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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elijah Upjohn - The Man Who Hanged Ned Kelly - Part 1 [Brian Stevenson]

There is no shortage of unappealing characters in the Kelly saga, but Elijah Upjohn, the petty criminal who will be forever remembered as the man who hanged Ned Kelly, is surely the most unappealing of the lot.

There is a detailed entry on Upjohn’s pathetic life in Justin Corfield’s Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia. Corfield sums it up perfectly: “Elijah Upjohn had a sad life. It began badly, continued worse, and he died in oblivion.’

Through the wonderful National Library of Australia service, Trove, I have found extra details on Upjohn, to supplement Corfield’s entry. Corfield has details of his early years. Baptised on 1 January 1823, Elijah was presumably born in 1822, son of a delinquent father and transportee who died in the benevolent asylum in Ballarat. Elijah’s criminal career started very early and, as outlined in Corfield, he was imprisoned (and whipped) for stealing a pair of trousers at the age of eleven, and imprisoned for stealing rabbits at fifteen. He was a slow learner, and at sixteen was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing shoes, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in 1839. According to Corfield, he completed his sentence, but then served two years for armed robbery.

He cannot have been free for long, if the following news item from the Hobart Courier of 30 August 1845 is any indication:
‘COINING AND BURGLARY.’ A man of the name of Elijah Upjohn, a ticket-of-leave holder, who has long been a suspicious character, was apprehended on Thursday, by constables Goldsmith, Taylor and Brown, who, on searching him, found on his person three counterfeit sixpences, and several articles stolen from the residence of Mrs Peel, Sandy Bay road, when it was burglariously entered a short time ago. On searching the house in which Upjohn resided, in Argyle-street, the police found a mould for counterfeiting the coin of the realm, with metal and the usual implement for casting, polishing and filing. The prisoner was brought before the bench and remanded.

History seems silent on the outcome of this matter, but Elijah must have been let loose on this occasion, at least long enough to offend again:
Once more, the Hobart Courier:
8 October 1845. ‘Elijah Upjohn charged with feloniously receiving, knowing them to have been feloniously stolen, on the 31st day of August last past, one brooch, of the value of 5s, and one bracelet clasp, of the value of 1s, of the goods and chattels of John Powell. Guilty, and recommended to mercy on account of his former good character. Sentence – to be imprisoned in Her Majesty’s gaol at Hobart Town and kept to hard labour for two years.

We can only conjecture what aspects of Elijah’s previous form constituted ‘former good character’, but he can only have been relieved that his good points, whatever they were, were taken into account.

Out of prison by 1848 (according to Corfield), he moved to Melbourne in that year, and later Geelong. Here he found a woman, the slightly scarily named Ann Copp, who obviously also saw his historically elusive positive qualities. Elijah married her in Geelong on 6 June 1854: they would have five children. (According to the notice of the wedding in the Argus of 12 June 1854, the ironically named Archdeacon Stretch performed the ceremonies.)

The newlyweds moved to Ballarat where Elijah made a living carting a certain human byproduct euphemistically known as ‘night soil’ in those days. The occupation was an essential, if humble one, but Elijah did not always trouble himself with obtaining a licence, and was fined three times for this omission. He was obviously careless of his routes, and was gaoled for six months for transporting the ‘night soil’ on a public street. There is an account of a local government meeting in the Ballarat newspaper where Upjohn was said to be overcharging and the gathering refused to receive a letter from him pleading his case - one can understand the reluctance of the participants to touch his correspondence in any sense of the word.

Upjohn got tired of the occupation, and an advertisement appeared in the Ballarat star of 22 March 1859 offering his nightcart for sale. Two convictions for drunkenness and one for indecent exposure (for which he spent time in Ballarat Gaol) rounded off an undistinguished public career. Not mentioned in Corfield’s entry was the brief news item in the Argus of 2 August 1870 which referred to his discharge from custody after the evidence that he attempted to poison a horse was ‘insufficient to criminate[sic] him.’ (Curiously, the very next line refers to a Chinese man named Ah Fook being sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, with hard labour, for offering spurious gold for sale – we can only wonder if this was the same one that precipitated Ned Kelly’s early brush with the law.)

According to Corfield, Upjohn was refused a licence to continue his work with night soil, and so took up the unlikely profession of herbalist. He can’t have made much money, because in April 1880 he was arrested for 'killing and attempting to steal roosters' and was sent to gaol at Ballarat. And here he was when the former hangman, the celebrated Gately, left his place of employment, leaving a vacancy for the grim legal ceremony on the morning of 11 November 1880.

Though he was a bit player, the press more than noted Upjohn's presence. According to the Kilmore Free Press of 18 November, Upjohn was 'without the slightest sign of nervousness' during the proceedings, even when face to face with a soon to be legend who undoubtedly was. '[Upjohn's]worst expression of countenance is that of sulky doggedness ...his objectionable work was expeditiously performed without any sign of faltering ...'As Justin Corfield noted, however, Dr Edward Barker was on hand to make sure the execution went smoothly. The South Australian Advertiser of 12 November mentioned that he instructed Upjohn on how to adjust the noose, which Upjohn did in the time-honoured manner of hangmen by placing the knot close under the left ear of the condemned man. The proceedings went smoothly, and presumably to the satisfaction of all with the obvious exception of Kelly.

We don't know if Elijah was a reader of the Sydney Evening News, but he can not have been edified by his description in that journal, which was eventually reprinted in the West Coast Times, a New Zealand paper, on 17 December. 'He is an old man of about 70 years of age [actually 57], but broad shouldered and burly ... Were it not for the prison cropping, he would probably have a thick crop of hair, for thick bristles of a pure white stick up all over his crown and give him a ghastly appearance. He has heavy lips and heavy features, altogether the nose being about the most striking and ugly. It is large in proportion, and appears to have a large carbuncle at the end. Altogether the man's appearance fully mainstains [sic] the accepted idea of what a hangman should look like.'

(There is a small photograph of Upjohn in his entry in Corfield's Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia, which, sad for posterity, conveys none of this repulsion. It is undated so it is hard to guess which prison stay the photograph relates to, but the man is of reasonably pleasing appearance and looks to be in his late forties or early fifties. The nose is of average size, and appears to be carbuncle free.)

Elijah Upjohn was paid five pounds for the execution. Whether the early and fruitful years of his marriage (five children in eight years) or his nationally noted part on the scaffold of the Old Melbourne Gaol were the high points in his life we do not know, but for Upjohn, it was only downhill from here.

1 comment:

  1. Brian.. a very interesting read and thank you for sharing this
    research with interested blog readers... well done and kind regards


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