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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R. v. Sly [1829] NSWSupC 88

capital punishment - forgery - Crown mercy - sentencing discretion


Execution, 28 December 1829

Source: Australian, 31 December 1829


Sly, the forgerer, suffered death at last on Monday morning.[1 ]  Before the fatal warrant reached him in his condemned cell, now nearly a fortnight back, so long was he left to doubt and repentance, that the miserable man entertained confident hopes of a remission of sentence, nor were those hopes renounced even to the very morning of his execution, when he denied being guilty of the forgery he was convicted of, as stoutly as ever.  Sunday, and Sunday night the culprit passed chiefly in prayer.  He slept well, and looked better next morning, when his son and daughters took their leave of him, than ever he did in Sydney of late years, when at liberty, and following his avocations, which he might had he chosen, have pursued with credit and comfort to himself and family.  But though an excellent engraver, Sly was an incorrigible drunkard, and felt quite contented on an average to work two days in the week only out of the six.  Sly could not be far short of 63, a time when there is ``no dallying with life."  He is said to have executed a counterfeit plate of the Bank of England so admirably, as almost to defy detection, and when transported to this country probably upwards of a score years ago, he obtained extra rations, and some other considerations for giving up the plate.  He was a spare dark man, and seemed to be either very near, or very dim sighted.  On Monday morning he was attired in cleaner apparel than ordinary, in white trowsers, shirt, and blue cloth waistcoat.  He expressed a wish to see two or three persons, but on their calling he preferred being left to his private meditation.  For an hour or so he paced up and down his cell, the ponderous leg irons being struck off on the morning of execution, perusing a prayer book, and quite composed in his demeanor.  The arrival of an officer's guard, the congregating of spectators outside and inside the gaol walls, and the low mysterious busy hum which buzzed through the execution yard, all announced the fatal moment to be approaching.  At length about 9 the culprit made his appearance, attended by the Rev. W. Cowper and Dr. Lang, with the executioner and his assistant, Governor of the Goal, [sic] Under Sheriff, goaler, [sic] and assistants.  Sly kneeling near his coffin, on a seat the Clergyman being accommodated with one a piece, heard a long prayer from the Rev. Mr. Cowper, and an extempore one from the Rev. Dr. Lang, with deep attention, and on rising walked up to the drop with a firm, and rather swift step. -  Some minutes of suspense ensued, during which the poor condemned individual put forth fervent ejaculations for mercy to the throne of the Almighty.  At a given signal by the Under Sheriff, the spring sustaining the drop was withdrawn - the culprit fell to the length of his rope - and soon his convulsed frame ceased to exhibit signs of animation.  The guard drew off - the spectators gradually followed - and the body, after being the sport of the winds during the usual period, was lowered into the rude shell prepared for its interment.

Thus died John Sly, engraver.  However his life may have been regulated, yet, in the closing scene of existence, he displayed a fortitude which would haxebecome [sic] a philosopher, united to the deecnt [sic] devotion of a sincere christian.



[1 ] For another report of the execution, see Sydney Gazette, 29 December 1829. 

Sly was sentenced on 28 November 1829: Sydney Gazette, 1 December 1829. Under (1823) 4 Geo. IV c. 48, s. 1, except in cases of murder, the judge had considerable discretion where an offender was convicted of a felony punishable by death.  If the judge thought that the circumstances made the offender fit for the exercise of Royal mercy, then instead of sentencing the offender to death, he could order that judgment of death be recorded.  The effect was the same as if judgment of death had been ordered, and the offender reprieved (s. 2).

The governor rejected a petition for clemency based on the prisoner's previous good character,  his large family and the nature of the testimony against him: Sydney Gazette, 8 December 1829.

On forgery, see also Sydney Gazette, 28 November 1829.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University