Innocence Lost: The Last Man Hanged in Queensland, by Jacqueline Craigie
Jack Sim (2013), Paperback, 121 pages
On September 22, 1913, Ernest Austin was hanged at Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane for the rape and murder of 11 year old Ivy Mitchell at Samford, north of Brisbane. It was a brutal crime and Austin, like so many others before him, paid the ultimate penalty. What makes Austin significant is that he became the last man ever executed in the state of Queensland. In 1922, after years of trying, the reformist Labor government succeeded in abolishing capital punishment, making Queensland the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do so. As a born and bred Queenslander and lifelong resident of Brisbane, this has always fascinated me, and I’ve always wondered why Austin’s repellent crime and ultimate punishment was the final tipping point that brought an end to the use of the gallows here. In fact, it wasn’t, really, the pressure to abolish the noose had been growing among the more progressive schools of thought for years and Austin was simply the last to draw the short straw before the end came. However, I’ve never really known the full story of the case that sent Austin to his fate, and Craigie has provided an excellent summary of the whole story, including Austin’s troubled childhood in Victoria, contrasted to Ivy’s sunny growing up in rural Queensland, and the events that fatefully brought them together. Craigie is not without sympathy for Austin, whose childhood and youth were simply appalling, but she does not let this come between the reader and the full horror of the crime. Ivy, described as a typically Australian blue-eyed and blond-haired girl, was savagely raped by Austin and then her throat slashed from ear to ear, and the terror of her final moments is graphically captured by Craigie, as is the grief of her family. Nor does the author spare the reader from the equal grimness of Austin’s final hours, describing in graphic detail the solemn process of judicial death. In fact, Craigie shows that this was a double tragedy, with two young lives lost. It’s by no means an entertaining read, it is graphic and harrowing, but it captures the feel of the period exceptionally well. If one can ignore the jarring fact of abysmal proof-reading and editing, which has has left a plethora of spelling errors and misplaced apostrophes, this is a worthwhile book. Not fun to read, but enthralling.