The Only Woman Hanged

Back in 2011 I visited the Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley to watch Presumed Guilty, a play about the last weeks of Ellen Thomson, who was hanged at Boggo Road in 1887 and so took her place in history as only woman to be judicially executed in Queensland.

The cast of 'Presumed Guilty', Brisbane.
The cast of 'Presumed Guilty'.
Presumed Guilty was written by crime fiction writer and Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society member Margaret Dakin. I first met Margaret a few years beforehand, during the early stages of the creation of Presumed Guilty, and gave her a bit of a hand with some of the historical research. She also carried out research at libraries and archives, and if you know the story of Ellen Thomson, this background work really shines through in the play. I have dabbled slightly in the Ellen Thomson story for the book A Pit of Shame, which gives an overview of the story, but it is obvious that Margaret has delved much deeper into the details than I did. The personalities of all the characters - the prisoners, the murder victim, the judge and the solicitor - all ring true and lend the play an authenticity that anyone who knows the story will appreciate. However, it did leave me wishing that I could view the play through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with the story behind the script.

Ellen Thomson, hanged at Boggo Road Faol in 1887. (Queensland State Archives)
Ellen Thomson. 
(Qld State Archives)

All the feedback about Presumed Guilty has been very positive, including praise from several descendants of Ellen Thomson who also attended a performance. I'm no critic, but I certainly enjoyed it. The actors all did well, the staging was good, with some nice little historical props, and the way the story moved from crime scene to courtroom to cellblock gave the story just a hint of, dare I say it, an 1880s Law & Order!

The story takes an obviously sympathetic approach to Ellen's circumstances, but whether or not you think she was guilty there is no denying she was treated very harshly by the State, and other women who committed much worse crimes in Queensland were not hanged.

Congratulations to Margaret for producing this fine work, and I can't wait to see it performed at Boggo Road itself one day.