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Alexander Green (1802–?)

by Ken Macnab

This article was published:

Alexander Green (c.1802-1855+), flogger and public executioner, was born in the Netherlands, son of a travelling circus performer. At Shrewsbury Quarter Sessions on 16 January 1824 he was sentenced to be 'transported for the term of his natural life' for stealing a 'piece of brown stuff from a shop'. His indent read: 'Native Place: Holland; Calling: Tumbler; Age: 22; Height: 5 ft 4½ ins [163.8 cm]; Complexion: Pale, pitted; Hair: Flax; Eyes: Lt Blue'. He reached Sydney in the Countess of Harcourt on 12 July 1824.

Lodged in Hyde Park barracks, Green was assigned briefly to William Hutchinson, then Samuel Marsden. He received a conditional pardon in May 1825, worked intermittently as an official scourger at the barracks and Sydney gaol, as a labourer and honorary constable at Port Stephens, and eventually as assistant to Harry Stain, the hangman. When Stain died in January 1828 Green became public executioner of Sydney Town and the colony of New South Wales at £15 14s. 2d. per annum plus accommodation within Sydney gaol.

Over the next twenty-seven years Green officiated at the public execution of almost 490 people, including six women. More than 70 per cent of these were carried out in his first ten years, when harsh penal policies prevailed: under Governor Darling he hanged 170 people in 3 years 10 months, under Bourke 183 in 6 years. But under Gipps it was 10 in 8 years and under FitzRoy 27 in 8 years 6 months. The last, shortly after Denison arrived in January 1855, was the first under the Act banning public executions.

Most of Green's hangings were carried out at the rear of Sydney gaol, on a high, wooden platform visible to crowds in the Rocks. On thirty-seven occasions, almost all before 1840, four or more prisoners were executed together, the largest group being eleven men in October 1828. Other notable executions were of ten bushrangers in Bathurst in November 1830, thirteen convict mutineers over two days on Norfolk Island in September 1834, seven stockmen hanged in December 1838 for the Myall Creek massacre and the Aborigines Broger and Dundalli.

In classic 'Bloody Code' tradition, thirty-two of those executed by Green had their bodies 'given over for dissection', to be 'anatomised' by the surgeons. The bodies of two men executed at Goulburn Plains in November 1831 were 'hung in chains', until Bourke ordered their burial in 1833. Despite several 'botched' executions, 'the finisher of the law' appears to have been a competent hangman. He was strong, and skilled with ropes and mechanical drops and at assessing his victims. Notwithstanding occasional reports that prisoners 'died hard', or that Green swaggered and strutted, most executions went off routinely.

Green associated with warders, criminals, ex-convicts and the lower orders generally. He had several minor brushes with the law, some of which involved incidents with women, but apparently he never married. He was instantly recognizable, having a livid scar down the side of his face, the result of an axe attack by a prisoner in December 1830. On 26 January 1831, his original sentence having been commuted to seven years, he became free. With the opening of Darlinghurst gaol in July 1841, Green moved into a small tenement on ground later known as Green Park, though whether it was named after him or an alderman is not clear. Most executions were now outside the main gate, the most famous being that of John Knatchbull in February 1844.

From the mid-1840s Green, by now earning just over £60 a year, was in growing disfavour with the authorities for intoxication, insolence and mental instability. In early May 1855 the colonial secretary (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson ordered him committed to the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum. Nothing further is known; the relevant records are missing.

Select Bibliography

  • P. N. Grabosky, Sydney in Ferment (Canb, 1977)
  • R. and R. Beckett, Hangman: The Life and Times of Alexander Green, Public Executioner to the Colony of New South Wales (Melb, 1980)
  • M. Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society (Brisb, 1983)
  • Australian, 13 June 1828, 21, 28 Apr, 26 June, 30 Sept, 21, 31 Oct 1829, 15 July, 18 Nov 1831, 15 Feb 1844 and 26 Apr 1845
  • New South Wales Death Sentence Register, Nov. 1839 - Nov. 1968 (New South Wales Dept of Prisons, no date)
  • Dept of Corrective Services Archives, Long Bay, New South Wales
  • New South Wales Capital Punishment Database 1788-1955 (created and held by author).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ken Macnab, 'Green, Alexander (1802–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

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Crime: theft
Sentence: life