EXECUTED THIS DAY……. 15th May 1885


William Barnes was executed at the Melbourne Gaol for the murder of Joseph Bragge Slack at South Melbourne on the 9th September last. Since his conviction the prisoner had been much depressed, and he showed signs of breaking down. He became subject to fits of stupor, but during the visits of the Rev. H. R. Scott, who attended him assiduously, he listened attentively, and showed signs of repentance. On the night before his execution he sank into an apathetic state of half consciousness, and it was feared that he would not be able to walk on to the drop. At half past 7am he refused breakfast, and he had to be supported when an hour later his irons were knocked off and he was conducted to the condemned cell near the gallows. Presently the Rev. H. F. Scott arrived at the gaol, and found him in a most abject condition, but he rallied under the reverend gentleman’s ministrations, and asked that his last words should be given as words of warning to all evil doers to give up their crimes before they were brought to die on the scaffold like “Billy Barnes.” He said gambling and women had been his ruin. He also told Mr. Scott that on the drop he would say he was guilty, but the clergyman said he need not do so, as he had already confessed. Just as the clock struck 10 the sheriff, Colonel Rede, accompanied by Dr. Shields, the medical officer of the gaol, went to the door of the condemned cell and demanded the body of the prisoner. The hangman, William Jones, pinioned Barnes, who was offered a cordial by Mr. P. Dwyer, governor of the gaol, but he declined it. He walked on to the scaffold with a feeble step, and looking very livid. In a low voice, when Colonel Rede asked him whether he had anything to say, he replied, “No.” While the rope was being adjusted, prisoner’s fingers twitched at it convulsively. The white cap was then drawn over his face and while the Rev. H. F. Scott was reading the service for the dead the signal was given, and Barnes died instantaneously, the sole sign of life after he fell being a single convulsive contraction of the legs. The usual inquest was held an hour after the execution, and a formal verdict returned. The crime for which Barnes suffered the last penalty of the law is doubtless familiar to our readers. His victim, Joseph Bragge Slack, an old man, lived by himself and had some jewellery in his keeping which had once belonged to a man named Thompson, who was a fellow prisoner of Barnes, while the latter was serving a sentence in Pentridge. On the 9th September, a few days after Barnes was liberated, Slack was found dead in his bed with his throat cut, and with a razor clasped in his left hand. The verdict of the jury at the inquest was one of suicide, but three months afterwards Barnes, who had returned to Pentridge on a charge of robbery, confessed that he had gone into Slack’s house to steal his jewellery, that he was surprised while under the bed waiting his opportunity, and that in a struggle with Slack he killed him, and made it appear that the unfortunate man had died by his own hand. Slack’s body was exhumed, when it was found that his neck was broken. Some of his property was traced to the possession of Barnes, and a complete chain of evidence, resulting in his conviction, was established by the police. At the trial Barnes pleaded not guilty, but after his condemnation he repeated his confession and asked for mercy on the ground that the murder would never have been discovered if he had not voluntarily brought it to light. The Executive, however decided that the law should take its course. After this decision His Excellency the Governor was addressed by the prisoner’s solicitors in favour of a commutation of sentence, on the ground, among others, that the murder was unpremeditated, and was really the result of an accident while Barnes was trying to make his escape from Slack’s grasp, but Sir Henry Loch replied that the petition did not raise any considerations which had not previously received full attention, and no respite was granted.