‘Last Words’ : Barry Dickins’ account of the hanging of Ronald Ryan
‘Last Words: The Hanging of Ronald Ryan’
Hardie Grant, $24.99
On Friday we marked one of our grimmest anniversaries – because it is 50 years since the last person in Australia was hanged. Ronald Ryan was the final victim of capital punishment in Australia and while some will say he was no victim, public opinion remains divided.
Ryan’s hanging has entered the bloodstream of literature. Who can forget Bruce Dawe’s chilling poem ‘A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love.’ In 1995 Barry Dickins’ play ‘Remember Ronald Ryan’ won the Louis Esson Prize for Drama at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
Now Dickins has written the harrowing story in ‘Last Words’, a surprisingly lyrical and imaginative retelling.
For those who don’t know the sordid tale, these are the facts: having been found guilty of murdering prison officer George Hodson during an escape with a fellow inmate from Pentridge Prison on a sweltering day in mid-December 1965, Ryan was sentenced to death and hanged on February 3, 1967.
This was despite public outrage and widespread community concern – particularly as it was 20 years since the death penalty was last enforced. The protesters even included Hodson’s daughter.
Five decades on key questions remain unresolved. For example, did Ryan actually fire the two bullets that killed Hodson? And was Ryan’s execution orchestrated by the long-serving conservative Victorian premier, Henry Bolte, to bolster his chances of being re-elected?
Throughout ‘Last Words’ Dickins wrestles with notions of guilt and innocence and he puts the idea of authority under the moral microscope. In doing so he concludes, contentiously, that it wasn’t Ryan who fired the bullets that killed Hodson. Instead Dickins maintains that it was two jail officers shooting at Ryan from a tower inside Pentridge who killed Hodson by mistake.
Dickins is adamant that Bolte’s decision to proceed with capital punishment was blatant political opportunism with the forthcoming April state election on a knife edge. As it eventuated, Bolte so accurately read the popular mood that the Liberal Party gained six seats.
According to Dickins, Ryan’s case was a grave miscarriage of justice. His heart-rending narrative demonstrates that, in the murder trial, a Mr Whippy van driver gave sworn testimony that he saw smoke issue from Ryan’s stolen carbine as he shot Hodson. Yet this type of gun didn’t make smoke.
Dickins effectively portrays the complex character of Ryan and underscores the fact that he was a long-term miscreant. As well, he evokes the trauma experienced by Ryan’s family during his trial and in the weeks before his death.
Tragically, both prison officers who allegedly killed Hodson committed suicide. According to Dickins, this was because they were stricken with guilt at having killed the wrong man. But who can tell?
Ryan’s fellow escapee, Peter Walker, was not charged with Hodson’s murder. However, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 19 years for killing a tow-truck driver while he and Ryan were on the run. He was again imprisoned in 2015, aged 78, having been found guilty of selling hydroponic marijuana and of trafficking “ice”.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books.
The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, February 4-5, 2017.