Monday, October 26, 2009

"You'll hang by the neck until you be dead."

Last week I visited the Old Melbourne Gaol Education Unit with Matthew and his class. This excursion was focused on the justice system and how the courts worked in the 1860s. Matthew and his classmates were given a script and some costumes and ushered into an old magistrate's court room to re-enact the 1863 trial of 24 year old Elizabeth Scott, the first woman to be hanged in Victoria, for the murder of her husband.
In bringing this trial to life the class was able to see the way in which women were treated by the men in authority at that time. With little representation in court, no opportunity to speak in her own defense and an all male middle class jury, poor Elizabeth was doomed. While modern day historians have failed in their attempts to uncover any evidence to confirm or deny her innocence, there is some speculation Elizabeth Scott may not have been guilty of the charges brought against her. Two local men, friends of Elizabeth, were executed along side her, also guilty of the same crime. And while the truth will never be known, the record shows three people died to pay for the one crime. At the end of the 'trial' the students had the opportunity to explore the human rights, citizenship and justice issues they have been studying.

We exited the courtroom through the prisoners’ dock and passed under an ornate arch into one of old Melbourne's cobbled laneways. We briefly saw the cells where prisoners waited their turn for court behind heavy doors and locks, before the children ran outside happy to be free after an hour in the courtroom. The drama was soon forgotten in the business of playing.
But the adults on the tour, couldn't easily forget Elizabeth Scott, who at 14 married an abusive pub owner in his 40s. Her parents had given her in marriage to an older man in the hope he would be able to provide for her and ensure a better life. They could never imagine the drudgery her husband would make her endure as she labored to keep their business going and care for their young boys.
I would've liked to learn more about Elizabeth Scott and understand the isolation and fear which ruled her days. What place did the other two men have in her life for the three of them to be embroiled in such a tragedy? Was there anything good to be said about Elizabeth's villainous husband, or was he already a drunk before they married? What happened to the young brothers after they were placed in an orphanage? 
Sadly there is no romantic ending to this story. Only unanswered questions remain in this sliver of our history, a murky window to the past. 
And what about that one remaining question?
Did Elizabeth's heart turn to God in those final moments before the noose slipped around her neck?