The Exorcism of Ernest Austin's Phony Phantom

In 1913, murderer Ernest Austin became the last person to be hanged in Queensland.
Ernest Austin, 1913 ('The Truth')
Ernest Austin was sentenced to death in 1913 for the vicious murder and sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl, Ivy Mitchell of Samford, and he was executed at Boggo Road. The crime was particularly atrocious as he had raped the girl and then cut her throat. The people of Samford never did forgive Austin, and his crime haunted Ivy’s family for the rest of their lives.

Austin found a kind of infamy as the last prisoner to be hanged in Queensland. He has also found a place among the pantheon of alleged Boggo Road ghosts, and there are rather fantastical versions of his death and afterlife currently being circulated on a number of paranormal-themed websites. There are some serious issues with these stories.*

'But there's a conspiracy theory to hide the truth!'

The story - from a 'ghost tour' company - goes that as he stood upon the scaffold awaiting death, Austin shouted out that he was proud of his crime and that his victim ‘loved it’, and then he laughed heinously, mocked the assembled witnesses, and told them he would return from the grave and cause even more suffering:
"As the executioner released the trapdoors beneath his feet, the murderer began to laugh, all the way to the very end of the 13-foot rope. Even then he tried to force out one last little chuckle from between his lips. It was said that the laughter was often heard in the early mornings in the cellblocks."
The historical record actually tells a very different version of events. Austin’s execution was witnessed by several reporters and officials, and although there were some minor discrepancies in their reports on the event, they all told a very different story to the later version. His last words, probably spoken under the influence of morphine, were reported in one newspaper as:
"I ask you all to forgive me. I ask the people of Samford to forgive me. I ask my mother to forgive me. May you all live long and die happy. God save the King! God save the King! God be with you all! Send a wire to my mother and tell her I died happy, won’t you. Yes tell her I died happy with no fear. Goodbye all! Goodbye all!" (Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1913)
A very similar account appeared in the Truth newspaper, this one reporting that ‘God save the King’ were his actual last words. Did the reporters lie? One person defending the ‘evil laughing’ story to me claimed that the reporters were part of an official cover-up of the disturbing events on the gallows, as the authorities were trying to maintain public support for hanging and did not want the awful truth of what Austin had really said getting out. However, the Courier and the Truth took opposing editorial stands on capital punishment, so why write the same story? Surely it would have suited the anti-hanging writers at the Truth to print a story with Austin laughing at his executioners, showing the failure of the death sentence to impress any sense of repentance upon him. The angle they instead took was to portray Austin as a ‘feeble-minded degenerate’, someone with a ‘mental deficiency’ who was raised in a home for neglected children and lived an institutionalised life that had made a monster of him. Their headline proclaimed ‘THE STATE SLAYS ITS OWN CREATION’. Blame for the crime was apparently to be shared with government authorities, his Frankensteinian creators.

The illogical conspiracy theory (with zero evidence) used to defend this ghost story can be safely ignored.

'But old timers say it's true!'

In later years, Austin was re-created as a supernatural demon. It has been claimed - again, from 'ghost tour' people - that prisoners would see a face appear outside their cell door, and when they looked into his eyes they somehow knew it was Austin and that he had made a deal with Satan to deliver their souls in exchange for his own. Having locked eyes with the prisoner, the ghost of Ernest Austin would then come through the door and try to strangle them, driving some to madness… or so the story goes.

I have spoken with many former prisoners and officers, and while some of them have a weird story or two about 'ghostly' happenings, none of them knew anything of this 'soul-stealing Austin' story. This includes people who, during the 1960s, were confined in the dormitory area of 1 Division that in earlier years had been the gallows area itself. Not only did people not see or hear anything spooky there at all, the prisoners weren't even aware that the place was supposed to be haunted. Quite simply, the story did not exist, much less the ghost.

He haunts the wrong part of Boggo Road!

One of the mysteries of this story is that Austin is said to haunt No.2 Division - a place he never set foot in. In 1913, No.2 Division was actually a prison for women. Austin was confined and executed in a completely different part of the prison reserve, one that has long since been demolished, but his spirit somehow moved to another building to conveniently haunt a part of the ghost tour route.

Be gone, demon!

So how did this Austin story come to be? How did it gain currency after the closure of Boggo Road despite strong contradictory evidence? One plausible explanation is that the story was well suited to the theatrical tenor of a commercial tour. It just takes one person to refer to someone else repeating it, and the ‘evil Austin’ ghost story spreads on the Internet, as the desire to tell a sensational story overrode a proper reading of the historical record.

The transformation of Austin from a vicious but all-too-human murderer into a (literally) satanic monster is an injustice to historical enquiry and an insult to intelligence. The existence and propagation of this story also demeans the memory of Ivy Mitchell. Not to mention overshadowing the historical importance of the abolition of execution in Queensland (the first part of the British Empire to do so). We can only hope that the debunking of the phoney phantom of Ernest Austin will help this ridiculous aspect of the story fade into history.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in September 2013.

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