The Hanging of Louisa COLLINS 1889
A Botched Trial and a Botched Hanging
The hanging of Louisa Collins was a disaster. The poor woman suffered a botched trial and then a botched hanging. It took four trials by jury to convict her of murdering her second husband, Michael, by arsenic poisoning in 1888. Thirty-six men failed to find enough evidence to convict Louisa in three trials, but the Crown persisted. A panel of “intelligent” men in the fourth trial delivered the verdict of “guilty”. The sentence; death by hanging. You wouldn’t think that could get any worse. But it did.
Editorial Outburst on the Hanging of Louisa Collins
“OFFICIAL MURDER” …
This was the attention-grabbing headline in the Bendigo Advertiser, Thursday 10 January 1889 p2. I saw this while researching a totally different subject. The Editorial made for shocking reading and made me want to discover more about this poor woman and her trial. The Editorial said:
The execrable negligence of the Darlinghurst gaol authorities in not having all the apparatus of the gallows in order, on the occasion of the execution of the unhappy woman Louisa Collins, calls for some severe and substantive punishment. The bolt was rusty and could not be drawn until driven back by repeated blows of a mallet. In the meantime, the rope around the unfortunate creature’s neck was jerked by the hangman until, it is said, she was almost choked on the drop; and the consequence of the continued tightening was that when the body at length dropped, the throat was torn open and the blood gushed forth.
The last circumstance may not perhaps be regarded as one of much importance, although it is very shocking, as the woman was then insensible to pain. But the infamous neglect to examine the bolt and to make sure that it would work readily and smoothly is a matter of the utmost concern to every human being of commonly considerate and compassionate feeling. In every part of the world which the report of this execution will reach, the conduct of the responsible officials will be deeply denounced.
It was cold hearted, cowardly, damnable. If it had been the duty of those men to slaughter some dangerous animal, every possible care would have been taken to have had the machinery at their command in thorough working order. But because they had to deal only with a defenceless woman, no thought was given to the condition of the principal means of putting her out of existence. Some such wretched bungling; has occurred before in various places, but should it be repeated in these colonies, the people of Australia with one voice should demand that the gallows be razed, and never be allowed gain to be erected anywhere throughout these lands; and it should be cast down, at any rate, and utterly abolished.
The punishment of death which the frailty and iniquity of human nature render necessary, should be carried out in the most merciful manner possible, and science should be called to the aid of the executioner. As a matter of fact, science has shown how death may be made painless and instantaneous. An electric battery and a wire are all that is required, with, of course, a trained hand to properly and effectually direct the fatal shock.
The law sanctions no torture, and if it is inflicted by the law’s administrators they should be subjected to a very heavy penalty. As we are compelled to act on the principle of a life for a life murderously taken, official cruelly in taking the forfeited life should meet with swift retributive justice; and what was it but cruelty of the most diabolical kind to leave it to chance whether the mechanisation of the gallows would act on the occasion of an execution? The Government of New South Wales will deserve unmitigated reprobation and condemnation if they do not take such steps as will surely prevent the recurrence of a similarly flagitious official crime.
Crown Gets Its Way In the Hanging of Louisa Collins
There was an inevitability to Louisa COLLIN’S guilty verdict. Despite three trials and three jury panels believing there was insufficient evidence to make a conviction, the Crown was dogged in its pursuit of a murder conviction. A fourth trial succeeded. Louisa was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang by the neck until she was dead. The Chief Justice assured Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of NSW, that she had received a fair trial. But had she? Why did it take four trials to find her guilty? How can 12 male jurors find her ‘Guilty’ after 36 male jurors found her ‘Not Guilty’?
The twice-married mother to ten pleaded ‘not guilty’ and begged for mercy as her date with death drew near. She may have thought being a woman would work in her favour. It was thirty years since a woman had been hung in NSW. Public interest in the case was widespread. However, Parkes and his Ministry didn’t expect and didn’t want, the issue raised in Parliament due to the separation of powers doctrine. Parliament was duty bound to uphold the court’s ruling and not be seen to interfere in the judicial process.
Parliament in Uproar Over the Hanging of Louisa Collins
However, six days before Christmas in 1888 the Government benches were blind-sided by Sir Ninian MELVILLE determined to have his say. He and others wanted to use Parliament to voice their concerns about the trial and sentence. Sir Ninian argued that Louise’s conviction was a travesty of justice. Another member said it was a disgrace to execute a woman. Another said it showed that New South Wales hadn’t shaken off its penal colony status. The Member for Monaro, Thomas O’MARA said if women couldn’t be flogged then they shouldn’t be executed.
The Law is the Law
Sir Henry Parkes responded with fury. Even though he didn’t believe in death as a punishment he believed the law was the law and must be upheld. If members wanted the death sentence abolished he suggested they bring in a bill and he would support it. As there was no bill before the current Parliament nothing could be done to stop Louisa Collin’s execution.
Parkes would hear nothing of the ‘spare her because she’s a woman’ argument claiming that women have committed the worst of crimes. So in 1888 women were equal with men in relation to criminal activity but not when it came to voting.
Doubts Hanging Over the Conviction
There were discrepancies in evidence. Mr John NIELD MP suggested that Louisa’s children were coached by the prosecution to give evidence against her. Sixteen-year-old Arthur said in the earlier trial, that he didn’t remember his parents arguing but in the final trial, he said they did argue over her drinking. Other issues were raised by Mr Frederick LEE. There was no evidence produced by the Crown regarding the purchase of poison by Louisa COLLINS. The Crown did not prove or disprove a motive. Furthermore, a constable didn’t properly seal a glass of milk taken from the Collins’ house to be used in evidence. It should have been done in the presence of two responsible witnesses before delivery to the Government Analyst.
Done in by ‘Rough on Rats’
The most incriminating evidence that led to Louisa’s conviction was given by daughter, May ANDREWS. She said she found an open and used box of ‘Rough on Rats’ in the house just before Michael Collins died and also found the same product in the house before her own father, Charles ANDREWS died. ‘Rough on Rats’ was a preparation containing 96-97% arsenic in white powder form. That’s all the Crown needed.
A Modern Investigation
I discovered that Caroline Overington, author and journalist spent five years investigating Louisa Collin’s case and wrote the book, ‘Last Woman Hanged’ (2014). This is definitely on my list of books to read.
Check the ‘Sources’ out at the bottom of the post if you want more information about this fascinating case with the gruesome end.