Gang rapes and death penalties: how far has Australia come from its convict past?

As much as Australians would not like to admit it, Australia is built upon a convict heritage, with all its stereotypes included. However, we also like to think that we as a nation have moved on from the problems faced during our colonial period. What we must realise though is that much of our past as a whole contains convict stains we have been unable to wash out of our national sleeves.

Nearly one hundred years after Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788, Sydney faced this dilemma of moving on from the nation’s convict past. In 1886 at an industrial wasteland site on the then outskirts of Sydney known as Mount Rennie, or what is commonly known today as the Moore Park area, a gang rape involving up to twenty young men was committed upon a 16 year old girl called Mary Jane Hicks. Of the fifteen arrested for the assault, eleven were brought to criminal trial in which nine were found guilty and sentenced to death. All of those brought to trial were young males aged between 17 and 20 years. The trial and resulting death penalty which followed the attack was the cause of much controversy throughout Australia, particularly in the lead up to the nation’s centenary in 1888. But why write about a case like this? The ‘Mount Rennie Outrage’ as it is commonly referred to, unlocks many avenues worthy of exploration in this time period of late nineteenth century Australia. This case saw a number of things on trial, not just the lives of the boys involved, but also women, youth and Australia’s criminal justice system.

The trouble with youth:

When we think of’ larrikins’ in 21st Century Australia, we usually think of men who are laid-back, easy-going and who are all-round good guys who you can easily share a laugh with. If we take a closer look at late nineteenth century Australia and the existence of larrikins during this era, we can debunk this perception. Larrikins were an emerging group of young males in Australia in the late nineteenth century. As a lower form of social class at this time, these young men would form together in groups known as ‘pushes’ and would be involved in immoral activities such as excessive drinking, use of foul language and picking fights with others. Being a larrikin in 1886 meant to disregard authority, social norms and especially women. It is no surprise then that all the young men brought to trial in the Mount Rennie outrage were from larrikin pushes. Fears emerged that these larrikins may well be the real Australians. Many have argued the death penalty passed by Judge Windeyer was a message to the entire larrikin class that society had had enough of their behaviour, as severe as the punishment may have seemed. The death penalty was perhaps necessary though to put a stop to immoral activities being undertaken by young men and create a positive national image which additionally acknowledged respect for women in light of the lead up to the nation’s centenary.

What about women?

Problems arose in late nineteenth century Australia in terms of how to accommodate femininity within a national image. Mary Jane Hicks quickly became a symbol for all women during this time, with writers from The Bulletin in particularly painting her in a particularly negative light. As the trial progressed towards the end of 1886, it was revealed that Mary Jane Hicks had lied in her original statement, where she claimed to have not had sexual relations prior to the attack at Mount Rennie:

“…up to the time of the occurrence at Moore Park on Thursday last I had maintained purity of person…” (Sydney Morning Herald, 13th September, 1886).

You could probably imagine the frenzy created by the likes of The Bulletin and local media when it was revealed she had previously had an affair with a married man. Three years prior to the Mount Rennie outrage, larrikin youths were also involved in the rape and death of two prostitutes in Sydney, but no charges were laid. Questions were raised at this time about whether the rape of a prostitute was more acceptable than the rape of a virtuous woman. Judge Windeyer made his position clear during the trial that the content of a woman’s character should not determine whether they deserved to be treated the way Mary Jane Hicks was that September afternoon.

Should the death penalty be used in Australia?

It is not the sole purpose of my writing to spark debates about whether or not the death penalty should be used in Australia for cases involving sexual assault. However, if we consider cases in recent years such as the gang rape and murder of Anita Cobby in 1986, one hundred years after the Mount Rennie outrage and  the terrorising gang rape attacks which took place in Sydney in the lead up to the Olympic Games in the year 2000, coordinated by the notorious Bilal Skaf, still people call for the death penalty in similar horrific cases witnessed many years ago. How far have we come from our colonial past? Depends which way you look at it.


Further Reading:

Australia on Trial, ABC Television, 2012

Bellanta, Melissa. Larrikins: A History. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2012

Hearn. M. “Mary Malone’s Lessons: A Narrative of Citizenship in Federation Australia.” Gender and History, vol 16(2) (2004): pp.376-396

Peers, J. “The tribe of Mary Jane Hicks: imaging women through the Mount Rennie rape case 1886.” Australian Cultural History, 12 (1993): pp.127-144

Sharpe, Alan. Crime and Punishment: 50 Crimes that Shocked Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Kingsclear Books, 1997

White, C. “Promenading and Picnicking: The Performance of Middle-Class Masculinity in Nineteenth-Century Sydney.” Journal of Australian Studies, vol 89 (2006), pp: 27-40

3 comments on “Gang rapes and death penalties: how far has Australia come from its convict past?

  1. sallye85 says:

    I found this so very interesting, a larrikin today is seen as a fun loving, Australian cultural trait, perhaps part of our National Identity. However, after reading your blog post and the history behind a “larrikin” it made me question where are we pulling our identity from?

    Either way, the concept of whether Australia has changed or grown from our colonial days is an intriguing one. In many ways, I think you will find many things remain the same. As you point out horrific crimes are still present in our society and will continue to be, gun crime or violence is still rife and as time moves forward perhaps crime and violence just changes with time, perhaps it is part of some peoples human nature.

    In regards to the death penalty in Australia, will it really make a difference or will it just be a tax payer funded program that makes no impact on crime rates in Australia. Some states in America still have the death penalty and without being an expert on it, people still commit crimes that warrant the death penalty, is it a deterrent? I would say no. Plus, is it not worse to have a life sentence with no option of parole?

    Overall, I really enjoyed your post, it was a really great topic for a research project and really got me thinking so thank you.

  2. erikamitch says:

    A really interesting and original research project topic. The whole question of Australian identity is interesting. Australians always seem difficult to define as a nation and hence historians are constantly trying to push certain histories. This is one that I have never come across and an interesting questioning of Australian identity. I had no idea where this “larrikin” idea originated and how it is associated with such negativity. Yet, interestingly we label the typical Australian male as a “larrikin”! It is really rather offensive.
    I like your research into women as well. And how the newspapers were so quick to label Mary Jane Hicks as a liar. Is this because she was a woman? Were people not sympathetic to her case at all?
    And the death penalty is another interesting question an I like the fact that you did not try to answer that but concentrated more on the identity aspect. But it does help to make your research topic relevant to today and really engage a wider audience. Well done. I really enjoyed reading this.

  3. It was hardly possible to scroll past your post with such a provocative title, and I’m glad I didn’t! You have done a very good job by interrelating ideas about youth, national identity, womanhood, rape, and the death penalty into the one topic; and the Mount Rennie Outrage was such a spectacular way to do so.
    I’m very interested by the idea that rape was more acceptable inflicted on an ‘unchaste’ woman. Considering ideas about womanhood at the time, I can certainly imagine that less injustice was felt at the rape and murder of two prostitutes than it might have been for a young virgin. I also expect that when Mary was exposed as a ‘liar,’ some members of the Australian public might have felt slightly less compassion towards her ordeal. This topic reminds us that ‘rape’ is a metamorphic idea. Once, rape did not exist within marriage, and perhaps not with a prostitute. Something like sexual abuse and its accompanying penalty is a very interesting way to look at the changing relationship between womanhood and national identity.
    Well done on tackling this interesting and delicate topic.

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