Leprosy in Fannie Bay Gaol


© Huni Bolliger  – Creative interpretation of the journey to Mud Island Leprosarium



The image above is inspired by NTAS photograph NTRS 3420_P1_photo 66

For my next film, I have decided to try something different and I hope it works! I’ve decided to get a little extra creative and write a (very) short story (based on historical facts) and then animate it. It’s less of a documentary and more like a creative interpretation of a moment in the life of one of the prisoners from Fannie Bay Gaol.

The thing that makes photography  so fascinating is that it can do what we can’t do ourselves – physically capture a moment in time and remember it forever. Since I’m using all these amazing archival photos to make these films, I’ve decided to play with this idea of bringing a historical moment that’s been frozen in time, back to life. Of course we can never truly re-create history anyway, we can only ever re-imagine it and re-interpret it. Facts are a dubious concept and there is no such thing as  ‘true history’, there is only ever a subjective interpretation of events. (I remind myself of this when I start worrying about what historians will think of my project)!

Over the course of the residency,  what I’ve struggled with,  is finding the ‘tone’ for my films. Are they documentaries? Are they historical fiction? Are they narrative or factual? Are they animations or animated photos or videos? What genre am I working in?!! Well, now I’ve decided they are all of these things! I’m experimenting and coming up with new forms. That should be the luxury of a Creative in Residence experience right? – to try new things and spend the time developing ideas.

I digress. Getting back to this new animated short story. It’s based on a Chinese prisoner called Ah Kim. Ah Kim was incarcerated in 1902 for supplying opium to Aborigines, which was a very common crime at this time. Not long after he was put in Fannie Bay Gaol, the guards discovered that Ah Kim was suffering from leprosy and it was decided that he should be transported to Mud Island Leprosarium to serve out the rest of his sentence. There was no treatment for Leprosy in those days and so prisoners or members of the public who were suffering from the disease were isolated and pretty much left to die.

I was surprised to discover the existence of this leprosarium in Darwin Harbour. I was already aware of our two other leprosariums at Channel Island and East Arm but I had never heard of Mud Island until now.

There is more information about Mud Island here: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nt/YE00283


© Huni Bolliger Creative Interpretation of the leprosarium at Mud Island. Inspired by original image NTAS NTRS 3420_P1_photo 44


© Huni Bolliger – The Journey to Mud Island

In my research about the plight of the Chinese in Darwin I found these two articles. They paint a very grim picture of life for a condemned prisoner who also had the added burden of this terrible disease.


The Chronicle Adelaide, SA: 1895-1954 Saturday 3 May 1902

The Chronicle Adelaide, SA: 1895-1954 Saturday 3 May 1902

On March 19, as a result of an investigation by, the acting Government medical officer and the police, a Chinaman, named Ah Ping, residing on the outskirts of Chinatown, was transported over to the leper station and left in the hut built there for leprous subjects, with a sufficiency of food and water,Ah Ping was an old Chinaman, whose shocking condition has for long past been a subject of frequent public comment, his face being almost eaten away by some horrible disease, which, however, the late Government medical officer always maintained was not leprosy. Whether Dr. Goldsmith was right or wrong in his diagnosis, the fact remains that the man was in such a repulsive state from disease of some kind that to permit, him to hold continued unrestricted intercourse with his fellowbeings for so long has been little short of a scandal, and a reasonable regard for the public safety should have led to his isolation many months ago. His examination by the acting health officer on March 19) ended in an order being made for his deportation to the leper station on the opposite side of the harbor, Dr. Seabrook expressing the opinion that although the loathsome looking Ah Ping was suffering principally from venereal disease, he also exhibited symptoms of leprosy. He was therefore, as previously stated, conveyed to the leper station; and left to the solitary contemplation of such signs of human life as are visible from that rather distant and isolated situation. Apparently the unfortunate wretch soon wearied of this tantalising occupation, and wisely determined to make an end. No one visited the spot until Friday last, March 28, when Mr. G. C. Riddell, acting under instructions, proceeded thither-in his old launch with a fresh stock of provisions for the marooned leper. The tide was found to be low on arrival, and Riddell had some difficulty in effecting a landing through the soft mud. His shouts eliciting no response, he, walked up to the hut situated close to - the beach, and pushed back the door, noticing as he did so that a suit of newly-washed dungaree clothing was lying neatly folded on top of the tank. The door opening inwards struck against something, and on looking inside Riddell was horrified on discovering the body of Ah- Ping, clothed in trousers and shirt, hanging by the neck to a piece of rope suspended from the- roof of the hut, and upon realising the gruesome fact that the man had committed suicide he immediately returned to Palmerston andreported the matter to the authorities. On Saturday afternoon Dr. Seabrook, accompanied by Mounted-Constables Gordon and Giles and a number of natives, proceeded to the leper station in Riddell's launch for the purpose of destroying the body by fire. The task proved a by no means agreeable one, owing to the dreadful stench exuding from the rotting leprous corpse. Dr. Seabrook handled and examined the body, and expresses the opinion that the unfortunate man had been dead for overa week. The body was in a very advanced stage of decomposition, so much so that it was deemed inadvisable to attempt to cut it down. Dry driftwood - was collected from the beach and piled into the hut around the hanging corpse, and the whole was then saturated with kerosine and set on fire. The bonfire blazed fiercely for some time, eventually leaving no relics of the hut or its horrible occupant, except a few distorted' and charred sheets of galvanised iron and a heap of smouldering ashes.

The Last Hanging



NTAS NTRS 3823 BW 726 image 002

For my final film I have decided to make a short video about the last men hanged at Fannie Bay Gaol. Originally I wanted to make a film about Nemarluk, however I was advised that it would be best to find his living descendants and talk to them first. Unfortunately this hasn’t been possible so I’ve decided to alter my plans and look at a new aspect of the Last Hanging story instead. I’m a bit disappointed that I’m not able to include an Indigenous story in this project as the more history I’ve been reading, the more I’ve come to realise how often Aboriginal stories have been left out of our NT history books and I didn’t want to be guilty of this too ! (however I also want to do the right thing and consult where I can, not speak for others –  argh what a dilemma it’s been). All part of the Creative in Residence learning process.

So here are some of the fascinating details about the last hanging in Fannie Bay Gaol.



From NTAS image NTRS 3823 BW 726 image 004

In all, there were nine hangings inside Fannie Bay Gaol however there were also other executions performed outside of Darwin at the site of a crime so it is difficult to quantify how many people were actually executed in the NT.

The last hanging in Fannie Bay Gaol was in August of 1952. John Novotny and Jerry Koci were two Czechoslovakian immigrants who moved to Australia when they were only sixteen and eighteen years old. Both their mothers had died and they had no relatives in Australia. They came here looking for work and to escape war-torn Europe.

Unhappy in Darwin, they decided to steal a taxi with the plan of driving it to Sydney or Melbourne and selling it to buy tickets back to Europe. At some point in their plans, they also decided to kill the taxi driver who was a well known and well loved Darwin-local called George Grantham. In all my research, I couldn’t find a plausible reason why they decided to kill the driver. Why not just steal the car? Their individual statements and the court reports don’t provide any clues. All I can assume is that youth, their rough upbringing and bad decision making led to murder. But then, after scouring the records there was one sentence in Koci’s police statement that could provide a clue about the relationship between the two men. When asked whether he (Koci) ever considered telling Novotny that they shouldn’t kill the driver, Koci replied that he wanted to, but he was too scared. Could Novotny have been a violent and controlling friend? Did Koci feel isolated in Australia and afraid of his only friend? We can only speculate.

After stealing the taxi and killing the driver, the two men didn’t get very far down the Stuart Highway before they were caught.

Their story is relatively well documented so I did a lot of research to try and find a new angle. I came across some files in the National Archives of Australia that contained what was then, a secret Government Memo from the Crown Law Officer. The memo goes into great detail about each step of the execution process. I found it fascinating in it’s tone. It is so precise, it offers cold precision and detail for how to conduct an execution, and at the same time, it is very self congratulatory about how smoothly the procedure ensued.  I decided to make the film specifically about the contents of the memo.


From the National Archives of Australia NAA E72/1 DL1868 part 2

For this story, I chose to use a different visual technique. I’ve gone for a sort of NT retro/film noir style. The images I have used are taken from a variety of sources including some great photos held by the NT Archives that document the closing ceremony of the Fannie Bay Gaol. There are also some fabulous retro photographs from the online NT Police Museum (thanks to the NT Police Museum for permission to use these).


From NTAS image NTRS 3823 BW 726 image 003

Above is the room where the two men were hanged. You can still visit this room at Fannie Bay Gaol now. What I love about the image above is the way the photographer has accidentally captured a sliver of the woman on the left. Both the condemned men lost their mothers when they were children. I felt like this image poetically captured a hint of a woman’s presence in the room where they were killed. They had no known relatives in Australia. It seems like perhaps they only had each other. They were hanged simultaneously.


There are no images of Koci or Novotny so I have used photographs from the NT Police Museum to re-imagine their characters. I have used these fabulous old NT Police comfit kits. Original image credit NT Police Museum_ IMG_8870.JPG

One of the more macabre things I read in the memo was about the whiskey provided to those who watched the hanging. It shouldn’t be a macabre thing but when I found the original receipt for this whiskey I felt a bit sick in the stomach. I suppose it somehow seemed so cold to be claiming a drink as an expense for the execution of these two men. Their deaths came down to a list of expenses.  Again, I experienced that eerie feeling, when you hold an original archive in your hands, it really makes history come alive.

“I was informed that by long established custom, a drink is provided for officials who have to perform the execution. I can well imagine the necessity for this and I purchased a bottle of whiskey at a cost of 2.8.0 pounds for the use of the official party. I am enclosing herewith a claim in Form 12 for this sum together with a receipt.” Keith S Edmunds Acting Crown Law Officer, Secret Government Memo. NAA E72/1 DL1868 Part 2

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 10.04.19 AM

NAA E72/1 DL1868 Part 2

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 10.04.56 AM

NAA E72/1 DL1868 Part 2

To see the final film, (and my other three films) you will have to come to the launch of the exhibition at the NT Archives! The date has been finalised. It will be 19th April 2018 and I will also be giving a talk about my work and the process. I hope to see you there!

You will need to book to come to the launch and my talk on the evening of the 19th April. It’s free. Here is the link. 🙂

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 2.59.13 PM