Murder on the Waterfront

In the days before electrical lighting, much could go on under cover of darkness. Australia's most famous iconic waterfronts, such as the Hunter River or Sydney Harbour or the Brisbane River, under darkened nighttime skies, were dangerous places to be. Without starlight nor moonlight, the good folk of the city were at the mercy of dark creatures of the night.

In the past, rivers such as London's Thames became somewhat infamous for the not unusual sight of dead bodies to be found floating on the water from time to time. But these occasions were not just an issue limited to the Mother Country alone; in the days before the Federation of Australia, the coroner's courts often had to deal with Jane and John Doe's floating around their respective state watering holes.

But this was the least of the concerns on Mrs. Lee's mind on one bright sunny afternoon in 1873. Mrs. Lee was doing what any ordinary person might be doing on a Saturday. She was coming into the Sydney Habour to spend some with the family, partake of some food and drink and return home by ferry to her Milson's Point home on the North Shore of Sydney.

Her son-in-law ran a bar in Circular Quay, right on the edge of the Sydney Harbour shoreline. After a few hours of drinking and reminiscing, she decided to leave at 7pm, perhaps noticing that her silver coins were beginning to run low. She had just enough left to pay the ferryman to take her to the other side of the harbor - her home.

It would be a strange time on the Sydney Harbour as bright daylight turned to a darkened cloud-filled night. The visibility was low. The watches on the various vessels mostly had to listen out for danger.

An apprentice, going about his work at around 9pm, on a vessel in the harbor, reported hearing a woman's voice ring out across the water. She was shouting, "Police, police! Murder, murder!". The young boy could very faintly observe a boat in the distance with two figures in it. The woman continued yelling, "You wretch! You will murder me!". Having no means of leaving his boat, and with a degree of helplessness, he yelled out to the pair, "Let the woman alone," but there was no response, and the couple faded from sight.

Another boy on watch duty on a different vessel also heard screams and, in the dim light, shouted out, hoping to scare the attacker, "What are you doing to the woman?". Surprisingly a voice from the darkness hissed back at him, "Never you mind – you have got some colonial in you! An olden time Australian insult.

Even across the other side of the water, screams for help had been so loud that the domestic servants of a notable residence, at Kirribilli Point, reported having heard similar cries.

On alert that some dark crime was taking place on the harbor underneath the pitch black of night, there was little anyone could do. The owner of a water taxi on the Circular Quay also noticed that his boat had vanished. Even more mysteriously, it had reappeared in its usual moorings when he returned later about 2 hours later at 11pm that same night.

The owner was furious as he noticed that the sail had gone missing. On closer inspection, however, indications of foul play became apparent. Despite evidence that someone had made some attempt to clean the boat up, the timbers of the boat were quite saturated in blood with red splash marks located on the mast. There was little to do except report the news of his bloodied boat to the water police.

At 7am early the next morning, a group of boys arrived by boat into Circular Quay and reported that they had seen the body of a woman floating amongst the rocks. The body was duly recovered and conveyed to the morgue at Circular Quay.

A post-mortem examination began, and the body, despite presenting a sickening spectacle, was identified as Mrs. Lee's. There was a very long list of wounds all over the body and limbs, and in the opinion of the medical gentlemen, these were inflicted during the final moments of the poor woman's life.

The police began to trace her movements the night previous. When she left her son-in-law's company, instead of going home, it seems she was seen in company with a waterman named Thomas in the Orient Hotel enjoying brandy and beer before the two left together.

The prospect of saving some coin may have prompted her to accept an offer of passage from Thomas. The savings would allow her to enjoy another round or two of drinks before retiring for the evening. For the waterman, it was a rare chance for some paid work after experiencing some lean times.

Thomas was about 45 years of age, a seller of fruits, and a licensed waterman. He was described as a miserable and sickly looking man, with matted hair and beard, and of mean stature and appearance. He was addicted to drink and when in that condition, was said to become quarrelsome and given to fighting. Thomas was a Rocks resident, had a wife and six children, but had mostly been living on the kindness of others of late.

Still, on the same morning as when the body was found, the water police knocked on his front door and asked him to account for his whereabouts the previous evening.

He admitted to taking the boat without permission, but he had returned it to its rightful place, although no-one was about on his return.

He had taken a woman, Mrs. Lee, across the harbor the previous evening, but had landed her at Milson's Point. No-one else but himself had seen her land, and that he knew nothing about the blood in the boat. After dropping her home, he came straight back to Circular Quay.

Modern Day Water Taxi

He admitted he had shared a drink with the deceased the previous evening and had even been seen to shout her drinks at the Orient Hotel.

As the police were questioning Thomas, they were interested in the state of his white handkerchief that was wrapped around his neck, as it was spotted with blood. Furthermore, Thomas showed no apprehension concerning the clothes he was wearing. He had not changed during the night, and his vest and shirt contained spots of blood. Police did not believe his claim about having a nose bleed resulting from a fistfight the preceding afternoon, and duly arrested him for the murder.

Despite proclaiming his innocence during the trial, Thomas was found guilty. There appears no premeditation of intent to murder, and on his execution day, he seems to accept his fate having a sound night's sleep the previous night.

Thomas addressed the spectators, acknowledging the justice of his sentence and punishment and thanked the gaol authorities for their kindness to him. He expressed a hope that no one would throw any aspersion upon his wife and children, which affected him so much he burst into tears. He then stated that drink had brought him to the scaffold and bid those present goodbye.

The bolt was drawn on the gallows – and somewhat rare for an execution performed in the 1800s, he died instantly.

Mrs. Lee's night out shows that not much separates the present day from the past. One often goes to the city to enjoy the company of friends and family, over a glass of one's favorite beverage, before attempting to get home on unreliable public transport. Imagine for a moment doing so without the aid of electrical lighting to light your path, and it becomes apparent how much more dangerous the world was without electricity.

Mrs. Lee's history, though, is just one of many personal crime stories that have played out in the iconic places we know so well. We walk about the streets of our city, completely unaware of the dark stories that have taken place.

We go into a bar or a fine restaurant utterly unaware of the site's bloody past. And really this is all our Dark Stories Crime Tours are all about. Returning you to the scenes of iconic places where the lives and deaths of ordinary everyday citizens played out.

For a brief window of time, past lives and tragic tales are brought back to life in the very place where these events took place. But at least for a moment, the lives of those gone before us, get to live again. Mrs. Lee wanted to have a night out with friends and family, but fate intervened with other plans, but perhaps in some small way, by retelling her story today, she has achieved a kind of immortality in the process.

And as it is Australia Day Weekend coming up, our cities will again be filled with the sights and sounds of people enjoying food and drink in much the same light as Mrs. Lee. It's interesting to wonder what a Dark Stories True Crime Tour would have been like in 1873, however, at least you have the chance to enjoy the 2020 vintage and rediscover the events of the streets around you.

Happy Australia Day Weekend to everyone.

Australia Day Fireworks

Share the joy

Silver Linings Belong 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.

Share the joy

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!

Share the joy

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.