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.

 Friday 29th February of 1788 shaped as another busy day for the infant colony’s’ criminal court. It was decided, after the long drawn-out dramas of the previous two (2) days, as well as to avoid Sydney’s intense midday sun and drenching humidity, court would convene earlier than usual. See: Blind Man’s Bluff

At 8 am convicts James Freeman and William Shearman, accused the previous day of stealing from government stores, were the first to appear in the dock. Both were found guilty but while Shearman was sentenced to 300 lashes Freeman was condemned to death the execution to take place that same day.

Next to appear George Whitaker, Daniel Gordon and John Williams charged with stealing eighteen (18) bottles of wine. Whitaker was discharged but Gordon and Williams, both Afro – Americans, were found guilty and sentenced to hang with Freeman.

As on the previous day and on the 27th at Thomas Barrett’s execution – ‘the battalion was under arms’ with musket, bayonet, fife and drum. See: Act 1 – From Here To Eternity- Thomas Barrett.

Bedraggled convicts, soldiers sweltering in heavy woollen scarlet uniforms, stood in burning sun. A silent unseen Aboriginal audience watched wondering what new strange torment they would witness.

‘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. 

Chained together in what Lieutenant Ralph Clark described as ‘extreme misery’ Freeman, Gordon and Williams ‘marched to the execution place’ where at 4 pm the rituals of hanging – prayers nooses and head-coverings – began.

At the very last moment Marine Captain David Collins in a repeat performance of his macabre antics the previous day, approached Provost-Marshall Brewer. Gordon and Williams were granted conditional pardons and their head- coverings and nooses removed.

They were to join Joseph Hall and Henry Lavell, who had cheated death the previous day, to be chained indefinitely onto Pinchgut a rocky outcrop in Sydney Harbour. See: Act 2  Blind Man’s Bluff – Hall and Lavell.

Court papers note; Phillip later wrote to Lord Sydney; ‘when the season permits I intend Gordon and Williams be exiled from the settlement…to the South Cape’ on the coast of Van Diemens Land, now Tasmania.


Freeman stood alone; ‘with the rope about his neck’  he heard judge-advocate Captain Collins confirm his death sentence. Collins then made James Freeman an offer.

‘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.

1788 – 1 March: Governor Phillip’s signed official ‘Reprieve from Death’ was read out.

‘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.

1788 –  March, Sydney: James Freeman’s life hung in the balance with every death sentence. The infamous contract ‘either Hang or Be Hanged’ became operative and endured; ‘for and during the term for which he was transported’.

1788 –  2 May, Sydney: Freeman took his first life – John Bennett – on the 2nd May 1788. Bennett, aged 20 years, was a year Freeman’s junior.

1789 – 25 March, Sydney: Perhaps his most bizarre moment came when Freeman one by one he hanged six (6) marines ‘the flower of the battalion’ who had systematically robbed  the government storehouse using counterfeit keys.

1789 – 2 December, Sydney: James Freeman’s worst moment may have come on the 2nd of December 1789 when he hung Ann Davis the first women executed in Australia. Freeman, found drunk a week later, was punished with one hundred (100) lashes. See: Ketch Connection

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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