Queensland’s First and Only Woman Hanged to Death Legally

Until 1922, death by hanging was legal in Queensland for people had committed serious and gruesome crimes. The sentences were not passed with serious deliberation like today and sentencing criminals to a death by hanging was not uncommon. However, the authorities were instructed to carry the sentences as humanely as possible. Sentences were mostly given to men and in the history of Queensland only one woman was sentenced to death by hanging. 1887, Ellen Thomson was ordered to be hanged till death for murdering her husband William Thomson.


Ellen’s the first and only woman to be given this severe punishment before it was abolished in 1922 although the last hanging was conducted in 1913. The hangings were conducted as per the circular providing in-depth information of the manner to avoid mismanagement or an adherence to barbarous usages. The circular also mentioned things to consider such as weight of the condemned man and muscular condition of the neck and shoulders. Additionally, the condition of the rope was of importance and the circular also contained drawings for better understanding.


Ellen’s husband was 24 years her senior and although she pled her innocence, she along with her ex-marine and English lover John Harrison were sentenced to death by hanging. The punishment was met in Boggo Road jail in Brisbane and their bodies were buried in South Brisbane Cemetery. Their graves remain unmarked, but the grave of William Thomson has a tombstone that states he was murdered on 22nd October 1886 aged 66 years. This tombstone was erected by William’s brother Thomas Thomson.


Ellen Thomson was a migrant from County Cork, Ireland and she came to Australia with her nine-year sister while she was eleven. She and her sister came aboard the ship “Joshua” which also listed that their mother was also on board.


After her arrival, Ellen married William Wood and in 1870 she was his window with children and it was difficult for her to earn a living. In 1878, she started working as a housekeeper for William Thomson and in 1880 got married to him after giving birth to a daughter named Helen also known as ‘little’ Ellen.


But after six years of marriage the couple were facing problems. The marriage was strained and the children were sent away. It didn’t help that Ellen started having an affair with John Harrison which was a cause of constant conflict for her husband and her.



A day before the execution John Harrison admitted that he had acted alone while shooting and killing William Thomson in self-defence but the admission was late. The order for both punishments was upheld and Ellen Thomson along with Harrison was hanged to death making her the first and only woman to be given this punishment in Queensland’s history.

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