Fifty years ago today Australia hanged the last man in its history, Ronald Ryan. The son of an Irish coal miner, his execution repulsed much of the public and the subsequent backlash launched an unstoppable trend that led to the abolition of the death penalty in Australia.
On the morning of February 7, 1967 thousands of disgusted workers in his home city of Melbourne downed tools and public transport ground to a halt for two minutes in silent protest at the decision to execute Ryan.
Their disgust at the actions of the state government was even shared by the judge who ordered his execution; Sir John Starke was inconsolable as the sentence he passed was carried out. He did not believe Ryan was innocent, but there had been no executions in the state of Victoria for sixteen years and Sir John had assumed his sentence would be commuted to life in prison.
If the death of the 41 year old father of three preyed on the minds of thousands of Victorians that hot summer day, it did not seem to trouble the man who could have stopped it. The Premier of Victoria (a position equivalent to that of a state Governor in the US), Sir Henry Bolte, had an utterly normal morning. When asked by a reporter what he had been doing at 8am when the trap door had opened and Ryan had plunged to his death, Sir Henry replied, “probably one of the three s’s.” When asked what that meant he explained, “A s***, a shave or a shower.”
Ronald Edmond Thompson was born in a suburb of Melbourne in 1925 to Cecilia Thompson and an Irish coal miner “Big Jack.” His parents had begun their relationship while his mother’s first husband was away fighting in the Great War and the pair married after his death in 1927.
After their wedding he took his father’s surname but the Ryan family was clearly a troubled one and at the age of 11 he was sent away to a boarding school for neglected children on the orders of local welfare authorities.
When he was 24 he left the Catholic Church to become an Anglican in order to marry his wife, Dorothy Janet George. They went on to have three children together, but his marriage did nothing to reign in his tendency for petty crime.
In 1953 he was acquitted of arson, but he was soon rearrested for a number of other offenses and finally convicted for burglary in 1960. He served three years in Bendigo Prison and was regarded as a model prison by staff there.
But he quickly re-offended, robbing a butcher’s shop and was sentenced to a further eight years behind bars. Tired of her husband’s criminality and inability to provide for their children, Dorothy informed her husband she wanted a divorce.
Distraught, Ryan hatched an escape plan, believing he’d be able to flee with his family to Brazil, which had no extradition treaty with Australia. He and another prisoner, 24 year old Peter Walker serving time for armed robbery, plotted their escape for hours, noting the schedules of the guards and studying the prison layout.
One sunny afternoon in December 1965, aided by fellow prisoners who distracted their guards by rattling milk bottles, Ryan and Walker scaled the 16 foot wall that separated the exercise yard and another, final, wall that stood between them and liberty.
Scenting freedom Ryan paced up to the sentry box, taking warder Helmut Lange by surprise. Grabbing shocked Lange’s rifle, Ryan ordered him to open the gate but Lange prevaricated and pulled the wrong lever to foil the escape.
Eventually free – but not before threatening Lange’s life – the two panicked runaways spotted another prison official, Brigadier James Hewitt, in the carpark.
“Come on, quick. Give us the keys of your car. We are taking you hostage,” they informed their startled former jailer.
But the Brigadier didn’t have a car for them to make a getaway in and Lange had already raised the alarm.
One warder, William Bennet, who had already spotted them, trained his rifle on the escapees. “Drop the gun or we will shoot the man,” Ryan warned ominously.
Unfortunately for the two criminals, Bennett was soon joined by George Hodson who, completely unarmed, barreled towards the pair. Panicked, Walker scarpered towards a nearby Catholic Church and Ryan fled towards the road where he waved his gun at passing cars in an attempt to hijack one.
Funnily enough, drivers were not keen to stop for a wild-eyed man waving a gun at them and he had trouble flagging down a car. In the meantime, Hodson had caught Walker and was hitting him with a drain pipe. Witnesses testified that at a distance of some thirty yards from the pair, Ryan raised the rifle and fired a single shot at Hodson.
Death was instant and Hodson fell to the ground like a stone. Walker and Ryan jumped into a Vanguard and fled.
The shadow cast by the subsequent manhunt was large, by far the biggest in Melbourne's history with parents refusing to allow their children to play in the street, movie theatres were empty and there were hundreds of false sightings.
Four days later, the pair robbed a bank, warning the terrified staff, “This gun shot a man a few days ago and I’ll use it again.”
And although they didn’t use it then, Walker did use it to kill a tow truck driver called Arthur Henderson who he thought was about to turn them in.
“Are you sure he’s dead?’ a witness heard Ryan ask.
“There was a pool of blood. His pulse had stopped,” Walker confirmed.
Worried they’d be caught in Melbourne, the two resolved to head to Sydney where there was less public awareness and panic about the two.
Foolishly, Walker made contact with a friend of his in Sydney. They agreed to meet outside the Concord Repatriation Hospital, but the police were alerted and the result was one of the largest police operations in Sydney’s history; 50 officers circled the hospital and grabbed the pair without a single shot being fired.
Victorian police chartered a private flight to bring the pair back to Melbourne and justice.
The case of The Queen v. Ryan and Walker was heard in Victoria’s Supreme Court with the bewigged Sir John Starke presiding. Both men pleaded not guilty to murder and the trial commenced.
The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of fourteen eyewitnesses and an ‘off the record’ confession made by Ryan after his arrest in which he said, “He caused his own death. In the heat of the moment you sometimes do an act without thinking. I think this is what happened to Hodson… I could have shot a lot more screws.” In court he refuted eyewitness account and denied shooting him.
Ryan’s defense team focused on the single shot that had killed Hodson. The bullet had passed straight through him and never been found. Could someone else have fired it? Warder Robert Paterson had also fired his gun, but all eye witnesses, other than Paterson, agreed that they had only heard a single gunshot. If both had fired at the same time, who knew which rifle had fired the bullet that killed Hodson?
An expert mathematician agreed that the angle from which the bullet entered Hodson could well have been the one fired by Paterson from the prison tower.
“Did you murder prison officer George Hodson?” his lawyer Philip Opas asked Ryan when he took the stand.
“No, very emphatically not,” Ryan replied.
“Did you fire a shot?” Opas countered.
“I did not discharge the gun. I have never fired that gun,” Ryan insisted.
The jury deliberated the case for seven and a half hours and found Ryan guilty of murder and Walker guilty of manslaughter.
At Walker’s subsequent trial for the murder of Arthur Henderson he was again acquitted of murder – pleading self-defense – and his 12 year prison sentence was doubled to 24.
But Ryan's legal battles were only just beginning. His appeal, which attracted huge protests from anti-death penalty activists, became bogged down in technical aspects such as whether he was still escaping after he had crossed the threshold of the prison but the appeal was ultimately dismissed and he was unanimously refused leave by judges to appeal to Australia’s High Court.
His final legal avenue was the Privy Council in London – then still the highest court for many countries in the British Commonwealth – but Opas considered their intervention unlikely.
“We’ve all got to go some time, but I don’t want to go this way for something I didn’t do,” Ryan told Opas before adding, “You know, mate, we’re playing time on. If you don’t kick a goal soon, we’re going to lose this match.”
It was the last time the two would ever see each other.
In the meantime, public opposition to the first hanging in Victoria since 1951 was mounting; newspapers, churches and numerous politicians all called on Premier Sir Henry Bolte to commute the sentence. A member of the jury even went public, insisting that if he had known that the sentence would be carried out he would not have voted the way he did. Furthermore, he added, three other members of the jury agreed with him.
The power to send convicted murders to the gallows was one the staunchly conservative Sir Henry had long believed in but rarely used. Since assuming power in 1955 his Cabinet had regularly commuted death sentences. Only once before had they determined it should be carried out and then it had been quashed by the High Court on grounds of insanity.
What made this case stand out to the arch-traditionalist was that Ryan had murdered an on duty prison officer. In later years he reflected, “In Cabinet’s opinion it was a clear-cut case. Ryan killed a warder who was doing his duty, trying to prevent a jail escape… For that Ryan deserved to die, and I’ll believe that until the day I die.”
1. Ronald Ryan was executed at Pentridge prison 50 years ago Friday. That execution did no credit at all to the Bolte government of the day.— Lex Lasry (@Lasry08) January 31, 2017
He even blamed journalists, “Let’s get one thing straight: the media hanged Ryan, not me. It had reached the stage where the Victorian government would have been discredited if it had backed down and given Ryan the reprieve the media demanded… not asked, demanded!”
A crowd of 18,000 people demonstrating in the streets for clemency did not dissuade him; nor did the 12,000-strong petition, the thousand individuals who stormed Victoria’s Parliament House or even the fact that his house now required 24 hour police protection due to the controversy.
As expected the Privy Council in London declined to hear the case and the execution was set for January 31, but one last glimmer of hope appeared when a fellow prisoner claimed to have seen Paterson shoot Hodson. The evidence was considered but quickly dismissed and the execution was rescheduled for February 3.
Personal appeals by the four concerned jurors to Queen Elizabeth in London in her capacity as Queen of Australia to exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy were denied and the execution went ahead that morning.
Prior to his execution Ryan had reconverted to the Roman Catholicism of his childhood and written goodbye letters to his family and supporters on toilet paper. Perhaps with Jesus’s last words to Judas on his mind he said to the hangman, “God bless you, please make it quick.”
He died at 8am and was buried in an unmarked grave at Pentridge Prison, where he was executed. There he remained until 2007 when the Victorian Government gave his daughters permission to rebury him with their mother.
Theories about the manner of George Hodson’s death continue to make the rounds to this day. Opas always maintained his client was innocent, describing the execution as “my one great failure.” However, Brian Bourke, a junior member of the legal team, said that even though he opposed the death penalty he believed Ryan to be guilty of the crime he was convicted of: “Some people want to believe that he's innocent and they disregard all of the confessions and they disregard the 11 witnesses who saw him raise the gun and fire the shot and saw Hodson fall,” he said recently. "There are people who convince themselves that he was innocent, that he didn't fire the shot, but it doesn't stack up."
What cannot be denied is that the staunch opposition of so many powerful sections of society lead to a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. In future years even hard line conservative Premiers felt unable to put up with the hassle that came with an execution.
The year after Ryan’s execution the small island state of Tasmania abolished the death penalty, following the lead of Queensland, which had abandoned the practice in 1922. The Federal Government followed suit in 1973, as did Victoria in 1975. South Australia did likewise in 1976 along with Western Australia in 1984. Finally, New South Wales became the final state to retire the hangman’s noose in 1985 when it abolished the capital punishment for the crimes of piracy, arson in a naval dockyard and treason.
Fifty years on from Ryan's death public support for the practice has steadily declined to the point where opinion polls estimate only about a quarter of Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty.
Ryan, who wished to be known as Australia’s “leading criminal” before he died, will likely enjoy the infamy of being the last person his country ever executed for the rest of history.