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The Man They Couldn't Hang

ONE hundred and fifty

years ago to-day the drum beat of the New South Wales

Corps invited the citizens  

Sydney to watch the execution of two men who had been con- victed of robbery. One was  

Joseph Samuels, destined to historic fame as "The Man who Couldn't Hang."

Three times was Samuels launched off the executioner's  

cart. Twice the rope broke, and once it unraveled. Then, urged by the public clamour, the Pro-  

vost Marshal sped off on horse- back to report the extraordinary happenings to Governor King.

An hour later he was back with a reprieve in his pocket. The  

half-throttled Samuels was laid carefully on the cart and jolted off to hospital, there to be re- stored to serve a life sentence.    

In the long and grisly annals  

of capital punishment there is no other record of a victim having    

cheated the gallows three   times. There have been occasional   bungles, when the rope    

has broken or slipped once. But the case of "The Man They   Couldn't Hang" is unique, and   authority may well have felt, as   contempories strongly believed   that "the hand of Providence was   outstretched" to save the neck of     Joseph Samuels.  

The affair was the climax to   the mystery of a robbery and     particularly atrocious murder   that had engaged Sydney's     horrified attention a few week   earlier.  

Soon after midnight on Friday  

August 26, 1803, Constable  

Luker, an ex-convict turned,  

guardian of the peace, went off  

on his beat to search the scrub near Back Row (now Phillip Street).   Earlier in the evening, his neigh-   bour, Mary Breeze, who also     lived in Back Row, had reported   that a couple of ruffians had     broken into her house about dusk   and stolen a desk containing £24    

in guineas, silver dollars and small change.    



proper sense of his rights, told      

the mistress Breeze that he did not go on duty until midnight, but that   after that hour he would be   pleased to investigate the crime.   He further told her he suspected    

that the rogues would gather at the lodgings of a fellow-constable  

Isaac Simmonds, notorious   for the bad company he kept.     "By daybreak I shall have   broken up the scoundrels," the     Constable Luker is reported     to have said. But alas for    

prophecy a few hours later his "breathless corpse" was discovered beside the road leading from     Back Row to Farm Cove. His     head had been shockingly battered   and the hilt of his cutlass     was buried in his brains. Nearby   was the bloodstained wheel of a  


"The Velocity with which the   necessary measures of Enquiry   were adopted could only be     equalled by the Public Anxiety   to discover the perpetrators of the inhuman act," said the "Syd-   ney Gazette." "The Search was   animated by the Presence of His   Excellency, the Governor; the   Lieutenant-Governor was also  



present; every officer, whether civil or military, exerted himself in endeavouring to trace the


The New South Wales Corps was called out to blockade all roads leading from the town. A score of bad characters were rounded up. A trooper was sent off to Parramatta with the Hue and Cry.

The "Sydney Gazette" wound up its account of the day's pro- ceedings with the peroration: "Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment."

Avenging Heaven soon directed the investigators to a barrow, without its wheel, in the yard of a house belonging to Sarah Laurence, where Constable Isaac Simmonds lodged. Simmonds was at once hailed before the magistrates, together with a fel- low-lodger, William Bladders (alias Hambridge, or Embridge), and the pair were charged with


Simmonds and Bladders ap- peared to have an unbreakable alibi for their movements on the night of the robbery. Three other suspicious characters, Joseph Samuels, Richard Jack- son and John Russel, all of whom also lodged in Sarah Laur- ence's "skilling," were thereupon arrested and charged with this crime.

Russel sullenly denied any part in the proceedings, and said

he had been cutting wood for Sarah at the time of the rob- bery. However, Samuels and Jackson confessed, and tumbled over themselves to turn King's Evidence against each other.

Jackson led the magistrates to the place where the stolen chest was hidden. Samuels, not to be outdone, took them into the scrub near Back Row and unearthed a cache of 32 silver dollars, ten spoons, beads and needles. He also dug up two £2 pieces from beneath a fig tree in the garden of W. Noah.

Jackson was accepted as a Crown witness, and Samuels and Russel appeared in the Criminal Court on September 21, 1803, on the capital charge of robbery from a dwelling house. Samuels was found guilty and sentenced to death. Russel was acquitted.

Nine days later, Simmonds and Bladders (alias Hambridge, or Embridge) were tried in the same court for the murder of Con- stable Luker. Fellow-lodgers in Sarah Laurence's house said that Bladders was at home all the

fatal evening, and did not go out   until "drum beat" in the morn- ing.

Bladders accounted for blood

on his clothing by the fact - that he had slaughtered a pig ; that morning. Simmonds, whose

room appears to have been lit- tered with bloodspotted handker- chiefs, said that he was often dis- tressed by violent nose-bleeding.

Despite testimony that Sim- monds had been seen wiping stains off the wheelbarrow, both Simmonds and Bladders were ac- quitted.

At 9.30 a.m. on September 26, 1803, Joseph Samuels and James Hardwicke were brought in a cart from Sydney Gaol to the gallows near Brickfield Hill. Hardwicke had been convicted of robbery from a debtor's room in the gaol, an unprofitable field, one would have thought, for such an enter- prise.

After the Rev. Samuel Mars- den had spoken to Hardwicke, he solemnly exhorted Samuels to re- veal any information he had about the murder of Luker.

Samuels at first refused to speak, " then, "deeply imprest with a be- coming sense of his approaching end," he accused Simmonds of being the murderer.

Standing on the cart, with the noose dangling beside him, Samuels told the interested spec- tators that, while they had been in the same cell, Simmonds had admitted the crime.

SIMMONDS, who had been

brought to witness the execu- tion, frequently tried to interrupt Samuels's harangue with protes- tations of innocence. But, said the "Gazette," Samuels's dying speech "gained credit among the spectators, in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened."

With fine disregard for laws of libel and contempt of Court, the "Gazette" proceeded: "Odium and suspicion were attached to Simmonds from the very first ...

Although, from the want of that full and sufficient evidence which the law requires, he escaped con- demnation, yet he had been ar- raigned at the arbitrary tribunal of Public Opinion and most of the spectators pronounced judg- ment against him in their

hearts. ...

"It is not to be wondered, then, that a testimony . . . proceed- ing from the lips of a dying man . . . should at once remove all doubt, if such remained, and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective."

In the middle of Samuels's accusations, and while the troop- ers were shielding Simmonds from the fury of the crowd, a last-minute reprieve arrived for Hardwicke, who was removed from the cart amid the cheers of his friends.

This left Samuels alone. What happened next is best described by the eye-witness account in the "Sydney Gazette":

"Samuels devoted the last aw- ful minute allowed him to the most earnest and fervent prayer; at length the signal was given and the cart drove from under him, but by the concussion the sus- pending cord was separated about the centre and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless, with his face down- ward.

"The cart returned and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was ap-

plied in lieu of the former; he

SYDNEY TO-DAY.-A glimpse of the interior of the Mitchell Library, which houses some 200,000 items of Australiana. The Mitchell wing of the Public Library is a mem- orial to the beneficence of David Scott Mitchell (1836-1907). It was opened in 1910.

was launched off, but the line unrove and continued to slip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.

"All that beheld were moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work ...

"To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised and sup- ported on men's shoulders while the executioners prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck."

Then, says the "Gazette," "compassion could no longer bear restraint." The crowd burst into an outcry of protest and heartily hooted the Provost Marshal and the executioners. Finally, the Provost Marshal, after an ani-

mated discussion with the hang- men, galloped off to interview Governor King.

When the reprieve arrived, the Wretched, half-strangled Samuels was still only semi-conscious, "his reasonable faculties totally im- paired" by what he had en- dured. Under medical treatment he later recovered.

"And may the grateful remem- brance of these events direct his future courses!" was the "Gazette's" final comment.

Later in the day, a rope that had been used in the execution was tested at the gaol, being sus- pended from a beam with seven weights, each of 561b, attached to the other end. One of the strands was cut, then another, but the third strand was sufficient to support the whole weight.

Why the rope had snapped under the weight of Joseph Samuels no one could say.

Whether Samuels profited by the "Gazette's" final exhortation we do not know. But in April, 1806, eight convicts at King's Town (Newcastle) stole an open boat and made a break for free- dom. One of the convicts was named Joseph Samuels, who may well have been "the man they couldn't hang."

On May 18, 1806, the "Gazette" reported that the Gov- ernment ship Resource went in pursuit of the fugitives, but "after running beyond Port Stephens and accurately examin- ing every creek, bay and inlet, returned well satisfied that the unhappy men had never outlived the tempest on thc second night subsequent to their unfortunate flight."

There do not appear to be records that Samuels and his companions were ever heard of again.

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