The con­vict who used the noose to save his own neck

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

In the mid-19th cen­tury, of all the far-flung out­posts of the Bri­tish Em­pire none was as re­mote as Van Diemen’s Land. It was, for all in­tents and pur­poses, the end of the world.

It was to this dis­tant is­land fortress that Solomon Bleay (bet­ter known as Blay), a 20-year-old English con­vict suf­fer­ing from syphilis, was trans­ported for 14 years for the crime of coun­ter­feit­ing. Blay had pre­vi­ously been sen­tenced to jail for four months and 12 months re­spec­tively for steal­ing onions and pota­toes.

Of the 70,000 felons sent to Van Diemen’s Land, only one be­came Her Majesty’s pub­lic ex­e­cu­tioner. On Au­gust 3, 1840, con­vict num­ber 2598, Solomon Blay, was ap­pointed ‘‘hang­man of Ho­bart Town’’. How­ever, it wasn’t un­til Jan­uary 1841 that he per­formed his first ex­e­cu­tion, a dou­ble hang­ing in Launce­s­ton.

In the well-pro­duced Solomon’s Noose, former jour­nal­ist and editor Steve Har­ris tells the in­trigu­ing story of the Bri­tish Em­pire’s youngest and longest-serv­ing hang­man. Sent to the is­land colony in 1837, he was par­doned in 1857, hanged his last crim­i­nal in 1887 and died in 1897, lonely in a rented room in North Ho­bart in the grip of the grog to which he be­came ad­dicted.

Al­though an­other former con­vict, Alexan­der Green, had hanged 470 peo­ple in NSW, it was Blay in Van Diemen’s Land who, in dis­patch­ing 206 men and women, prob­a­bly had the high­est hang rate per capita in Aus­tralia, if not in the en­tire Bri­tish Em­pire. Quite a boast.

The prob­lem I have with Solomon’s Noose is how to place and de­scribe it. Is it his­tory, a his­tor­i­cal novel, a fic­tion­alised bi­og­ra­phy or a work of fac­tion? In his author’s note, Har­ris writes: “Any thoughts of Solomon Blay are based on his own com­ments and cor­re­spon­dence, and sug­gested thoughts are in­ter­pre­tively drawn from the me­moirs and ob­ser­va­tions of other hang­men.”

The fol­low­ing ex­tract, taken from chap­ter three, Ar­rival at the End of the World, can serve as a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple: Blay didn’t see him­self as any­thing unique among the lat­est boat­load of con­victs. Like so many he had rolled the dice in his im­pov­er­ished life when there seemed no other choice, tak­ing to crime in or­der to sur­vive, and had been caught and ban­ished. Blay cer­tainly didn’t think that be­fore too long he would need to roll the dice again, and this time it would be a choice that would stand him as unique among all the 70,000 con­victs sent to Van Diemen’s Land.

My sim­ple ques­tion is: How do we know this? In the light of this, it is un­for­tu­nate that Har­ris has es­chewed the use of foot­notes and ref­er­ences and the book has no in­dex. It also seems to me pe­cu­liar that his Se­lect Bib­li­og­ra­phy and Sources sec­tion is so se­lec­tive. For ex­am­ple, when he deals in some de­tail with Abo­rig­i­nal Tas­ma­ni­ans, Har­ris makes no men­tion of Lyn­dall Ryan’s cru­cial his­tor­i­cal work on this im­por­tant topic.

But this re­viewer at least was able to ex­er­cise a will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief and I soon be­came im­mersed in Har­ris’s cap­ti­vat­ing tale of Blay’s life and times. Through­out his long ca­reer, Blay was no­to­ri­ous in the colony and some of his very pub­lic hang­ings were wit­nessed by up to 1000 spec­ta­tors. In­deed one of the most pow­er­ful images in Solomon’s Noose is that of a large wooden scaf­fold fea­tur­ing the so-called “ex­e­cu­tion party”, which al­ways in­cluded a mem­ber of the clergy “to min­is­ter words of com­fort to the con­demned”.

As a hang­man, Blay was most likely the last per­son to look into the eyes of more than 200 men and women, who ranged in age from 16 to 76. He was, as Har­ris puts it, the fi­nal wit­ness to “the strug­gle be­tween law and or­der, good and evil, hu­mankind and Mother Na­ture, hope and fear”. It is there­fore not sur­pris­ing that, sup­pos­edly, Blay of­ten looked away and turned his back af­ter each hang­ing.

Har­ris tellingly con­cludes his clearly writ­ten and use­fully il­lus­trated book by claim­ing, rightly it would seem, that Blay’s “choice of es­cap­ing pun­ish­ment by be­com­ing a hang­man was its own life sen­tence”. Adopt­ing, as a means of earn­ing a liv­ing and of keep­ing out of pri­son, the task of hang­ing peo­ple by the neck un­til they were dead al­most cer­tainly had a con­sid­er­able price.

“Ev­ery time the bells tolled to fore­tell a hang­ing, they also tolled for Blay,” Har­ris writes. “Ev­ery time he dropped an­other soul into eter­nity, he re­treated into his own cell of self, liv­ing with his own noose of per­sonal de­mons and pub­lic damna­tion.”

Even though its his­tor­i­cal sta­tus is some­what am­bigu­ous, Solomon’s Noose is a fas­ci­nat­ing read.

is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Univer­sity.

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