Young, Shipwrecked & Black: Australia's Unlikeliest Hangman

A historically unique event took place in a prison yard off Brisbane's Queen Street one cold Monday morning in July 1857. In fact, not only was what transpired there unheard of in the rest of Australia, I have yet to find anything similar taking place in Britain or 19th century USA.

What happened was the judicial execution of a prisoner, and although a total of 94 people were hanged in Brisbane and Queensland, this was the only time that the executioner was black (African-American, to be precise), which was all the more surprising because the prisoner was white. I say surprising because in the 1850s Brisbane and the surrounding districts were gripped by the racial tensions of the frontier, with some newspaper editors practically advocating race war to remove what they saw as the 'Aboriginal threat'. Aside from this, Chinese/European relations in the colony were also very bad. In a racial sense, capital punishment was a one-way street under western laws: Whites executed non-whites (and other whites of course).

Gallows scene.

Except this one time. The prisoner was William Teagle, who had brutally murdered his defacto wife in Toowoomba. The Sheriff of Queensland, William Brown, only received official confirmation of Teagle’s hanging just six days before it was due to take place, leaving him no time to requisition an executioner from Sydney, and so two days before the set date Brown went down to the wharves and 'waited in great anxiety’ for the Boomerang steamer to arrive from the south. To the sheriff’s great disappointment there was no hangman on board, so he had to race against time to find one.

This was no easy task, as hangmen were social pariahs at the time, but with one day left a ‘volunteer’ was found. Well, not exactly a volunteer, because the man was a prisoner and his price was a whopping ₤25 (two months wages for the chief prison warder back then) and a free pardon. The sheriff may have been desperate to agree to this, but the prisoner was almost as desperate to get out of Brisbane because during the previous six months of his life had taken some very unexpected turns.

Whaling scene
His name was Thomas Woodby, a 20-year-old African-American from New York who had previously worked as a cook on the whaling brig Packet, which sailed from Sydney in mid-1856. After eight months at sea and with 150 barrels of whale oil on board, the brig was caught up in a vicious gale several hundred kilometres due west of the northern New South Wales coastline and struck the Middleton Reef. The Packet was badly damaged and before it sank the crew abandoned ship in two small boats with nothing but biscuits and water. They were at sea for four days before finally being picked up by the schooner Ebenezer, which dropped them off at Cowan Cowan, on Moreton Island. They arrived in Brisbane in a ‘most destitute state’ some eight days after the Packet went down and were given shelter and clothing by the locals. It was March 1857.

Woodby soon found a job as a boatman on the Kangaroo Point ferry, but a couple of weeks later he appeared in the police court on two charges of stealing, firstly for a watch, and secondly for a bag of sugar. Unrepresented in court, he was acquitted of the first charge but found guilty of the second and received a one-year sentence for larceny. Initially he was to serve this in Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney, but after a couple of days the judge changed the place of imprisonment to Brisbane.

So it was that in July 1857, only a few months after being shipwrecked, Thomas Woodby was confined in a dilapidated prison in a foreign country, with most of his sentence still before him. When he was offered the job of hanging Teagle in order to obtain a free pardon and a large sum of money, it was too good an opportunity to pass by.

Given the racial mix of the main players, it was fortunate for the authorities that this was to be Brisbane’s first-ever private execution. A couple of years earlier the New South Wales parliament had abolished public hangings, which were felt to be having a detrimental effect on the populace, and so the gallows were erected in a yard of the Queen Street prison instead of on the street outside, as had previously been the practice. (This prison stood on the site of the current General Post Office).

The gaol on Queen Street,  Brisbane, 1850 (John Oxley Library).
The gaol on Queen Street, 1850. (John Oxley Library)

Privacy was still an issue because the tall gallows could be seen over the low prison walls, so a large piece of black calico cloth was draped around the upper part of the gallows to shield it from public view. The execution process itself passed smoothly, except that Teagle struggled on the end of the rope for two minutes after the drop. Sheriff Brown, however, was impressed by the way Woodby handled the job. Thomas Woodby was subsequently discharged from the Brisbane prison in September 1857, his ‘orderly behaviour in gaol’ being noted in the prison register, and with that he disappeared from the local historical record.

I’d love to know what happened next to that young African-American with £25 in his pocket (assuming the contract was honoured), and maybe one day I'll make a concerted effort to track him down in the records.

Or maybe someone who knows could just tell me?