Vashti Fareer is an award-winning Australian writer, who has kindly allowed me to draw attention to her given name and who is therefore is my special Purim Women’s History Month guest. You can find more about her here: http://www.vashtifarrer.com/pages/about_author.htm
Ellen Thomson was the only woman ever executed in Queensland. Other women were sentenced to death but had their sentences commuted; she alone faced the gallows. I first heard of Ellen in Port Douglas, in 1993, more than a hundred years since she’d been executed (1887) and the image of this tiny woman, four feet nine inches in height, standing in the dock, stayed with me.
The murder of William Thomson, a farmer aged 66, in Mossman, by a labourer, John Harrison, aged 27 and the farmer’s wife, Ellen Thomson, aged 44, had all the hallmarks of a crime of passion which didn’t bear closer scrutiny. William was paranoid, probably alcoholic and extremely racist. Harrison was a young man with a price on his head, a deserter from the Royal Navy, someone out for what he could get and prepared to make the most of every opportunity. Ellen was the illiterate mother of six, who’d seen one child die, was forced to have another adopted, and who struggled to support the rest. Gradually over time, all her children except the youngest were driven away by William.
Initially, I planned to write an historical novel, even though I knew living in Sydney and researching in Queensland would be difficult. I started by reading newspaper reports of the trial on microfilm, then looked at census records, birth, death, marriage and execution certificates. I wrote to the Archives of Sisters of Mercy, who had visited Ellen in prison in her final weeks, and I employed a researcher, another fiction writer, to look at archival material for me in Brisbane.
Over the years I wrote several novel drafts, from an omniscient viewpoint, from those of the three protagonists and from Ellen’s. Publishers were interested, but as a novel it didn’t quite gel. Finally, when I thought it was ready I showed it to a freelance editor whose advice was, "Throw away the history and just write the story!" and I was horrified. I remember thinking, "This woman was hanged!" It didn’t seem fair to fiddle with history for the sake of a good yarn, to me she deserved a “voice”. But to do her justice, I realised I’d have to discard the novel and write a non-fiction book placing her in her social context - the times and community in which she lived, which meant starting all over again.
I contacted Queensland State Archives to see if they had anything else on Ellen Thomson and they had a 300 plus page file on her, which had been digitally copied. They could email it to me at $1 a page so I agreed and slowly worked my way through the documents. Some pages were duplicated, but others had extra information which proved useful.
Then when I’d finished, I had an unexpected call from Queensland State Archives saying they’d found another 300 page file which hadn’t been digitally copied, and I agreed to have it photocopied at $1 a page and waded my way through that.
Having read both files, it seemed clear that the trial was unfair, with a biased judge, 197 Crown depositions and an inadequate country solicitor to defend them, but such is life, as Ned Kelly might say. Not much can be done about a trial that took place 127 years ago, but I hope at least that my book Ellen Thomson: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
has at last given her a voice.