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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Confessions of a Serial Killer – Episode 3

After a busy Christmas/New Year season, the team here is now hard at work laying the groundwork for our third Darkly Themed Theatre Show, set in the Confessions of a Serial Killer universe.

Audience reactions to our first two shows were nothing short of spectacular. Every night something new and unexpected always occurred, leaving audience and actors alike buzzed with adrenaline.

For those unfamiliar with our brand of Interactive Theatre Shows, here is a brief synopsis of the first two episodes.

Confessions of a Serial Killer - Episode One

Confessions of a Serial Killer
Deep in the heart of the bush, a serial killer offers to confess his crimes; but only in front of witnesses. Is it genuine or a dark and twisted game of cat and mouse?

Female of the Species - Episode Two

Female of the Species
A priest, a murder, suspects, and a crime scene set in an insane asylum and a young woman wrongly accused of murder? Can you solve the mystery? Or will time run out...on you?

The unique aspect of Dark Stories Theatre Shows is that audiences are part of the narrative of the story. Audience interaction, under actor guidance, is needed to move the story along, with audience choices impacting events within the story, and the outcome.

With episode three on the drawing board, I can reveal that the entire series is now mapped out, with just the finalization of scripts to complete, and a small matter of sourcing the appropriate venues.

Opening Night

This series is limited to a single figure number of episodes, although I'll keep you in the dark about the precise amount at this stage. And no need to worry if you've missed an episode - we always make sure that each episode works as a standalone story. Although the more shows you've seen, the deeper you're understanding and enjoyment of the overall arc and underlying themes are going to be.

Inmate

But a question for the reader if I may? This production will go live in June-July, depending on your location. Would you have an interest in pre-purchasing tickets at a heavily discounted rate?

Full price tickets to these shows are $45, so I would think a super early discount price should be something reasonably substantial, say a 50% discount ($22.50). We may even include a special preview night just for early bird ticket purchases as an added perk.

We're happy to make such tickets transferrable or refundable should circumstances arise that stop you from being able to see the show too.

Anyway, let me know what you think in the comments section or via the contact us page. If there is sufficient interest, then we'll proceed with creating an advance ticket sales page.

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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.

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.