Defining Moments in Australian History: Last man hanged
About 1900 people were executed in the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1901. Capital punishment declined after Federation, with 114 people executed between 1901 and 1967, when Ronald Ryan was the last.
Ryan was born in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton in 1925 to alcoholic, abusive parents. At 11, he was sent to a school for wayward and neglected boys after stealing a watch, but escaped three years later and began working as a labourer in regional New South Wales. He returned to Melbourne when he was 23 and married Dorothy George, with whom he had three daughters.
By his mid-30s, Ryan was a gambling addict and leader of a gang that broke into shops and factories. He was arrested in 1960 and sentenced to eight and a half years jail, but was released on parole in 1963. He soon returned to crime, and was sentenced to eight years jail for robbery in November 1964. Shortly after, his wife divorced him.
Ryan escaped from Pentridge Prison on 19 December 1965, alongside fellow inmate Peter Walker. A prison warden, George Hodson, was shot dead during the escape, either by Ryan or Walker – or possibly by one of the two guards who were shooting at the escapees. Both men were at large for 17 days, causing widespread alarm, especially after they robbed a bank and Walker later killed a tow-truck driver who recognised him. Following a tip-off, they were arrested outside Concord Hospital in Sydney on 5 January 1966.
At the trial, Ryan and Walker pleaded not guilty to murdering Hodson. The jury deliberated for 12 days,
and on 30 March 1966 convicted Walker of man-slaughter and Ryan of murder. The judge, Justice John Starke, was firmly against capital punishment, but was bound by mandatory sentencing legislation to sentence Ryan to death. Walker was given 12 years. Ryan’s barrister, Philip Opas QC, unsuccessfully appealed the decision in the Victorian Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia.
Although Ryan received a death sentence, it was the convention for the Victorian Cabinet to commute it to life imprisonment. No-one had been legally executed in Victoria since 1951, so it came as a shock when, on 12 December, long-serving Liberal premier Sir Henry Bolte and his cabinet declared Ryan would hang.
There has been a lot of speculation about Bolte’s motives. With a state election approaching, perhaps Bolte wanted to appear a firm leader who could maintain law and order. Or perhaps he was incensed by the embarrassment Ryan’s escape had caused his government. In any case, Bolte was determined to have his way, refusing to listen to the opposing views that were voiced by church leaders, lawyers, university students, the federal opposition, Liberal MPs, the union movement, social welfare organisations and the media.
Seven members of the jury that had convicted Ryan wrote to Bolte asking for clemency. Barry Jones, leader of the Victorian Anti-Hanging Committee, later observed, “I doubt that Ryan had any intention to kill, but I am certain that Bolte did…ultimately, all executions are political.”
Ryan’s barrister took the case to the Privy Council in London (then Australia’s highest court of appeal), but was unsuccessful. As Ryan’s legal options diminished, thousands of people signed petitions and university students mounted a round-the-clock vigil on the steps of Parliament House. Nearly every newspaper in the country editorialised against the sentence. Nationwide opinion polls showed support for capital punishment was at a historic low.
On the eve of the execution, hundreds of people gathered outside Pentridge Prison. When Ryan was hanged at 8am the following morning – 3 February 1967 – official witnesses reported that he went to his death calmly. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the prison grounds, and his family was not permitted to visit his gravesite. Only in 2007 did the Victorian government give permission for his body to be exhumed and buried next to his ex-wife.
The public opposition to Ryan’s hanging significantly contributed to Victoria’s 1975 decision to abolish capital punishment. Queensland had abolished the death penalty in 1922, Tasmania in 1968, the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory in 1973, South Australia in 1976 and Western Australia in 1984. NSW abolished it in two stages, in 1955 and 1985.
‘Last man hanged’ forms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project.