New South Wales Capital Convictions Database, 1788-1954

“The execution of William Ryan, convicted at the last sittings of the Central Criminal Court of the inhuman murder of his wife, took place on Wednesday morning, within the precincts of Darlinghurst Gaol...

[T]he clock struck nine; the death-bell pealed its awful summons; and, closely pinioned, Ryan appeared in the large yard of the gaol appropriated to the hard labour confines, where a strong scaffold has recently been constructed. The clergymen walked on either side of him, administering the consolations of religion. The executioner came next, followed by the governor and officers of the gaol, Dr. West and Galbraith, and a strong pose of foot police under the superintendence of Inspector Burke. …

Ryan glanced around him, first at the spectators and then towards the newly-raised machinery, upon which he was to expiate his crime, but without evincing any symptom of terror . . .

The cap was now drawn over his face and fastened, and as the clergymen retired, he loudly and continually prayed for mercy upon his soul, until the bolt was withdrawn, the drop fell, and he was struggling in the agonies of death”.

Bell’s Life in Sydney, 3 March 1855.

William Ryan’s execution marked a turning point in colonial penal culture. Prior to his ‘private’ execution in Darlinghurst Gaol all executions had been conducted in full public view, many of them occurring at The Rocks in Sydney. Ryan’s hanging is one of the many important cases that appear in the expanded version of the Francis Forbes Society Capital Punishment Database.

This database contains information on all 3,171 capital convictions handed down in New South Wales from 1788-1954. Nearly one third of those convictions resulted in executions.

The database contains searchable particulars on prisoner, victim, conviction, and execution. These categories can be used in tandem, allowing the researcher to narrow down specific criminal cases, or track patterns over time. A general search function finds hits in the entire database.

We hope that it will herald future projects in law, history, criminology, socio-legal studies, and genealogy.

The Capital Convictions database was funded by the Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History. The database brings together a wealth of material collected through many years of historical research. The database is the compilation of the research of Dr Ken Macnab (University of Sydney), Sydney solicitor and barrister Tim Castle, and Dr Amanda Kaladelfos (Arts NSW Archival Research Fellow and Research Fellow at ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, Griffith University). This project greatly benefited from the research assistance of students and graduates of the University of Newcastle and University of Sydney: Justin Gill, Bianca D’Angelo, Emma Warren, Sarah Dunstan, Courtney O’Regan, and Joe Campbell.

Kaladelfos currently manages the database – please use the Contact Us form for any comments or suggestions.