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

R. v. Gough, Watson and Muir [1827] NSWSupC 57

Norfolk Island, mutiny, murder, capital punishment, dissection, phrenology

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Forbes C.J., 21 September 1827

Source: Monitor, 24th September 1827

SUPREME COURT, FRIDAY. - Before the  Chief Justice.  The Criminal Court sat specially this day, for the trial of Gough, Watson, and Muir, or Moore, three of the Mutineers at Norfolk Island; who were now indicted for the Wilful Murder of Lance Coporal[sic] Robert Wilson, at Norfolk Island, on the 25th day of Sept. 1827.[1 ]

THE witnesses called to substantiate the Charge, were Serjeant John Boyle, and Privates Eustace, and Jackson, from whose testimony the following facts were collected.  On the morning of the day specified in the indictment, the witnesses, in company with the deceased, whose duty it was to escort the invalid prisoners to and from the Hospital, proceeded from the Settlement to the Hospital; on their way thither, the Serjeant stopped to adjust some part of his dress; on proceeding to overtake his comrades he saw the three prisoners, together with one Weavers (who died on his passage up to Sydney,) standing near an old ruin.  They rushed on the soldiers, crying out ``stand! stand or we'll blow your brains out."  These expressions were not proved to have been made use of by any one in particular, but appeared general.  Gough rushed on Eustace, putting a pistol to his face; he was in the act of turning round, when Gough discharged it; the contents grazed his face; he attempted to retreat, but was followed by Gough; he fell in the long grass; was overtaken, and received some blows from the pistol on the head; he got up and after a struggle, succeeded in wresting the weapon from Gough's hand; Moore then came up and stabbed him in the shoulder.  He (the witness) was then conveyed to the Gaol and there confined, until released by the Commandant.  On the cross-examination of this witness, he declared that he did not see the deceased either shot or stabbed.  Jackson spoke to the same effect; on his cross-examination he admitted having heard that one Jackson (a prisoner) had been alleged to have perpetrated this act.  Serjeant Boyle deposed to having seen Watson fire at Wilson; (spoke positively as to the fact) the latter fell instantaneously, without uttering a single exclamation; his motions indicated the agonies of death; he was quite hearty previously; turning round, Watson said ``I've done one b---'s job," and addressing the Serjeant, added, ``You - you ought to have been first," at the same time discharging a pistol at him, (the Serjeant) which missed him.  Saw Moore go to the body of Wilson, raise a bayonet over his head, and plunge it in the apparently lifeless body.  Weavers immediately came up, and presenting a knife at his (the Serjeant's, breast, said, ``You --- if you move I'll drive it through your heart;" did not see Gough commit any particular act; he was among the others; saw Wilson after his death; there were two wounds in his body, one of a pistol-shot near the spine, the other a bayonet wound.  The Surgeon of the Settlement, Mr. Busby, examined them; Mr. B. was not in attendance; he probed them; they appeared to be deep.  The Attorney-General expressed himself greatly amazed that notwithstanding the Surgeon had been subpoenaed, he had not proceeded to Sydney.

MR. WILLIAMS appeared as Counsel for the prisoners.  In answer to an interrogatory to  one of the witnesses by Mr. W. he (the witness) stated, that it had been said that Weavers, the fourth prisoner, died on his passage up, of hardship; could not say positively that it was of starvation.  Heard the prisoners on the Island say since the mutiny, that it was their object to have taken the Island, until a vessel came from Sydney, and then to capture her.  The learned Counsel questioned Serjeant Boyle as to whether there were any women on the Island, and was answered in the negative.  He observed, that he was instructed that the men's minds (most of whom were transported for life) were in a state of irritation and madness, and that crimes of horrifying nature existed there.  The learned Counsel then proceeded to take an objection, on the ground, that the information did not set forth the crime with that scrupulous certainty which was requisite, and further, that what was set forth, had not been substantiated, there being no proof of the deceased having been wonnded [sic] by the prisoners, or that the wounds caused his death.  The absence of the Surgeon was so material a circumstance, that had he anticipated his non-appearance, he would himself have subpoenaed him.  The Chief Justice overruled all these objections, and the prisoners were called on for their defence.  Watson and Muir offered nothing, but Gough addressed the Court nearly as follows:- (Gough is a man of colour, tall and thins, with (when his mind is at ease) a frank, open, mild, but enterprising bold vivacious countenance, evincing a martial spirit.  He has had hair-breadth escapes without number, and his life would be a more extraordinary tale than half those invented in Novels.  His language was tolerable, his voice clear, his manner energetic, and he rivetted the attention of a crowded Court.)  His defence consisted of a detail of the hardships and privations endured at Norfolk's fell Isle, and which account, as the late Commandant, Captain Donaldson, was present in Court, might virtually be said to challenge contradiction.  The Prisoner set out by stating, that he had been at every penal settlement in the colony, and had been very severely flogged at various times; Liberty was always what he had ever sought and only sought; that he never shed blood; nor would do so wantonly; that he had not done so on the present occasion.  He had, until a very short time previously to the mutiny, been personally commended by the Commandant, as the best man on the Settlement, and was (to use his own phrase) a ``a fancy man" of Captain Donaldson.  But that at length he was charged with stealing a gill of paint, which brought down the ire of the latter, who then changed his conduct towards him, and upbraided him for having read Catholic prayers to other of his more ignorant fellow-prisoners.  He observed, that the ration allowed the men at Norfolk Island, was a pound and quarter of badly baked bread like putty, and a small portion of salt meat, OFTEN PUTRID, to cook which, time was not allowed, so that it was frequently eaten raw; that they were often in a state bordering on starvation. at the same time there were hundreds of wild pigs and goats running about the Island, with an abundance of grapes, to touch a bunch of which ensured fifty lashes.  That for this infliction of Corporal punishment, a stage three feet from the ground had been erected, in order to give the flogger more power over the men's backs.  They were worked from daylight, till the stars rose at night; were often urged on to extraordinary exertion by the Commandant, who would promise, that if such and such a job were completed, they should have liberty to go into the bush, and get a supply of food.  That having finished their task, the Commandant broke his word, and in one instance diminished the indulgence they had previously enjoyed.  The prisoner proceeded to describe with great minuteness, the petty tyranny, as he conceived it, of the Overseers, who, he said, by their villainy greatly increased their miseries.  ``So hopeless and wretched" (said the ``unhappy culprit) ``is our conditions at the Island, that ``plans have been projected, to commit murder, IN ``ORDER TO GET UP TO SYDNEY TO BE HANGED.  As for ``myself, though a stout-hearted man, I have often ``wept with despair."  He had at an early period acquired a bad name in this Colony, and not all his endeavours afterwards could releive [sic] him from the consequences of a bad character.  Here the prisoner was interrupted by the Chief Justice, who observed, that he could not allow him to proceed any farther in that line of defence.  His Honor then proceeded to charge the Jury, recapitulating the evidence as detailed and explaining the relative situation of principals in the first and second degree, as the prisoners at the bar were described in the information.  With regard to the objections raised by the Learned Counsel, he had looked over the informations, and did not consider them substantial; if however he had looked them over too hastily, it was in his power to have recourse to them again, and prevent his present decision on being turned to the injury of the prisoners.  Upon a review of the facts addressed in evidence, it did appear to him, that the prisoners at the bar were actuated by one common design, of which the result was, the death of Wilson.  The evidence of the Surgeon would have been more satisfactory, and might possibly have benefited the prisoners. Whenever men set out with a community of design, they were all equally guilty of its consequences.  If the Jury could conscienciously [sic] arrive at  the conclusion, that they were aiding and abetting each other, they would find a verdict accordingly.  The Jury retired for a few minutes, and returned a verdict against the whole of Guilty.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE proceeded to pass sentence of Death upon the prisoners.  ``John Gough, Edward Watson, and John Moore, you have been convicted of the Wilful Murder of Robert Wilson.  The circumstances under which you acted were deliberate; that you intended to kill the deceased in particular, may not appear, but you set out with an intention to murder some one.  Your's is indeed an aggravated case.  I shall say a few words upon the defence set up by one of you.  Your life, you acknowleege [sic] to have been one uninterrupted series of crime; you describe all the penal settlements; unquestionable proof of the committal of some acts of violence of which you have been guilty, and for which you were sent there.  It is within the recollection of this very Court, the narrow escape you have before had of your life; well would it have been for you, had your race then been run, before you had brought upon yourself the blood of a fellow creature.  With respect to the charge of harshness against the Government, there is nothing to substantiate it.  Extreme severity cannot be urged, when the Court knows, that it is only for the deepest crimes, which twice, and thrice, and even four-times-convicted culprits are ever sent there; the object in sending such is to correct crime, and to make an example; and it is a happy thing that a place has at length been found, where this object can be effected.  Can you imagine that your are sent there to indulge in the luxuries of life?  the conduct of the Authorities is far from deserving your reproach; it appears salutary and good, that a check should be put to crimes such as yours.  It now becomes my duty to pass that sentence on you which the law awards; which is, that you John Gough, that you Charles Watson, and that you John Moore, he taken from hence to the place of execution; and that you there be severally hanged by the neck until your bodies be dead, and that afterwards, your bodies be delivered over to the Surgeons for dissection."  ``Thank you my Lord" was responded by the prisoners; Gough at the same time observing, that he was convinced His Honor had passed a sentence contrary to  his own feelings, and that as for himself, he (Gough) felt it was a sentence which  was justice without mercy, but that he was glad at all events ``that all was now over".


Execution, 24 September 1826

Source: Australian, 26 September 1827


A desire of witnessing the finally closing scene of the three criminals, Gough, Moor, and Watson, who were brought to the bar of justice on Friday last,[3 ] contributed to draw together a more considerable number of spectators than such a catastrophe commonly excites here, where unhappily there exists too frequent and urgent a necessity for its repetition.  Gough had earned for himself a name in the record of outrage and crime.  Not a penal settlement at present, or for several years past existing, but had witnessed his presence and his frequent punishment.  He had been sentenced to die, and allowed to live.  He had seen many of his participators in lawless deeds tucked up, and become the unresisting prey of the common hangman, whilst he himself continued to inhale the breath of life, and run the race of depravity, on which strong passions and the consciousness of a bad name appear to have impelled him.  Watson and Moor, the fellow sufferers with Gough, were not so much the objects of public attention as the latter, though had their characters courted equal notoriety, it is not impossible but that one would be found equally deserving with another.  All three played an active part in the mutiny at Norfolk Island on the 27th of September last, during the morning of which day they rushed from behind an old ruined building upon a military party, consisting of a sergeant, corporal, and two privates, who were at the time about proceeding towards the hospital.  Watson, it was deposed on trial, shot the corporal, Wilson; and Moor was observed shortly after making "assurance doubly sure," by stabbing the unfortunate corporal whilst he lay apparently bereft of life along the grass.  Gough fired in the face of Eusten, one of the soldiers, from the fatal effect of which the latter, by happening to turn his head aside, narrowly escaped.  The soldier was then pursued, and stabbed in the shoulder, but he finally escaped, and lived to appear as a witness against the murderers of the corporal Wilson, on Friday.  The facts adduced on trial then were conclusive, and the Jury unhesitatingly delivered their verdict of guilty, and the Judge his awful judgment against the three criminals.  On this momentous occasion Gough thanked Heaven for the boon, and then charged the Jury with measuring out justice without mercy, and the learned expounder of the law with having pronounced a judgment contrary to his conscience. -

"How oft when men are at the point of death,

Have they been merry?  which their keepers call

A lightning before death."

One of the three misguided criminals put on his hat immediately on being made acquainted with his awful fate, and it required the intervention of persons present, and the desire of Gough, to induce him to forego this and other unnecessary exhibitions of disrespect.  From the firm and careless demeanor displayed throughout, and afterward, it was generally imagined that Gough and his two fellow sufferers would have acted up the same scene to the last.  Shortly after nine on Monday morning Watson and Moor, accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Cowper, and Mr. Hynds, of Sydney, walked slowly forth from the condemned cells on the right hand side of the gaol, wherein they had passed the night.  Gough followed with the Rev. Mr. Therry.  His step and countenance appeared in a great measure to have lost their original firmness.  With a tottering step he followed the other two sufferers into the execution yard, where as usual were arranged on one side, the numerous confines of the gaol; in front, a strong guard of soldiers, and a dense crowd of spectators all round.  He hastily threw himself on his knees, and kissed one of the three coffins which lay under the drop.  The demeanor of Watson and Moor as they joined in prayer, was composed and decent.  Gough knelt apart from the other two - his feelings seemed to be intensely wrought up, and his ideas to be concentrated towards their proper object.  Watson ran nimbly up the ladder, Moor tottered after him, and Gough, when he had climbed to the scaffold, kissed the rope which was intended to suspend him.  They prayed for some time, Gough leaning with an appearance of extreme exhaustion on the shoulder of the Roman Catholic Clergyman.  It was full ten o'clock before the executioner had finished his gloomy preparations.  Gough stepped forward and asked leave to speak a few words - proceeding in a hurried but rather firm tone, he said, he had been a wicked man, and betrayed into a vicious course of life by bad company, whose connection he recommended all person sedulously to avoid.  He thanked the Almighty who had permitted him the opportunity of thus atoning and seeking forgiveness for his offences, as for enabling him to face death divested of its terrors.  He hoped his disgraceful end might operate beneficially on the assembled multitude, as well as all person, who, like himself, had been ill-disposed.  Watson and Moore made no confession.  The unfortunate fellow sufferers shook hands and ardently embraced.  After being kept for some moments in a state of suspense extremely painful to the feeling part of those looking on, owing to the awkward manner of the finisher of the law, the drop was finally let fall, and after a few convulsive struggles the pulse of life of the three unfortunate culprits ceased to throb.

Gough was a West Indian Mulatto, woolly headed, and apparently about forty years of age, but muscular and actively limbed - of the middle height.

Watson and Moor were both robust and athletic men. - Their bodies, after swinging the usual time, were taken down and given for dissection.[4 ]  Dr. Bland obtained the body of Gough.  His skull is said to present a fine subject for the observation of the Phrenologist.  The other two bodies fell to the Surgeons of the General Hospital.


[1 ] See also Sydney Gazette, 24 September 1827.

[2 ] See also Monitor, 24 September 1827, for an account of the executions.

[3 ] In this case, as in many other murder cases, the trial was held on a Friday and the prisoner condemned to die on the following Monday.  This was consistent with the provisions of a 1752 statute (25 Geo. III c. 37, An Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder).  By s. 1 of that Act, all persons convicted of murder were to be executed on the next day but one after sentence was passed, unless that day were a Sunday, in which case the execution was to be held on the Monday.  By holding the trials on a Friday, judges gave the condemned prisoners an extra day to prepare themselves for death.

[4 ] Under (1752) 25 Geo. II c. 37, s. 5 (An Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder), the judge was empowered to order that the body of the murderer was to be hanged in chains.  If he did not order that,  then the Act required that the body was to be anatomised, that is, dissected by surgeons, before burial.  The most influential contemporary justification for capital punishment was that of William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1785, reprinted, Garland Publishing, New York, 1978, Book 6, chap. 9.  He argued that the purpose of criminal punishment was deterrence, not retribution.  As Linebaugh shows, the legislature's aim in providing for anatomising was to add to the deterrent effect of capital punishment.  In England, this led to riots against the surgeons: Peter Linebaugh, ``The Tyburn Riot against the Surgeons", in Hay et al. (eds), Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, Penguin, London, 1977.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University