Sir Henry Bolte and the hanging of Ronald Ryan

50 years: Melbourne prison escapee Ronald Ryan is taken to police headquarters in Sydney after his recapture, 5 January 1966. Photo: W. Croser
50 years: Melbourne prison escapee Ronald Ryan is taken to police headquarters in Sydney after his recapture, 5 January 1966. Photo: W. Croser

At 8am on Friday, February 3, 1967, a man wearing the eerie hangman’s uniform of white sandshoes, grey coveralls, a green cloth butcher’s cap and welding glasses sent the convicted murderer Ronald Joseph Ryan crashing through the trapdoor at HM Prison Pentridge to his death.

Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia, and the furore over his execution was widespread and vociferous.

Henry Bolte, the pugnacious and long-serving premier of Victoria, was determined to see Ryan go to the gallows after Robert Tait, a murderer sentenced to death previously, escaped the penalty through being found insane.

Bolte, the son of a German publican, was born in Ballarat and lived most of his youth in Skipton, attending Ballarat Grammar.

He had been premier for 12 years when his cabinet determined that Ryan would die, in the face of extensive and articulate opposition. 

Although he lacked a university education, Bolte was a shrewd and canny politician, attuned to the popular sentiment of the general public, who for the most part supported the concept of capital punishment.

The cartoonist Les Tanner portrayed him savagely in an edition of The Bulletin, which its publisher Sir Frank Packer tried to pulp all copies of.

Watch National Film and Sound Archive footage of the Ronald Ryan story

He drew the premier as hangman, with Bolte saying, “I do not bow to mob protests – only mob support.”

Opposition to the execution came from all parts of Australian society. Churches, trade unions and even members of Bolte’s own Liberal Party expressed their revulsion for the insistence on the state-sanctioned hanging, after the government had commuted 15 previous death penalties.

Footage about Bolte and Ryan's hanging.

Journalist Evan Whitton was present at the execution. His recollection, The Necking Of Ronald Ryan, is stark, precise and matter-of-fact about the swift brutality of the execution, as were his colleague’s, journalists Ron Saw and Brain Morley, reports.

“They say if you blink at a hanging, you're likely to miss the action. The hangman's last four movements were so incredibly swift they stunned the eye, and I believe my glance must have been drawn by the hangman's backward leap,” wrote Mr Whitton.

“At any rate, when my eyes came back, the hooded figure had his legs severed just below the knee, and that is the image that is fixed on the negative of my brain. Maybe I blinked then: I have no picture of him going the rest of the way down.”

Ryan died instantly. The Catholic prison chaplain Father John Brosnan attempted to give him the Last Rites as Ryan’s face turned black from constriction.

 At the 1967 Victorian state elections the Liberals gained six seats.