Murder and mayhem: The dark past of Mackay's forgotten jail

IT HAS long since been filled with homes, but the quiet neighbourhood block bordered by Bassett, Vine and Goldston Street in North Mackay was once the stomping ground of the region's worst criminals.

The site was home to Mackay first and only official prison, which serviced the region for 20 years before closing down in 1908. A lock up, located on the corner of Virctoria and Brisbane Streets was built in the late 1860s and was used to house prisoners but was not an official prison.

The facility, which was surrounded by stockade, had five cells and two outbuildings with a kitchen and toilets.


The layout of the Mackay Jail.
The layout of the Mackay Jail. Daily Mercury Archives

While it was the region's first jail, it was also the scene of the first death of a Mackay police officer in the course of his duties.

In 1903 The Daily Mercury reported Acting Sergeant David Johnston was the victim of a brutal murder in the exercise yard.

The report, found in the Daily Mercury's archives, detailed how Sgt Johnston was struck down with an axe by a South Sea Islander, Sow Too Low, just after 2.15pm on Sunday, March 29.

The murder happened a few minutes after the Islander had murdered fellow prisoner John Martin in a similar manner.

Sow Too Low had been held in the Mackay jail since late October 1902, having been committed to trial on a charge of murdering schoolgirl Alice Gunning at Habana on October 26 that year.

John Martin, who was serving a short sentence after having been convicted of drunkenness, was in the exercise yard with Sow Too Low and three other prisoners - James Joncour, Charles Bossun and a fellow known only as Jack.


The site of the former Mackay Jail.
The site of the former Mackay Jail. Contributed

There was a wood heap at the back the cells where prisoners serving sentence with hard labour sometimes chopped firewood. On this day the axe, which was usually locked away, had been left there.

Martin was hanging out clothes, with his back to the wood heaps when Sow Too Low picked up the axe and struck him in the head, apparently killing him instantly.

The other prisoners fled, two to the kitchen and Joncour to the watch house officer to raise the alarm.

At an inquiry later, Joncour said he had tried to persuade Johnston to get his revolver but the sergeant had hurried out towards Martin and ,as he stood looking at the body, Sow Too Low had appeared from behind the cells and struck him with the axe.

Joncour ran back to his own cell. Sow Too Low first tried to break through the kitchen door with the axe and then to smash the door to Joncour's cell but failed to do so and returned to the yard.

In the meantime, Sgt Ferguson and Const Clulow arrived, armed. Sgt Ferguson's son climbed a tree overlooking the northern wall of the jail opposite where Sow Too Low was standing. Sgt Ferguson joined his son and two shots were fired, one of which struck the Islander above the knee.

The site of the former Mackay Jail.
The site of the former Mackay Jail. Contributed

He retreated to his own cell with the axe and was locked inside.

Justices of the Peace Messrs S. Lambert and C. Porter were commissioned to hold an inquiry into the incident on April 1, 1903.

Sow Too Low was remanded to the Circuit Court sitting to be held on May 12.

Jack, the other South Sea Islander, also appeared in court charged with vagrancy.

It was believed he had incited Sow Too Low to violence and he was sentenced to seven months imprisonment, after which he was deported to his native land, Malayta.

Sow Too Low pleaded not guilty, but the trial was over within the day, the jury retiring for only a few minutes before reaching a verdict of guilty.

The Government Medical Officer, Dr A.P. Henzell, stated he considered Sow Too Low to be mentally responsible.

The death sentence was later carried out in Brisbane.

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