From 1833 until 1877, the convict settlement of Port Arthur, Australia housed some of Britain’s most hardened criminals. Located on the island of Tasmania off Australia’s southern coast, the outpost was billed as an “inescapable prison” due to its high security, natural defenses, and total isolation. Port Arthur also played host to Separate Prison, an infamous institution where physical punishment was replaced by psychological discipline.
Prisoners were identified by number, wore hoods while in each other’s company, and sometimes spent days without seeing light or hearing a sound. It’s no wonder, then, that an asylum stood next door and a nearby island, known as the Isle of the Dead, served as a prison burial ground for more than a thousand souls.
In its day, Separate Prison was not seen as barbaric—in fact it was believed to be enlightened. The institution’s design stemmed from English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s theory of the Panopticon—a building that allowed all inmates to be observed at once by a single watchman. In the case of Separate Prison, this resulted in a cross-shaped building that allowed watchmen at the core to see down each wing.
Corporal punishment was viewed as counterproductive at Separate Prison, serving only to harden criminals rather than rehabilitate them. Instead, inmates were kept in line with forced social, visual, auditory isolation. The institution used the “Silent System,” in which all inmates remained quiet at all times and wore hoods or masks when not in their cells. In theory, this was intended to give prisoners time to reflect upon their crimes—in actuality, however, it had far darker consequences.
Many inmates reportedly developed mental illnesses from the seclusion, while others are said to have committed the capital offense of murder in order to escape incarceration via the death penalty. All prisoners who died at Port Arthur were sent to the Isle of the Dead. Reportedly, 1,646 bodies are buried on the tiny landmass. Of that number, only 180 graves—those of prison staff and military personnel—are marked.
The waters that hemmed in Port Arthur were said to be infested with sharks, and the only way to reach the mainland was to travel along a narrow peninsula guarded by soldiers, traps, and half-starved dogs. One prisoner named Martin Cash famously escaped by swimming across the bay to his freedom. He later wrote about the escape in his 1870 autobiography, The Adventures of Martin Cash, which became a best seller in Australia.
Another prisoner wasn’t so lucky. George “Billy” Hunt attempted to escape by disguising himself as a kangaroo using a kangaroo pelt. Unfortunately for Billy, the guards were kept on meager rations, and they shot at the apparent animal in order to supplement their diet. Billy survived the gunfire, throwing off the pelt and giving himself up. He received 150 lashes for the attempt.
In 1877, Port Arthur was abandoned as a prison site, at which point many of the correctional buildings slipped into decay. A set of fires from 1895 and 1897 furthered this destruction. Locals, eager to move on from the region’s dark beginnings, were happy to see the site crumble.
In 1996, Port Arthur added a tragic coda to its tale when Martin Bryant opened fire on tourists visiting the area. Bryant killed 35 people and wounded more than 20 more. The Port Arthur Massacre was one of the deadliest killings in the world perpetrated by a lone gunman and led to stricter gun laws across Australia.
Today, Port Arthur and the ruins of Separate Prison are controlled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and remain one of Australia’s most haunting tourist attractions. The land surrounding the prison is beautiful, making the dark events that occurred there all the more chilling. are available in the evenings, and stories are told of cells that still echo with ghostly screams, rocking chairs that move on their own, and eerie lights flickering from the Isle of the Dead.