This is the story of Elijah Upjohn and his journey from criminal to an executioner of one of the most famous Australian Bushrangers, Ned Kelly! I explore the lives of Elijah and his father Henry Upjohn and walk through their genealogy, their criminal records, and some other interesting facts about the Upjohn line.
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Today’s story comes from a Twitter follower and fellow genealogist, Rebecca whose Twitter handle is @SkaanoodlesTree (AncestrywithSkaanoodleDeciduous). Please go give her some love and give her a follow!
Here is her story:
“Hello, my ancestors had a slight criminal past which ended with a bang. My great, great grandmother's first cousin 1x removed (bit of a mouthful but it was easier then working out how he was related to me) was named Elijah Upjohn.
He was born on 1 Jan 1823 in Shaftesbury Dorset UK and died at age 62 in Bourke New South Wales Australia. At the age of 11, he was sentenced to 3 months prison and twice whipped for stealing a pair of trousers. At the age of the 15, he was sentenced to 6 weeks hard labour for stealing rabbits. At the age of the 16, he was committed to 7 years transportation for stealing a pair of shoes. After these 7 years, he was released and made a family, he got married and had 5 children, but through whatever misfortune, his attempt to live in respectability came to naught. In 1880 a judge put him away for a year as a rogue and a vagabond. Also in jail at this time was Edward (Ned) Kelly, the most famous Bush rangers. Ned Kelly had been tried and sentenced to die on the gallows for his crimes. On the day of the execution, Gately, the regular hangman was unavailable, so the prison warden asked for volunteers amongst the other prisoners. My ancestor stepped forward and that day he became the public executioner to Ned Kelly.”
What a great story Rebecca! I had not heard of Elijah Upjohn so when I started researching him, I found he was a bit infamous and I was slightly jealous. I guess I should be thankful my ancestors have been behaved – well so far anyway!
First, let’s set the stage where the Upjohn family started their roots. They were situated in a small parish named Shaftsbury in Dorset County, England. The Upjohns line has been in Shaftsbury since the 1600s, coming originally from Wales. There are lots of resources online if you want more historical information on this parish, but I will give the history geeks a taste of something. King Canute was the King of England from 1016 until his death in 1035, which occurred in Shaftsbury. He was also the King of Norway and Denmark during these times…I learned something here as I had no clue you could be the King of multiple places but I guess in the 11th century you did whatever you wanted.
Moving forward to the 1800s when Elijah and his family were living here, Shaftsbury had a population of 1,000 people in 1800. In the 1820s, Shaftsbury was still primarily a rural area; the industrial revolution didn’t reach them because the railway passed by Shaftsbury hindering their growth. Many in the area immigrated to other areas, including the United States, which some of Elijah’s relatives chose to do and I’ll discuss that later in the episode. Shaftsbury did eventually see growth and while still small in comparison to larger cities, today it has a population of 6,700.
On to the genealogy of Elijah Upjohn and his family. My first question was why did young Elijah have to resort to stealing at such a young age. I have a feeling we will find a young, poor family that had no choice but to take illegal measures to eat and clothe themselves. I could be wrong and perhaps they were just the black sheep of the family.
We know Elijah was born in Shaftsbury, Dorset County, England. His birthdate is actually unknown, but he was baptized on January 1, 1823 so likely he was born in December of 1822. We know this because historically, babies were usually baptized within the first couple of months after their birth. He was baptized at the Holy Trinity Church in Shaftsbury which still stands today. Elijah was born to Henry Upjohn and Elizabeth Burridge Upjohn according to his baptism records. He was the middle child, having an older sister Elizabeth and a younger brother Robert. Elizabeth was also born in Shaftsbury in 1819 and died when she was just 18; she was buried at Trinity Holy Church in Shaftsbury on October 20, 1837. Elijah’s younger brother Robert was born in 1825 and is shown on the 1851 census living with his mom in Shaftsbury with an age of 25. Interestingly she is listed with the occupation of “shirt button maker” and he is listed as a “tailor”. She is also listed as a Widow which I’ll circle back to later. It appears that in the late 1600s and early 1700s the main industry in Shaftesbury was making buttons but it died out in the 1800s, likely making Elizabeth one the last to continue the industry in Shaftsbury.
So where was Elijah and his father Henry in 1851, since they are not listed with Elizabeth? Let’s back track a bit to Henry Upjohn, Elijah’s father. Henry was born to James Upjohn and Hannah Rabbets Upjohn in 1786 in Shaftsbury. He was baptized on April 7, 1786 at the Holy Trinity Church. It appears he was 1 of 10 children born to James and Hannah, but more research is needed to validate all of that. No time for this podcast or it would be 5 hours long, lol. Several appear to have died at birth or within the first year of their lives and some only into their twenties. Unfortunately, this was not uncommon for this time period.
Elijah didn’t have to look far for bad influences, as his father Henry was also a criminal. Henry is first found in prison records for the Dorchester Prison in 1821. He committed the crime of “inciting William Taylor to break open a shop” in Shaftesbury on May 8, 1821. He was received into the prison the next day and ultimately sentenced to 6 months imprisonment. The prison record gave a lot of personal description on Henry, stating he was 35 years old, he was a gardener, married and had 1 child. It also gave a visual description listing Henry as 5’ 8 ¾ inches tall with brown hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion. He was discharged January 10, 1822 and was listed as orderly while in prison.
The next time we find Henry in trouble was after Elijah and his brother Robert were born, in 1826. He was arrested and convicted on March 9, 1826 for Larceny for stealing a sack of wheat. He was sentenced to 7 years transportation to the colony of Van Diemen’s Land which is also know as Tasmania. It is located on an island that is part of Australia and is southeast of the mainland from Melbourne. This was common practice in England to send their convicts to other lands; they sent criminals to the United States as well but once the Americans sought independence from the British, they had to start sending their convicts somewhere else. It’s estimated that from 1788 until 1868 they sent roughly 164,000 convicts to the land down under. He arrived to Tasmania via the vessel named Woodford over 4 months later on July 29, 1826. I can only imagine how awful that trip was! Henry was assigned to John Archer as a servant in 1830 but shortly after he was charged with gross insolence (insubordination), threatening the life of Mr. Archer, and leaving the property. He was then transported to Maria Island which is another small island off the east coast of Tasmania. Henry served two years in irons aka put in shackles.
In October of 1832 he was put in solitary confinement for 7 days for drunkenness. In November of 1832, he assaulted his master and was sentenced to another year on November 23rd. Henry further ignore authority and was absent without leave in March 1834 and again in April of the same year, receiving 25 lashes for each offense. In January 1838 he was reprimanded for abusive language – can you imagine such penalties in 2021? We would all be in jail! He was freed on March 9, 1838.
It doesn’t appear that Henry ever returned to his family in Shaftesbury and spent the remainder of his life in Australia. The last time he saw his children they were 7, 3 and 1 years old. After he was freed, he continued to live a life of bad decisions. Eventually he made his way to Ballarat, Victoria, Australia which is on the mainland about 125 miles northwest of Melbourne.
He is found in The Star newspaper on June 8, 1857 for committing a felony of stealing four pairs of trousers. It states “Constable Nelson stated he saw the prisoner steal four pairs of trousers from the door of Mr. Cashmore, Main Road”. Henry elected for a summary jurisdiction and went on a long rant about how he played a major role in the Peninsular War and then afterwards acknowledged that he took the articles but pleased drunkenness as his excuse. He was sentenced to 3 months in prison. On a side note, Henry is shown as enlisted in the British Army in 1807 when he was 21 years old and reenlisted in 1813, before deserting his company in 1815 only to return several weeks later. He was discharged shortly after. The Peninsular War was fought from 1807 to 1814 so his story is plausible though irrelevant to his criminal behavior. Lastly, Henry Upjohn was back in the papers in July 1859 for stealing a coat in which a man by the name of Mr. Burridge caught him and told the store owner. He was caught and sentenced to 14 days imprisonment. I found it interesting that the man who caught him had the name Burridge, which is his wife’s maiden name. Odd for sure.
Just 3 years later, Henry is listed on the Victoria death index in 1862. He is listed as 78 years of age but based on his baptism record, he would more likely be 76 years old when he died. Remember that 1851 census with his wife Elizabeth and son Robert, where she was listed as a widow? That was 11 years before Henry was deceased but it is likely that since she never heard from him again, it was assumed he was dead or she received a divorce for abandonment, though there wasn’t any record of that online.
Elijah didn’t waste any time modeling his father’s behavior. His father Henry was transported to Australia when Elijah was just 4 years old, leaving Elijah’s mom alone with 3 children ages 4 and under. We can’t know for sure how life was like for his family, but we can imagine that times were hard and Elijah was now the “man” of the family at the age of 4. Elijah’s paternal grandparents appear to have been in Shaftesbury so perhaps they were a help to the family. There were a lot of Upjohn families in the area and a lot of Burridge families, likely Elizabeth’s family. Either way, it didn’t keep Elijah out of trouble and at the age of 11 we find his first recorded indiscretion. In the Easter sessions of 1834, he was arrested on April 7th for larceny because he stole trousers. He received 3 months imprisonment and twice whipped. Seems a tad extreme for stealing some pants and being 11 years old but times were certainly different than they are today. The prison record gave quite the visual depiction of how young Elijah looked stating he was 4’10” tall with light brown hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion. Sounds like he was the spitting image of his father from that description. They even stated that he had a cut on the palm of his right hand below his little finger. He was released on 7 July 1834.
The next account of Elijah’s trouble was when the young lad was 15 years old, though I could not find any newspaper notices or criminal records for this. There are several sites with this story though, so I will share with caution that it couldn’t be validated. The story is that he was arrested in Dorset on November 7, 1837 for stealing rabbits. For this he was sentenced to 6 weeks hard labor in which he was reported as disorderly. He was released December 15 1837. I will continue to hunt down this story to make sure it is valid because that is what genealogists do. I had to stop digging because I was going down a rabbit hole. Pun intended. 😊
It seems that the “three strikes and you are out” philosophy was a thing even in the 1800s, as the next time Elijah is reported as arrested is just 6 months later on July 3, 1838 when he was 16. This time he stole shoes and was sentenced to 7 years transportation just like his father had been. Before he departed to Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania, he was sent to the hulk July 26th on the ship Leviathan. The “hulk” is where they put prisoners while they were waiting to be departed. These ships were old battle ships that were used for prisoners because they were unable to go to Sea. The Leviathan first started for use for prisoners in 1816. This means he was on that ship going nowhere until they departed for Tasmania 7 months later on March 16, 1839! The prisoners would have been subjected to hard labor during their time along the dockyards or on the banks of the river. Then he was put on the vessel Marquis of Hastings for 4 months traveling to his sentencing destination, arriving on July 23, 1839.
During the 7 years Elijah was sentenced to, he managed to get in further trouble in Hobart, Tasmania in 1845 and received another 3 years to his sentence. Elijah was a “ticket of leave” holder which meant that he was given a chance to build a new life before the end of his official sentence. He was in Hobart in August 1845 which given the dates would have been nearing the end of his sentence, depending on when the 7 years actually started. He was apprehended by several constables on August 29th and had three counterfeit sixpences and several stolen articles from a burglary that had occurred a few days earlier. Upon searching Elijah’s residence, they found a mold to make the counterfeit coins. Then in October of 1845 he was arrested again for knowingly receiving stolen goods back on August 31st. He was sentenced to imprisonment in Her Majesty’s gaol at Hobart town and given 2 years hard labor. Elijah, Elijah, Elijah! You were so close to being a free man. He was finally released in 1849, 11 years after his original 7 year sentence.
At some point Elijah moved to Ballarat, Victoria, Australia like his dad did about the time Elijah was sentenced to his 7 years. It’s not clear whether he knew his dad was there or if that was just the natural progression of former convicts.
Elijah is found in Geelong a few years later, which is closer to the shore and to Melbourne. He posted in the Geelong Advertiser in 1852 about his lost horse and offered 5 lbs reward; it stated he lived on Spring Street in Little Scotland. As a reference point, this was 3 years after he was released from prison so he owned a horse (we assume legally) and offered a reward. In 1800, 1 lb would have been worth $4.44 in the US at that time, making that 5 lb reward worth $22.20. Today that 5 lbs would be worth $657 in the US.
In 1853, there is an article in the same paper about a William Upjohn destroying some fruit trees – later in the article it states that William is Elijah’s brother. Looking back his only brother Robert, no records list his middle name so it is possible that “William” is Robert. I did confirm that Robert was in Victoria, Australia making this even more a possibility. Back to the article, it states the person who owned the trees, Rev W Higgins, had bought the land from Elijah Upjohn 4 months prior which means Elijah actually had money to own land. Seems like he was doing ok for himself.
Elijah did find time to have a personal life. On June 6, 1854 he married Miss Ann Copp of Exeter, Devonshire, England at St. Paul’s church in Ashby, Geelong, Australia. Together that had 5 children, all boys. The first born, Joseph Elijah was born in 1855 but unfortunately died when he was 4 in 1859. Their 2nd son, Alfred was born in 1856 and lived until he was 25, dying in 1882. Charles Edward was the 3rd son, born in 1858 but no information could be found with in initial search on when he died. Elijah and Ann named their 4th son after the first Joseph that died giving him the same name Joseph Elijah. Tragedy struck them again as he only lived until he was 5, dying in 1866. The last son, Ernest Arthur was born in 1863 and lived a long life, dying in 1938. He married Emily Stevens in 1888 and together they had 7 children, 5 boys and 2 girls.
Elijah continued to make a name for himself and requested and was granted a nightman’s license in 1859 back in Victoria. I had to google what a nightman was exactly and found that this was not a fun occupation. Also known as a Night-Soil Remover which probably gives it away, was the unglamorous job of collecting human waste for disposal. Yuck. Makes you appreciate modern plumbing!
As Rebecca mentioned in her story, Elijah still could not live a life of respectability though it seems he tried at some points. On numerous occasions he was fined or jailed for drunkenness. In October of 1864, when his youngest was just 10 months old, Elijah was back in the newspaper for disorderly and drunkenness behavior and fined 20 shillings of 48 hours of imprisonment. In 1870, when Elijah was 46 years old, a warrant was issued for him in Victoria for either 6 months commitment or a payment of a fine for 20 shillings. There are too many instances of his bad behavior to cover but let’s get to the one that really put him on the map and made him infamous.
In 1880, Elijah was charged in Ballarat for illegally being on Mr. I. L. Jones’ property. On the night of April 27, 1880 Mr. Jones’ son heard noises around 11:20 pm. The son went to find out what was happening and found Elijah Upjohn in the fowl-yard attempting to steal the fowls. Elijah ran but the son and father caught him and handed him over to police. Afterwards, they went back to the fowl-yard and discovered that at least 13 fowls had been strangled. Elijah stated he was drunk at the time and “had been driven to the crime by want”. Oh boy! He was imprisoned to 12 months in the Ballarat Gaol. Elijah requested to be moved to the Melbourne Gaol and was transferred on July 1, 1880. It’s stated that Elijah had expressed a wish to be a hangman not long ago and he got his opportunity. The usual hangman, Gately, had departed the colony so Elijah took advantage of the opportunity and applied for and received the job. I am sure he was well liked with other prisoners after that decision!
Shortly after, on November 11, 1880, Upjohn performed his first execution. This execution put him on the map because the prisoner to be executed was none other than the famous bushranger, Edward Ned Kelly. Ned Kelly (as he was best known) was just 25 years old when he was hung. He was born in Victoria in December of 1854 and was the 3rd of 8 children born to Irish parents. Ironically, Ned also had a father who was a transported convict and died when he was 12 years old. While Elijah’s crimes were pettier in nature than Ned’s, the two have a lot in common. After a violent incident with the police at the Kelly home in 1878, Ned was indicted for attempted murder. He fled to the bush and vowed revenge after his mother was imprisoned for her role in the incident. Ned and 3 others, one his younger brother Dan, shot and killed 3 policemen. After this, the Government of Victoria considered them outlaws. In 1880, the gang attempted to derail and ambush a police train but failed. The gang engaged with police in a shootout and Ned Kelly was the only one of the gang to survive. He was arrested and convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged.
Elijah executed his duties as Hangman for Ned Kelly with no issues and he continued to be a hangman afterwards. His position as hangman earned him 5 shillings a day as well as living quarters, fuel, food, light, and water. He was interviewed about his position in Feb of 1882 and the interviewer noted that Elijah looked remarkably well and in fact majestic. While he lives within the walls of the prison, he was a free man. The article states that Elijah was quite proud of his job as a paid officer of the Queen and that he does his job faithfully which is to obey orders. I might have chuckled a little when I read that. Better late than never, right?
Well that didn’t last long because Elijah was arrested in September of the same year, 1882, for willfully and obscenely exposing himself to women and children on the afternoon of the 27th. And of course, he was drunk at the time. He was sentenced to a fine or imprisonment and when he failed to pay the fine, he was sent to the Melbourne Gaol for 3 months and was released December 28th.
Up to this point, Ned Kelly had been the only person Elijah had executed. He also had the job of flogging prisoners, so I guess that kept him busy when he wasn’t drinking and causing havoc. He did go on to complete more hangings but some of them didn’t turn out so well, mainly because Elijah showed up drunk. In October of 1884 he was suspended from the position because they could not rely on him. His last hanging was a few months prior in August and it didn’t go well. Elijah had badly adjusted the knot and it slipped under the prisoner’s jaw instead of behind the ear. In February of 1885, Elijah is once again arrested and charged with being vagrancy stating Elijah had been living precariously for some months, and was in the habit of sleeping in outhouses.
In July of 1885, he was sent to Sydney Australia as it was believed there was a plot to murder Elijah from previous prisoners who had been flogged by Elijah. A few months later, Elijah died on 28 September 1885. In his obituary, it simply stated “A man, supposed to be Upjohn, the late Victorian hangman, has been found dead in his tent, at Bourke. The body has been buried without an inquiry, and, as there are rumors of poisoning, the police are investigating the case.”
While a colorful story of Elijah Upjohn and his father, it is indeed a sad one. Especially considering that other relatives that descended from a common ancestor were quite successful. According to an article found on ThisisAlfred.com from August 14, 2018, there are several Upjohn’s from Shaftsbury who made a mark on the world. Ray Simpson has researched this family and found some interesting things. One was William Upjohn and the other Richard Upjohn, and allegedly all of them are descended from one common ancestor though it didn’t say who that was.
William was born in 1770 and was a surveyor and map maker. In 1799, he made the first comprehensive map of Shaftesbury in 150 years and if you google “Upjohn Map” you will find his work. He emigrated to the United States in 1830 where his son already was. William’s grandson found a pharmaceutical company known as the Upjohn Company. It has become the world’s largest pharmaceutical company and still exists today. After several mergers, it now has a new name. It is now called the Pfizer company. Yep, that one.
The other relative, Richard Upjohn, was born in 1802 in Shaftesbury. He also moved to the United States and began designing homes for the wealthy. He wasn’t really an architect by trade but he has built some of the most famous churches, including the Trinity Church in NYC. He established the American Institute of Architects and served as its first president. His son also moved to the US, having been born in 1828 in Shaftesbury just a few years after Elijah. Four of his buildings are registered as national historic landmarks in the United States.
So the question that begs to be asked is what the heck happened with Henry and Elijah? How do 2 lines go on to succeed and quite well, when this line was one bad decision after another? If they had moved to the United States like their cousins, would we even know who they were now? Or at least for something to be proud of? I guess we will never know.
Another burning question I had when I started researching was whether Elijah and his father ever reunited. I found the answer, sort of. In a 1861 newspaper in Ballarat it states Henry Upjohn was charged with stealing a pair of boots. He pleaded poverty and said his son had refused to support him. It doesn’t name the son so it could have been Elijah or Robert, as Robert arrived in Australia in 1852. The great thing and the bad thing about researching ancestors if that you can find a lot but you sometimes end up with questions you won’t ever get the answers to.