Visiting Conference Group Takes a Closer Look at the Famous Trial of Ellen Thomson

This week, the Douglas Shire Historical Society enjoyed hosting a conference group from Doctors and Lawyers Continuing Preferred Education.

As part of their program, the group studied the trial of Ellen Thomson, famous as the only woman hanged in Queensland.

The group of 15 professionals held afternoon education sessions in the Port Douglas Court House Museum during the week.

Ellen Thomson was accused, perhaps falsely, of murdering her husband Bill Thomson at “Ellendale” via Mossman River, near Bonnie Doon. Also hanged was her ‘accomplice’, John Harrison.

Their committal trial before a Magistrate was held in the Port Douglas Court House in January 1887, followed by a trial in Townsville where they were found guilty, and hanging in Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane in June 1887.

Ellen strenuously denied her guilt upon the gallows, and insisted that her innocence would be established. She was a very talkative woman, of a cheerful temperament. Had led a rough, hard life in the northern part of Queensland and had probably learned to attach little value to life. Not a bad dispositioned woman, very temperate in her habits. Capable and industrious. Died instantaneously.

Unsigned remarks attached to a police dossier, recording her arrival details, personal details, physical description, charge and sentence, and a formal portrait photograph, reproduced above, taken 17 May 1887.
Image Credit / Douglas Historical Society
Image Credit / Douglas Historical Society

Did you know?

Ellen Thomson remains the only woman to be judicially executed in Queensland.

From her condemned cell, she wrote a letter to the Governor of Queensland, making three demands:

  • that in the event of her innocence being proved, her four children each receive 500 pounds
  • that all her statements be returned to her to be destroyed
  • that the sentencing judge be barred from sentencing any other woman in Queensland before hearing both sides of the story

In the failure to meet these demands, she would protest on the scaffold before she died.

If her demands were met she would “… walk onto the gallows like an angel.”
Among her last words, before the hood was placed on her head, was her statement: “… I never shot my husband., and I am dying like an angel…”

Ellen was hanged in Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, on 13 June 1887, aged 41.
She had been tried in Townsville, on 17 May 1887, for the murder of her second husband, William Thomson, at Port Douglas, eight months earlier, on 13 September 1886, along with her accomplice, a British Marines deserter named John Harrison, who was hanged shortly after her.

The group was interested to learn of the provenance of the Heritage registered 1879 Court House building, which is today’s Museum. The Doctors and Lawyers group, headed by Barrister Lorenzo Boccabella, discussed the trial process, and the outcome.

They viewed the filmed re-enactment of the committal, trial and execution made by the Historical Society, and heard an address by DSHS Life Member, Noel Weare.

Further Reading /

An introduction to the life and trail of Ellen Thomson, which has also been re-enacted in the historical Douglas Shire Court House (now our local museum) and is available as a video here :

A fascinating, well-research and very detailed read on the life of Ellen Thomson can be found here: