James Freeman – ‘Hang or be Hanged’. 


Part of the original document pardoning a convict if he acts as executioner

Extract showing a pardon on condition of becoming the public executioner. Dated 1 March 1788, signed by Governor Arthur Phillip.

‘For here was an opportunity of establishing a Jack Ketch who Should, in all future Executions, either Hang or be Hanged’. Dr John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal.

1788 –  Sydney, 29th February: That Friday shaped as another busy day for the infant colony’s’ criminal court. See: From Here To Eternity 

After the long drawn-out dramas of the previous two (2) days, to avoid Sydney’s intense midday sun and drenching humidity, it was decided court would convene earlier than usual.  See: Blind Man’s Bluff – Hall and Lavell

29th February: At 8 am James Freeman and William Shearman, accused the previous day of stealing from government stores, were first to appear in the dock.

Both were found guilty.  While Shearman was sentenced to 300 lashes Freeman was condemned to death.

Next to appear George Whitaker, Daniel Gordon and John Williams. They were charged with stealing eighteen (18) bottles of wine.

Formally chattel slaves these three (3)  Afro -Americans had gained their freedom as Loyalists. That is they fought for Britain against George Washington’s Patriot rebels during America’s Revolutionry War of Independence (1775-1783).

Whitaker was discharged. Gordon and Williams, found guilty, were sentenced to hang with Freeman. The executions to take place that afternoon.


‘In case an insurrection should take place’ as on the previous two (2) days ‘the battalion was under arms’ musket, bayonet, fife and drum. Act 1 – From Here To Eternity

In drenching humidity bedraggled convicts sat in a circle. Soldiers at the ready sweltered in heavy scarlet woollen uniforms.

‘For maximum effect there had to be maximum ceremony…the wretchedness of the captive[s] were acted out in a procession which every citizen might see’. Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, Grafton Harper Collins,London. 

A silent unseen Aboriginal audience watched, wondering what new and strange torment was to come.

In what Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark described as ‘extreme misery’ in chains Freeman, Gordon and Williams ‘marched to the execution place’.

At 4 pm the Reverend Johnson  began his rituals of hanging – prayers, nooses and blind-folds. Marine Captain David Collins, in a repeat performance of his macabre antics, approached Provost-Marshall Brewer.

At the very last moment Gordon and Williams were granted conditional pardons. Their head- coverings and nooses were removed and they learned their fate.

They would join Joseph Hall and Henry Lavell, who the previous day, had cheated death. See: Act 2  Blind Man’s Bluff – Hall and Lavell.

The four (4) men were to be chained indefinitely onto Pinchgut a rocky outcrop in Sydney Harbour and fed reduced rations.

Court papers note that Governor Phillip, who served in the American war, later wrote to Lord Sydney; ‘when the season permits I intend  Gordon and Williams [Loyalist Afro-Americans] be exiled from the settlement…to the South Cape’ on the coast of Van Diemens Land, now Tasmania.

What of James Freeman? ‘While under the ladder with the rope about his neck’ Freeman heard Captain David Collins confirm his death sentence.

Collins then offered the young man ‘a free pardon as condition of performing the duty of the common executioner as long as he remained in this country, which after some little pause, he reluctantly accepted’. John White. ibid.

1788 – 1 March: At the beginning of March 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip RN signed Freeman’s ‘Reprieve from Death’.

‘Whereas [James Freeman] tried and convicted of Felony and received sentence of death for the same….In pursuance of the Power and Authority vested in me I [Arthur Phillip] do hereby grant him the said [name erased from document] a pardon for the said Offence, on Condition of his becoming the public Executioner for and during the term for which he was transported to this Country’. White. ibid.

Young James Freeman’s life hung in the balance with every death sentence –‘either Hang or Be Hanged’.

1788 –  2 May, Sydney: Two (2) months later Freeman took his first life. John Bennett aged 20 years was a year younger than his executioner.


1789 – Sydney, 25 March: Perhaps Freeman’s most bizarre moment came when, one by one he hanged six (6) marines ‘the flower of the battalion’. Tench. ibid.

Over a number of months, using counterfeit keys, these soldiers had systematically robbed the government storehouse. See: Smallpox Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

1789 – 2 December, Sydney: Freeman’s worst moment may have come at the end of December 1789 when he hanged Ann Davis the first white women executed in Australia.

When found drunk a week later he was given one hundred (100) lashes. See: Ketch Connection

‘But while under the ladder, with the rope about his neck, he [Freeman] was offered a free pardon as condition of performing the duty of the common executioner as long as he remained in this country, which after some little pause, he reluctantly accepted’. John White. ibid.

Verbatim accounts of these proceedings have been preserved and held in the archives of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Facsimiles published in 1913 are available at the Mitchell Library, Sydney.


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