The Double Execution

“Shortly after eight o’clock […] the two prisoners, Ellen Thompson and John Harrison, who were convicted […] of the murder of William Thompson (husband of the female prisoner) near Port Douglas on the 22 October last, and who were sentenced to death by His Honour Mr. Justice Cooper, suffered the extreme penalty of the law.”

So began the report in the Brisbane Courier (14 June 1887) of the execution of Ellen Thompson, the first, and only, female to be executed in Queensland on June 13 1887.

thomp record
Photographic record, description and criminal history of Ellen Thompson, 17 May 1887 Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 8657

Ellen Thompson was born in Ireland in the 1840s, migrating to New South Wales at the age of 11 aboard the ship “Joshua” with her mother and sister. At the age of 19 Ellen married William Wood, and the couple had five children together.

Ellen and William Wood moved north, hoping to find a more comfortable life, like many others, with the discovery of gold in Far North Queensland. Wood passed away after nine years of marriage.

William Thompson was among the first to gain a plot of land to farm around Port Douglas in 1877, the settlement established to give access to the Hodgkinson River goldfields. In 1878 Ellen took up a position as housekeeper for William, a man 24 years older than her. The couple would later marry.

Whilst living with William, Ellen met Harrison, a former marine and deserter who worked on a nearby property. As reported by the Courier it was this relationship that would lead to the death of William:

“Her version of the tragedy was briefly that her husband and Harrison had been quarrelling, when she, with the intention of making peace between them, in a jocular spirit remarked to Harrison that if he did not shut up, the old man, meaning Thompson, would shoot him. Harrison immediately took up the revolver, saying “Will he? Well, I will have first shot,” at the same time firing. “

Photographic record, description and criminal history of John Harrison, 17 May 1887 Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 17250

Though Harrison offered a differing version of the murder, as detailed in this 2015 article in the Courier Mail:

“On the night before his own execution, Harrison apparently confessed all. “Between you and I,” he told one of the jailers, “I knocked old Thompson over.” “We tried to poison him twice but it took no effect. “I had a row with old Thompson and packed up my swag and went away. After about two hours I came back and then Mrs Thompson encouraged me and tempted me to do away with the old man. “I fired at him without effect. He was then lying on the ground and turned around to Mrs Thompson and said to her `you are sending me to my death’. “She mocked and laughed at him and said `Jack, go at him again’. “I sent a bullet right through his head.”

And then: “I don’t care for her. It’s the sugar I want.”

Whatever the truth of the crime, Ellen and Harrison were both executed for the murder of William Thompson. The Brisbane Courier in 1887 reported on the execution:

“She crossed the yard from the little hospital building so quietly that one could hardly imagine she was walking to her death with a companion woman, a female warder it appeared, by her side, and a guard, for form’s sake, behind. She walked with head bent a little and with hands clasped, in neat black garments, and with black bonnet thrust back a little from the drawn and haggard face, the face of a woman whose whole life has been passed in ceaseless toil.

One heard the priest’s voice raised in prayer as 8 o’clock drew near, the gloom seemed to deepen, and the wind seemed to moan passionately as it came in through the bars. A sturdy warder, pale-faced, stepped on to the scaffold, there was a rustle, the prayer sounded louder, and in a moment the murderess stood on the trap, under the fatal rope. She was white as marble, and her teeth set hard, but she never faltered, and she looked such a poor little woman as she stood there waiting to die. Her hands were clasped still, and she held a little crucifix in the right one; she protested her innocence, she bade good-bye to her children, and then she prayed in Catholic fashion−not passionately, but as one who labours under a burning sense of wrong. She never moved from where she stood, but she swayed as one fainting when the noose was drawn about her neck, her hand clasped convulsively over her crucifix, and it seemed as though her lips, under the death-cap, moved silently in prayer. The strapping warder, who stood on the scaffold, held out his hands to steady her, but she braced up in a moment and did not fall. The executioner shook the rope to clear it, he and the warder stepped to the side corridors.

At 8 precisely the bolt was drawn. Her last thought was for her children. Thud! That was the only sound, for the wind had lulled, and nobody seemed to breathe. Ellen Thompson fell straight as an arrow through the trap, her knees drew up spasmodically, and then Ellen Thompson’s body dangled lifeless. The rope had cut into the neck, severing the jugular vein, and in a moment a patch of red appeared on the white cap and a crimson stream poured over the black dress, falling in a pool on the stone floor. It was pitiful before, but it was still more pitiful now, this execution”

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2 Responses

  1. Re: “William Thompson was among the first to gain a plot of land to farm around Port Douglas in 1877, the settlement established to give access to the Hodgkinson River goldfields. In 1878 Ellen took up a position as housekeeper for William, a man 24 years older than her. The couple would later marry, primarily to legitimise Ellen’s sixth child, a daughter, who William had fathered.”

    The last statement of Ellen dated 23 May 1887 makes reference to the child’s father as being Richard Owen Jones of Mossman.

    Perhaps you have information to the contrary and, if so, we would appreciate being advised since Ellen’s story is told in our museum (the actual court house where her committal occurred).

    Noel Weare
    Email –
    for Douglas Shire Historical Society (NQ) Inc.
    PO Box 948 Port Douglas QLD 4877
    DSHS Web –
    DSHS Email –

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