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Abolition of the death penalty in Queensland – 100 years on

“Capital punishment is the most premediated of murders.”

– Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus (1913-60)

Queensland became the first place in both Australia and the British Commonwealth to abolish the death penalty on 31 July 1922 – but not before 94 souls perished at the end of a hangman’s noose.

The first two people legally sentenced to death in Queensland – John Bulbridge and Charles Fagan – where executed at Brisbane’s then named Moreton Bay Penal Settlement on 18 December 1830 for the offences of absconding from the “penal colony” and robbery.

Over the ensuing 83 years, 91 men and one woman were legally killed for a myriad of heinous and oft brutal crimes – the vast majority being for murder.

The last person executed in Queensland was Ernest Austin at Brisbane’s infamous former high security Boggo Road Gaol for the murder of 11-year-old Ivy Mitchell on 22 September 1913.

The only woman legally put to death in Queensland – Ellen Thomson – was also hanged at Boggo Rd prison on 13 June 1887 for the murder of her husband, who was 24 years her senior. She died alongside her co-accused and “friend” – John Harrison – despite his pleas that he had acted alone in shooting and killing Ms Thomson’s husband on the eve of their deaths.

In June 2014, the Brisbane QEII Courts of Laws Sir Harry Gibbs Legal Heritage Centre staged an exhibition to commemorate the 100-years since the state’s last execution entitled The Path to Abolition – A History of Execution in Queensland.

An article to promote the exhibition said: “In the years preceding the turn of the century, petitions for reprieves of the death sentence and public fundraisers to assist in the appeal process became frequent; abolition first arose as a topic of intense parliamentary debate in 1899, likely sparked by increasing public unrest and distaste for the practice.

“Hotly debated in the 1922 Parliament, the Criminal Code Amendment Act received assent by a narrow 33-30 vote and became law on 1 August 1922.

“As the first in the British Empire to abolish capital punishment for all crimes, Queensland made its opposition to execution clear.”

To mark the 100th Anniversary of the repeal of capital punishment in Queensland, a special event will be held in the Premier’s Hall of Brisbane’s Parliament House between 10.30am and 8.30pm on Monday 1 August.

The event is scheduled to be hosted by the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, Curtis Pitt, and will include a keynote address by former High Court of Australia judge the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG.

Other events will include discussions with national and international identities involved in opposing the death penalty today, an historical analysis of the events of 31 July 1922 and the launch of the 2022 edition of the seminal anti-death penalty tome from 1968 The Penalty of Death edited by renowned Australian polymath writer, teacher, lawyer, social activist and former Federal politician Barry Jones AC.

Entry to the event is by ticket only. For further details or to register to attend, email the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund at admin@jwmf.com.au.

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