Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
Between 1845 and 1924, Melbourne Gaol housed some of Australia’s most notorious criminals – including the outlaw Ned Kelly, and a serial killer believed by some to have been Jack the Ripper.
The three-storey museum charts the lives and deaths of both prisoners and staff, with often-morbid exhibitions including the death masks of executed criminals. Meanwhile, many visitors report disembodied voices and strange goings-on around the cellblock, sparking the interest of paranormal investigators.
I visited the gaol not just to feed my own fascination with Australia’s history; but also to better understand how a site linked to so much death and suffering, could yet become an enduring landmark of Australia’s ‘Garden City’.
The Old Melbourne Gaol Museum
Located on Russell Street in what is now the city’s CBD, the construction of Old Melbourne Gaol began in 1839. It opened its doors to convicts in 1845, and, located adjacent to the City Courts and City Police Watch House, Russell Street soon became the heart of Melbourne’s judicial and penal system.
The Old Melbourne Gaol Museum is now reckoned to be one of the most-visited tourist attractions in all of Australia. The three storeys of this remaining wing have been opened up to guests, its cells filled with letters and memorabilia, photo archives and death masks.
Melbourne’s first gaol was built on a plot of scrubland, northeast of the city. It was known locally as ‘Wintle’s Hotel’, named for the gaoler George Wintle who was appointed to the task in 1838.
As the population of Wintle’s Hotel grew though, construction began on a new site. Melbourne Gaol was built on the corner of Russell and La Trobe streets, but by 1850 it was already overcrowded.
The Australian Gold Rush (following the 1851 discovery of gold in the newly founded Colony of Victoria) brought a huge influx of people to Melbourne – and with it, a surge in lawlessness.
To meet this demand, a new prison wing was built between 1852 and 1854 using bluestone in place of the sandstone used for the first gaol building. Over the following years further extensions were added. The new wing grew considerably from 1857 to 1859, and was joined by a north wing in 1860, which incorporated a series of entrance buildings and a chapel. These new plots followed the established form for prisons of the time – with many design characteristics inspired by London’s notorious Pentonville Prison.
Up until this point, male and female prisoners had lived in mixed cellblocks. However, unsavoury conditions prompted the building of a female cellblock between the years of 1862 and 1864; around the same time that women’s rights advocates such as John Stuart Mill were preaching gender equality overseas.
By the time of the gaol’s completion in 1864, the complex covered an entire block, and featured bath houses and a hospital, exercise yards and a chapel. Many of the gaolers and their families lived within the walls, with a total of 17 staff houses appearing along the side of Swanston Street.
Following World War I, parts of the gaol were incorporated into the neighbouring RMIT University, and excepting a brief period of use during World War II, those parts of the gaol not torn down were preserved in the form of a museum.
Meet the Inmates
Passing through the entrance building and into the lofty cellblock of Old Melbourne Gaol, visitors are free to explore for themselves. The ground floor and two higher levels, connected with metal stairs and walkways, are each lined with cells.
A few of these are locked closed, whilst others provide spy holes onto tortured mannequins dressed in prison smocks of the period.
Most of the cells have been turned into exhibition rooms however, chronicling the lives of the gaol’s inhabitants through a collection of personal effects, letters and contemporary news clippings. Most striking of all, are the death masks.
The study of phrenology, developed in 1796 by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, was reaching peak popularity around the middle of the nineteenth century. Although largely discredited now, phrenology was nevertheless an important precursor to modern neuropsychology; looking to connect the characteristics and traits of an individual with localised areas of activity within the brain. It was believed that different urges and emotions had their origins in particular regions of the brain… and that the physical size of these regions could be used as an indicator for the magnitude of the impulse.
With this explanation in mind, many physicians became increasingly fascinated by the shapes of skulls. Needless to say, those of convicts were treasured in particular, as experts would measure the contours of the head in order to find links to their behaviour. It was hoped that in time, an understanding of phrenology could inform a kind of ‘early warning system’ for violent offenders.
Many of the inmates executed in Old Melbourne Gaol became unwitting contributors to this great experiment. Immediately after hanging, the head would be shaved entirely for the application of a plaster cast. This would later be used to create wax replicas for study.
It was eerie to say the least, walking through the cells of Melbourne Gaol and reading about those who lived their last days inside its walls; watched all the while by the waxen faces of those very same convicts.
These rich characterisations are the real treasure of the museum; each death mask accompanied by personal effects and news headlines, charting the history of the wicked, the desperate, and sometimes the unfortunate inmates of Old Melbourne Gaol.
Take Basilio Bondietto, for example – a 65-year-old Swiss-Italian migrant worker, who was accused of the murder of a colleague in 1876. Without speaking a word of English, and with no interpreter, Bondietto remained seemingly naïve of his fate on the gallows right up until the last minute.
Another victim of the rope, An Gaa, was an immigrant Chinese miner working on a claim beside the Loddon River. He murdered his mate Pooey Waugh, apparently without motive, after the two had been smoking opium together in their bark hut. Governor John Castieau mentioned him in a journal entry dated 29th August 1875:
“The Chinaman who is to be hanged tomorrow was very restless,” Castieau wrote after a visit to the chapel, “and made such a noise with his irons that I was obliged to get the clergyman to stop the service and have the condemned man removed.”
One of the more notable convicts executed at Old Melbourne Gaol was the serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming. Deeming began his career when he ran away to sea at the age of 16; after years of theft and fraud, in 1891 he was found responsible for the murder of his first wife and their four children in England. Later that same year, his second wife suffered a similar fate in Melbourne.
Frederick Bailey Deeming was executed at the Old Melbourne Gaol in May 1892, to great public applause; with as many as 12,000 people gathered in the streets outside.
Meanwhile, the violent and misogynistic nature of Deeming’s crimes – along with the time he spent in England – led many contemporary commentators to speculate a link to the 1888 murders of Jack the Ripper.
Of all the gaol’s residents though, none were quite so infamous as Australia’s notorious bushranger and outlaw, Edward “Ned” Kelly.
Ned Kelly was born sometime towards the end of 1854, his father an Irish convict who spent most of Ned’s childhood in trouble with the law. Ned made a name for himself early, when he saved a younger child from drowning in a creek, and was awarded a sash for his bravery. After John “Red” Kelly died in 1866, his son Ned adopted a lifestyle of bushranging and petty crime.
Following an incident at his home in 1878, Kelly went on the run. Acting on behalf of Victoria Police, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick arrested Dan Kelly at the property, and in his report claimed that he had been fired upon by Ned Kelly. Other sources, including an interview with Kelly himself just prior to execution, state that Kelly had been 200 miles away at the time.
However, when Kelly and his gang later killed three policemen while on the run, his fate was decided for him.
The gang were finally confronted in June 1880 at Glenrowan, Victoria. Kelly entered the gunfight wearing home-made armour forged from plough blades; following the bloody confrontation, Ned Kelly was taken back to the Old Melbourne Gaol and hanged for murder in November of the same year. As was common practice at the time, his head was detached and taken for phrenological study, while his headless body was buried in an unmarked grave. He was 25 years old.
It’s interesting to note that despite his reputation for violent crime, Kelly remains an enduring icon of Australian history, remembered fondly by many for his pioneering and independent attitude. His struggle is also deeply symbolic of the resistance of Irish-Australian immigrants against the ruling Anglo-Australian classes.
Ned Kelly’s death mask now stands in an imposing cabinet on the ground floor of the gaol, placed where it can gaze out along the length of the cellblock. His skull itself was once displayed here too, until its theft in 1978.
Meanwhile, beside the death mask cabinet, a mock-up suit of armour in the style of Kelly’s hangs on a wooden stand. “Kids,” the exuberant sign invites, “dress up in Ned’s armour!”.
The Art of Hanging
There were a total of 135 hangings conducted at Old Melbourne Gaol. The scaffold can still be seen today, jutting out from the first floor landing at the rear end of the cellblock. Women were hanged here as well – starting with Elizabeth Scott on 11th November 1863, the first woman to be hanged in Victoria.
It’s a somewhat macabre feature in the museum, and during my visit I observed three different groups playing with the rope, or posing for photos around the lever which operated the trapdoor.
A display case on one wall contains a model of the hanging mechanism. A tiny figurine stands on the gallows inside, a noose around his neck – and when a large red button on the exterior of the case is pressed, the body drops through the trapdoor to dangle on a piece of string.
A young child was playing with the exhibit when I arrived; he conducted six successive hangings before his parents called down to him from the next floor, and he moved on.
The cell beside the gallows had been re-imagined as a small exhibition, showcasing ‘the art of hanging’. A hand-written table in a case on one wall showed a series of weights and measures, detailing the mechanics of the procedure. It quotes Charles Duff, who in 1928 wrote his book, ‘A Handbook on Hanging’.
“Hanging is a fine art and not a mechanical trade,” according to Duff. “Is not a man an artist who can painlessly and without brutality despatch another man?”
If the rope was too short in relation to body weight, it would bruise and suffocate rather than breaking the neck. Too long, and the momentum of the drop was liable to pull the head clean off.
A fine example of this theory in practice, comes from the execution of Colin Campbell Ross in 1922. Ross was a bar owner, convicted of the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. The hangman used a new four-strand rope, and the force of the drop did not prove sufficient to kill; instead, Ross was slowly strangled by the rope for more than forty minutes prior to death .
Before long, the gaol switched from a conventional knotted noose to using leather tubing around the rope, which would slide effortlessly through a metal ring to tighten. The last execution held in the Old Melbourne Gaol was Angus Murray, who died here in 1924 on the same day that the gaol was finally closed. Later, in 1932, the scaffold was re-erected at Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison located further north in Coburg. Most of the work was conducted by David Bennett, a carpenter accused of rape, his own being the first life to be taken by the Pentridge scaffold.
The original scaffold was returned to Old Melbourne Gaol in the 1970s, and went back on display in 2000.
The City Watch House
Old Melbourne Gaol is more than just an artefact, as it aims to engage visitors with immersive first-hand experience; the gaol hosts after-dark ghost tours, as well as regular dramatisations of the story of Ned Kelly. One of the most interesting experiences of my visit, was being arrested at the City Police Watch House.
This building stands adjacent to the gaol, directly across a grassy courtyard now used by the university. I had signed up to experience the arrest procedure when I bought my entry ticket, and at the appointed hour a bell rang, inviting arrestees to the City Watch House.
I gathered outside with a group of eight others (including Australian, American and Chinese visitors), to be led in single file through the main entrance. This site was in use as a holding facility up until the 1990s, making the arrest experience feel all the more authentic.
The Charge Sergeant on duty provided each guest with an information sheet – allowing them to answer questions on behalf of a predetermined character – before heading into the cells. Here we were given a good telling-off, searched for concealed weapons, and then confined to a pitch black cell for five minutes.
On the way out, my fellow convicts queued in line for souvenir mugshot photos.
I headed straight outside, pondering all that I had seen. Old Melbourne Gaol is a truly fascinating museum, not least due to the level of interaction that visitors are permitted. Having seen a pre-teen child playing with a mock scaffold however, and two American girls posing for photos, pulling gruesome faces with a rope twisted around their necks, I found myself questioning the nature of that interaction.
Which came first – the dissociation from morbid reality that allowed such interaction, or, did the interaction with death serve to normalise it; to commoditise it, as dark tourism experts such as Dr. Philip Stone have hypothesised?
To further complicate matters, Old Melbourne Gaol is one of the oldest institutions in the state of Victoria; and yet its most famed exhibit, Ned Kelly, was a folk hero who lived in rebellion against that same state. The gaol is certainly not being marketed as the scene of past atrocities – no apology is offered for what happened here – but rather it offers an insight into how things were done back then. It is merely an outdated precursor to Melbourne’s current penal system.
Whatever the answer, the museum is certainly not to blame. The artefacts and information contained within are presented without bias, and without politics. An estimated 140,000 visitors come each year, to immerse themselves in this world of death masks and scaffolds. I would imagine that for many of them, these gruesome exhibits are simply fragments from another world, a world completely detached from their own reality. One thing is clear from these figures, though: death sells.
Visit the official website for Old Melbourne Gaol
 Ross was later found to have been innocent, and received a posthumous pardon in 2008.
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