The man that hanged Ned Kelly was Elijah Upjohn, a former convict that had been sentenced to seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for stealing shoes after a series of similar offences. He arrived in the colony in July 1839.
Upjohn stood at 6½’ tall – slightly taller than the man he was executing on that fateful day in 1880 – and had a wild life worthy of its own telling. He was described by Ned Kelly biographer Ian Jones as, a “chicken thief and one time plunderer of dunnies”.
He was married to Ana Copp in Geelong in 1854, and they had five sons, two of whom survived to adulthood. By 1859 he was living in Ballarat, where he was granted a nightman’s licence. This role was an important one (the thankless task of carting away the collected leavings from water closets) but, due to the exorbitant fees he charged, conflicts arose, which led to him spitefully chucking in the towel. This seemed to trigger a downward spiral for Upjohn, who, over the next decade would buy a competitor’s nightcart and business mere weeks after trying to sell his own; get into trouble for dumping the night soil around the town and in a quarry instead of the allocated depot; repeatedly land in trouble for drunkenness and abusive language; be charged with destroying toys in a woman’s shop; be charged with attempting to poison a horse; attempt a career as a quack doctor and peddler of cure-alls; and continue to work as a nightman – illegally – after his licence was withdrawn.
The lowest point of this descent was when he was sentenced to twelve months in Ballarat Gaol in April 1880, for drunkenly breaking into a family’s fowl yard and strangling thirteen chickens to death. He claimed he had been driven to crime by desperation, no doubt a byproduct of his alcoholism.
Upjohn looked for whatever opportunity he could to curry favour with gaol authorities and became the resident flagellator. It was also during the course of this sentence that there was an opening in the job of executioner, and Upjohn, seeing a chance to reduce his time in gaol, put his hand up for the job.
Upjohn took to his new role as “Jack Ketch” with enthusiasm, taking pride in his position, which he referred to as, “a paid officer of the Queen, and a necessary one too.”
He was the man who drew the bolt on 11 November 1880, which brought an end to the life of Ned Kelly, but seemingly it was of no more significance to Upjohn than hanging or flogging any other criminal.
Ned Kelly was his highest profile execution, though he maintained the position in subsequent years, and continued to work as a flagellator, even being granted a residence in Pentridge by the government. But old habits are hard to break and Upjohn soon found himself in trouble again, this time for his obnoxious remarks directed towards women and children. This, combined with his slovenly living habits, resulted in his eviction from the residence at Pentridge and, predictably, he hit the bottle again.
In September 1882, Upjohn was gaoled for drunkenly exposing himself to women and children in Carlton, and, being unable to pay the fine, was locked up in Melbourne Gaol.
After his release he returned to quackery, claiming his unique concoctions could cute ailments ranging from rheumatism and cancer to blindness. He, naturally, refused to divulge what this medical miracle actually was.
Upjohn’s final execution was that of convicted murderer James Hawthorn on 21 August 1884. Upjohn made a mess of the knot placement and subsequently the execution was botched, the doomed man being strangled to death over several minutes instead of the quick, clean death the long drop method was designed for. This resulted in Upjohn’s suspension from the position.
Upjohn spent the rest of his life as a vagrant. In July 1885 he fled to New South Wales, believing that men he had flogged in prison had gained their liberty and were plotting to kill him. Two months later he died in Bourke, New South Wales, after being found by a policeman. He left behind his wife and two surviving sons.
– “Family Notices” The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) 12 June 1854: 4.
– “WESTERN MUNICIPAL COUNCIL.” The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 – 1864) 13 January 1859: 2.
– “WESTERN MUNICIPAL COUNCIL.” The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 – 1864) 10 March 1859: 2.
– “WESTERN MUNICIPAL COUNCIL.” The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 – 1864) 22 September 1863: 1
– “NEWS AND NOTES.” The Ballarat Star (Vic. : 1865 – 1924) 29 April 1880: 2.
– “NEWS AND NOTES.” The Ballarat Star (Vic. : 1865 – 1924) 12 November 1880: 2.
– “AN INTERVIEW WITH THE HANGMAN.” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) 28 February 1882: 3.
– “THE CERBERUS.” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) 5 July 1882: 2.
– “POLICE INTELLIGENCE.” The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) 29 September 1882: 10.
– “THE EXECUTION OF JAMES HAWTHORN.” The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) 22 August 1884: 7.
– “Notes on Current Events.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 8 June 1883: 3.
– VPRS 515/P0000, Central Register for Male Prisoners 17912 – 18398 (1880), page 281