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Type: Thesis
Title: Death of a Spectacle: The Transition from Public to Private Executions in Colonial Australia
Author: Anderson, Steven
Issue Date: 2016
School/Discipline: School of Humanities: History
Abstract: This thesis examines the transition from public to private executions in colonial Australia. It asks why public executions were abolished in the colonies and how the practice of executions was affected by the passage of the legislation. New South Wales (then including modern-day Queensland), Victoria and Van Diemen’s Land all proclaimed their Private Execution Acts in 1855, South Australia did the same in 1858 and Western Australia in 1871. The pace of reform in Australia was early in the context of the British Empire with the United Kingdom stalling for another decade before finally legislating in favour of private hangings in 1868. The transition to private executions in Australia had a short-term trigger with longer-term trends underpinning a desire for change. In New South Wales, the first colony to initiate the reform, the cultural legacy of convictism and the wish to appear ‘civilised’ to the outside world played a decisive role. This sentiment was bolstered by a public execution spectacle that had, for a long time, been the subject of concern across all of the colonies. Colonial elites feared that the women, children and lower class spectators who attended public executions were being ‘demoralised’ by the violence. The publicity of hangings also enticed many criminals into displays of bravado in their final moments, a situation exacerbated by the popular expectation that they ‘die game’. Finally, bungled executions were a common feature of the colonial period and the pain it caused upon the body of the condemned was a sight that frequently distracted from the intended ‘lesson’ of the gallows. The decline of violent, public punishments in the nineteenth century has many comparisons internationally. This thesis engages with the conceptual literature on penal change—the work of Michel Foucault, Marxist scholarship, and the appropriation of Norbert Elias’ ‘Civilizing Process’—but ultimately takes an approach that places great emphasis on the unique historical contingences of Australian settlement. Above all, it takes seriously the wider beliefs and customs of colonial Australians to assess how these cultural factors impacted upon the changing way that executions were carried out.
Advisor: Sendziuk, Paul
Foster, Rob
Dissertation Note: Thesis (Ph.D.) -- University of Adelaide, School of Humanities, 2016
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