Category: Grief tourism

Old Dubbo Gaol — New South Wales

Just 5½ hours from Sydney, Australia, there’s a beautiful setting for a historical attraction with an ugly past. Here in the city of Dubbo, New South Wales, most visitors to these lovely parklands come for pleasure and fun. Some spend time at the Western Plains zoo, learn to make boomerangs, visit the observatory and the Wellington caves, or enjoy walks and camping near the Macqairie River. Yet, there’s another very small place on the main street of town that holds a strange fascination for many others.

Built in 1871, the red brick gaol was the first of its kind in the city of Dubbo, which served as a justice center for the surrounding region. Old Dubbo is recognized as a landmark for its cultural significance in the early associations among the aborigines and the white settlers. This was the place for common criminals, debtors, and lawless bushrangers (Australia’s outlaws or highwaymen) who roamed the countryside in the early frontier days of New South Wales. The racial mix of prisoners consisted primarily of the lower classes, itinerant farm workers, and transient peddlers. Records show that two of the prisoners hanged were aboriginal, two Chinese, and one Dane.

At first, the jail had only 4 cells, 2 rooms for the jailer, and an unenclosed exercise yard. Gradual renovations were made in the years following with the addition of more cells, a small fenced area at one end, an infirmary, kitchen, and a library. By 1880, further additions included 2 cells for women prisoners, 2 watchtowers and catwalks, and a high wall around the entire compound. The 12 cells for male prisoners included 2 for solitary confinement, 1 padded, and 1 awaiting execution.

Visitors to Old Dubbo are reminded that racial prejudice and shocking atrocities existed in the 1800’s in New South Wales. It is here that the notorious Jackie Underwood was hanged on January 14, 1901 for his participation in the terrible Breelong Massacre. History reveals that two brothers, Jimmy and Joe Governor, both part aborigine, were employed on the Mawbey property near the village of Breelong. Jimmy’s marriage to a young white girl with a questionable reputation from a lower class was frowned upon by the white settlers in New South Wales, as well as by his own people. In fact, we need to remember that the social mores of the times were extremely rigid, and certain behavior that was less than conventional was just not accepted or condoned. It was inevitable, perhaps, that the differences in culture would result in misunderstandings and overt disapproval. Mrs Mawbey and the local schoolteacher were the primary instigators of several confrontations with the Governors, which unfortunately may have led to the tragedy that followed. Joined by their friend Jackie, Jimmy and Joe embarked on a widespread crime spree that began with the massacre of the Mawbeys and their children. The three bushrangers eluded their pursuers for a time during which an estimated 9 people were murdered and numerous houses ransacked and destroyed, while people hid and tried to fortify their homes against the outlaws. It is estimated that over 80 crimes were committed before Jackie, the first of the trio was caught and hanged; the capture and death of the Governor brothers followed soon after.

Responsible for hanging 7 of the 8 men at Old Dubbo, Nosey Bob, as he was called, has an interesting history, as well. The story goes that Bob, once a respected member of society, lost his nose after being kicked in the face by a horse. Rejected and unemployed, Bob accepted the unpleasant job of hangman in 1876, and executed the first prisoner in 1877. Prisoners at Old Dubbo who were sentenced to death met their fate by walking 13 steps to the mobile gallows, a unique structure set in place over a large brick pit. The gallows were covered with sheets of cheap cotton calico, which prevented the audience, if any, from seeing the actual hanging.

The last execution at Old Dubbo took place in 1904, and in 1966 it was officially closed as a prison facility. However, it was saved from destruction when the historical society of the city of Dubbo stepped in for its preservation as a heritage landmark and tourist attraction. Turned over to the city council in 1973, the jail was restored, for the most part, in its entirety and opened to the public as a museum in 1974. Since then, over two million visitors to this major tourist attraction have indulged their curiosity about the settlement of New South Wales, the struggles that evolved, and the harsh realities of confinement in Old Dubbo.

Today, Old Dubbo Gaol houses exhibits and artifacts from the past, which reflect the cruel and unusual punishment that was carried out. Most of us probably are not aware that there was an actual hangman’s kit, but Old Dubbo has one of the few still in existence on display. The executioner’s tools, kept in a black tin box, consisted of various sized ropes, weights to reset the gallows trap door, leather restraints, mask, and hood. These items are quite rare and seldom found in other jails, and as such, of interest not only to the casual grief tourist, but also to those who study the history of capital punishment in Australia.

In 2006, the city received a grant of $100,000 from the Australian Tourism Development program to improve the theatrical presentation and exhibits within the museum. The staff would appear in costume and act in the roles of inmates, wardens, and the governor of the times. Nightly tours were also on the list of improvements, which promise to add even more to the eerie gloom that awaits visitors to Old Dubbo. The project was planned for completion in 2007/2008.

Hours: Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, with narrated and animated characterization (the largest presentation of its type in New South Wales) in shows at 10 and 11 am, 2:30 and 3:30 pm. Closed December 25th.

(Note: Australia abolished the death penalty in 1985.)

Sharon Slayton

Mexico’s Hidlago highlands border cross simulation weekend getaway

How would you like to learn what it’s like to be chased and caught by border guards on your next weekend getaway? Apparently it’s quite fun for some.

The so-called night hike in the highlands of Hidalgo state is a curious testimony to Mexico’s identity as an emigrant nation, in which enormous numbers of young men and women continue to risk their lives sneaking into “El Norte” for a perceived better life. Every weekend, dozens of participants pay about $20 apiece to scramble up hills, slide down ravines and run through tunnels pursued by siren-blaring pickup trucks and pumped-up border-patrol agents shouting in accented English.

The organizers say “We wanted to have a type of tourism that really raised people’s understanding so we decided to turn the painful experience all of us here have gone through into a kind of game that teaches something to our fellow Mexicans.”

I’m putting this in my rarely used grief tourism category because it seems like a pretty dark thing to pay to get chased around by fake border agents. I mean we’re talking about simulating an area that is pretty dangerous. The article’s title calls this a theme park. I wonder how accurate the title is.

Chornobyl Tour: good example of grief tourism

I’m not sure I’d be comfortable going anywhere near where V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station had its meltdown or whatever you call you it when a nuclear power plant explodes. It was more powerful than Hiroshima and it happened more recently…

But I am not the only traveler in the world, and some people want to visit “tThe exclusion zone guarding the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is a 30 kilometer radius of land stuck in the mid- to late-1980’s.”

If you want to visit Chornobyl’s exclusion zone, here are the tour operators:

SoloEast Travel ( offers year-round guided tours of the Zone, and prices are dependent on the season and number of participants. Single participation tours can reach up to $400, while groups of more than 20 offer lower rates of approximately $100 each.

SAM Travel Agency offers special rates of $95 for groups of seven or more. Packages include return transportation Kyiv to Chornobyl, a guided tour of the Zone, and a hot meal.