I seldom cover Australian cases, but the case of Jean Lee (or Margaret Jean Maude Wright to give her her actual name) is a notable one. Jean Lee was the last woman in Australia to take her final walk, only a few brief steps from the condemned cell to the gallows at Pentridge Prison, Melbourne.
Unlike so many of her predecessors, Lee wasn’t seen as somebody always destined for either a life in prison or a date with the hangman. Born in Dobbo, New South Wales on December 12, 1919, she grew up with an average Australian background. As a child she was a good student and a warm, friendly child, if inclined towards occasional rebellion. It wasn’t until early adulthood that she drifted away from her respectable background into bad company and a life of petty crime. Petty, at least, until she turned to murder.
She married in 1938 and not to the best of men. He abandoned her and their only child after nine years of marriage and Lee began her march to the gallows thereafter. She gave her daughter to her mother to look after and, without any other encumbrances, started keeping some bad company. Her last in a string of lovers was one Robert Clayton, a petty criminal himself. Clayton allegedly mistreated her and put her to work as a prostitute with him as her pimp. He also used her as bait when they decided to embark upon an age-old criminal enterprise known in the trade as the ‘Badger game.’
It was simple. Lee would trawl Melbourne’s bars and hotels picking up men and inviting them back to her flat for an evening’s intimate entertainment. While Lee and the mark were suitably distracted, Clayton would burst in posing as Lee’s husband and demand the mark buy their silence. Seeing as many of their victims were ‘respectable’ men who presumably wanted to avoid embarrassing conversations with their wives on the subject, they usually paid. For those who refused Clayton and his prison buddy Norman Andrews, the mark would simply be beaten senseless, robbed and left where they lay. Clayton had met Andrews while they were serving time at Pentridge and decided that a little extra muscle might come in handy. Andrews, one of life’s no-hopers and on the look-out for whatever employment he could get, was happy enough to join the trio.
They continued the racket for a few years, doing reasonably well until one of them heard about a wealthy recluse who might make an easy and lucrative mark. William ‘Pop’ Kent was 73 years old and owned a few rental properties. He was also an off-track bookmaker and, seeing as off-track betting was illegal at the time, was rumoured to keep the bulk of his money at his home far away from the prying eyes of the police and the Australian taxman. He was old, wealthy, unlikely to go to the police and, therefore, vulnerable. Also, being 73 years old, he wasn’t somebody that pretty young women often took much of an interest in. In theory, ‘Pop’ was the perfect target.
Lee picked him up in a hotel bar on November 11, 1949 and agree to accompany him to his home. He didn’t realise that he was also inviting Andrews and Clayton, who were following at a discrete distance. Lee and Kent arrived at his home, once Lee had him distracted and at his most vulnerable, in burst her pet thugs. This time they were after far more than a few dollars of hush money. They wanted Kent’s cash stash and they weren’t fussy about how they obtained it.
Kent was manhandled, tied to a chair, and the trio spent some time working him over. He was punched, kicked, cut with a small knife, and repeatedly stabbed to make him hand over his profits. Initially, Kent was defiant, trying to withstand the torture and refusing to tell them anything. Eventually, however, he broke and admitted that apart from the money belt he was wearing there simply wasn’t any extra money hidden away. The trio took the money belt before one of them then silenced their victim permanently, strangling him while he was still tied to the chair. Police had been alerted by suspicious neighbours but, before they arrived, the trio fled taking Kent’s money belt and leaving behind them a wrecked room and Kent’s dead body. Now they’d all stopped being petty crooks. Now they were wanted for murder in a country which (at that time) still had the death penalty, albeit used quite sparingly.
It didn’t take long for the police to identify the victim and his killers. Kent was known to them as an off-track bookie, Lee as a prostitute and Andrews and Clayton were both ex-cons well-known to the Melbourne police. It wasn’t long before the trio were tracked to their hotel and, in the rooms of Lee and Andrews, bloodstained clothing was discovered. All three were immediately arrested and charged with murder, the distinct possibility of a date with the hangman started to occupy their minds.
It certainly occupied one of their minds enough to make them confess and blame the other two despite all three initially denying any involvement in the murder. Once investigators confronted the other two with a statement that unlocked the door to Pentridge’s gallows room. they did what most criminals do when they feel they’ve been betrayed, which is to save their own neck by putting a hangman’s noose round everybody else’s.
Their trial began at Melbourne Criminal Court on July 20, 1950 with Justice Gavan Duffy presiding. As all three defendants were blaming each other for the murder Justice Duffy clearly defined ‘common purpose’ to the jury. Boiled down, said Duffy, it didn’t matter which defendant had actually killed Kent, only that all three were at the scene to commit a robbery. If the murder resulted from the robbery and all of them were present, then all were equally guilty of murder, in the learned judge’s opinion.
It was also the opinion of the jury who deliberated for less than three hours before rendering their verdicts. Lee, Clayton and Andrews were all guilty of murder. Now it only remained for Justice Duffy to don the traditional ‘Black Cap’ to pass sentence.
The ‘Black Cap’ was a curious tradition. It started with British judges and extended through many parts of what was once the British Empire, Australia being one of them. It’s simply a square of black felt or silk and was placed on a judge’s wig whenever they pronounced sentence of death as a gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-dead. Justice Duffy lost no time in sentencing all three to die on the gallows. Lee immediately collapsed in hysterics while Clayton bellowed abuse at the jury.
Judge and jury might have been prepared to send them to the gallows, but their lawyers were not. They promptly appealed against the ruling in a case heard on June 23, 1950, claiming that the first statement, leading to the trio all turning on each other, had been improperly obtained by the police. Thus, as the prosecution case rested largely on the three defendants blaming each other, the evidence was inadmissible and the convictions thrown out. Lee, Clayton and Andrews were now free of the gallows, but could be re-tried if the prosecution wished. The prosecution could also go over the heads of the Court of Criminal Appeal where the three-judge panel had ruled with 2-1 majority. That was exactly what they did.
The prosecution demanded the appeal be overruled and the convictions and sentences be confirmed. What the prosecutors wanted the High Court duly provided. The Court of Criminal Appeal found their own ruling revoked and the sentences of all three defendants were confirmed. It was a shattering blow for all of them. Now their dates with the hangman were firmly back in their prison diaries.
Considerable protests met both the original sentences and their subsequent reinstatement. They came from several different angles. Some felt that the death penalty was wrong and full abolition was called for. Others felt that women shouldn’t face execution. Still more protested against the method, arguing that hanging was an archaic means and should be replaced, although with what method proved a trickier question for them to answer. Whatever their angle, the protests made no difference either to authorities or to the nature of the crime. William Kent had been duped, atrociously tortured and then brutally murdered, and all the protests in the world couldn’t change that fact or that the defendants were the ones responsible.
Lee would be Australia’s first female hanging since Martha Rendall in 1909 and the last woman to face an Australian hangman. As she waited in the condemned cell her behaviour became increasingly erratic under the mounting strain. She alternately fought with her guards and then begged them for small favours like alcoholic drinks (alcohol wasn’t forthcoming under prison rules). Clayton and Andrews, however, seemed more resigned to their fate.
Thus the triple execution, another rarity in Australian criminal history, was scheduled for February 19, 1951. To spare Jean Lee the agony of unnecessary waiting, prison authorities decided that she would die first at 8am. Clayton and Andrews would follow her at 10am, the Pentridge gallows being designed to drop two prisoners at the same time. At the appointed hour Jean Lee met her fate.
As the clock struck the hour Sheriff Daly entered her cell and started to rad the Warrant of Execution as required by Australian law. As he read, Lee saw two men walk into the cell, strangers wearing strange goggles and large hats. They were the hangman and his assistant, dressed like that because it was an obscure tradition. Lee promptly fainted, needing to be carried to the gallows and sat on a chair while the hangman positioned the hood and then the noose. At a signal, Jean Lee and the chair dropped eight feet. At 8:05am she was pronounced dead by the prison doctor.
Clayton and Andrews followed her at 10am. They were brought to the gallows with their arms strapped behind their backs and placed side-by-side beneath the huge beam with its two noose dangling in front of them. As they stood on the trap and their legs were strapped, they spoke their final words before the hoods and nooses were placed. Clayton said simply:
Andrews responded equally briefly with:
Then, as the signal was given, the trapdoors dropped with a deafening crash clearly audible in much of Pentridge Prison. Both men were certified dead shortly afterward.
Never again would a woman walk Australia’s last mile. There were other executions in Australia, all of male offenders, and Jean Lee’s case did a lot to undermine support for the death penalty in Australia. In 1985, Australia finally abolished capital punishment having had no executions since the hanging of prison escapee and murderer Ronald Ryan.
Ryan was Australia’s last hanged man. He was also hanged at Pentridge.