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Three Rabbits Alibi
Three Rabbits Alibi
Three Rabbits Alibi
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Three Rabbits Alibi

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A True Story of Murder, Madness & the News in Colonial Melbourne.
It's 1850s Australia. A double murder. A locked room. The murderer is dying from a gunshot. But the reporter says the scene is near impossible. Melbourne Herald reporter Edmund Finn (known to many as Garryowen) described it as "one the most atrocious deeds which darken the pages of colonial history". Yet he also reported that not one man in five hundred could have shot himself with that length of gun. Was all as it seemed? Was the scene’s “discovery” staged by the dead woman’s husband to deflect suspicion from himself? Was the suspect the real murderer? And was he sane? This is a journey to Melbourne in 1853. Using historical detective work and tools common to those exploring family history, the author reinvestigates this murder case and those connected with it. He reveals a far more complex story with modern resonance.

PublisherDavid Coombe
Release dateMar 19, 2015
Three Rabbits Alibi
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David Coombe

I enjoy uncovering new stories of ordinary people through their link to extraordinary events. Reading old newspapers, I can get hooked by something odd – something that doesn’t seem quite right. From there my research takes unknown paths. But it can lead to fascinating stories. Colonial Australia and narrative non-fiction are my thing. I live in Canberra, Australia.

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    Three Rabbits Alibi - David Coombe


    Early on Saturday 22nd January 1853, news reached Melbourne that a woman and a child had been murdered in their farm house about 12 miles south of the city. The sketchy report added that the murderer was near death.

    The rumours were vague, so reporters from the city’s two newspapers – the Melbourne Morning Herald and the Argus – made their way to the scene. The Herald’s reporter was the brilliant Edmund Neddy Finn. He was later better known by his pen name Garryowen, author of The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852.

    The story they heard that Saturday morning was that the pair were murdered the previous day by the farm labourer, who then shot himself in the chest with a shotgun. All this had happened while Charles Smith, the husband and father, was said to have been twelve miles away on a day trip to the city.

    Finn’s report of the murder indicated there was something awry. The implication was that the events may not have unfolded in the manner first thought. Finn did not repeat his puzzlement in his next report of the ensuing coroner’s inquest, but there was still a hint that the husband Charles Smith had something to hide.

    Was there more to this case than had at first appeared? What about Charles Smith? What about the farm labourer said to be the murderer? And what about the victims?

    Modern access to archives allows us to explore these questions; it allows us to look into the detail of this case in a way that 1853 did not. It allows us to know more about the people involved than was known then. The re-investigation reveals a more complex story; and a mystery.


    The discovery and subsequent actions of that afternoon and evening are here described from the testimonies of Charles Smith and other witnesses – from the newspaper reports, the Coroner’s inquest and the Supreme Court trial. Charles Smith was the only one to testify as to what happened before four o’clock in the afternoon on Friday 21 January 1853. From that time, other witnesses are on the scene. Some testimony has been transformed into dialogue where this can be reliably derived from testimonies.

    This book is in two parts. Part 1 recounts events of 1852-53 as they were generally known. Part 2 is the investigation unravelling a much fuller story.

    Archive material, such as testimonies, are sometimes included in the body of this book or, where more suitable, in appendices.

    When a quotation is not specifically referenced, it is sourced from the Melbourne Morning Herald newspaper. When simply Garryowen or Chronicles is cited, this refers to The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, by Garryowen (Edmund Finn).

    Spelling in the newspapers was not consistent then and is not consistent with current usage. I have not imposed any consistency. To avoid jarring, the spelling in quotations tends to be reflected in surrounding text. I recommend you turn off your spelling radar.

    This is a true story.



    [21] – Notes are at end of book. Where supported by the ebook reader and format, clicking the reference will take you to the note; clicking the end note will return you to the original reference in the body of the text.

    Quotations from newspapers retain the original spelling and punctuation which often differ from modern accepted usage. [Sic.] is not used.

    5 miles = 8 kilometres (approximately)

    £1 (one pound) = 20 s. (20 shillings)

    1s. (one shilling) = 12 d. (twelve pence)

    One crown = five shillings

    One guinea = £1 1s.


    IMAGE – Map, by the author.

    PART I

    1852-3 was the maddest of the mad years in Melbourne, and it was no easy task to work a newspaper through the shoals and quicksands of the times.


    Edmund Finn

    The News

    We begin with some news reports from a few months before the murders.


    Herald, Tuesday 19 October 1852 : –


    On Saturday afternoon four mounted bushrangers, armed to the teeth, swept the country between St. Kilda and Brighton, bailing up and robbing several persons. The first they met were Mr. and Mrs. Bawtree, near the Western Port Road, and from them they abstracted a gun, gun case, shot pouch, and some trinkets. They next came across a gardener named Cain, who was fleeced to the tune of £20, and another gardener fell a victim to the scoundrels’ rapacity in the same amount within a couple of hundred yards of the scene of the other robberies. They next met with a Mr. O’Neil, who likewise underwent the fleecing operation. In all they plundered about a dozen persons, and as fast as they disposed of one they tied him up to their other victims, in order thereby effectually to guard against alarm or interruption; hiding them in a thicket, where they were ordered to sit down in a ring facing one another, whilst one fellow stood guard, the rest plundering away until they had secured nineteen persons in all! They also boasted of having killed a man and thrown his body into a waterhole. They appeared to have come from the direction of Melbourne – passed on towards Key’s Hotel, at Little Brighton, and were last seen dashing at full speed after a carriage, but whether they succeeded in robbing it or not, we have not heard; Mr. McCombie had a very narrow escape from them. He happened to be passing within a short distance and witnessing some of their movements, deemed discretion the better part of valour, and lost no time in securing a safe and speedy retreat. These daring outrages clearly prove that some sort of efficient protection should be afforded between Brighton and St. Kilda.


    Argus, Friday 5 November 1852 : –


    Intelligence was brought to Williamstown on Wednesday evening last, by Capt Wylie of the brig Champion, from Adelaide, that a large ship, named the Ticonderago, ninety days out from Liverpool, with upwards of 900 Government emigrants on board, had anchored at the Heads. A great amount of sickness had occurred among the passengers, more than a hundred deaths having taken place, and almost a similar number of cases (typhus fever) being still on board. Nor was this all. The doctor's health was so precarious that he was not expected to survive, and the whole of the medicines, medical comforts &c, had been consumed.


    Herald, Saturday 15 January 1853 : –


    For the past week, a small farmer at Little Brighton named William Smith, indulged rather too freely in intoxicating liquors, and the consequence was some frequent and severe fits of delirium tremens. One day last week, in a fit of the horrors, he deliberately took an axe and chopped off one of his fingers and one of his toes. This reduced him to a deplorable condition, and though attended by Dr. Casperson, he died on Thursday morning. A coroner’s inquest was held on his remains at Key’s Little Brighton Hotel, and from the evidence brought forward, the Jury returned a verdict that the resulting death was accelerated by intemperance.


    In this last report the Herald was in error and, on this occasion, the Argus got it right – the man’s name was Phillip Smith. The Argus also reported more digits: chopped off the fingers of one of his hands. The inquest documents are not specific as to injuries but only make mention of one thumb. Although described as a farmer, Phillip Smith, had earlier been in the Port Phillip directory as a wood-cutter. He used to be handy with a tommy hawk.

    Friday Morning: Charles Smith

    January was arid and hungry.


    Edmund Finn

    Friday 21 January 1853, early in the morning.

    Mid summer’s sun appeared around five, rising with the mercury. According to Charles Smith, he left his farm at about six or seven o’clock that morning. He left his wife and child in the house and his labourer in the garden and took his cart into the city. From the farm it was five miles north to Brighton and then a further seven miles to Melbourne.

    One report said Smith’s trip was to fetch a load of manure. Brighton district soil was good; sandy, but not overly so. Sandy soil wanted manure and the Melbourne Manure Depot was popular for city deposits and country withdrawals. Smith planned to return to his farm with a cart full.

    The district was renowned for its gardeners; they cleared the bush and ploughed the soil. Wattle, tea tree, she-oak, banksia and gum made way for wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, turnips and onions. There were fruit trees and vines of table grapes. Summer saw cucumbers and melons.

    Ploughing the single furrow; trenching; manuring with the deposits of large stables and maybe even of town houses; sowing by hand; watering with a rough carrier, a barrel perhaps, from the well specially sunk near the bottom of the garden; planting out, hoeing, picking, bunching, stacking, loading and carting; all the never-ending operations of a market garden were to be seen in Brighton, driving like the beat of a heart the pulse that was gardeners’ wagons moving purposefully – ever more purposefully – along the Melbourne road. Of these operations manuring was no doubt the most important; so vital a commodity was manure on that sandy soil that there was definite opposition to tolls being charged on the gardeners’ carts when they passed the barrier with their return loading. The fifty loads on a property advertised [for sale] was an important item, for market-gardening could not have been pursued without the dung of Melbourne stables. [1]

    Smith’s manure trip would be useful for an autumn planting – cabbages, turnips, beetroot, onions, beans. Smith, a greengrocer, likely planted both fruit and vegetables; but any fruit trees he may have had would not yet be bearing, having been no more than months in his new ground.

    Ten months earlier, Smith had bought his 113 acres for the upset price of one pound per acre at a Government land auction. His money was reputedly earned on the goldfields.

    Smith’s land was known officially as Portion 45, parish of Moorabbin. It was rectangular apart from a top right triangle lopped off by the Great Western Port Road. Across that road was a new subdivision called, for the obvious reason of the block sizes, Two Acre Village. Western Port Road formed Smith’s diagonal north eastern boundary. Two other properties adjoined his – one on the north boundary and one the west. His southern boundary was a Government Reserve, on which were never-failing springs of pure fresh water. Moysey’s Springs were named after the original leaseholder of Beaumaris Run, five square miles of bush on Port Phillip Bay. As well as providing fresh water, The Springs’ double lagoon also served as a source of reeds for roofing thatch.

    Settler farmers often started with simply a tent or bark hut. But Smith now had a two roomed timber house, and had made a permanent move from Melbourne to the Springs. He was married with a young son. He and Bridget Quin had married in Melbourne three and a half years earlier, and Charles junior was nearly two years old. Bridget had, until recently, fronted a little greengrocer shop next to the Bull and Mouth Hotel in Bourke Street in the city.


    Much was happening before this Friday morning.

    About seven weeks earlier, Smith had employed two men to work on his farm. One of them – George Pinkerton – was an under-officer from the so-called fever ship, the Ticonderoga (sometimes referred to as the Ticonderago.) Pinkerton had probably arrived at Smith’s by foot, having walked 60 miles or so from the quarantine ground at Nepean Point, likely via Port Phillip Bay’s eastern beaches. He passed the shell middens of the Boonwurrung people, but saw hardly any of the aborigines. He saw very few white people, but one or two blackfellows gathering shell-fish. [2]

    Pinkerton was not among the Ticonderoga crew when they finally brought the huge double-deck semi-clipper into Melbourne. He had not waited for the ship to be cleared. Nor was he present when Port Phillip’s Health Officer declared the crew fully recovered and lifted quarantine at Nepean Point. He had quit after the situation had improved but before the fevered dying stopped.

    Normally a seaman without a discharge certificate was liable to be brought before a court. But Pinkerton claimed he had not signed the ship’s articles that commit a crew to a voyage.

    And that fateful Friday morning, Pinkerton was at Charles Smith’s farm.

    About a week and a half earlier, Phillip Smith had truncated his digits. A few days later a coroner’s inquest at the Little Brighton Hotel, found that he had subsequently died from the effects of an intemperate use of ardent spirits. However, it seems the absence of a finger or two was a more immediate cause of death.

    And only a week before this Friday, one of Smith’s two labourers, John Miall, left his employment and began working for a neighbour, Mrs. Elizabeth Gouge. This left Pinkerton alone working for Smith.

    Just two days before this Friday, a personal advertisement appeared in the Argus newspaper:

    MR. HENRY SMITH or his Brother Mr. Charles Smith, from London, will find a letter from their Father, by applying at Mr. John Hood's, Druggist, Collins-street, Melbourne.

    Was this Charles Smith the farmer?


    On Friday 21 January, Charles Smith said he left Pinkerton at work in the garden as he headed into the city in the morning.

    The twelve miles from the farm to Melbourne took about two hours by cart. The Western Port Road could be deep, soft, sandy and riddled with stumps. The slowness of the journey made the road an appealing target for bushrangers.

    In the previous decade, the motive power for carts and wagons came mainly from slow and hungry bullock teams. Brighton district farmers usually could not justify owning their own vehicles, but instead used those of local full-time or part-time carriers. But by the 1850s, horse power was more common and with greater traffic between the district and the city, along with declining horse prices, farmers could better justify having their own horse drawn carts. There is no suggestion that Charles Smith hired a cart for his trip. He may have even been an occasional carter himself.

    While on his manure errand, Smith may also have visited the little greengrocer shop that his wife had run next to the Bull and Mouth Hotel in Bourke Street. But if he did so, this was not mentioned. While in town, someone gave him three rabbits as a gift for Mrs Smith. Nothing else is known about the trip – not anyone he met nor the hour of any of these town events. Nor whether the rabbits were alive or dead.

    Smith said he returned about three o’clock in the afternoon. Miall said he saw Smith about four o’clock. At around the same time, the Melbourne Morning Herald was winding up its journalistic week.

    Friday Afternoon: The Melbourne Morning Herald

    Friday 21 January 1853 – in the afternoon.

    The Office of The Melbourne Morning Herald newspaper, Little Collins Street, between Elizabeth & Queen Streets, Melbourne, Victoria.

    Late afternoon marked the end of the Melbourne Morning Herald’s editorial day, and on a Friday it also marked the end of the editorial week. The topic of the day for this Saturday’s newspaper was licensed public houses on the goldfields.

    It is probable that the Herald newspaper office stayed open until eight o’clock to receive late advertisements, just as was the case at competitor, the Argus. But for Herald proprietor and editor George Cavenagh and reporter Edmund Finn, the advertisements were of much less concern than the editorial material on pages four and five. They could finish these two pages and leave the rest of the paper to take its regular course.

    Thirteen years earlier, in 1840, Cavenagh had begun the Port Phillip Herald, as the paper was first called. Then Melbourne had but ten thousand colonist souls. Even one year earlier Melbourne had barely 30,000. Now the city numbered more than 100,000. The first arrivals were supported by manifold more grazing sheep. But now the graziers struggled to find shepherds, ships to find sailors, farmers to obtain labourers.

    The cause was gold fever, caught by tens of thousands from Britain, Europe, America and China. Although thousands were lured from Melbourne to the fields, the city boomed also, swelling the market for the newspapers in both the city and the goldfields.

    On establishing the Herald, Cavenagh set himself apart from his competition by choosing an Anglo-Saxon motto – not a Latin one. Impartial – but not Neutral was posted above every leader. Journalist Edmund Finn daily realised the difficulty of living up to his boss’s high bar.

    The relationship between Herald journalist Edmund Finn and proprietor and editor George Cavenagh was one of mutual dependence. Finn described himself as Cavenagh’s literary factotum, doing everything except setting up the type. Sometimes he wrote the entire paper except for the shipping, commercial and advertising columns.

    Finn and Cavenagh generally worked well together, which surprised many seeing that neither had good tempers and both could be hasty and petulant. A friend to both men once asked Cavenagh how they managed to get along so well. Cavenagh replied:

    It is easily accounted for. We are both hot-tempered fellows, but we are essential to each other. He wishes to retain his berth, and I wish to retain him. We, therefore, both make it a point to so keep ourselves in restraint, that we rarely have a flare-up; and thus it is that we get along capitally. – Chronicles


    Editor’s summons were bookends to the reporter’s day. The morning summons determined the leaders and sub-leaders and the desired editorial perspective. The paper was not without opinion forcefully written; impartial was still counter-balanced by not neutral. Cavenagh may have issued an afternoon summons whenever he had set to with his red pencil or India rubber. He sometimes pulled up Finn for what he regarded as the latter’s overly liberal views.

    But the leader that Friday was bread and butter to the Herald. It was on the evergreen matter of liquor licenses. It had not ceased to be a subject of contention since the founding of the settlement under the government of New South Wales and its days’ distant capital of Sydney. The matter was expected to become more manageable after the separation of Victoria as a distinct colony, but that state of equilibrium was never reached. Separation – nearly two years earlier – was enjoined by the rush. Tens of thousands of men in remote parts with gold in their pockets were not going to wait patiently for the city to issue liquor licences. It was not a question of enforcement, but of managing chaos while the mechanisms of order caught up.

    The leader ran under LICENSED PUBLIC HOUSES AT THE DIGGINGS. It was followed by a long letter on the same subject from Judge William a’Beckett, the views of whom differed materially from those of the paper. The Herald’s impartiality certainly embraced correspondence from those of opinion that opposed its own.

    There was also a second letter

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