top of page

A Sobering Look: Executions in Colonial Australia

A Sobering Look: Executions in Colonial Australia, with a Glimpse into Adelaide Gaol

Colonial Australia's justice system was a harsh one, and capital punishment played a prominent role. In this blog, we'll delve into the methods, motivations, and eventual decline of executions, along with a chilling example from Adelaide Gaol.

A Mix of Influences

Prior to European arrival, Aboriginal Australians had their own legal systems, with executions used for serious offenses. When the Dutch arrived in the 17th century, they brought their own legal code, with hanging becoming the first documented European-style execution in 1629 (Western Australia).

The British Raj and Beyond

British colonization saw a rise in executions, with each colony having its own capital punishment laws. Hanging and firing squads were the primary methods, often carried out publicly at the crime scene as a deterrent.  Imagine the shock value in Adelaide in 1840 when the very first public hanging took place while Adelaide Gaol itself was still under construction! The grim spectacle attracted a crowd of nearly a third of the city's population.

Shifting Tides: Centralization and Reform

The 19th century saw a shift. Centralized gaols were built, with executions often moved away from public view. Perth Gaol became the main execution site in Western Australia by 1855. Adelaide Gaol itself witnessed a change. Public hangings were outlawed in 1858, with executions becoming a grim affair conducted within the gaol walls, witnessed only by officials.  Portable gallows were erected between the gaol's inner and outer walls, and 13 unfortunate souls met their end here between 1861 and 1883.

Beyond the Gruesome Methods

It's important to understand the methods used. Hanging, the most common, could result in slow strangulation or decapitation. Firing squads, while seemingly quicker, were often emotionally and psychologically difficult for those involved.  The Adelaide Gaol bell, which dictated the daily routines of prisoners, would toll ominously during executions, adding another layer of dread to the already horrifying experience.

The Abolition Movement and a New Dawn

The morality of capital punishment became a growing debate throughout the 19th century. Public opinion began to favor reform, with calls for abolition gaining momentum. This, combined with a decline in crime rates, led to a decrease in executions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A Legacy: Understanding the Past

Capital punishment is no longer practiced in Australia. However, understanding its history is crucial. Examining the methods and motivations behind these executions sheds light on the evolving legal and moral landscape of the nation. It serves as a reminder of the past and ensures such practices remain firmly in our history books.

Want to Experience a Haunting Piece of History?

Adelaide Gaol, a place steeped in a complex past, offers a unique opportunity to delve deeper. If you're interested in a chilling exploration, consider joining a tour like the Adelaide Gaol Ghost Tour + Investigation:

28 views0 comments


bottom of page