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Decisions of the Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Superior Courts

R. v. Oats [1824]

murder - Macquarie Harbour, hardship at - convict escape - capital punishment

Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land

Pedder C.J., 22 November 1824

Source: Hobart Town Gazette, 26 November 1824 [1]

Francis Oats was tried for the wilful murder of James Williamson.

The Attorney-General, in his address to the Jury, stated, that the prisoner and the deceased had been under confinement at Macquarie Harbour, from which place they contrived to abscond on the 9th of September last.  Three days after the prisoner returned alone, and on being asked what had become of his companion, answered, "that he was killed; a quarrel had taken place respecting the division of a fish, which the prisoner had casually found, and after the deceased had struck him several times with a stick, he struck him in return a blow which produced death." - There were not, however, said the Learned Gentleman, any marks of violence on the prisoner; neither were there any on the deceased, except about his head, which was literally crushed to pieces.

The first witness was Robert Bad[k]ins, who said, "I am of the Commandant's crew at Macquarie Harbour." I know that the prisoner and the deceased absconded some days before the 13th September, when in consequence of a voice being heard about two miles from the Settlement, the Commandant's boat pushed off, the prisoner was discovered, and taken in.  On the boat's way back he told me, that -``after being completely exhausted by want, he and the deceased were returning to the Settlement.  They found at length a fish, and the deceased was directed to cook it, whilst the prisoner searched for another along the beach.  The deceased ate the whole of it, which incensed the prisoner who was agonized by hunger, a fight with sticks followed; at last the deceased received a blow on his forehead, which knocked him down, and as he fell the back part of his skull was split by a stump."  The prisoner also told me he wished I would repeat his confessions to the Commandant, and make known that he would show him where the corpse lay.  I did so; the body was found that day seven miles from the Settlement; the prisoner, Mr. Garratt, the surgeon, Mr. Eldridge, and myself, went to it.  The deceased lay stretched with a bed-tick and jacket thrown over him, and his shirt sleeves tucked up.  There were no marks except on the head.  There had been a fire near the spot.  I saw no stick near it.  The hands of the deceased were clenched."

Mr. George Ray Eldridge was dispenser of medicine in the Hospital, at Macquarie Harbour, during September last, and went in search of the body.  The scalp was divided by Mr. Garratt, when nine pieces of fractured skull were found driven into the brain.  The first and second fingers of the right hand were diagonally cut from the first joint of the first to the second joint of the second, and witness was positive that the hand could not have been clenched when that wound was inflicted, and that the deceased was killed by the blow on his forehead.  The wounds could not have been inflicted more than two days, as the body was not in any way decayed, although the weather was hot.  When Mr. Garratt first examined the head, he said to the prisoner ``you could not have produced these wounds by a stick."  They certainly appeared to have been given by a sharp instrument.  There was no wound at the back of the head. - The prisoner was thenexamined, but no mark of violence was on him to corroborate his statement of a fight.  The wound on the deceased was much larger without than within.  The body lay on the beach, the stones about the head were covered with blood; there was no sign of struggling having taken place, and neither a stump or a stick to be seen.

The prisoner in his defence, narrated the many horrors of privation which he and the deceased has suffered after leaving their place of banishment, -- and after a most fair charge from the Chief Justice, was found Guilty. [2]

Source: Hobart Town Gazette, 25 February 1825

Execution at Macquarie Harbour. - On the 16th instant Thomas Hudson, Francis Oats, andWilliam Allen, who had severally been found guilty of murder under most abhorrent circumstances, underwent the awful sentence which heaven and earth pronounce for their offence, at the penal Settlement, Macquarie Harbour.  The behaviour of Judson was penitent and manly, but we are sorry to add, that his fellow culprits and sufferers displayed to the last, an apathy of conscience quite incorrigible.


[1] See also R. v. Pearce, 1824R. v. Allan, 1824.

[2] For an account of Oats being sentenced to death, see Hobart Town Gazette, 3 December 1824.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University and the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania