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

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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.

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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.

 

Razor Gangs Revolver Duel Shootout

This story is an excellent example of the effectiveness of the Pistol Licencing Act 1927 which did so much to bring forth the Razor as a weapon in the Razor Gang wars that were just starting to heat up in the Sydney Steets.

On the evening of December 28th, 1931, when a man named Roberts approached a young woman, Renie, on William Street. He said that he wanted her to live with him as a “lady of the night”. The business of “white slavery” was thriving in the area at the time, with young women kidnapped and forced to work the streets for various local gangs. Roberts himself was known to police as a small time underworld figure, under the alias Paddy Reynolds, and for threatening people with a gun or a razor.

Renie just laughed at Roberts, so he drew a revolver, pointed it at her and said: "Either you live with me, or I will shoot you. I will see you here at 6 p.m.” He then jabbed Renie several times with the gun. Renie ran home and told the man she was living with, James White, what had happened. White was a decent man, who made his living “selling dolls and little toys to crowds of happy children at every showground” including each year at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. When Renie told him what had happened, White said: "I will see the chap that threatened to shoot you."

The couple met Roberts on the corner of Kirketon Road and William Street just after 6pm. It was quite busy, with lots of people around. White confronted Roberts: "What is the idea of pulling a gun on this girl?” Roberts replied, "Mind your own business, or I'll blow your head off."

White didn’t back down… so Roberts stepped out onto William Street and started firing. Terrified men, women and children scurried away for their lives as White ducked behind a pole for cover. He pulled out his own revolver and shot twice at Roberts, who backed away across Williams Street, firing four shots in quick succession; one of these almost hit Renie, who ducked just in time, the shop window above her head smashing into pieces.

Roberts reached the other side of the street. Blood was streaming from his chest and he swayed where he stood. White’s gun had jammed, so a constable took him into custody. He calmly handed the gun over saying, "I have a licence."  Thank goodness for that! On the way to the police station White said: "Fancy these mongrels coming out and victimising women."

Meanwhile, another constable had gone to Roberts, who said: "He got me." Roberts pulled open his coat to reveal a large amount of blood.  He was taken to hospital where he died half an hour later.

Is this licenced or unlicenced?

Is this licenced or unlicenced?

At the trial Renie testified that she had been threatened by shady members of the underworld. On one occasion two of them had forced their way into her flat. “You little copper!” said one. “You don't think you're going to give evidence for White, do you?   If you do, you'll cop something for yourself.”  Despite this, Renie had bravely taken the stand, and White was found not guilty on grounds of self-defence… and in further good news, the timing of his release meant that he was just in time to sell his wares at the Royal Easter Show.

And as for Roberts? Nobody, not even his relatives, said they had any association with him and, after the post mortem was concluded, no one came forward to collect his body.

But most importantly of all, the Pistol Licences Act had done its job because - just for the record - no one in this case was shot by an unlicensed pistol.

If you want to learn more about the Razor Gang Wars then you might be interested in doing the tour sometime.  Or else book in for any of our other tours in Sydney, Newcastle, Maitland and Brisbane.