Elijah Upjohn’s life had not been a pretty or charmed one up to his big moment at 10 am in the Old Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880. It did not get much better.
Only two days after the execution, Upjohn’s new notoriety had the unlikely effect of impinging on the Theatre Royal production of Romeo and Juliet. According to the Argus of 15 November 1880, the performance was was disrupted ‘by the brutal interruptions of a knot of small boys in the gallery, composed of sympathizers of the murderer just executed.’ Friar Lawrence, a character in the play, was greeted with cries of ‘Upjohn’, and, mysteriously, ‘Susy’ whenever he appeared, followed by laughter, ‘and not the slightest attempt was made by the management to silence or remove the young ribalds.’ Despite the difficulties, the actor carried off the role with aplomb and ‘delivered the language of the Friar with sonorous sententiousness, in spite of the unmannerly interruptions to which he was exposed.’
Sometime after 1880 Upjohn moved to Coburg as a flogger, and, as Justin Corfield has noted, was ‘reported to whip fairly.’ Indeed, word of his prowess as flagellator reached the Northern Territory, with the Darwin newspaper Northern Territory times and gazette reporting on 8 December 1883 that one Pentridge prisoner, Rolland, ‘although feeling the punishment severely, politely thanked Upjohn after the last lash was administered.’ (Rolland, apparently, was made of sterner stuff than the other convict, McCann, who groaned before the first lash fell.)
Less satisfactory was Upjohn’s performance as flagellant was his whipping of three robbers, as reported in the Hobart Mercury of 14 August 1884. Upjohn flogged ‘in a most disgraceful manner, the lash being brought underneath the unfortunate recipients’ right arms’ and Upjohn was in ‘an unfit state’ to use the lash and ‘the sufferers, whilst wincing under the hangman’s unmerciful lash [felt] with a vengeance, that “the way of transgressors is hard.” ‘ According to the memoirist Dick Adolphus in the Portland guardian of 15 May 1907, ‘Upjohn used to say that he would rather hang a man than flog him, for a man who was hanged was done with, but a man who was only flogged was always to be feared.’
The Argus of 29 June 1882 reported that Upjohn had been making a nuisance of himself, annoying women and children on the public road and also in an omnibus travelling from Brunswick to Coburg. The drivers of the omnibus company had asked the manager for an order banning Upjohn from using them and there was an application before the Coburg court ‘for the abatement of this nuisance.’ Having to walk everywhere did not stop Elijah from misbehaving again, however, and the Argus of 29 September reported that the public hangman, affected by alcohol, had exposed himself in the streets of Carlton in the presence of women and children. Police Magistrate Frederick Call, who in late July 1880 had remanded Ned Kelly to face trial for the murders of Lonigan and Scanlan, fined Upjohn ten pounds, in default three months gaol. ‘The fine was not paid and he was forwarded to the Melbourne gaol.’
Perhaps it was not all bad for Elijah Upjohn during his time back in prison, according to the Sydney morning herald of 20 October 1882:
‘ [Upjohn] has been having a good time of it lately; not in respect of his higher functions, for there has been no one to hang lately, but there have been frequent flagellations, and as the flagellator is himself in prison he is able to save all his fees, and can enjoy in anticipation the festivity in which he will indulge when he comes out. No doubt if every person who deserves to be whipped were whipped, Upjohn would soon be a rich man, and might live in a fine house and keep his carriage.’
A gentleman named F Audley Bass, who taught at a school (unnamed) in Exhibition Street, Melbourne shared some recollections of Upjohn in the Argus of 30 September 1939. Peculiarly, Upjohn used to lurk on the street corner adjoining the school and wait for the local larrikins to beat him up, reasoning that he would, in time, receive generous payment (and no doubt some satisfaction) by administering judicial floggings to them if they assaulted him.
Whatever demons were in Upjohn’s mind did not abate, and, as Corfield again notes, a complaint was made two years later to the secretary of the railways that Upjohn, en route to Beaufort, ‘stripped so far as was necessary and put his beastly body out of the [train] window and relieved the calls of nature.’ (You are a diligent scholar, Dr Corfield, and a fine researcher, but perhaps tidbit could be filed under the heading of ‘too much information.’)
Upjohn redeemed himself enough to officiate at a couple of other hangings. On 26 September 1883 he performed his work at the execution of Robert Francis Burns at Ararat: the miscreant told Upjohn, as he was pinioned: ‘I have cooked eight – five in Victoria and three in Sydney – and now you are going to cook me.’ According to a report in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser of 29 September, Upjohn was very nervous and when he adjusted the rope he left the noose hanging loosely, with the knot close to Burns’s chin. The head warder pulled the noose more tightly and placed the knot at the back of Burns’s neck. Death came instantaneously.
On 21 August 1884 Upjohn acted as hangman again. This time the condemned man, James Hawthorn, suffered a lot more than Ned Kelly, probably because no one was at hand to check the Upjohn’s work. The hangman’s knot slipped under the jaw instead of behind the ear.Shortly afterwards, Upjohn was relieved of his duties. As has happened many times before and since, a friendless pariah tried to find solace in religion.
Towards the end of his wretched life, Upjohn seems to have tried to redeem himself. The Sydney morning herald reported on 29 November 1884 that he had joined the Salvation Army, to somewhat of a mixed reception.
[Upjohn] has become a shining light, if not a frightful example. It is true his comrades do not seem proud of him, and they give him a good deal of cold shoulder. But he is said to have become meek and lowly, and to take these rebuffs in a spirit of resignation. The officers of the army are proud of their new recruit, and are confident of being able to keep him from backsliding, but the army generally does not seem to be sure of him.
A short report in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser of 25 November 1884 confirmed that a number of Salvation Army officers had objected, but Major Barker, apparently someone of authority in the organization, was firm that Upjohn be accepted as a recruit.Even though it was far away, the Darwin newspaper, the North Australian, was sceptical in its issue of 26 December 1884:
Mr Upjohn wants salvation, and he will have his little plate of boiled corned beef, even if he is converted to get it…When he was proposed as a member some officers said they’d be hanged if they’d admit him.
Sad to relate, Upjohn continued to go downhill, despite whatever succor the Salvation Army provided. The Portland guardian relayed the following story from the Melbourne Herald on 27 January 1885:
The condition of Upjohn, the hangman, is becoming one which the authorities will require to consider. He is in continual dread of his life, and will scarcely move away from the precincts of any point of safety. Lately he has been hovering round the door of the Salvation Army offices, obtaining there the wherewithal to live, and when the shades of evening come he hides himself away in any outhouse he can find available, his continual idea being that people are after him to murder him. Today, as it is stated to me, he intimated that the best thing he could do was to ‘do for’ the Inspector-General and then for himself.
On 31 January 1885 he was arrested for vagrancy. The Argus of 2 February related:
He had been living precariously for some months past, and was in the habit of sleeping in outhouses. He stated that the larrikins frequently molested him, and that some have threatened him with bodily harm.
According to the Illustrated Sydney news of 4 July 1885, Upjohn removed himself to Sydney ‘as it was believed there was a plot among some expirees who he flogged to murder him.’
On 26 September 1885, a policeman at an outpost near Bourke, New South Wales, came across a sick and dying man in the desert. The policeman was unable to save his life and Elijah Upjohn died two days later. As Justin Corfield noted, the death certificate provided little but his name, testimony that his family, as well as, presumably, the rest of the world, had given up on him.
'Back of Bourke' is, of course, an Australian idiom meant to express extreme isolation. It is hard to conceive of Elijah Upjohn dying in a more appropriate place.
Few people follow the example of Samuel Colt, Captain Boycott and the Reverend Spooner by becoming words, and Upjohn did not, but his name apparently remained in the public consciousness for some time after his death. A letter to the editor of the Clarence and Richmond examiner (the Grafton newspaper) on 11 February 1890 referred to a hypothetical hangman as Upjohn, and an editorial in the 16 July 1892 edition of the Barrier miner, describing the hanging of a mine manager in effigy, said how ‘the doomed object was handed over to Mr ‘Upjohn’, the hangman who thereupon carried out his part of the performance, amidst howls from those present.’ But Elijah Upjohn’s name was not destined to be a household word, and he would be forgotten except for the grim role that he played on the scaffold of the Old Melbourne Gaol on the morning of 11 November 1880.