Alana Piper reviews Rachel Franks, An Uncommon Hangman: The Life and Deaths of Robert ‘Nosey Bob’ Howard (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing 2022). 9781742237343. 432pp. RRP $34.99.
In this compelling biography, Rachel Franks explores the life of Robert Howard, New South Wales’ (NSW) longest-serving hangman, who performed the role diligently throughout the colony (later state) from 1876 to 1904. During this period, ‘Nosey Bob’, so-called due to the loss of his nose in early life to accident or illness, executed 61 men and one woman. This is their story as much as Howard’s. In a mostly chronological account of the hangman’s life and career, Franks brings together a series of vignettes about the lives, crimes and – most importantly – deaths of those who Howard sent to their end.
The stories of those hanged by Howard make for a gripping narrative of NSW’s social and political history during the turbulent late colonial period. Many of those executed by Howard were individuals whose notoriety has continued down to the present day, inspiring their own biographies, documentaries, podcasts, or other retellings of their lives. Some of Howard’s most famous dispatches included: the husband-poisoner and last woman executed in NSW, Louisa Collins; Frank Butler, sometimes referred to as Australia’s first serial killer, who lured at least three men to their deaths in the Blue Mountains; bushranger Andrew George Scott, also known as Captain Moonlite, whose dying wish was to be buried beside his ‘beloved James Nesbitt’, Scott’s accomplice and reputed lover; baby-farmer John Makin, whose wife Sarah narrowly avoided joining him on the gallows; Indigenous outlaw Jimmy Governor, the real-life inspiration for Thomas Keneally’s best-selling novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; and four of the youths responsible for the Mount Rennie outrage, the most infamous gang rape in Australian history.
Franks also vividly recounts the histories of individuals who are less well-known, but whose tales often connect to issues that continue to resonate today. Racial inequalities in the justice system feature prominently across the stories of the many Aboriginal or Chinese men executed during the colonial period, such as Alfred, an Aboriginal man hanged in 1879 for sexually assaulting a woman, even though two white men convicted of rape on stronger evidence had their death sentences commuted that same year. Sexual violence and the shortcomings of the justice system are repeated themes across the book. Both are apparent in the case of Joseph Francis Aloysius Campbell, who in 1901 became the last man to be hanged for rape in NSW after sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl. Campbell had a history of such behaviour. Indeed, at the time of the assault that led to his execution Campbell should have still been in gaol serving a three-year-sentence for an indecent assault on a girl under 14, but had been given early release, a narrative that seems like it could be ripped from contemporary headlines. The recent overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States makes accounts of botched abortions ending in hangings, a fate experienced by Thomas Meredith Sheridan in 1896, particularly disturbing given the likelihood that the US will likely soon see a return of an underground industry of dangerous and unskilled abortionists.
One of the most important threads weaving throughout the book is its chronicle of changing attitudes to capital punishment and the rise of the abolition movement. This might seem to offer limited relevance to contemporary Australian policy-makers, as an issue long since laid to rest in Australia. 2022 marks the centenary of Queensland becoming the first state in Australia to abolish capital punishment; New South Wales became the last to do so in 1985. However, Australia has a continuing role to play in agitating for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. Yet this often only becomes a point of public discussion when it is Australians at risk of execution overseas, such as when over 150,000 Australians unsuccessfully petitioned the Indonesian government for clemency for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in 2015. While not shying away from the horror of the crimes that led individuals to face Robert ‘Nosey Bob’ Howard on the gallows, Rachel Franks’ biography of him does offer insight into the complexities, dangers and brutality of the capital punishment system.
For policy-makers and those interested in politics, there are perhaps also lessons in Franks’ account of how the colonial abolition movement was heavily influenced by cults of personality, the prominence of public debate on capital punishment waxing and waning with the success, misfortune or even changing opinions of the political leaders who espoused the issue. Likewise, there are potential lessons in how the continuation of the increasingly unpopular practice of capital punishment was predicated on individuals minimising their role or shifting responsibility for the system onto others: judges pointing out that it was ultimately the Governor who had the power to commute the death sentences they handed down; the Governor and executive leaving Howard as the focus of public censure as the one that physically carried out the punishment; and Howard himself in one newspaper interview divesting himself of responsibility by stating he left the work of actually ending offenders’ lives by throwing the trapdoor latch to his assistant.
During his lifetime, Howard was constructed as a symbol of a punishment that was increasingly viewed as distasteful; or as Franks writes, it was easy for the media to cast him ‘as a monster representing a system seen by many as inhuman’ (27). Franks’ biography reveals a different, more compassionate portrait of a man forced to take up a hated profession to provide for his beloved six children after accident and misfortune left him otherwise unable to provide for them. During a period when other hangmen often attended to their work drunk or profiteered by selling bits of the rope they used as ghoulish souvenirs, Howard carried out his work quietly and efficiently, earning him the nickname of the ‘gentleman hangman’. This colourful and well-researched biography is highly-recommended reading for those interested in criminal justice or media history, but will also hold appeal for more general audiences.