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An Uncommon Hangman

The life and deaths of Robert ‘Nosey Bob’ Howard

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Executioners were once a critical component of the justice system in New South Wales. In an era when judges handed down death sentences as easily as they toasted the good health of the monarch, someone had to do the dirty work of the authorities.

Robert ‘Nosey Bob’ Howard used to be a household name. Today, the noseless hangman who sparked fear and fascination everywhere he went is largely forgotten, yet Howard is vital to understanding attitudes towards capital punishment in Australia. Howard’s story is a critical chapter in the history of how generally enthusiastic spectators at early executions were overtaken by campaigners for the abolition of the death penalty.

This dramatic tale of life, death and radical social change is told through the sixty-one men and one woman who met Nosey Bob, under the worst possible circumstances, when he served as a New South Wales executioner between 1876 and 1904.

‘Riveting, startling and brimming with powerful insights. With meticulous research and an unflinching eye, Rachel Franks brilliantly recovers the story of the most unpopular man in NSW, and the stories of the condemned people he hanged. Through this deeply human story of Robert ‘Nosey Bob’ Howard, and the Faustian pact he made with the authorities to make a living, she lays bare the grotesque hypocrisies of judicial hanging. “The act of hanging is an act of brutality” writes Franks. I defy anyone who reads this book to disagree.’ –Emeritus Professor Grace Karskens, author of The Colony: A History of Early Sydney

‘Franks displays wit, writerly sensitivity and a scholar’s rigour, methodically revealing modes of crime and punishment, and entire ways of living and dying, in colonial Australia. She does this via an examination of the life of a plain, simple, everyday hangman. Who happens to be without a nose. What’s not to like?’ – Dr Peter Doyle, author of Crooks Like Us

‘A bold and brutal biography of NSW’s longest-serving executioner. Franks weaves a compelling and compassionate narrative of one man’s life, told through the deaths of condemned criminals. Fearless in its detail, Franks’ prose has a light touch on this dark subject matter. Through the man we contemplate the history of capital punishment, law and order, and colonial social mores, making this a vital contribution to death studies in Australia.’ – Dr Lisa Murray, author of Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide