“For years Rusten House has lain forlorn and largely forgotten, its empty corridors and darkened rooms echoing with a history filled with equal parts heartache and happiness,” writes NICHOLE OVERALL
ON the otherwise ordinary evening of April 10, 1855, a married mother of two living at Gundaroo would commit an act that would forever impact women’s rights in Australia – though in the most inconceivable of ways.
Only 23 years old, Mary Ann Brownlow became the first pregnant woman in the still new British colony to be condemned to death after stabbing her husband, George, with a butcher’s knife, the result of which was his untimely end.
George Moore Brownlow had earned a reputation as a man of “lax morals” and stories circulated that he was either of unconfirmed paternal parentage or the illegitimate son of Lieut JJ Moore, first landholder on the Limestone Plains. Moore’s property “Canberry” (1824), was overseen by the 28-year-old George at the time he met his 17-year-old, soon-to-be bride.
In contrast, Mary Ann was descended from an aristocratic French family; her grandfather, Richard (de) Guise was rumoured to have made his way to Australia after absconding from the court of Marie Antoinette before his head could be detached.
The Guise family would take up vast tracts of land stretching from Lake George to Sutton and over to Gundaroo. Following the death of her father, William, in 1850 Mary Ann became a woman of property, inheriting almost 800 hectares around Bywong.
Less than six months later, she would become Mrs Brownlow.
Two daughters within five years, a third child on the way and an accumulation of debt, courtesy of George’s gambling, took its toll. Believing her husband had not only taken up with “some wanton fair one” but had, without her knowledge, been selling his wife’s landholdings (which, of course, had legally become his on their union), the crucible of jealousy and indignation – and most certainly inflamed by alcohol – would crush the life of both of them.
A “pass at him with a knife, which ‘tickled’ him somewhere near the region of the ribs,” as it was described in the press and on the third day after, George would make his way from this world to the next.
Arraigned at Queanbeyan and then brought for trial before Chief Justice Sir Alfred Stephen in Goulburn, to the disbelief of almost everyone, a sentence of death was handed down on the young mother, the judge justifying his severity with the claim it appeared one of the “most foul and brutal murders” ever to come before him.
As Caroline Overington wrote in her book on Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in NSW in 1889 for the poisoning of two husbands, at these times “women were in no sense equal under the law, except when it came to the gallows”.
A fierce campaign was waged to see the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, during which Mary Ann gave birth to a son, George. The child’s fate was equally tragic, dying only a few months later.
Calls for compassion were to no avail and six months and one day after irrevocably altering her own fate, on October 11, 1855, just before 4pm, Mary Ann Brownlow (some reports claimed with baby George at her breast) ascended the 13 steps to the platform purposefully erected at the “Public Gaol, Prison and House of Correction”. Without a murmur, in a “sad, sad sight”, she became the 11th woman ever hanged in Australia, according to the Wikipedia list of people legally executed in Australia (the last would not be for almost another 100 years) and the second last woman ever hanged at Goulburn.
Deemed a murderer, Mary Ann was buried in unconsecrated ground at St Saviour’s there, though legend has it that her descendants later had her coffin secretly exhumed and reinterred in the Guise family vault in St John’s in Canberra – also the burial ground for her husband.
Echoing down almost two centuries, the story continues to haunt – and there are inevitably tales that Mary Ann’s ghost still roams.
There was though, a more tangible outcome of this dramatic local event: it’s said her case influenced the introduction of the Married Women’s Property Rights Act from the late 1870s, giving women control over their own possessions.
The final words belong to Mary Ann, delivered presciently to those who visited her cell on the day of her execution: “Do not fret about me – I shall soon be happy and I hope to meet you again. I think though he [baby George] will soon be with me. I pass through a prison to everlasting life”.
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist and social historian with a predilection for bringing to light the unsolved mysteries and conundrums of the capital region.