Hanged & Dissected... For Picking a Man's Brains

The hard, early years of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement were dotted with tales of murder, disease and suicide. This remote northern outpost had been established in 1824 as a place of secondary punishment for those convicts who had reoffended since landing on Australian shores. The men were put to work at gunpoint in construction and agriculture. The labour was back-breaking, the food inadequate, and escape into the surrounding Aboriginal country was perilous and most likely fatal. Their lot was made worse by being forced to work with hand-held tools. Picks, shovels, saws, hoes and axes... sharp, heavy and - as it turned out on a number of occasions - ideal murder weapons.

The Commissariat Store, Brisbane, sketched by U. White (Brisbane Sketchbook)
Commissariat Store (Brisbane Sketchbook)
Early one September morning in 1828 a convict gang was working on the foundations for the new Commissariat Store near the riverside wharf. Among them were John Brunger (also named as Brogan), who was in a particularly foul mood. He had been a brickmaker in Kent before committing a theft that saw him transported for life to New South Wales in back in 1820. Brunger was not a great example of the effectiveness of 'deterrence' in sentencing as he was subsequently sent to Moreton Bay two times, once in 1825 and again in 1827 after stealing clothing, a bottle of brandy, and then absconding from his master in Parramatta, a crime for which he received three years at the penal settlement.

Working alongside him that morning was William Perfoot (aka Parfitt), a former Exeter farmhand who had once been reprieved from the gallows after stealing pork, mutton and a coat, and who had been sent directly to Moreton Bay in 1826 as a 'notoriously bad character' after another larceny conviction. Despite this, his new keepers found him to be 'quiet, well-behaved and not given to quarrelling'. That said, he was nearly killed in 1827 when a fellow convict smashed him in the head with a hoe.

Brunger must have been struggling with the trench-digging that morning because he demanded that Perfoot (who had a 'crippled thumb') give him his lighter pick. Perfoot refused. Several more demands for the pick were rebuffed before Brunger tried to snatch it from Perfoot, and the ensuing scuffle had to be broken up by the overseer. The men returned to their work, but a few hours later Brunger suddenly ran up to Perfoot and drove a pick straight into his head. He then casually tossed the pick away, picked up a shovel, and started working again as if nothing had happened, saying, 'That’s the way to serve the buggar'. Another convict grabbed his arms and cried out 'Murder, murder, hold him, hold him!'

Convict work gang, Australia.

Brunger was immediately arrested as the insensible Perfoot was wheeled off to the hospital in a barrow. When Brunger was asked why he did it, he replied, 'If I haven’t killed him, I’ll kill him the first time I have an opportunity. I struck him twice with the pick on the head and said, ‘That’s for jacketing of me.’' (Jacketing was a slang term explained in 1801 as ‘removing a man by underhand and vile means from any birth or situation he enjoys, commonly with a view to supplant him’.)

Perfoot died in the convict hospital after what must have been an unbelievably painful six days, and so Brunger was shipped down to Sydney to face trial for murder - a capital charge. He was tried several months later, in the the same session as three other Moreton Bay convicts, and he heartily joined them in disrupting the event. He was found guilty and was originally scheduled to be hanged on 16 April, but as he left his cell for the gallows that morning he was temporarily respited because, due to administrational errors, his death warrant had not arrived. This disappointed the crowds that had gathered on Hangman’s Hill to watch him die:
'The multitude assembled on the rocks, at the rear of the gaol, dispersed with an air of disappointed curiousity when they perceived the executioner ascend the scaffold alone, and remove the rope which had been pendent the whole of the morning.' (Sydney Gazette, 18 April 1829)
Brunger was hanged two days later in a yard at the George Street Gaol, alongside Thomas Matthews and Thomas Allen, two of the other Moreton men with whom he had been tried. He spoke from the scaffold and quite incredulously declared his own innocence:
'I die innocently before you all, and now about to suffer. I declare my innocence. Had I been allowed to have my witnesses up from Moreton Bay, I should have been cleared. I now solemnly declare my innocence, but I am willing to suffer.' (Australian, 21 April 1829)
After a 'few convulsive quiverings and death terminated his mortal career', the body of Brunger was left for the 'accustomed time' (one hour) and removed to the surgeons for anatomical dissection. There would be no burial. This was all part of the capital punishment procedure at that time, specifically designed to deter people from committing murder.

The Commissariat Store was completed without further input from Brunger or Perfoot, and it still stands today as one of the very few physical reminders left in Brisbane of those convict days.

Commissariat Store, William Street, Brisbane, scene of a murder in 1828.
Commissariat Store, William Street, Brisbane.

A total of 12 Moreton Bay convicts were hanged, ten of them in Sydney and the other two at the convict barracks at the Moreton Bay settlement.