a woman alone with young children would have had a very tough time just trying to find enough uncontaminated food to feed her brood.
She later moved to Port Douglas and took on the position of housekeeper to William Thomson, eventually marrying him a couple of years later and giving birth to another daughter. William would have been looking for someone to help him manage the farm, and the arrangement of a more stable and secure life for Ellen and her children would have been the attraction that sealed the deal for both of them.
There were suggestions that William was jealous, violent and drank too much, at one stage throwing a kerosene lamp at one of Ellen’s daughters because she refused to conform to his wishes that she marry his brother, then aged in his fifties. He also threatened Ellen, throwing a knife at her.
At a time in Australia’s history when equality of the sexes meant nothing, Ellen was at a distinct disadvantage in that she was also uneducated and could neither read or write. However, she was a woman ahead of her time. She was not the normal docile and obedient wife and was known as hardworking and gregarious, a devoted mother with a strong sense of justice, who felt restricted by her inability to read or write. One time, when the Governor passed through the district she went along with other women to meet him hoping to persuade him to provide their children with a school. She wanted her children to have opportunities that she had not.
John (Jack) Harrison, her alleged accomplice in William’s murder, had been working on the farm as a labourer for two months prior, and apparently, although he was flirtatious with Ellen, they both denied there was ever any impropriety. Unfortunately as a sign of the narrow minded attitude toward women in general, the so called affair became fact (albeit without basis) and Ellen was branded a loose woman by the press, with John Harrison described as her ‘latest fancy man’.
The court case was a comedy of errors, bias and prejudice that we today would find laughable if it were not so serious. The judge in the Townsville Supreme Court (known as a hanging judge) had, according to his notes, made up his mind before hand, and with evidence that some of the witnesses were paid to ensure a conviction, Ellen was definitely being made an example of. His attitude was contemptuous of Ellen, harsh, uncompromising in the extreme and clearly prejudiced.
During the trial, William Thompson was portrayed as helpless and vulnerable which was backed up by several witnesses who took great pains to explain that he was sober on the day of his death. As the opposite was the generally accepted norm by those around him, these testimonies were surprising and a touch too convenient. William too, was well known for his temper.
Consider all of this:
- The jury was all male, as was normal for the time, as women could not possibly have the intelligence required to serve??
- Her lawyer was a country solicitor who even apologised for his lack of experience, saying ‘he wasn’t up to it’.
- The law at the time, also did not allow for character witnesses to be called on an accused’s behalf.
- Ellen was not allowed to take the stand and her lawyer could only cross examine crown witnesses.
The picture was clear, Ellen not only murdered her husband, but was involved with a much younger man. She was not allowed to argue or put her point of view across to answer any of the charges against her. Not a fair trial, even by the standards of the day and pointed out by many that ‘reasonable doubt’ was definitely present.
Ellen proclaimed her innocence to the end, not understanding that she could be an accessory to the crime, even if she didn’t actually pull the trigger. John Harrison confessed in jail, saying he did it alone and out of self-defence, but there remains a lot of conjecture regarding Ellen’s part, if any, in the planning and execution of the actual murder.
Imprisonment and Execution
Ellen’s last few weeks were spent in the deserted hospital block at Boggo Road Gaol as there were no condemned cells for women. In the week before the execution was to take place, there were several pleas for clemency for Ellen, by both business men in Brisbane and the Harbour Master and Customs Official in Port Douglas. All were ignored and the execution went ahead as planned. Justice was indeed swift in 1887. Ellen and John were arrested on January 6th, convicted in May and executed June 13th, no appeals and no mercy. They were both buried in unmarked graves in a South Brisbane cemetery.
Ellen’s descendants haven’t given up the fight for justice, and in recent years have made several attempts to gain support from the Queen, the former Governor General and the Queensland Government. None have been successful to date.
Do you think that the case should be re-examined after all this time?