Joseph Samuel: The Man Who Couldn’t be Hanged

Feb 16, 2023 0 comments

Joseph Samuel was a petty criminal who broke into homes and stole stuff. There is nothing remarkable about his crimes, or about his life. However, the circumstances surrounding his attempted execution is very peculiar and unparalleled in history.

Joseph Samuel was convicted of larceny at the age of fourteen in 1795. He was sentenced to seven years, and after serving a few years in England, he was transported to the penal colony in Australia. At that time, Britain maintained a penal settlement at Sydney Cove in the Colony of New South Wales. These early penal settlements relied on the isolation of the colony to keep its inmates in. Security was lax because the impression was that any escaping convict would not be able to survive in the harsh environment of the Australian wilderness.

A View of the Cove and Part of Sydney.

On the night of August 25-26, 1803, Samuel and a gang of convicts sneaked out of the camp and broke into the home of a wealthy woman and stole 24 guineas and some other items. The owner reported the theft to the police, and a constable named Joseph Luker, himself a former convict, went out to investigate. The next morning, his battered body was discovered by the side of the road, with the hilt of his own cutlass “buried in his brains.” Nearby was a bloodstained wheel of a barrow.

The brutal murder rocked the small community. It was the first time a policeman was killed on duty in Australia. Every officer, whether civil or military, was called up to assist in the search of the assassins. All roads leading out of the town was blocked, and a score of bad characters were rounded up. After searching the local area, a barrow without its wheel was found in the house belonging to one Sarah Laurence, where Joseph Samuels and his partners frequently lodged. The group was hailed at once to the magistrate and charged with murder. The gang denied the charges. Some of them even had solid alibies. But Samuel confessed to the robbery, but denied having murdered the policeman. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. The others were acquitted due to lack of evidence.

On 26 September 1803, Samuel and another criminal, James Hardwicke, who was convicted of a different robbery, were driven in a cart to Parramatta, where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the execution. A priest present at the gallows asked Samuel for confession, but instead, Samuel began accusing another member of the gang named Simmons of murder, saying that Simmons had confessed to the crime in their cell. Simmons who was at the gallows to witness the execution stated his innocence, but the crowd, now angered, went for him and had to be held back by the military. After Samuel’s accusations, a last-minute reprieve arrived for Hardwicke, and he was removed from the gallows leaving only Samuel up in the cart.

Samuel then devoted his last few moments to prayer, and after a while, the signal was given and the cart was moved away from under in. Around Samuel’s neck was a noose made of five cords of hemp, which was capable of holding, under ordinary circumstances, a weight of a thousand pound for up to five minutes. But as the cart moved away, the rope snapped and Samuel fell on the ground. Embarrassed, the executioner hastily readied another rope. Samuel was pulled up on his feet and forced into the cart again, and the newly prepared noose was slipped into his neck. Again the cart was driven off, but this time the noose mysteriously unraveled and Samuel lightly dropped into the ground.

The crowd become boisterous, calling for Samuel to be freed. The executioner very quickly readied another five-hemp rope, ordered the cart driven back, forced Samuel onto it, fastened the noose around his neck, secured it very carefully and tightly, and then ordered the cart driven away. Again the rope snapped. Now the crowed was in an uproar, and demanded the prisoner be released. The Provost Marshal ordered the execution delayed while he galloped away to find the Governor King. When the governor heard the tale, he gave Samuel a pardon, declaring divine intervention. Later, the ropes which were used in the execution were inspected and no signs of tampering was found. They were also tested by suspending weights from them and they appeared to be fine. Why the ropes broke under the weight of Joseph Samuel, no one can say.

After his brush with death Samuel was sent to Kings Town to work in the mines. In 1806 he and seven other men tried to escape the settlement in a boat but it sank and they were presumed drowned. His body was never found.


# The Man They Couldn't Hang, “Herald” Saturday Magazine
# The Man They Couldn’t Hang: Joseph Samuel, Parramatta History and Heritage
# 1803: Joseph Samuel survives three hangings, Executed Today


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