In colonial Sydney there were many unpleasant jobs one could do in public service. Convict labour was used for all manner of things in the town, from making roads, to cutting stone, to hauling timber. Convicts were used to keep the peace, inflict the floggings and, if necessary end the sentence permanently. The executioner in Sydney, a job guaranteed to make you the most despised person in town, was a job for a convict.
Sydney’s most (in)famous executioner served the crown from 1828 until 1855, hanging 490 people during his career. Alexander Green was the son of a circus performer, arriving as a convict in Sydney in 1824 and gaining a pardon in 1825 when he worked as an official scourger, swinging the lash at his fellow convicts. In 1828 he took the job as public executioner for Sydney Town and NSW, a position he held until 1855.
Green worked from the old gaol in George Street, where the condemned were hung in public in front of an appreciative crowd, as well as travelling to regional areas to carry out his ghoulish work.
He was quite good, with few botched jobs. He was instantly recognisable with a garish scar down his face where he had been hit with an axe. He also drank and was abusive, two traits that had him arrested more than once.
During his working life, Green was involved in 37 multiple executions where four or more were hung at once. The most was 11 in October 1828. Another was when he travelled to Norfolk Island to hang 13 mutinous convicts in two days.
One of the convict mutineers who didn’t hang was John Knatchbull. Knatchbull had been a gentleman, born to a Knight and served as a captain in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. Down on his luck after his discharge, Knatchbull was convicted of stealing with force and arms in 1824 and sentenced to transportation for 14 years.
He earned a ticket of leave for apprehending eight runaways, but was back in, after being caught with a forged cheque in 1831. Sentenced to hang, he was instead sent to Norfolk Island for seven years, where he was one of the ring leaders of the mutiny. As the only qualified sea captain, he was to sail the mutineers to freedom.
However, as things turned bad, Knatchbull turned to informer, saving his own neck while letting the rest drop. No doubt he watched as Green came ashore and dispatched his comrades.
Knatchbull survived Norfolk Island, returning to Sydney in 1839; finally receiving his ticket-of-leave a second time in July 1843. Not six months later he was charged with the murder of Mrs Ellen Jamieson after being found in her house with her purse and her body.
Knatchbull pleaded insane, the first time this defence had been used in the British law system. It wasn’t successful and he was once again sentenced to hang.
In February 1844, in front of a crowd of 5000 (including an estimated 2000 women and children), Knatchbull and Green met once more. This time there was no escape. Knatchbull went to the gallows outside the gaol wall at Darlinghurst so the crowd could see.
Green lasted another 11 years until, deemed insane, he was committed to Tarban Creek Asylum where he died, mad, in 1879.