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

R. v. Burgen, Allen, Matthews and Sullivan [1829] NSWSupC 27

capital punishment, public - dissection - Moreton Bay - convict discipline - convict ship

Execution, 18 April 1829

Source: Australian, 21 April 1829


On Saturday morning -- Burgen, Thomas Allen, and Thomas Matthews, paid the forfeit of their lives upon the gallows.  The latter two were tried on Thursday for a murder at Moreton Bay, and Burgen was also convicted in the early part of the week of a similar crime at the same place.  Owing to the violent conduct of Matthews on his trial, it was expected something out of the common would occur during the scene of execution.  Accordingly, a considerable crowd of spectators assembled on the heights outside adjacent to the gaol, as well as within the walls.

During the latter part of the trial on Thursday, Matthews continued tossing about the floor of the dock, reiterating that he was murdered, or about to be, and uttering imprecations against all concerned in his trial, not excepting Judge and Jury.[2 ]

Upon the evidence of several witnesses, however, the appalling crime for which both Matthews and Allen were indicted, was conclusively proved.  It was not one of these cases resting upon circumstantial evidence.  It was deposed that Matthews and Allen were two of a gang of six laborers employed at Moreton Bay in clearing ground.  One of the gang named Connolly, had been punished and smarting and enfeebled from the effects of the scourge, when Matthews was seen to lift the spade with which he was working, and strike the poor wretch Connolly on the head.  Connolly fell, and Allen finished the tragedy by a second blow, with a mattock, which struck into scull.  This happened on the 2d of February last, and Connolly shortly after expired.  What occasioned this bloody and apparently merciless act, has not been declared, but from various circumstances which have come within our knowledge, it would not at all surprise us, had the massacre been executed at the murdered man's individual request!

Matthews was less hardened at execution than was anticipated.  He exhibited a sort of nonchalance.  His companions were more composed to all appearance.  Matthews, on mounting the ladder, threw a handkerchief and some other article from him to the gaol gang, ranged alongside the gallows.  Whilst the hangman was preparing the nooses, Matthews expressed a wish to make his dying declaration, which not being objected to by the Sheriff, he began by accusing the Commandant at Moreton Bay of severity and cruelty.  He cautioned the prisoners to avoid Moreton Bay.  "If you go to Moreton Bay, (said the culprit,) you are ruined beyond redemption.  You are either flogged to death, or worked to death.  I have known many bright men murdered - completely murdered by the ill-usage of overseers, constables, and those above them.  Take warning by me - take warning - never run from your road gangs or iron gangs.  It may perhaps send you to Moreton Bay, and then you are a lost man.  The last time I was flogged was for stealing a few grains of wheat.  I received a hundred severe lashes.  Oh, fellow prisoners, avoid Moreton Bay."  The culprit was told of the futility of such talking.  Burgen spoke a few words.  He said his fellow sufferer had so clearly related the ill-usage at Moreton Bay, he could say nothing more than this , that it was true - quite true.  "I die innocently before you all, and now about to suffer.  I declare my innocence.  Had I been allowed to have my witnesses up from Moreton Bay, I should have been cleared.  I now solemnly declare my innocence, but I am willing to suffer."  Allen said nothing.  Matthews added he was sorry, very sorry, for the life he had led, and were his existence to begin afresh, he would be a better man.  Allen eat a hearty breakfast of eggs, nearly a loaf of bread & butter, & drank tea.  He appeared very unconcerned in the early part of the morning, but on the gallows his demeanor underwent an alteration.  The Rev. William Cowper attended Burgen, and the Reverend Mr. Therry, with his usual assiduity, Matthews and Allen.  Mr. Therry interrupted Matthews repeatedly, when he was speaking of the Commandant and Moreton Bay, advising him to direct his thoughts to a different world.  Matthews said he freely forgave every one, as he hoped to be forgiven, but he must warn his fellow prisoners against Moreton Bay, which was a hell, he assured them, upon earth.  Allen being a heavy, corpulent man, it was supposed, would die easily, but his muscular strength was superior to his weight, and between parting life and death, he struggled hard.  A few convulsive quiverings and death terminated the mortal career of the other two.  After hanging the usual time, the corpses were lowered down, and given over for dissection.[3 ]

Patrick Sullivan, the remaining culprit of the four brought up from Moreton Bay, for murder, was also hanged yesterday morning.  Sullivan was attended by the Rev. Mr. Therry.  He appeared resigned to his fate, as the phrase goes, and penitent.  A minute or two before the drop fell, he said, "Good bye, lads, pray for me."  He was subsequently launched into eternity, and after hanging the accustomed time, his body was cut down, and delivered up for dissection.



[1 ] In 1831, a prisoner called Macmanus was hanged for attempting to murder a fellow prisoner at Moreton Bay.  The Sydney Gazette, 12 July 1831, claimed that his intention was to get to Sydney, where he would be hanged, but that he bitterly repented this when the day of his execution arrived. See also Sydney Herald, 18 July 1831; Australian, 15 July 1831.  The Australian said that Macmanus had pleaded guilty, saying he preferred death to being sent back to Moreton Bay.  His trial and execution were both reported in the same issues of the Gazette and the Australian.  See similarly, a report of the execution of John Walsh, Australian, 22 July 1831.

The problems of some convicts commenced even on the voyage to Moreton Bay.  An expression of dissatisfaction with rations on one voyage led to two convicts being shot dead by soldiers: Australian, 12 August 1831.

[2 ] For reports of their trial, at which they claimed that vital witnesses were in Moreton Bay, see Australian, 15 April 1829; Sydney Gazette, 18 April 1829 (trial report and commentary).

The Sydney Gazette reported these executions on 21 April 1829.

[3 ] 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 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.

The contemptuous treatment of those who were hanged went further in New South Wales.  They were buried in the sands outside the walls of the burial ground in Sydney, and a cart road was made over the same land.  In many instances, their bones could be found strewn about: Australian, 24 July 1829.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University