Truth trumps fiction as CQU RHDs inspire research relationship with historic hangman

07 November 2022

Australian author Rachel Franks was a CQUniversity research student exploring crime fiction when she became interested in true crime – and in particular' the life of 19th century New South Wales executioner Robert 'Nosey Bob' Howard.

Across nearly two decades' Dr Franks shifted focus to true crime' and through the pandemic she finished writing the infamous hangman's biography.

"The more I learnt about Nosey' the more I actually liked him! I finished off the book in lockdown' and in the middle of a global plague' and all the other madness that was happening – and he actually became quite a good friend!" she said.

"That sounds completely strange and unexpected' but he was so determined to be normal' that he had a resilience about him' that I grew quite attached to' and I grew from."

The Sydney-based researcher began her CQUniversity Master of Letters in 2004' then graduated with her PhD in 2011' and penned a historical crime novel as part of her work.

"I was attracted to the idea of' crime fiction is all about the puzzle' but as a genre crime fiction is also a puzzle' it's something to work out' why has it been so popular for so long?" Dr Franks explained.

"I was looking at how the genre has changed' and writing the historical novel' I was trying to tell the history of crime fiction in Australia."

Now the Coordinator of Scholarship at State Library of NSW' Dr Franks' new book An Uncommon Hangman: The Life and Deaths of Robert 'Nosey Bob' Howard explores Nosey's life through the stories of the 62 criminals he executed.

"A lot of the coverage of Nosey (when he was the NSW hangman)' let's say it's unkind' headlines say he's a terrible executioner. And I'm thinking' 'really?' I'm a public servant' and if I was getting those headlines' I'd be in trouble' I'd probably no longer be a public servant!" she said.

"So I got quite curious about him' and how he was able to do his job… and I stumbled on this man who was not as bad as anyone said' but who just happened to be the hangman while the abolition movement was reaching full force."

Dr Franks has shared her early research journey with CQUniversity's IMPACT podcast' for a new series focused on research higher degree alumni.

She describes her life-long passion for crime fiction' and her frustration that the genre wasn't taken seriously in much of the academy.

"I think there were only two other PhDs in Australia looking at crime fiction when I started'" she said.

"There was a little bit of cultural cringe' there was a little bit of snobbery about it… but CQU were very willing to take a risk."

"Even now some people think' 'oh' crime fiction research' that would have been fun!'" she laughed.

"And some bits were' but you had that added challenge of taking something from popular culture' and then having to reconfigure that in a way that retains that pop culture thing that makes it fabulous' but also makes it palatable to more serious academics."

Dr Franks says sticking with her research projects relied on her passion for the genre and topic' and the passion of her supervisors' including former CQU Associate Professor Wally Woods.

"I did the Masters and I was very fortunate' I said to him 'what do you think about taking this further…'' and he was so enthusiastic' I possibly didn't quite think about all the pros and cons before I said 'Okay!''" she laughed. "And I've very grateful for that enthusiasm' because there is a risk when you put off research and further study. The sooner you start a PhD' the better off and more confident you can be with it."

You can listen to the full interview with Dr Franks on CQUniversity's IMPACT research podcast' follow CQUniversity Podcasts here.

The series highlights the impact and experience of research higher degree alumni' and marks CQUniversity's recent milestone of 1000 RHD graduates.

To explore research degrees with CQUniversity' visit and find scholarship opportunities' current projects' or register for an information webinar.