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Cookson, 13 09 1911 1

13 September 1911

(full text transcription)



GHASTLY REMININSCENCES The dreary appearance of the streets in the vicinity of the Melbourne Gaol at early morn is most striking, even to those accustomed to the scene, but on the occasion of Ned Kelly's execution every approach was thronged by a pushing, restless crowd full of bustle and animation, all intent on information as to the closing scenes of the life of the bushranger.

As the crowd swayed to and fro conversation became general about the event of the day. One of the oldest inhabitants was heard to inveigh loudly against the degeneracy of modern times in holding executions in secret. " 'Oh do you know," he said "they didn't sneak him away and let him escape, and put a dummy in his place? Lor' in the old times I've seen three on 'em 'ung on the top of the gaol wall, and all the town looking on."

"That's nothing," exclaimed a tother sider. "Why, I seen seventeen in one act in Hobart Town in the old days."

"But, what's that," remarked a military man, "to the mutiny times in India, when we dealt with the niggers who murdered our women in Cawnpore? Sixty or seventy a day was the average."

The discussion was suddenly interrupted by a wave of silence which fell over the mob as the little side door opened, the people who had seen the last act of the drama emerged from the gaol, and it became known that the law had been vindicated, and Ned Kelly was no more.

As the crowd melted away a small party of officials among whom were Dr Barker, the chief medical officer, and the Very Rev Dean O'Hea, who had attended the convict in his last moments, emerged from the prison gates and betook themselves for lunch to the abode of the doctor in Latrobe-street, only a few yards away. The writer of this article happened to be one of the guests at that historic meal. He was a very small boy at the time, and listened open-mouthed to the discussion on the enthralling topic of the function just enacted. Like all Melbourne's small boys I was a red-hot Kelly sympathiser, and felt that an outrage had been committed that morning. After detailing the scene on the scaffold Dr Barker explained the process of asphyxiation from a surgical point of view, and dilated eloquently on the various methods by which life could be taken at once, or the agony prolonged by the inexperience of the operator. He extolled in eloquent tones the ability and science shown by Upjohn, the "yeoman of the rope," on the present occasion, which contrasted favourably with other events which had been bungled by artist, placing the knot in the wrong place, such as the back of the neck.

The worthy doctor, then probably the most skilful anatomist in the city, strayed off to a discourse regarding the various capital punishments favored by other nations, and instanced the "thousand cuts" of the Chinese as a lingering, but not humorous, mode of death. As it happened, as he spoke he was carving a fine plump turkey, and I have often wondered since whether any of the adult guests noticed the connection of ideas as I did as he reduced the bird to mince-meat.

The vulnerable and erudite Dean O'Hea, who was a Frenchman by birth, but the possessor of a rich Irish brogue, narrated some of his experiences in France, where the guillotine is the finisher of the law. He described in graphic detail the decapitation of three men he had witnessed in Paris, and strongly supported the triangular blade, which slices off the head of the victim with a gentle , drawing stroke, without making any error.

The bananas and tomatoes on the table formed good illustrations for the object lesson, and the carving-knife in the clerical hands did duty for the "Widow."

Dean O'Hea disapproved of the Italian "mandala," which has a semicircular knife heavily weighted, and has been occasionally known to stick in the grooves.

When I left that dinner I was the proudest boy in Melbourne, and for weeks afterwards I was the hero of all my associates, who would gather round to hear my story of Ned Kelly's end as I had heard it from the lips of two eye-witnesses.

Another of those present mentioned one mode of execution in Italy, the mazzalato. In this punishment the victim kneels before the executioner, who stuns him by a crushing blow on the skull, and then, after drawing a butcher's knife across his throat, stamps on the body to expel the blood.

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the previous day / next day . . . BW Cookson in the Sydney Sun index