In the early days of the gold rushes, it was feared the prevalence of crime and the lack of active policing at the diggings might lead to men taking matters in to their own hands and the adoption of ‘Yankee’ lynch law. During the California rushes, vigilante justice was frequently applied on the goldfields: Vigilance Committees were formed and briefly took over the government of San Francisco in 1851 and 1856. In Victoria, ‘protection committees’ were formed – there are reports of near-lynchings and accidental deaths of murderers, and numerous anecdotes of whippings meted out to those caught stealing on newly discovered fields. Thieves might be punished by being flogged, or chained to trees for days. One offender was held down in a water hole, another stripped and branded with a red-hot chisel.
Although the exercise of such brutal summary justice was not uncommon on the goldfields, Geoffrey Serle writes that ‘the vital line between summary punishment and execution’ appears to have been crossed only once. A number of accounts exist of diggers calling for offenders to be lynched, however it appears only one man was actually executed. The most commonly cited account of this event is that of digger William Hall. He relates that one Vandemonian killed another following a dispute over gold and that a crowd of diggers:
… resolved to hang him. The culprit evinced the greatest fear on this occasion, and begged for mercy and to be taken to the Commissioner in the most abject manner; but the stern reply was – 'You shall have the same mercy at our hands that you shewed your messmate'. A rope was obtained, and thrown over a branch of a tree, and he was soon dangling between heaven and earth.
Hall wrote of this as an exceptional event. He claimed that ‘the inefficiency of the police force’ had at times forced diggers to resort to such ‘violent and illegal measures,’ but insisted that the idea (spread by some of the press) that this happened frequently was ‘false and absurd’.
Despite contemporary fears, the practice of lynch law was never as extensive on the goldfields of Victoria as it was in California. Historians such as Michael Sturma suggest this was perhaps because, while both were frontier societies, California was more of a ‘wilderness’. Australian goldfields were much closer to established population centres and thus to the administration of official law and order.