3 March 1869
On 3 March 1869, William Lanne, who at the time was believed to be the last ‘full-blooded’ Tasmanian man, died of cholera and dysentery, aged just 34 years. Eight months later, the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette reported to its British readers that ‘the native population of Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, is now a lost race; and though it did not exhibit many qualities capable of inspiring admiration, there is always something tragical in the utter extermination of a nation in its own hereditary dominions, especially when its disappearance has been to a great extent brought about by the vices which its conquerors have introduced among an inferior people.’1
There was no mention of how the Indigenous Tasmanians had been driven from their land or of the dozens of occasions when they had been hunted down like vermin by the British colonists, but the article did allude to the theft of the skull from Lanne’s corpse, commenting that ‘after his death, a disgraceful struggle for possession of the body took place amongst the local scientific bodies.’2 However, only one of the societies was actually local, the Royal Society of Tasmania, while the other was London’s Royal College of Surgeons. William Cowther, a 45 year old doctor working at Hobart General Hospital agreed to steal the head for the Royal College, sneaking into the hospital morgue at night on Friday 5 March, just hours before the scheduled funeral. He decapitated the body, skinned the scalp, removed Lanne’s skull and replaced it with the skull from a white patient who had died the same day, sowing it back into the black skin. Cowther then dispatched the skull to Britain.3
The mutilation of the corpse was discovered on the morning of the funeral by members of the Royal Society of Tasmania who, being concerned that someone might deprive them of other parts of the skeleton, removed Lanne’s hands and feet for storage and display in the Society’s Museum, so that only the residual trunk of his corpse remained to be buried. Even that was then exhumed by the Royal Society the following night. A police constable reported the next morning that he found an unwanted skull on the ground near the grave which had been dug up, the surrounding ground saturated with blood.
A local Tasmanian newspaper, the Launceston Examiner, commented that the local administration took no action because it did not consider ‘the mutilation of the body of an aboriginal and its removal from its grave as offences worthy of punishment.’4 Cowther’s butchery seems to have perversely benefited his career. He was elected to the legislative council later the same month, was a Cabinet minister within eight years and Tasmania’s premier within ten. Today, a statue still stands commemorating, according to the inscription on its plinth, his ‘long and zealous political and professional services rendered In this colony.’
- ‘The Extinction of A Race,’ The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 19 November 1869, p. 8.
- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage 2003 p. 423 and ‘Death of the Last Male Aboriginal of Tasmania,’ The Launceston Examiner, 27 March 1869, p. 2.
- ‘Death of the Last Male Aboriginal of Tasmania,’ The Launceston Examiner, 27 March 1869, p. 2.
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