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

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NAA E72/1 DL1868 Part 2
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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. 🙂

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The Gallows – Huni Bolliger 2017
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Wiki Commons source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40132991@N07/8683213994/

You may be surprised to know that capital punishment took place in the Northern Territory up until 1952. If you’ve ever visited the Fannie Bay Gaol then you’ve probably seen the room where the last hanging took place. The gallows are still there and it’s a little spine tingling.

A specially commissioned gallows was sent to Palmerston (as Darwin was called) from Adelaide in 1885 to hang prisoners who were handed a capital punishment sentence for the crime of murder.

The gallows were temporarily erected between the cells and the infirmary and all prisoners were brought out to witness the occasionThe nerves of the prisoners under sentence of death would have been severly tested as there were always numerous practices before any executions. The gallows were constructed from wood with a beam and a rope over a trap door mounted on a platform. A deep pit was excavated and underneath the platform was screened with calico. By 1899 when the prison held five men under the sentence of death, the Gaoler, George Norcock wrote to the Deputy Sheriff requesting: ” a permanent gallows be erected in the prison yard strong enough to hang three at once. The one sent from Adelaide in 1886 is small and had then been in use for several years already in South Australia, it has been erected and taken down so often that the board screening the various parts work loose and make the whole structure shaky, also when last used for the execution of the half-caste Flannigan the white ants went through the centre of the uprights causing it to be still more unreliable and shows that the uprights must be of iron or built on a cement foundation”. Mickey Dewar Inside Out.

There are nine documented hangings in the Fannie Bay Gaol between 1883-1979. It would be fair to say however that many murderers (and suspected murderers) never made it to court. Some Aboriginal prisoners were hanged at the site of a crime and others were shot  while ‘resisting arrest’.

“As well as executing prisoners at Fannie Bay gaol, the authorities also developed a practice of taking Aboriginal prisoners sentenced to death to the location of their crimes and carrying out the hanging ‘on site’. This was probably adopted following the Western Australian model. The philosophy behind this practice was to collect as many individuals from the area attracted to the place by inducement of ‘provisions and presents’ to witness the execution as a deterrent against future crimes. There were at least three on-site executions carried out during the South Australian period of the Territory administration and the policy was supported by the community”. Mickey Dewar Inside Out


Fannie Bay Gaol A Brief History

“Prisons have the capacity to intrigue law abiding citizens in the same way that crime fiction and murder mysteries are popular reading.”  Inside Out by Mickey Dewar.
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Fannie Bay Gaol – Copyright Huni Bolliger 2017


I confess that when I first visited Fannie Bay Gaol, I had a perverse sense of fascination with the darkness of incarceration. How would I cope with being locked in one of these cells? What would it feel like if I was on death-row waiting to be hanged? The more I looked around the site, the more the feeling of the place spooked me. Who was locked in this place and what had they done? How were they treated? What was the history of this site? I wanted to know more!

There is little written about the Fannie Bay Gaol site and this is partly a result of the ravages of time and Northern Territory weather which have destroyed some of the historical records. The best writing I could find was a book by Northern Territory historian, Mickey Dewar called Inside Out published by NTU Press. In it, she reveals some of the social and political history over the life of the gaol. I have also found some fabulous records at the Northern Territory Archives including an original gaoler’s diary, a police inquest book, some photographs and oral history stories from local Territorians who remembered when the gaol was still operational.

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Fannie Bay Gaol from above – copyright Huni Bolliger 2017
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Original photograph Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 1168 Item 36

Re-capping on my project, I am creating three short animations about three real-life historical ‘characters’ who all spent time in the Fannie Bay Gaol. There will be a brief history of the gaol to give the stories some context. I am using as many original archival photographs and objects as I can find to re-imagine (re-animated perhaps) a little explored slice of Darwin history. I have uncovered so many fascinating facts about the gaol and the people who were locked in there but I can’t fit everything into a short film (!) so I will aim to detail more about the gaol in this blog over time.

Let’s start at the beginning. Fannie Bay Gaol was opened in 1883 with with 31 prisoners, three Europeans, eighteen Chinese and ten Aborigines. Many people in Darwin don’t realise that the Chinese were the dominant non-indigenous population here until around 1911. In fact in 1888 the Chinese out numbered the Europeans four to one. Many had come here to work in the gold fields and their hard labour helped to build and sustain much of the new ‘settlement’ in Palmerston (as Darwin was then called).  The Chinese also brought opium with them from China and this became a serious drug of addiction in the early life of Darwin. Between 1889 – 1911 the most common crime of the Fannie Bay Gaol prisoners was the possession or trafficking of opium.  Sentences for supplying opium were around 6 months hard labor. Occasionly prisoners died as a result of their deprivation of the drug in prison.

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China Town, Darwin – copyright Huni Bolliger 2017
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Original photograph from the Northern Territory Archive Service NTRS 3334_album 3_299

I confess that until I started this project, I knew very little about the history of the Chinese in Darwin and I was a little shocked and saddened to read about how they were treated in the early ‘settlement’.

To illustrate the attitudes of the time, it’s probably enough to give a few quotes from Mickey Dewar’s book Inside Out.

“ Leung Ping, the Chinese prisoner who returned to the gaol a short time ago, after escaping from the guard…Since his return he has made two determined attempts to commit suicide, first by refusing all food, this attempt was however frustrated with the aid of a stomach pump. The second attempt partook more of the happy dispatch character. On Sunday last by some means Leung Ping obtained possession of a brad-awl and stabbed himself a number of times in the abdomen, so determined was he to effect his purpose that he held the brad-awl driven in up to the hilt and determinedly resisted its removal. The wounds are not serious. It becomes a question whether it is not rather a mistake to interfere in such an affair as this instead of letting the man finish his case effectually. It would save the Government the expense of feeding and clothing an utterly useless animal.” NTTimes 24 march 1888

“Wanted, a hangman! Inquistive ones are already wondering who will give the ‘drop too much’ to the prisoners under sentence of death in Fanny Bay gaol…Two at least are sure to get off but the two Chinese..These miscreants fully deserve the hangmans’ rope, and the lesson may not be lost on our Asiastic community which badly wants keeping in check.” NTTimes 31 march 1899.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”-Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The House of the Dead.

I wonder what Dostoevsky would have thought about Darwin when Fannie Bay Gaol was open?!

Australian Gothic

Jungle-landscape_skull1Someone recently told me that my style was “Australian Gothic”. I liked the sound of that so I did a bit more research and I thought I’d include this quote from The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction Edited by Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver. It describes the mood I’ve been delving into so well.

For the colonial Australian Gothic, the bush is invariably a place of settler disorientation and death, as if the promise of settlement can never be fully realised…The colonial Australian Gothic is drawn to primal or primordial landscapes, no doubt reflecting the early sense that even relatively proximate places were – in spite of the rapid development of the colony – still wild and unknown…The genre turns towards precisely those stories of death and brutality that might not otherwise be told in colonial Australia, playing out one of the Gothic’s most fascinating structural logics, the return of the repressed: quite literally, as graves are dug up, sacred burial grounds uncovered, murder victims are returned from the dead, secrets are revealed and past horrors are experienced all over again. In this way, the colonial Australian Gothic gives us a range of vivid, unsettling counter-narratives to the more familiar tales of colonial promise and optimism we are often asked to take for granted. In many cases these strange renditions of colonial anxieties and failure are indeed weird and melancholic; compelling s they are, they can also seem downright desolate and destructive. 

The original archives photographs below.

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Meet Your Maker

Now this might sound strange but I had a very nervous moment last week when I met my ‘character’ for the first time. I’ve been researching the story of Rodney Spencer for a few months now and I feel like I know a lot about him and let’s just say he’s not a very nice person!

There are no photographic records of  Rodney Spencer in the Northern Territory so I wrote to the South Australian Archives to see if they could help me trace a photograph of him, considering he lived in the late 1800’s I didn’t hold out much hope of finding one. Then to my absolute surprise I received an email from the SA Archives asking me if I’d like to purchase a copy of his (two!) photographs. Hell yes, I was very excited!

This might sound strange but a few weeks later, when I saw the file attachment sitting in my inbox, I actually felt nervous! I didn’t open it straight away. A part of me didn’t want to look into his eyes or ‘meet’ him in anyway. It felt safer having him as just a story, albeit a true story. In some ways perhaps it felt better to have the past at a safe distance. Facing the truth about Northern Territory frontier history has been a very confronting experience. Stories of massacres and revenge killings, coverups and government policies of the early white colonialists has often brought me to tears but somehow reading about these things on paper seems that little bit further away than seeing the people who committed the crimes. Meeting Rodney would make him and the past, real.

Selfishly, I was also worried that he wouldn’t look evil enough to be my dastardly character, maybe he’d just look like an average person. With butterflies and a sort of sick feeling in my stomach I opened the attachment and looked into his face. At first, there was a level of disappointment. He’s not evil enough, he looks ‘normal’. I guess this is the point. Many of the horrible crimes committed in our early colonial days were committed by ‘normal’, average new Australians.

Here he is, meet Rodney Spencer.

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And here he is in Fannie Bay Gaol.

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Artistic Practice

I haven’t talked much yet about my artistic process for this project and some people have been asking how I do it. Well I can’t give away too many of my style secrets but here are my basic steps in what has turned out to be a rather complex and time consuming process! (Although I am happy with the result).

I  use the Archives to search for images around the same historical period that I might be able to use to illustrate the stories. Sometimes I get lucky and find photos of the actual characters or actual places which is very exciting (!) but if I can’t find the right historical images then I collage a number of photographs together to create my own artist’s impression. I take the original archival images into Photoshop to firstly create the painterly effects and colourise the photos. I then put the images into a composting and animating software called After Effects where I add lighting and movement to the scenes. These files then get transferred into Final Cut Pro where I put the voice over and soundscapes over the top. It’s certainly not a fast process but it’s very satisfying to see the stories come alive! In the final stages of my project I’ll hopefully manage to learn a new piece of software which will enable me to present the animations in one half of the screen and on the other half of the screen users will be able to click on the original documents, photos, facts and oral history recordings that went into making the films. Boy am I busy!

One of the technical challenges in creating the scenes is that many of the original photos are in a square format but the animations I’m making are in a widescreen (landscape) format so I have to do some creative thinking around how to recompose and extend the original photos into new scenes. Below is an example of what I mean.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 11.21.16 AMThe original photograph below had to be extended so I added more landscape around the people.

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NTAS series 259 Glass Plate View no. 160E by Paul Foelsche. 

One ethical problem I’m struggling with is using actual faces of deceased people to represent my characters. I’m trying to get around this by changing the original photos so that the people become imagined characters but I have to confess I still have a level of discomfort around this but I’m not sure what else I could do. I made a character pictured below. Sometimes I wish I had a cultural adviser or a producer to help with dilemmas!

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