A Dark Story Produces Silver Linings Only to the Eye of the Beholder

The year was 1926, a year before Sydney's Razor Gang Wars were to become a slashing success, and the government was yet to introduce the Pistol Licences Act.

The razor had not yet replaced the gun as the weapon of choice for the residents of Darlinghurst, as a handsome, well-groomed young woman in her early 30s, with gold hair and blue eyes, was pottering about her apartment in the suburb soon to be known as Razorhurst.

She was living in the Harrow Mansions apartment block, but most knew little about her. Ruth liked it that way as it was useful to be unknown when one was maintaining a string of alias names.

It was an ordinary morning for the newlywed Ruth; a nondescript day of July 12th, 1926, as a telephone mechanic came to Harrow Mansions to do some work on the telephone in Ruth's flat. He entered the flat to find himself in an elegantly furnished lounge room. Sitting on a chintz-covered armchair was a well-dressed man of about 40, with dark curly hair. He was smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. As the mechanic left, Ruth was arranging some flowers in a vase on a window sill. She was softly singing, "Look for the Silver Lining."

In the flat next door, a painter was hard at work and could hear a steady drone of voices from Ruth's apartment, and the sounds of gramophone music beginning to play. Suddenly, he was shaken to the core by the sounds of two quick pistol shots and a thud as if someone had fallen. Abandoning the production of his masterpiece, he ran out to the corridor and was just in time to see a man dashing down the three flights of stairs.

It seems Ruth had something of a problematic past. She had married for the first time, perhaps too young, eight years earlier in a marriage, that destiny determined would end in less than two months. The husband and wife separated. He moved to Queensland, and she came to Sydney, although it would be many years before they found the time to get officially divorced.

Happier times took a long time to reach Ruth, but in early 1926 she met the sea captain. He was no longer a dashing young man, but he had his charms, and he had his boat. They became friendly and spent a good deal of time together — Ruth as a guest aboard his vessel on a trip to Newcastle. Later on, when his ship was in Sydney, the Captain stayed with her in Harrow Mansions.

But Ruth was becoming increasingly uneasy in the relationship, informing her mother on one occasion that the Captain did not look like he would think twice about putting a bullet through her.  Even more alarmingly, Ruth would soon send a telegram to her mother complaining of a torrid trip to Melbourne in which she was forcibly married to the Captain. She now wanted to get away from him, and despite some inconvenience, she was able a few days later to get back to her Sydney home alone.

As for the Captain himself, he had become perturbed over his precarious financial situation. Ruth was a smart dresser and spent money freely, and this gave him the impression that she was a woman of wealth, and that she would be able to help him. His plan to force the marriage in secret, would enable him to resign command of his ship, and live a life of leisure as the husband of a wealthy woman. But Ruth was not well off and lived well above her means with the aid of a mysterious benefactor, and the Captain, not knowing any of this, followed her back to Sydney. It would be the morning of July 12th, 1926, as the gramophone started to play, that Ruth finally confessed the truth to him.

And it would only be a few minutes later when an agitated man, claiming to be a sea captain, would rush into the Darlinghurst police station, exclaiming, "I have shot a woman." He continued talking as he placed an automatic pistol on the counter, "Her name is Ruth, and I think she is dead."

The sea captain poured out his story to the police. He claimed that Ruth had become involved with another man that had caused them both some worry. Ruth was to speak to this man on the telephone and request money, as it seems he was the source of her apparent wealth. She asked her question and took a pause to comprehend the man's response, slowly turned to her husband, the sea captain, and said, "The old devil has got us beat. Poor old Snooks(using the Captain's pet name)", and began to cry.

The loss of her only source of finance was overwhelming as she continued, "You don't know what I've been through during the last two years. You have always told me you would do anything for me. Let us finish it all now."

The Captain drew an unlicensed pistol from his pocket, thinking the sight of it would bring her back to her senses. Instead, she clutched him by the head and pulled him towards her when, after a hysterical outburst from Ruth, the pistol went off twice.

When the police arrived at the apartment, the gramophone was still playing a soft, romantic tune. It seemed that Ruth's last act was to place a record on the gramophone turntable before the bullets struck home. The poignant name of the final song played on the record was titled, "The Last Waltz."

In a pool of sunlight on the flowered pile carpet, Ruth lay, fully dressed, her forehead stained with blood. Near her lay two empty automatic pistol shells. Ruth was unconscious and very weak, yet she was still breathing, so she was rushed to the hospital but sadly died in the ambulance.

The Captain found himself charged with Ruth's murder, and an accurate account of the details came out in the trial. Having learned of Ruth's actual financial situation, the Captain, in a fit of rage, pulled Ruth close to him, drew out his revolver, and shot her twice in the head.

It did not take long for the jury to find him guilty of murder, but they added a recommendation for mercy due to the Captain's impassioned testimony. The judge did not agree, and in pronouncing the death sentence, he said, "Your crime was a callous one. What your motive was in taking the life of this woman, who seemed fond of you, I do not know." As was often the case in those times, the Captain did not walk the plank to his doom, but simply had his sentenced commuted to one of life imprisonment.

In the Goulburn Gaol, the sea captain would spend his days organizing first aid classes for his fellow inmates. He also became the head tinsmith, and in his cell, a large placard hung on the wall that read: 'God is Love' and became known by the prison population under the moniker 'The Skipper.'

At long last, he had become a kept man without any financial concerns, and perhaps, in the end, this was the silver lining he craved.

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The Christmas Day Tragedy of 1893

On Christmas Eve 1893, a group of Christmas carollers took to the streets on a borrowed horse carriage. It was lent to them by popular, 33-year-old and well-to-do local businessman, Henry Oxley. In the small hours of Christmas morning, they returned the carriage to Mr. Oxley's Sturt St, Adelaide home. The good cheer was apparent on all sides as the group chatted with Mr. Oxley in his front yard before the merrymakers left around 5am in the morning.

The Oxley family led an enviable life. They were very active in church matters and had received a personally signed letter from the local Anglican Churchman, expressing the hope that they would provide similar labour in the future. Mr. and Mrs. Oxley had been married for 11 years and were parents to 3 children (a boy and 2 girls). Their bank account held a comfortable amount of savings to the tune of £1300 (approx. $200,000 in today's currency). Also, Mr. Oxley had just finalized the purchase of a new fruitier business. The future looked bright for the Oxleys. So as soon as the carollers departed, Mr. Oxley began implementing his Christmas plans.

It would be only a short while later, at 7:30am that same morning, when the groom for the horses arrived at the Oxley's backyard. Finding no one about, he called out to draw the household's attention. The only reply was an ominous, deathly silence. This was Christmas morning in a household with three young children, and it was expected that the excitement of the day - with the corresponding shrieks of delight - should be reaching a crescendo.

His suspicions aroused, the groom gained entrance to the house and entered the first bedroom. "Are you going to get up today?" he asked. The boy on the bed did not reply. It was a terrible sight, the dead little Oxley boy, lying on his right side, a vicious gash to the left side of his skull, surrounded by walls and floors that were covered with blood.

Truly disturbed now, the groom checked the adjoining room, which contained a large bed occupied by Mr. Oxley and his wife. From the angelic expression on her face, it appeared that Mrs. Oxley had died in her sleep and would slumber eternally evermore. A horrible gash had been inflicted on her skull, and one of her large arteries had been cut. Mrs. Oxley received the fatal blow from a tomahawk that lay nearby, covered in her blood. 

Mr. Oxley himself was lying next to his wife on the bed with a razor tightly clasped in his right hand; on his throat were seen the results of its work. Within that same room, on another bed, lay the two little Oxley girls. Both had awful wounds to their heads, and yet they were still breathing.

It was hard to believe that only a few short hours previous in that same neighborhood, the Christmas carollers had sung their lilting tunes, but now there was a scene of tragedy and desperation as the Oxley daughters were rushed to the hospital. Grave fears were held for their recovery, but at least they had a chance, whereas the remainder of the unfortunate family was beyond any earthly help. Sadly, the poor young girls died later that morning.

It was a shocking Christmas Day and one that would be long remembered in the local community. It didn't take long for that one-word question to form on the lips of everyone in the community - why?

A long-time friend of the Oxleys stated that she had never met a happier family and that Oxley was the best of fathers who idolized his children. However, she went on to relate the contents of a more ominous conversation with Mr. Oxley from a few days earlier. Aside from complaining of the heat, he also stated, "This day a year ago I was the happiest man in the world, and this month I'm the poorest man in the world."

Mrs. Oxley also told her in secret that her husband was ill, and that he was carrying a massive weight on his shoulders that he could not bear. He was unable to shake off his despondency and kept repeating that he had been deceived and was disappointed. He told his brother in law, "The fact of the matter is I have been swindled from beginning to end. I am a ruined man".

Only a few days after starting the new fruiterer business – an event that should have been the next chapter of a mostly successful life, Mr. Oxley's manner had changed dramatically and for the worse. What could have gone wrong?

In 1893 Australia was suffering from a financial crisis. Many commercial banks collapsed owing to the bursting of a speculative boom in the property market… sound familiar to anyone? On this occasion, the banks suspended trading to avoid customer-led bank runs, which would lead to bankruptcy. This caused significant financial hardship to many people as they could not withdraw their money. Mr. Oxley had been particularly unfortunate because he had deposited his entire £1300 fortune into the Commercial Bank one week before it suspended trading.

His last hope came in the purchase of the fruiterer. He spent his final cash reserves on a horse carriage, fittings, goodwill, and the former owner's services for a full fortnight to introduce Mr. Oxley to existing customers.

Mr. Oxley finalized possession of the business a week before Christmas, but it did not take long for him to realize his error. The business returns proved to be so disappointingly small that he was driven into the depths of despair. The little store, his last hope, the fruits of many years of hard work and self-denial, was a failure.

Nominally a rich man, he was in practice penniless and unable to support his family. Mr. Oxley himself believed that he was ruined beyond any hope of recovery. Bereft of the means of keeping his family in the comfort in which he desired they should enjoy, his mind became unhinged. 

The verdict of the Christmas Day incident was that Harry Oxley had carried out the murders of his wife, son, and daughters before committing suicide during a fit of insanity.

The banking crisis of 1893 resulted in the ruination of many people. It caused incalculable pain for all impacted, but in the case of the Oxleys, it led to their total destruction at a time when they seemed to have so much to celebrate.  Although a joyous time of year, a story such as the Oxley's serves to highlight that many persevere through life, battling their own dark stories and demons. For them, the festive season may not be experienced as joyously as one would hope.

But on a far brighter, more positive note, allow me to take this moment to wish you the reader a very Merry Christmas and a hopeful, prosperous and happy new year from everyone in the Dark Stories team.

All of our tours will continue to operate over the Christmas and the New Year period. If we haven't seen you on one of them yet, we, with vast amounts of bias, believe true crime tours are the best walking tours around! Join us if you can:-

Maitland's True Crime Tour

Newcastle's True Crime Tour

Brisbane's True Crime Tour

Sydney's Razor Gangs True Crime Tour

Sydney's True Crime Tour

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Recruiting a Hangman By The Numbers

Every country has had one but rarely does anyone stop to consider how a person gets hired for the position of national hangman. If you ever happen to come on a Dark Stories True Crime Walking Tour in Sydney, or elsewhere for that matter, there's a reasonably high chance that you will hear a story about a hanging.

But did you ever imagine yourself, back in your school days, dreaming of becoming the head executioner in your state? How would your career advisor help you reach that goal? What electives could you take? What university should you attend? Then, after graduation, where would you apply? Is there some hangman recruitment agency to whom you could email your resume? Or, conversely, what if you were looking to hire someone for the job; where would you even begin to search?

Governor Phillip faced this exact problem at the very beginning of Sydney's fledgling colony life. Precisely one month and one day after the First Fleet arrived in Australia, there was an execution – the first in Australian history (we'll even walk past the spot as we meander through on one of our walking tours in Sydney). However, the hangman was a last-minute recruit and not a permanent appointee; it was a one-off contract.

The position needed permanent filling, but no one wanted the job. The officers despised the role of hangman and refused to do it, and the convicts saw the position as the lowest of the low. So what was the Governor to do? Discipline at this early stage of the colony's life could have easily broken down, and so he needed to find an executioner, and he needed to do it quickly, to ensure that he wouldn't lose face nor control.

Then, in late February 1788, Governor Phillip found the solution to his problem.

The worst crime one could commit in the new colony concerned the government stores of food. The settlers had no way of knowing if or when resupplies might arrive, or whether the crops they were planting would even survive (spoiler alert, they didn't). They made it all around the world only to be immediately put on rations. Therefore, stealing food from the government stores was considered an offense worse than murder, and such crimes demanded severe repercussions. So when four convicts were found guilty of theft from the government stores they were condemned to die that very same day; justice was swift and severe.

But Governor Phillip still didn't have a hangman! Nevertheless, the execution ritual began, and the four men advanced under guard to the hanging tree. The first man was granted a reprieve and given lashes instead. Then the second man, James Freeman, was marched to the tree, and the hanging rope fastened around his neck. At the moment James expected to be launched into eternity, he received the offer of a full pardon, but only on the condition that he agree to take on the duty of executioner for as long as he remained in the country

James Freeman paused for a few moments, mustered his dignity, and agreed to accept the role. He was given a full pardon, on condition of taking the position for the remainder of his original 7-year sentence, and became a "free man" from that moment. Governor Phillip's strategy was successful, and he granted the remaining two men a reprieve, meaning James Freeman could take some time to get used to his new job. 

On May 2nd, 1788, James Freeman executed his first man without any complaint from the unwilling customer. His first performance was a killer, and Governor Phillip's innovative new HR Recruitment strategy had proven to be successful.

Beginner’s Guide to Mother Hogan’s Brothel

Crime history in Australia has a tradition of strong dominating women ruling over small enclaves of inner-city vice.

Characters ranging from the famous Molly Morgan of Maitland to Sydneys Razor Gangs War with the infamous arch-rivals Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, yet Brisbane also had it's own high priestess of the night. And she plied her trade in the heart of old Brisbane town from the 1870s up until her passing in what was colloquially known as Mother Hogan's Brothel.

Throughout the 1800s, an area of the Brisbane CBD named Frog Hollow - an apt name as the swampland played host to a large population of frogs - and it quickly gained a reputation as the seediest part of town. Because the district swiftly flooded during storms, subsequent rents were the cheapest available in the city, leading it to it becoming the first red-light district in Brisbane.

Numerous brothels sprung up in this part of town, and by far, the most ill-famed of them all was Mother Hogan's brothel – an unofficial name that you wouldn't find in any directory listing. It opened in the 1870s and was around for at least 50-60 years, even surviving the eventual passing of Mother Hogan herself. So who was Mother Hogan?

As far back as the 1860s, she was a bright young thing going by the name of Mary and living in the town of Wagga. She was once pure and innocent; she once had a fond mother who watched over her and protected her from harm. Yet for 30 years of her life, she conducted one of the most immoral houses to be found on the face of the Australian Continent. Her house was almost as well known as the House of Parliament and had higher attendances than local churches and cathedrals.

Originally in her hometown of Wagga, she completed the pact of marriage, and for a time, her virtuous star shone in a pure blue sky. Then along came Mr. John Hogan - and introduced her to the world of infamy and vice of the most disgraceful kind, and she liked it.

Maitland's Molly Morgan

Maitland's Molly Morgan

Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine

Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine

The couple soon became inseparable, arrived in Brisbane together, and they went into business in the Frog Hollow district of the Brisbane CBD. John used to bring along the young lads of the upper-class villas, and Mary's job was to trot out the wine, woman, and song.

In the year of 1889, she became enamored with an actor from the theatre, and she escaped her seemingly happy life and bolted with him to London, taking with her about £3000. As long as the cash lasted, she reveled in sin and luxury, but as soon as the money ran out, the actor departed and abandoned Mary to her own devices in the grimy streets of London. She was forced to return to her profession in the Petticoat Lane to earn some good old fashioned English coin.

For some inexplicable reasons, John Hogan felt lonely without his Mary and sent her the money that brought her back to Brisbane and once more set her up as the Queen of Mother Hogan's Brothel.

It was rumored to be an evil place where one would blush to tell about the things that happened there. Only a few men were capable of describing the racy incidents that occurred from time to time.
During its existence, some thousands of girls careered to ruin within its portals, and numbers of men were said to become physical and moral wrecks through its agency.

For all her seeming faults, Mother Hogan was considered an honest woman, and no man was ever robbed of a penny when staying in the Hogan Household. Men were beaten and plundered in the Frog Hollow district, but dignity and honor made it difficult for these men to report these crimes lest their reputations suffer.

Mother Hogan's end came in March 1904 when, at last, she went to meet her God, and as one person put it at the time - hers was a life wasted having chosen the oldest profession in the world and lived a life of sin and shame.

The funeral itself was a gorgeous affair with the hearse, the coffin, and the mourning coaches being up to the mark required for a Governor-General.

No local priest would attend the burial, so the services of a missionary man had to be recruited. There were girls in the cortege shedding tears, and a stranger would have thought the body of some pure, virtuous woman was undergoing sanctification rituals on her deposit into the earth. Many pundits thought only that here was a woman who fled with another man from her husband, then started a brothel and lived on its proceeds to the end.

Frog Hollow - Brisbane CBD

Frog Hollow - Brisbane CBD

Mother Hogan's brothel survived her passing and continued to remain in business and according to locals, remained one of the worst examples of immorality to be found on the face of God's earth - and was still in vigorous operation through to the 1920s and beyond.

The more in-depth look into Australia's true criminal history reveals numerous examples to prove that the lucky country has more than had its fair share of tough female crime bosses in the days when it was thought to be impossible.

For more stories like this, then do join the Dark Stories True Crime Tour in your town. The Brisbane True Crime Tour incorporates many parts of the old town. For those in the Hunter Valley, the Maitland True Crime Tour will give a good account of its uniquely dark history and Molly Morgan's incredible influence on the town. For more information about the Razor Gang Wars and the rivalry between Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, you will want to book your ticket on the Sydney Razor Gangs True Crime Tour.