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The Last Man Hanged (1993)

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clip Political hanging education content clip 2

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Father John Brosnan, priest to hanged man Ronald Ryan, compares the Ryan hanging to that of Ned Kelly in that both were political. The judge, Sir John Starke, says that the then Victorian premier, Sir Henry Bolte, insisted that the sentence be carried out.

Curator’s notes

Interviews with the judge, Sir Justice John Starke, and the priest, Father John Brosnan clearly nominate politics as the reason for the hanging. It is unusual for these people to make such a stark claim. The still photographs used to depict Henry Bolte are also carefully selected to show him looking overjoyed.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Pentridge prison-chaplain Father John Brosnan and Sir John Starke talking about the role played by then Victorian premier Sir Henry Bolte in the hanging of Ronald Ryan. These interviews, as well as the voice-over narration, are illustrated by black-and-white photographs, including an image of another former premier Sir Rupert Hamer and Sir Henry Bolte, both in formal attire. The clip concludes with four still, black-and-white images of Bolte. The first shows Bolte in evening dress, alighting from a car and being greeted by bikini-clad young women, and the second shot is of him wearing academic dress. In the third image Bolte is captured toasting an unseen companion, and in the fourth he is again in academic regalia. These final images are accompanied by the narrator speculating about the timing of the order to execute Ronald Ryan.

Educational value points

  • The clip concerns the case of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia, and the national debate on the issue of capital punishment that preceded and followed his hanging. Following Ryan’s death sentence a political, public and press debate raged. An anti-hanging committee was formed. Churches, universities, unions and a large number of the legal profession opposed the sentence. An estimated 18,000 people participated in street protests and 15,000 signed a petition against the hanging. Melbourne newspapers The Age, The Herald and The Sun ran campaigns in opposition and at the time of the execution the then Australian Broadcasting Commission suspended radio broadcasts for 2 minutes as a protest.
  • Ronald Ryan (1926–67), the subject of this clip, was a petty criminal who had endured a childhood of poverty and abuse. Having received a second prison sentence in 1964, Ryan accompanied by another prisoner, Peter Walker, broke out of Melbourne’s Pentridge prison. A prison officer was shot during the break-out. Following their recapture, Walker was convicted of manslaughter and Ryan of the murder of the prison officer. Despite appeals and public protest, the premier of Victoria refused to commute the death sentence. Ryan was hanged on 3 February 1967.
  • Henry Bolte (1908–90), Victoria’s longest serving premier, was a key figure in the hanging of Ronald Ryan. Until this time, the government in Victoria had commuted every death sentence passed since 1951, when three people had been executed for a single murder. At the time of the Ryan sentence there were at least four cabinet members who opposed capital punishment but the premier, facing an election in 1967, was determined to prevail. His strong stand for law and order contributed to his winning the election, gaining an additional six seats.
  • The hanging of Ronald Ryan contributed significantly to the debate over the abolition of capital punishment in Australia. Since Federation in 1901, only 114 people have been legally executed in Australia. In 1922 Queensland became the first state to abolish the death penalty. The last state was New South Wales, in 1985. Victoria abolished capital punishment in 1975, 8 years after Ryan’s execution. Under federal law, the death penalty was abolished in 1973 when the Death Penalty Abolition Act was passed.
  • Father John Brosnan (1920–2003), who is interviewed in the clip, was Catholic chaplain at Pentridge prison for 30 years and became famous as chaplain to Ronald Ryan. Along with a number of church leaders, he campaigned to save Ryan’s life and was with Ryan at the time of his execution. Brosnan supported prisoners and their families, who held him in high regard. After more than 50 years of service he retired from active ministry in 1998.
  • The Tait case, referred to in the clip, is said to have played a role in Ryan’s hanging and therefore in the history of capital punishment in Australia. In 1961 Robert Peter Tait was convicted of the murder of a woman and sentenced to death. Debate followed in the press and in parliament over Tait’s mental state at the time of the offence and over capital punishment. Although several dates were set for the execution, on 5 December 1962 the death sentence was commuted on the basis of Tait’s impaired mental health. He died in 1984 as Victoria’s longest serving prisoner.
  • The way the press can attempt to influence public opinion and political outcomes is alluded to in the reference to Graham Perkin (1929–75), former editor of The Age. All the Melbourne papers ran strong campaigns against executing Ryan and Premier Bolte put pressure on the chairman of David Syme Limited, which published The Age, to soften its editorial stance. Graham Perkin, as editor, resisted. On the other hand Sir Frank Packer, media proprietor of The Bulletin, succumbed. He pulped an issue of The Bulletin containing material critical of capital punishment and forced the cancellation of a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary on capital punishment that was to be broadcast on Channel Nine.

This clip starts approximately 20 minutes into the documentary.

This clip shows Pentridge prison-chaplain Father John Brosnan and Sir Justice John Starke talking about the role played by then Victorian premier Sir Henry Bolte in the hanging of Ronald Ryan. These interviews, as well as the voiceover narration, are illustrated by black-and-white photographs, including an image of another former premier Sir Rupert Hamer and Sir Henry Bolte, both in formal attire. The clip concludes with four still, black-and-white images of Bolte. The first shows Bolte in evening dress, alighting from a car and being greeted by bikini-clad young women, and the second shot is of him wearing academic dress. In the third image Bolte is captured toasting an unseen companion, and in the fourth he is again in academic regalia. These final images are accompanied by the narrator speculating about the timing of the order to execute Ronald Ryan.
Father John Brosnan I think the reason why the Ryan hanging is still of interest, as the Kelly execution 110 years ago, that both of those executions were highly political, and that was why Ryan has lived all these years and Kelly has lived over a century. Ah, Henry Bolte said to Graham Perkin, the editor of The Age, a very fine newspaper man who died well before his time, and Graham Perkin told me of Henry’s words. 'You so and sos beat me over Tait – I’ll beat you over Ryan. He who laughs last, laughs best.’

Sir John Starke Bolte received a big shock when we beat him in the Tait case with – the Tait execution wasn’t allowed to proceed. And that really infuriated Bolte, and he was waiting for the next cab off the rank, and poor Ryan happened to be the next cab.

Narrator Sir Henry’s round Punchinello face masked his political cunning. Initially thought of as a stopgap leader, he came to dominate the Melbourne establishment by showing the political will to make the hard decisions. In a masterful piece of timing, Sir Henry exploited the approach of the Christmas season, hoping to distract the public from the announcement of Ryan’s execution.

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