© Emma Beach and Cheryl Burman
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An historical fact: on 11th November 1863, Elizabeth Scott became the first, and at twenty-three, the youngest, woman to be hanged at Melbourne Gaol. Together with her mixed race cook and an eighteen-year-old groom, she was executed for the murder of her much older, alcoholic and abusive husband. The officiating Gaol Chaplain was Reverend George Studdert. He was known to be a kind and humane man.
Melbourne, Colony of Victoria
Wednesday 4th November 1863
‘You’re very thoughtful this evening, George.’
Reverend George Studdert carefully placed his knife and fork side by side over the remains of his cold mutton and boiled potatoes. He glanced across at his sister. Jane wore the quizzical expression he had understood from childhood – the one which asked if he was ready yet to confide whatever was troubling his mind.
As a child in Ireland, this was normally a misdemeanour of some kind. A cake snatched from under the busy eyes of Cook, the eating of which caused a profound sense of guilt; or, as he grew older, an unfinished book their father had bidden him read and would shortly be questioning him upon.
Over the last ten years, Jane’s quizzical expression had prompted many confessions from the Reverend, mostly to do with his inability to fully turn his charges from their errant and often unrepentant ways. For, as he would muse to his friends, his role as Chaplain of Her Majesty’s Central Gaol, Melbourne, required a considerable amount of nerve, a deep well of sympathy and a wide knowledge of human behaviour. And, often, his sister’s wise counsel.
‘Mrs Scott arrived,’ he told her, wiping his mouth above his greying beard with a starched, white napkin.
‘Six days on the road from Beechworth Gaol in a bullock cart. Six days!’
The Reverend’s trimmed moustaches quivered. ‘In all weathers, no shelter at all. Manacled; to a Chinaman as well as her two accomplices.’
He knew he shouldn’t care whether Mrs Scott’s fellow passengers in the open dray were black, white, or yellow. Nevertheless, this improper herding together seemed more outrageous given the multi-ethnicity of the little band. Julian Cross, the woman’s cook and one of the convicted accomplices, was said to be a black fellow!
‘My dear George, the woman is a convicted murderess. Surely she has no right to be fussy about either her means of transport or her fellow travellers?’ Jane laid her own knife and fork together and dabbed at her pale lips with her napkin.
‘Yes, yes. Nevertheless, she is one of God’s children. A woman, and a mother, too. Doesn’t that suggest she is deserving of better treatment than to be bundled into an open cart with three men? For six days!’
Jane sighed and laid the napkin down. ‘It is said, George, that her horrific crime suggests more that she is completely unsexed and would not be at all aware of the niceties a woman and a mother should expect.’
‘Unsexed?’ The Reverend tapped the lacy tablecloth with a long, bony forefinger; a frequent habit. ‘Have you been reading those dreadful penny newspapers, Jane?’
Jane drew her shoulders back. ‘You well know, George,’ she rebuked him, ‘I would never allow that scandalous drivel in our home.’
‘Yes, yes. My apologies, my dear.’ The Reverend’s tapping finger left the cloth to continue its tapping against his chin. ‘And, of course, I have heard the same myself.’ He frowned at his sister across the remains of their supper. ‘The prison warders and even the clerks, are full of the scandal. A female monster, they call her. A scarlet woman. Worse, a conniving adulteress who tempted an hitherto upright young man to the most terrible of sins, with the most terrible of consequences.’
‘And I have heard,’ Jane nodded, ‘she used the poor cook to her own wicked ends. Drowned him with brandy before sending him off to shoot her desperately ill husband.’ She heaved a sorrowful sigh. ‘So I think, my dear George, your sympathies, although they do you proud, are misplaced.’
‘Hmm.’ The Reverend pushed back his chair and walked around the table to help his sister rise.
‘I’ve something new to read to you this evening, Jane,’ he adroitly changed the subject. ‘The Dean has loaned me a book recently received from Home. John Halifax, Gentleman. An endearing and uplifting story of a godly man, it seems. By a Mrs Kraik. Mrs Macartney highly recommends it.’
‘The Dean and his wife are most kind, George, most kind.’
A week later - Wednesday 11th November 1863
‘Listen to this, Jane.’
Reverend Studdert rustled the folded segment of newspaper and frowned at his sister across the toast and marmalade. Fitful sunlight darted between the heavy drapes of the dining room, occasionally illuminating the page he was reading.
Jane lowered her teacup. ‘What is it, George?’
‘Her barrister has written to the Advertiser, all too late I fear, pleading for the poor woman’s life.’
Jane arched her eyebrows. The Reverend knew he needn’t explain the identity of ‘the poor woman’. He knew he had stretched his dear sister’s patience with talk of little else except this poor woman for the past week.
He cleared his throat and read aloud, ‘Another prisoner confesses himself the murderer … About time too! ... and if he suffers the extreme penalty of the law, its majesty will be amply vindicated ... Amply indeed ... and society at large will be the better satisfied than if an unhappy female ... most unhappy ... the mother of a family ... those poor boys ... against whom hitherto not the slightest crime or misconduct has ever been charged ... ever! ... and ... listen carefully to this, Jane ... who in the present case is only convicted on the most inconclusive evidence, should die for all we may ever know, innocently upon the scaffold.’
The Reverend laid the paper forcefully on the white cloth, slapping the relevant page for further emphasis. Whatever one’s views on capital punishment – and the Reverend had his own – the poor woman would undoubtedly, in his opinion, die innocently upon the scaffold.
‘Is there no hope of a reprieve from Governor Darling?’ Jane asked.
‘You would hope so, wouldn’t you, Jane? Especially as no woman has before been hanged in the colony. But Darling is new, and no doubt reluctant to go against his Executive Council.’
‘Has no petition been made on behalf of Mrs Scott?’ Jane frowned.
The Reverend shook his head. ‘Sadly, no.’
‘What about the sisters you told me of? Couldn’t they have pleaded for mercy on her behalf?’
He opened his hands, shrugging. ‘Yes, except one sister is in a desperate position herself. She offered to take the boys and was told ‘no’ on account of her, umm, current living arrangements.’
Jane’s pinched lips didn’t wholly conceal her tiny smile. ‘Do you mean the sister is living in sin, George?’
George ran his finger around the neck of his stiff collar. ‘I suppose I do, Jane.’ He hurried on. As for the other sister ...’ he puffed a short breath ‘... well, her husband insists he will have no part in acknowledging that this female monster we supposedly have here, is part of his God-fearing family.’
Jane was persistent. ‘No one from her past, such as Mr Chenery, or the Goodmans at Goomalibee, or the citizens of Mansfield, feel the need to take up her cause?’
The Reverend recognised, with a sharp annoyance, Jane’s intimation of Mrs Scott’s unworthiness. This despite the stories, often edited, he told her each evening following his daily visits to the condemned woman’s frigid cell.
‘It would appear not.’ He was shamefully aware he sounded like a surly schoolboy. ‘Yet it is strange you should mention those names, Jane.’ He leaned forward to ensure her attention. ‘Did you know, my dear, that Dean Macartney’s son was once the manager at Mr Chenery’s station on the Delatite, near Mt Bulla?’
Jane raised her eyebrows. Apparently not.
The Reverend nodded. ‘And,’ he paused for dramatic effect, ‘this was precisely the time Mrs Scott and her husband lived at Delatite. Scott was a boundary rider before taking up his illicit trade, selling goodness knows what alcoholic distillations to the gold seekers in the mountains of the Upper Goulbourn.’
Jane blinked. The Reverend wondered if his sister had known of Mr Scott’s last occupation. It hadn’t been widely reported in the press, only that the man kept a ‘refreshment house’. To a woman of Jane’s delicate upbringing, this most likely conjured visions of tea and cake.
‘Well, the Dean informs me that his son had cause to send Scott packing. Apparently at the end, the man could barely function because of his constant drunkenness.’
‘My dear,’ Jane exclaimed, lifting a bony hand to her lace-encircled throat. ‘How did Mrs Scott appear to the Dean’s son?’
‘He pitied her. A mere child when she arrived there as a young bride, barely thirteen.’ Jane’s eyes widened. This was young, even in the Colony. ‘She bore five children in the few years they were there,’ the Reverend sighed, ‘of whom there are only two still with us today.’
‘Macartney let her husband go, in any case? With babes to care for?’
Ah! Jane may at last be beginning to understand what the poor woman had suffered at the hands of her older, alcoholic and, the Reverend now knew, abusive husband.
He tapped his forefinger on the table. ‘Yes. No choice he maintained. Mr Chenery was adamant that Scott had to go.’
‘How distressing for her.’ Jane shook her grey head without disturbing one relentlessly pinned hair.
The Reverend nodded, his eyes full of sympathy. ‘And as I have told you so many times this past week, Jane, she is such a quiet tiny thing. Quite a little lady in her own way, with an almost educated manner of speaking. Wintle agrees with me. So much pleasanter than the ladies of the street whom we accommodate on our higher floors. That’s our Gaol Governor’s view.’
Studdert ceased his tapping. ‘She insists on her innocence. Even so, I suspect she will go to her death with dignity, should it come to that.’
‘I can see you’re determined to see her as an innocent victim, George. Maybe,’ Jane looked into Studdert’s eyes, ‘you should consider she has cast a small spell upon you – yes, even you – as people say she must have done with the boy and the cook.’
Reverend Studdert’s eyes widened at this improper suggestion. And just when he thought he had finally gained Jane’s sympathy for the poor woman.
‘No, I am not under any spell, Jane,’ he huffed. ‘All I have seen this past week is a young woman who has suffered a troubled life, and through nothing she has done. Dragged across three countries by a domineering mother and with no father to care for their interests; sent to the bush, alone, married off when merely a child, and to a man who held her in such poor respect he made her serve illegal alcohol to miners and ruffians.’
‘Perhaps good reason for her to do away with the husband?’
Studdert knew he had lost this one. He pushed his chair back, his chin quivering as he addressed his sister.
‘Dear Jane, how can you be so uncharitable? And towards one of your own sex.’
He took the time to deliberately fold the napkin along its predestined lines, and laid it with care by his plate.
‘I will see you at dinner, Jane.’ He turned from the table.
‘Yes, my dear?’
‘I will spend the morning in prayer for you, and for your charges.’
Reverend Studdert hurried up Franklin Street, hugging his coat to keep out the fresh easterly wind buffeting him as he turned into Victoria Street. His mind ran over his breakfast conversation with Jane.
Will no one take this poor woman’s part? Except those paid to do so?
He recognised, with a twinge of discomfort, how this included himself.
Straightening his hat, he entered the gaol and walked swiftly along the stone corridors to Sheriff Farie’s cramped office. The Sheriff laboured over a narrow desk burdened with paperwork, on top of which lay the warrants for the execution of the prisoners Gedge, Cross and Scott.
Studdert eyed the stiff pieces of paper as if they were the hangman’s nooses themselves.
Greetings over, Farie said, ‘It will shortly be time to collect the prisoners, Reverend. Will you go ahead and pray with each of them during these last moments?’
The Reverend nodded, sighing inwardly. Elizabeth had been calmly steadfast in her rejection of spiritual comfort. Nevertheless, Studdert would give her one last opportunity for redemption, although he had no confidence she would avail herself of it.
Does she believe her punishment is just and her due? He puffed out a short breath, unsettled by what this might imply.
He heaved himself from his chair and walked back down the corridors with an uncomfortable ache in his belly.
There was no answer to his knock on the heavy wooden door, so Studdert let himself into Elizabeth’s cell.
Her blonde hair was pulled back from her pale, oval face, emphasising her grey eyes. The eyes flickered a brief hopefulness which died when she saw who it was who had entered.
The Reverend knew her barrister visited the prisoner yesterday. No doubt he talked of reprieves, casting hope into her shadowed soul.
Would it were so!
She sat on the cot, dressed in a clean, black gown with voluminous skirts. He hadn’t seen this gown before and was pleased she would not go to her death wearing the sweat-stained and faded dress which to date appeared to have been her only clothing.
He sat beside her and opened his Bible.
He had chosen Psalm 51, wondering if it was she or himself who was most in need of its forgiving comfort.
‘...Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow ...’
His grave voice ran on. Elizabeth gave no sign she was even listening.
There was movement outside the door and the Reverend stood. ‘Now child, they are here. Are you ready?’
Elizabeth flinched away from his touch of comfort. She also stood and faced the door. Ignoring the gaol officials and warders, she fixed her eyes on Bamford, the executioner, pulling back her shoulders and crossing her arms behind her. Bamford grinned as he expertly pinioned her.
She hardly reached to the hangman’s chest. The Reverend pushed down a desire to pick her up bodily, like a little girl, and run.
She fussed with her sleeves, arms pressed against her back.
She wants the sleeves to fall gracefully, the Reverend realised. His heart swelled at the feminine gesture.
He followed the prisoner and her attendants out of the cell, through the throng of murmuring journalists and along the shadowy corridor. He could see her fingers toying with a white handkerchief concealed in her sleeve.
The gift from her sister, he remembered. He pressed his lips together and blinked.
She halted at the arch leading into the yard, pulling against the warder’s tug on her arm.
Yes, the Reverend thought, I would hesitate too, knowing what awaits me out there.
Perhaps there is yet hope.
The warder gave another tug. Elizabeth stepped forward, picking her way through the mud, hemmed in by warders and spectators alike. The easterly wind had blown the last of the clouds away and sunlight glinted on the puddles. The Reverend believed he would have preferred the earlier greyness. He chided his churlishness.
Surely she should be allowed to feel the sun on her face one last time?
The invited guests waiting in the cramped yard shoved each other in an unseemly manner, ensuring themselves of the best vantage points. He overheard a gentleman in a cabbage tree hat telling his friend how it was a good thing the weather had turned, for it meant they would enjoy their picnic at the Farmers’ Market that afternoon.
The Reverend grimaced and pushed his way through the prattling, jostling gentlemen, trying to reach Elizabeth’s side in case she should need him. He happily used his elbows where needed.
Now he saw the scaffold with its three nooses hanging, barely moving in the damp, still air. The gallows were black, the crossbeam and uprights painted in pitch for the occasion. The Reverend shuddered.
Davey Gedge, sobbing, and Julian Cross, praying with his priest, were ahead of Elizabeth. By the time they reached the scaffold, Studdert was right behind her. She couldn’t manage the steep steps, not with her pinioned arms and her full skirts, so he reached out to steady her by the elbow, gently steering her onto the platform.
She acknowledged the gesture with a quick, sideways look. He wanted to weep.
He squinted into the sun, towards the heavy gates, for any sign of Governor Darling’s aide, any movement suggesting a reprieve. There was nothing except the shifting of the expectant crowd, a brown and black sea of waving hats and staring upturned eyes.
Cross lowered his head to kiss the crucifix held for him by the priest.
Gedge’s shoulders heaved with quiet tears.
The Reverend restrained his need to touch the doomed woman’s cheek in a final blessing, and descended the steps to the floor of the yard. He stood beside a heavy post, conscious that, down here, he was almost, not quite, one of the assembled voyeurs.
He reached into his gown for his Book of Common Prayer as the executioner tied Elizabeth’s skirts to stop them billowing in the fall. The Reverend nodded at this thoughtful touch, looking away as the nooses were slipped over the prisoners’ heads, the knots positioned under their ears. He heard Bamford’s muttered, ‘God bless,’ to each of his charges, and the rustle of the white calico hoods hiding forever their sight of this world.
He drew in a breath and steeled himself to begin the last act in this tragedy.
Movement distracted him.
Elizabeth was trying to turn towards the boy. She shuffled on the wooden boards, skirts rustling.
The watching gentlemen fell silent.
‘Davey, will you not then clear me?’ she said, distinctly enough for all to hear. Her voice trembled.
“Save her!” the Reverend wanted to cry out. He was shocked at himself. He recalled Jane’s comments at breakfast, and tried to harden his mind. It was too late for his heart.
Gedge didn’t answer, sobbing softly within the hood. The assembled guests murmured, a sound like summer waves on a beach.
Governor Wintle rocked back on his heels and nodded his head at Studdert. The Gaol Governor’s ever sad eyes were blank with pain.
The Reverend took his cue, drawing strength from the shared emotion. He opened his book and read from the burial service, grateful his voice was deep and steady. He felt its effect on the spectators who returned to silence, attentive.
The seconds ticked by to the appointed time.
‘... I am the resurrection and the life ...’ He saw Farie’s signal to Bamford. Bamford drew the long bolt.
‘... whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die ...’
The great trapdoor fell open.
Elizabeth Scott plunged.
But, the Reverend gulped in horror, the drop was too short.
A bright red bloom appeared beneath her calico hood, the delicate skin of her neck tearing. Blood dripped onto her bodice and over her hands to disappear into the voluminous skirts of her gown.
She convulsed, twitching.
The Reverend’s breakfast rose, and settled.
He was able to keep his voice steady as he finished the burial service. He closed the book and stepped away from the scaffold, looking at no one as he weaved through the silent, white-faced men. He lengthened his stride as he passed beneath the great arch and out of the prison, towards home.