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.
THE LAST HANGING
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.
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).
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.
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
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. 🙂