Last Words: The hanging of Ronald Ryan

Barry Dickins

Last Words: The hanging of Ronald Ryan
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Last Words: The hanging of Ronald Ryan

Barry Dickins

From acclaimed playwright and writer Barry Dickins, Last Words is the story of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia. Fifty years after his death, questions remain unanswered. Ryan had been found guilty of murdering prison officer George Hodson during an escape from Pentridge Prison with fellow inmate Peter Walker. But did he really fire the bullet that killed Hodson?

On 3 February 1967, despite public outrage and vocal protests from wide-ranging community groups, Ryan became the last person to be legally executed in Australia.

It was the first time in 20 years that the death penalty had been enforced by the state. Many thought that Ryan’s execution was Victorian Premier Henry Bolte’s attempt to bolster his chances of winning the upcoming Victorian election, during which he ran a campaign promoting his law-and-order agenda.

Last Words is as much about the hanged man as much as it is about the trauma of his family, and the political opportunism behind the decision to proceed with the hanging. In Dickins' lyrical prose he takes readers into the last weeks of Ryan’s life and brings to life this infamous man whose personal story has gone undocumented until now.

Review

It is 50 years since Ronald Ryan became the last person to be hanged in Victoria. Ryan was serving an 8-year sentence for breaking and entering and together with another inmate broke out of Coburg’s Pentridge prison. During the breakout a prison warder, George Hodgson, was killed. After Ryan was recaptured, he was tried and convicted of Hodgson’s murder and subsequently sentenced to death.

The Liberal government was facing re-election and decided to carry out the death sentence to show it was tough on law and order. The sentence galvanised the community and led to mass protests against Ryan’s sentence and the death penalty. There were strong doubts about the strength of the evidence against Ryan. Hodgson’s daughter called for the sentence to be commuted; seven of Ryan’s jurors signed a petition calling for the sentence to be commuted, and a young Barry Jones was spurred into political actions. Barry Dickins, who wrote a play in the nineties about the hanging and met many of the protagonists, now delivers a charged and highly personal reflection on the life and death of Ronald Ryan.


Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.

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