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Decisions of the Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Superior Courts

R. v. Minnighan [1841]

murder, of convict by convict - Port Arthur

Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land

Pedder C.J., 4 and 5 June 1841

Source: Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen's Land Gazette, 11 June 1841[1]

            Patrick Minnighan, who was arraigned for the murder of James Travis, at Port Arthur, on the 27th of April last, was placed at the bar to take his trial for that crime.

            The circumstances of this case, as borne out by the evidence, are as follows:-

            A gang of fifteen men, the very worst characters on the settlement, are chained to an iron cable, and employed during the day in breaking stones in a long and narrow yard, not far from the penitentiary; in this gang worked also the deceased Travis and the prisoner Minnighan. Some of the most desperate of these men had formed a plan to escape, and for this purpose one of them had obtained a file, with which to cut their irons. This was discovered and the plot frustrated, when a suspicion of having made known the circumstance fell upon the deceased, a mere lad. On the morning of the day when the lad was struck, the prisoner had used several threats against him, saying that he had got something for him which he might consider as certain; he asked the lad also how long he had to serve, and on being answered above two years, the prisoner said he would be in Little Island long before that, meaning in the place where the prisoners who die are buried; it was shown also that several quarrels had taken place between the prisoner and the deceased. On the day mentioned in the indictment, as the men, after being unlocked from the chain, were drawing towards the gate-way of the yard on their return to the penitentiary, the prisoner was seen to go towards Travis with a stone-hammer in his hand, with which he knocked him down. An overseer named Simcock immediately ran towardshim and said, "Paddy, you should not have done that." He replied, "there lies one b------y dog, stiff enough!" On being asked how he came to do this, he said he was tired of his life, and that the deceased deserved it, as he had deprived him, or men, (and witness did not know which) of liberty. Witness said he was sorry that the prisoner should barter his existence in such a fray; the lad was lying senseless on the floor, and was bleeding profusely from wounds on the head; the prisoner was taken into custody, and the lad Travis removed into the hospital.

            A prisoner named Ben Stevens, who was very heavily ironed, corroborated the evidence of Simcock, and farther stated that he interfered to prevent more mischief, at some peril to himself. His Honor the Chief Justice informed this witness, that if what he had stated was true, he should recommend him to the consideration of the Lieutenant-Governor, as no man, situated as he was, could have conducted himself better.

            Dr. Brownell, the Surgeon of the settlement, deposed to the nature of the wounds, and to their fatal termination. There were two separate wounds, one over the right eye, the other over the right ear, both penetrating to the bone, which was fractured; the eye was totally destroyed by subsequent inflammation, caused by the blow, while a large abscess had occurred in that portion of the brain, which corresponded with the wound over the ear, a splinter of the bone having pierced the brain; it was this which caused the death of Travis, who died on the 29th of May. (A stone hammer was here produced, with which Dr. Brownell stated such wounds as those inflicted on Travis might have been produced.)

            Captain Booth, the Commandant, testified to the deposition of a statement made on oath by the deceased, four days after his admission into the hospital, and in presence of the prisoner, who made no objection or remark respecting it. It was in substance to the effect as already stated, that the prisoner had used certain threats to the deceased, and that on the day mentioned he had repeated them, and struck the deponent with a hammer; the prisoner knew nothing farther till he found himself wounded in the hospital.

            The prisoner, who exhibited the utmost recklessness of conduct throughout the whole trial, objected to the evidence of Simcock and Stevens, and particularly of the latter,who, he stated, had been charged with murder, and would swear any man's life away; such characters would not be allowed to give evidence in England. He called on his defence, the following witnesses, who all belonged to the chained gang at Port Arthur, and who exhibited most unfavourable, not to say repulsive, specimens of humanity - James County, William White, George Britton, and James Smith. The object sought to be obtained by the prisoner in the examination of these witnesses was, that he could not have uttered any threats to the boy Travis without being heard by them; he endeavoured to show also that he was not near the deceased when he was knocked down. The evidence was contradictory, and had no effect upon the Court or jury.

The prisoner was found Guilty and remanded for sentence.


            The Court opened at eleven for the purpose of sentencing the convicted prisoners and closing the Sessions.

            Patrick Minnighan being placed at the bar, was asked, in the usual manner, if he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon him according to law?

            The prisoner said he had, and repeated his objection to the characters of the witnesses, saying it was a wrong thing to allow such men to swear lives away; he declared he was as innocent as any in Court of the crime laid against him.

            His Honor the Chief Justice, in addressing the prisoner, [??] recapitulated the leading facts of the case; His Honor observed, that no person who had heard his trial should have any doubt of his guilt; one circumstance alone was strong against him, without the intervention of a single witness; the deposition, namely, of the dead boy; on the very day on which he was found wounded, the prisoner had accused him of telling about the file, and had used towards him the threats deposed to; the injuries could not have been inflicted by the deceased himself, neither could they have occurred through accident.

            Prisoner. - Do you think your Honor that I could have made use of foul language towards the deceased, without the men near me hearing me? The Attorney-General in opening the case had called the witnesses violent men, and -

            The Attorney-General stated, that although he had termed the witnesses violent men, he had done so in order that they might be examined in irons; but he had also observed, that although they were violent men, it was no reason that they had come there to perjure themselves.

            His Honor resumed and said, he was sorry to perceive, knowing the fate which inevitably awaited the prisoner, that he was in such a state of mind; it was not six months ago when His Honor passed sentence of death upon the prisoner and an accomplice, who was subsequently executed, but the Government had thought proper to spare his life, and this was the return which he made for the clemency. His savage disposition -for savage it was - was still untamed, and, as a cowardly ruffian, he had taken away the life of a poor boy when he had no means of resistance "You", said His Honor, "showed no mercy to him, and you can expect no mercy here." Sentence of death was then passed upon the prisoner, and his body ordered to be anatomized and dissected.

The prisoner in a loud voice exclaimed, as he swung himself out of the dock, "Thanks be to God? You cannot dissect my soul, although you can my body!"

Pedder C.J., 4 and 5 June 1841

Source: Hobart Town Advertiser, 8 June 1841

            Patrick Milligan, stood charged with the wilful murder of James Travis, at Port Arthur, on the 27th of April last.

            The display of countenances afforded during this trial would be a treat to physiognomists, and to the admirers of phrenology, as both the prisoner and the witnesses came from Port Arthur, that gleaning depot for all the guiltiest of the guilty. Their appearance was in full harmony with the place from whence they came, and the clanking of the heavy leg irons, in which the witnesses were examined, heightened the effect of this picture of crime and degradation.

            Edward Simcock. - Knows prisoner, remembers seeing him at Port Arthur on the 27th April last; he was employed with me in breaking stones; the party consisted of fifteen; Benjamin Stevens was one; there was also a boy named James Travers; he is now dead; saw his dead body on the 28th or 29th May; Dr. Browning was present; it was the day the inquest was held; last saw Travers at work on the 27th April, we left off work about four o'clock, and were going into the Penitentiary, when on turning round to see if White and Hares were coming, I saw prisoner walking towards Travers with a hammer in his hand; it was in the direction of the doorway; saw prisoner make a blow at deceased and knock him down; the hammer was of the same sort as this, (a hammer weighing about 1½ lbs used for breaking stones was produced) prisoner held the instrument in both hands; it was a left-handed blow; Travers fell, and I ran up to prevent further mischief; found the boy lying on the ground bleeding much at the head; he did not speak; prisoner said "there lies one ----- dog stiff enough," I said "Paddy you should not have done that"; to which Milligan replied that the boy had deprived him (or the men, I do not know which) of his or their liberty; I asked what could have induced him to do such a thing; he said he was tired of his life; I told him I regretted he should have bartered his existence in any such affray; heard Fife call a constable to whom I delivered over the prisoner. When Travers received the blow he was stooping and had hold of his irons; he wore a cap at the time; it is possible a second blow was struck before I got up for I lost sight of them about a quarter of a minute; when the blow was given I stood on a spot six feet high, had to descend 7 steps to reach the yard, and get over a brick wall 6 feet high besides working my way through the men standing at the door way; the distance from the door-way to where Travers was struck is about six yards; on reaching the spot prisoner was standing over the boy; I saw him throw the hammer out of his hand; each man usually puts down his hammer by the side of his heap of stones; did not observe one in the hands of any man in the yard except prisoner's; don't know where Travers was taken; I went into the penitentiary leaving the deceased lying in the yard, with several superintendents round him; 3 or 4 persons were as near Travers as the prisoner was; the hammers are made of iron with steel heads, varying in weight from 1 to 2½ lbs.

            Prisoner being asked by His Honor whether he wished to put any questions to the witness, said, he wished the Chief Justice would do so for him, if he knew of any thing that would favor his case. His honor expressed his willingness to do so if he would suggest any question.

By the Foreman. - The stone heap is about 60 yards from the Penitentiary - the yard in which the stones are broken is distinct from the building, it is about four yards wide and 35 long. - Each man during work, is fastened to an iron cable for further security.

By a Juror. Travers and prisoner had been unfriendly - have heard words pass between them - I was always on good terms with prisoner.

Ben Stevens. Am a prisoner stationed at Port Arthur - am acquainted with the prisoner - was working in the same gang with him in April last - remember that on the afternoon of the 27th of April, after the overseer had examined our irons and the men belonging to the Penitentiary had left the enclosure, the gang began to move towards the gate, I turned round to pick up my chain and while doing so, heard a scuffle of irons behind me, I turned round to proceed towards the gate when I saw prisoner strike Travers on the head with a hammer as he lay on the ground by his side - saw the blow struck on some part of the head - believe it was the right side - I ran and pushed prisoner away, and asked what he was doing - kept him away until some men gathered round Travers as he lay on the ground, I then let him go - he threw down the hammer and walked through the gate - he stood on the steps - I kept my eyes on him till he got there - saw a man go up to him on the top of the steps - when I first saw Travers there were no signs of blood, but on returning from Milligan, some was running down his face. Never after saw Travers alive - saw his body in the dead house attached to the hospital at Port Arthur - saw Dr. Browning there, it was the day of the inquest - (hammer was produced) was of the same description as this - three men worked between prisoner and me, I did not hear any disagreement between him and deceased.

Here the prisoner losing his temper said a man under a heavy sentence and of so violent a character as witness ought not to be heard nor be allowed to swear away another's life.

His Honor before dismissing witness expressed his approbation of his conduct and said, if he found what he stated to be true he would make a point of seeing what good could be done for him. This appeared to rouse prisoners savage nature - he colored deeply and said it was a shame to allow such a perjurer to appear in the box.

Henry Fife, sub-constable at Port Arthur. - I apprehended prisoner at Port Arthur on the 27th April, at about 20 minutes past 4 in the afternoon; found Travers stretched on the ground bleeding profusely, with a wound over his right eye.

Dr. Brownell. - I am a surgeon at Port Arthur; recollect that on the evening of the 27th April Travers was brought to the hospital, having two wounds on the right side of his head; the first was over the right eyebrow, extending to the upper portion of the eyelid, and penetrating to the bone, a portion of which was detached, and lay forward on the wound; the second was at the upper fore part of the ear in the direction of the right temple; it penetrated to the bone of the temple; the wounds had bled profusely, in consequence of which the boy was very low; at the inquest I found that death had been caused by an abscess in that part of the brain corresponding to the wound over the right ear; the bone was broken in 5 or 6 pieces, and one piece of the inner table protruded into the brain; that was the cause of his death; (hammer shown); it is capable of producing both wounds; they were contused wounds, not dangerous in themselves; inflammation had totally destroyed the right eye; believed the wound over the right ear was the cause of his death; examined the body at the inquest; repeatedly heard Travers speak from the time he came into the hospital till his death; was present when he made his deposition to Captain Booth; he was perfectly sensible; he was on oath; it was about the 4th day after he came to the hospital; prisoner was then present, for the first few days Travers appeared to recover, symptoms of fever having subsided, but a relapse took place through its return; both wounds could not be inflicted with one blow.

Captain Charles Booth. - I remember the deceased making a deposition before me, prisoner being present; he was then charged with an attempt to murder Travers; the deposition was written and signed by me at the Port Arthur Hospital; (deposition shown); this is the same; it was drawn out on the 30th April; no questions were put by Travers to the prisoner; it was not read over to prisoner, he being present; Travers was then perfectly sensible.

[The deposition was read so fast that we could not take it down, but the most remarkable features were -]

"Milligan accused me of having caused a file to be taken from him. He one day enquired how long I had to serve before coming free? I said 'two years.' He replied 'it is foolish to think of that, for he intended to do for me, and that he would send me long before that time to Little Island, (more commonly called 'L'Isle des Morts, a spot 3 acres in extent, and used as a burial ground for the prisoners dying at Port Arthur).

Prisoner when called on for his defence said he knew no more of the crime imputed to this than any one present, further than that he said the boy lying on the ground. He then called five witnesses, far surpassing those before [???] in cut-throat appearance. They stated the prisoner was working in the same gang with them; that immediately after the blow had been struck, they saw him standing close to them, several being much nearer the boy than he was. They declared it was impossible that the former witness could have seen the fatal spot from where they said they were standing at the time. As the whole of the depositions appeared made up for the benefit of the prisoner, it is useless going through the tedium ofall the cross examinations.

His Honor summed up the case, and the jury retired; after an absence of ten minutes they returned with a verdict of "Guilty".

Milligan, during the deliberation, stared about with the greatest unconcern, sometimes turning round to face the audience, sometimes frowning at the reporters, the motion of whose pens appeared to annoy him during the whole trial, and after swinging himself to and fro in a playful manner, he asked to retire. On returning, he had a piece of tobacco in his mouth, which he chewed apparently with great satisfaction, during the time the verdict was given, spitting first on one side of the desk then on the other.

* * * *

Patrick Milligan, on being placed in the dock, and asked whether he knew any reason why sentence of death should not be passed on him, said, "Yes, I do. I consider if wrong to allow such characters as appeared against me yesterday, to swear away my life. The Attorney General told the jury not to take the evidence of my witnesses, as they were violent men. I consider the others are much worse characters."

The Attorney General explained that, on the contrary, he told the jury "that because the witnesses would appear before them in irons (in consequence of their being violent men) they were not to put it down that they came there to perjure themselves."

His Honor then said. - "Prisoner at the bar, you have been found guilty of the murder of the boy Travers. No person who was present at your trial can believe you innocent. It appears that on the very day Travers was killed, you accused him of having told of your possessing a file. You said, 'You ------ wretch, I'll do for you; it is the same as if you had it.' You also asked him how long he had to serve, and added it was foolish to think of that, as you would send him to Little Island. It appears evident you had determined to kill him long before you committed the deed. That you did make use of the threat, I feel convinced. It is really dreadful to think that only six months ago you were sentenced to die, and afterwards respited, for a case of the same description. Your fellow companion suffered on the scaffold. Your disposition, instead of being mitigated by your life being spared, seems to have become even more savage than before. It was a cowardly, a dastardly act to take the opportunity when the poor boy was stooping, for most men though bent on such a foul deed, would have given their victim some chance of defending himself. To him you shewed no mercy, and you cannot expect any from this Court. I therefore exhort you to make your peace with Heaven. - The sentence the Court passes on you is, that you return to the place from whence you came, and from that to the place of execution, where you will be hung by the neck till you be dead; that after, your body be dissected and anatomized, and may God have mercy on your soul."

The prisoner without waiting any longer, swung himself round to leave the dock, and grinding his teeth, exclaimed, "Yes, you may dissect my body, but thank God, you can't my soul."


[1] According to AOTSC 41/5, p. 76 Patrick Minahan was hanged and his bodyanatomised.  See also R.P. Davis, The Tasmanian Gallows: A Study of Capital Punishment, Hobart, Cat and Fiddle Press, 1974, p. 55.

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