They Said I Would Hang

In Tasmania the Canadian patriots found chain gangs, treadmill and slavery—then the long road turned

LINUS W. MILLER August 15 1946

They Said I Would Hang

In Tasmania the Canadian patriots found chain gangs, treadmill and slavery—then the long road turned

LINUS W. MILLER August 15 1946

They Said I Would Hang

In Tasmania the Canadian patriots found chain gangs, treadmill and slavery—then the long road turned


Linus Miller, a 20-year-old law student from Stockton, N.Y., joined the Canadian Patriots in 1838, during their fight for responsible government. He was captured after a skirmish in the Short Hills oj the Niagara Peninsula, and sentenced, at Niagaraon-the-Lake, to hang. During the Short Hills engagement he had prevented another rebel, Jacob Beemer, from hanging a group of British prisoners out of hand, and this saved Miller's life. His sentence was reduced to transportation for life to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), and he was shipped with a group of other Patriots to England. On the way to England the Patriots plotted a mutiny on the prison ship, but were betrayed by Beemer, who tried to gain favor by his treachery.

The Patriots were confined on a prison hulk in Portsmouth Harbor, awaiting shipment to Van Diemen's Land. Miller and James Grant decided to overpower their guard and escape while they were working on shore. At the last minute the captain appeared and ordered them back to the ship. As they climbed the rail they saw Beemer smiling, and knew he had betrayed them once more.

WHILE I climbed to the deck, as Beemer gloated, Gemmell stood leaning against the rail, pale as marble, as always was the case when he had committed some terrible blunder. I learned from him that, supposing we were already beyond the reach of treachery, he had made a confidant of Beemer, who had snatched the copy of my letter and run with it to the captain.

In the afternoon I was summoned into the cabin, where I found Captain Nicholson and his chief mate.

I have done wrong, and am not ashamed to confess it to you,” the captain said. “My orders were to treat you and Mr. Grant as state prisoners, and I have regretted that I did not follow them. I have given orders that you and Grant have the full liberty of the ship and be exempt from the rule for the guidance of the felons.”

As for the traitor Beemer, not one of the officers would speak to him, and even the convicts shunned him as a greater scoundrel than themselves.

A convict ship, the Canton, made her appearance at Spithead about the middle of September. Two hundred and forty men, amongst whom were Grant, Gemmell,

Beemer and myself, were drafted from the \ crk and Leviathan Hulks for the voyage.

The accommodations were far better than we experienced on the Captain Ross on the way to England. The health of the prisoners, owing, no doubt, to the habits of cleanliness which were strictly enforced, and the not unwholesome diet, was unusually good.

Only two deaths occurred during the voyage.

On Jan. 12, 1840, the Canton dropped her anchor in Hobart Town harbor, Van Diemen’s Land—a voyage of 16,000 miles in 16 weeks. F or five days we were examined and questioned, but before dawn on Jan. 17,

the cry, “Rouse out there! Turn out! Going ashore! Huzza for shore!” resounded through the ship.

In my haste to dress I made a vigorous shove with my feet, which carried away at least one half of the seat of my knee breeches. “What a pretty figure I shall cut on shore now!” I thought. But I had to go ashore that way, anyway. We were crowded, a shouting, cursing mob, into a launch, and in a few minutes set foot in Van Diemen’s Land, and marched through the town to the prison. The prisoners’ barracks, into the yard of which we were turned, like so many cattle, to spend the entire day, covered about two acres. We were penned up in one corner of the yard.

Clothing Problem

WE WERE officially informed that Captain John Franklin, R.N.—Sir John Franklin, K.T., lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land and its dependencies, commander-in-chief of Her Majesty’s forces therein, etc., etc.—would call upon us the day we landed, and we were forbidden to appear in any

other than convict clothing. This order placed me in a quandary, if I was not already in one, for 1 had sat on a cold stone all morning for the sole purpose of hiding the enormous rent in my breeches.

“Holloa! there,” cried I, to Timothy Greedy, a fellow who was always either purchasing, begging or stealing something wherewithal to glut himself. “You have a pair of breeches that you do not wear. I think they will fit me, and if you are willing to part with them I will satisfy you.”

“What will you give?”

“I have nothing but my rations,” I replied.

Here a constable called out that Miller was wanted immediately at the superintendent’s office. Timothy Greedy saw his advantage, and, taking the coveted breeches from his bag, held them up before my eyes, and said, “Tell you what, my covey, if you want these ’ere for nine dinners, take ’em; and

if you don’t like the bargain you may go to h-!”

“Send Miller at once,” was again sung out. The villain triumphed. I took the breeches, drew them on over the old ones, and answered the call. Nine dinners were gone.

Sir John Franklin’s appearance, to say the least, was somewhat imposing. His height was about five feet, nine inches; his circumference was quite out of proportion, clearly indicating that however starved he might have been as “Captain Franklin” in his northern expedition, he had been more fortunate in the south as governor of the land of Nod.

After taking a general survey of the whole party, he chose a commanding position, and after half a dozen “ahems” commenced:

“Men! (addressing himself to invisible beings, for his eyes turned upward) Men! You have been sent here by the laws of your country as bad men; unfit to go at large; dangerous to the peace of society; dangerous to the security of property. You are all bad men! Very bad men indeed! You ought to have been hung instead of being sent here; but, as Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to be merciful, and as the laws of England are very mild, you ought to be very thankful.”

There followed more of the same, warning us against mixing with the old hands and trying to escape.

He then came and took up his position in front of myself and three companions,

Grant, Gemmell and Beemer. “Who are these?” he enquired of the surgeon of the ship. When he was told, the great man drew himself to his full height. For at least five minutes he stared us full in the face.

Then he burst out: “You are bad men, very bad men indeed. You were living under tbe best Government and laws in the world and you rebelled! You richly deserved the highest penalty of the law.”

“if it please Your Excellency, may we not hope to receive the same treatment here which we did in England?” I asked.

“What was that treatment?”

“The orders of the Government were that no labor should be required of us, and no unnecessary severity shown with regard to prison rules, etc. We were not treated as degraded men in any respect.”

“1 shall be very glad to do anything in my power for you,” said the governor. “I hear an excellent account of your private characters and am disposed to befriend you. I request that you will immediately draw up a memorial embodying the particulars of your cases and send it to me.”

We had been in Van Diemen’s Land four weeks when an answer was received to our petition, which stated that “His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor, after due consideration of our cases, could see no sufficient reason for treating us differently from prisoners sent here for other offenses.” An order accompanied the notice for our immediate removal to the Brown’s River road station, distantseven miles from Hobart Town. Beemer was left behind, and immediately installed into the office and emoluments of constable, for his treachery on board the Captain Ross.

Strange that even a nephew of Benjamin Franklin could have been so destitute of honorable feelings and principles.

At the Brown River station, where we lived in huts, working hours were from daylight to dark. The employment consisted chiefly in felling trees, cutting and carrying spars to the station. This was exceedingly hard work, as the men often had from 100 to 250 pounds to carry, and the ground was very rough and uneven.

I was employed in this manner for a few days, but the overseer was kind enough to change my occupation, and shortly afterward made me “watchman” of the station. My duty was to keep watch on the outside of the hut, during the night, to see that none of the inmates got out.

The ship Buffalo arrived at Hobart Town on Feb. 14 with 157 state prisoners, 78 of whom were from Upper Canada and the remainder from Lower Canada. The former were landed at Sydney. Being desirous of joining my countrymen, I applied to Mr. Gunn, the prison superintendent, but he advised me to remain with the English felons. “The governor had determined to treat them (the Canadians) with severity, and your condition will be far better where you are.”

We had been at Brown’s River only four weeks when we heard that Beemer had fraudulently obtained our clothing, books, etc., from the storekeeper at Hobart, sold them, and was rioting upon the money.

Just Deserts

THE overseer allowed me the privilege of complaining to Mr. Gunn, who forthwith tried and sentenced Beemer to 12 months’ hard labor at Port Art hur. After the expiration of his sentence he was sent to the roads, where his conduct continued very bad. He was repeatedly tried and sentenced to solitary confinement and the chain gang.

When I left the colony (in September, 1845) there was no prospect of his condition ever becoming better. In all probability he spent the remainder of his days in the same manner. Such was the reward of the traitor Beemer.

One afternoon a French whaling vessel anchored opposite Brown River station. Here was a possi-

bility of escape. It was proposed that I should assist Grant and Gemmell in getting out of the hut, through the chimney, when the other inmates were asleep, and the three of us swim off to the stranger.

At the appointed signal I mounted the chimney on the outside to help them out (the trusty watchman!). Gemmell soon made fast to the rope which I let down for the purpose. I tugged at the rope, and the great lump of flesh slowly ascended, but when about two thirds of the distance was accomplished the rope stuck fast. Gemmell whispered, “It’s all right; pull away.” I replied, “It’s all wrong, I cannot raise you another inch.”

“Grant,” he whispered, “I say, Grant, where in the devil are you? Can’t you give me a hoist? Be quick, for I shall soon roast here.” (There was a bed of red-hot coals underneath.)

Grant was giggling in the corner of the fireplace, ready to split with laughter. At this moment a large turf tumbled from the top of the chimney straight into Gemmell’s face.

“Let go the rope,” he shouted, loud enough to awaken all hands. I required not a second bidding, and he fell heavily into the hotbed below. “What in

h-is all this fuss about?” exclaimed at least 20

voices, in one breath, but Gemmell stealthily crawled away to his berth, rope and all, and was snoring at a terrible rate before they had time to make any discoveries, while Grant retreated to a dark corner to enjoy a hearty laugh. I scrambled down, and with right good will roared out the watchman’s cry: “All’s well!!”

He Joins the Canadians

IT WAS not until after the most urgent solicitations on my part that Mr. Gunn consented to my joining the other Canadian prisoners at Sandy Bay. There I soon found that he had not misrepresented the treatment of our party. The superintendent was heard to boast that we performed twice as much labor as any other party on the island. Rations were very scant, and complaints of intense hunger were general.

About the first of May our party was ordered into the interior. “Lovely Banks” was the name of our new home. It was 36 miles from Hobart Town.

June, July and August are the wintermonths in Van Diemen’s Land. Although the ground was seldom covered with snow for more than an hour at a time, the nights were exceedingly cold. Our clothing, of which we were now sadly in need, was withheld from us. More than 20 poor fellows were barefooted, and in the morning, when the party

went to their labor, blood marked their footsteps in the frost.

About the 20th of August we heard that there was an American whaler in Hobart. Joseph Stewart and myself determined to escape and take a trip to town to see if the American captain might agree to let the whole party escape in his vessel.

On the evening of Aug. 29, dressed in the costume of the prisoner, with our knapsacks upon our backs, we scaled the outer wall of the yard, and escaped. We travelled by night and hid by day in kangaroos’ lairs, and on Sept. 2 we arrived at Sandy Bay. While our party was stationed there I had formed an acquaintance with an aged man whose son was an innkeeper and had promised to assist us in effecting an escape. Knowing that his house was the resort of constables, I felt reluctant to trust myself on the premises, but wrote a letter, asking

Mr.--to see the American captain, and if

possible induce him to grant us an interview. Repairing to the house of the father, I asked him to carry the letter and deliver it to his son.

After much urging he consented to carry the letter to his son’s house, which was only a few rods distant. Less than a minute after he entered the door six or seven constables rushed out, followed by the old man, who sang out:

“Now, young man, take care of yourself; the constables are after you !”

“You old reprobate!” I exclaimed, and fled. The pursuit was a hot one, but I outdistanced them. Turning in an opposite direction I soon rejoined Stewart.

• Back to Prison

ALL HOPES were thus suddenly crushed,

so on Sept. 11 we voluntarily surrendered to the authorities at Bagdad. A few days after our surrender we were removed to Green Ponds for trial. The magistrate summarily sentenced us to two years hard labor at Port Arthur, the dreaded punishment camp.

We were chained and handcuffed and marched to Hobart, where we were thrust into the treadmill. An immense wheel, about 30 feet in diameter and 60 feet in length, was kept in constant motion 14 hours of the 24 by 30 prisoners. Every four minutes one of the men descended from the wheel at one end, while another mounted it at the other; each man upon the wheel thus periodically shifting two feet toward the place of descent, which was reached in two hours. All who were too poor to purchase exemption from the overseer were obliged to ascend the wheel in turn and perform the novel but very hard labor of stepping from slat tollat (they were 15 inches apart) as the wheel turned upon its axis.

On Oct. 20 a vessel arrived from Port Arthur to convey thither the prisoners under sentence, and we embarked. Two days later we were landed at Port Arthur and marched to the storehouse, where our chains were taken off and a suit onew clothing served to each man. The suit was what is termed in the land of Nod “magpie”; one half being black and the other yellow.

Outside we found a convict overseer named Sawyer waiting for us.

His first salutation was: “Now you bloody new chums—! I have you! I will run your legs off, and have a dozen flogged before night into the bargain. Come on, and I will show you what it is to work! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Away he started for the bush, walking, or rather running, at the rate of at least five miles per hour. He conducted us to a saw pit, where there was a large quantity of lumber of various descriptions. “Seize them,” shouted he, “and away to the settlement! My bloody eyes; but tfiis will bring you to your senses!”

Although 70 pounds was a legal load, according to the settlement rules, some of these sticks weighed from 200 to 300 pounds. I selected as light a one as I could, shouldered it with the greatest difficulty, and staggered away. When we got halfway to the settlement we were

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allowed to rest for five minutes, at the expiration of which, “Pick them up” was shouted, and we carried them in, a distance of half a mile, the overseer walking as fast as he could without any load, and continually singing out, “Come on, you bloody crawlers; keep up or go to the triangles.” The triangles were for flogging.

The moment the loads were deposited in the lumberyard, “Come on” was again shouted, and hack we went for another load. Sometimes we carried single sticks; sometimes 20 of us would stagger under an immense mass of timber.

Day after day I struggled on, halfstarved, emaciated, subject to the most horrible physical and mental torture. The edges of the timber were sharp, and in less than a week the bones on each of my shoulders were laid bare.

Franklin’s Malice

We had been at the settlement five weeks when the “old granny” (Franklin) paid this part of his dominions a visit. All hands were turned out in front of the prisoners’ barracks. The officers of the settlement were all present to hear an address delivered by Her Majesty’s representative, after the fashion described earlier.

When he had finished he called for myself and Stewart. Little dreaming what was to follow, and thinking he had some good news to communicate, we stepped out in front of the ranks.

We were pale and haggard, and the heavy logs, under which I had often been crushed to earth, had so injured my chest that I was compelled to lean my head forward several inches. My waistcoat and jacket, about the shoulders, were red and stiff with the congealed blood from the wounds underneath.

Addressing me, he said:

“I am glad to see you here! I am glad to see you at Port Arthur! I am glad to see you looking so miserably wretched ! 1 am glad to see you in that clothing, which none but the vilest men wear, and which is too good for you. I will take care that you remain here for life. You shall never leave Port Arthur. You shall suffer the severest treatment possible in this place. No matter how good your conduct is, you have forfeited your character for life, and you shall never be treated one jot better.”

I now gave myself up for lost. The officers of the settlement had all been present at the speechifying, and I supposed the outrageous abuse I had received would have the effect intended by Franklin.

But not an hour had elapsed after the governor left for town when the surgeon of the settlement sent for me.

“Miller,” he said, “you look very ill. You cannot be able to perform such heavy work, and I shall shift you into the invalid gang.”

From that day every officer in the settlement was a friend !

Soon afterward the clergyman of the settlement asked me if I had any objection to becoming clerk of the church and schoolkeeper. 1 was overjoyed at the offer. Thus ended all my manual labor for the British Government.

Stewart, at the expiration of one year, obtained a comfortable situation in the family of an officer. We both gradually recovered from the effects of our hard treatment, although it was a long time before my chest was well.

Partial Freedom

Great was our joy when we heard that Old Franklin was recalled and his successor, Sir Eardley Eardley Wilmot, had arrived. We both applied for “tickets of leave” (a partial emancipation), which were granted by him.

I called upon the new governor, who received me very graciously, said he was sorry that the Canadians had been so ill-treated, and had, upon the assumption of his office duties, sent a dispatch home upon the subject, recommending that all of our pardons be immediately granted.

In October, 1844, I received the joyful tidings that about 30 of the Canadian prisoners, including myself, were pardoned. But months passed before anything further was heard. Then, on Feb. 7, 1845, the comptroller general sent for me to his office, and placed my sealed pardon in my hand.

On Sept. 25, 1845, I went on board the Sons of Commerce, Captain Williams, bound for London. On Dec. 20 we dropped anchor at Pernambuco, Brazil, to obtain water, and there I transferred to the American barque Globe, Captain Esling, for Philadelphia.

Sunday, Jan. 25, .1846, we landed at Newcastle, Delaware, having a very pleasant and agreeable voyage.

I hastened onward to Stockton, the abode of my childhood, as fast as steam would carry me. There I found my nearest relatives, after an absence of eight years, alive and well; and we sometimes gather around a pleasant fireside and talk over the trials of the past.

Whether the cup of adversity, of which 1 have so deeply drank, has fitted me for faithful discharge of the duties of life, remains to be seen; but of this I am certain, I still am blessed with a strong arm and a willing heart to wield a sword in the sacred cause of liberty, either in the defense of my country or the rights of an oppressed people.

{This is the last of four articles taken from Mr. Miller's autobiography, published in 1841, the year he arrived home.)