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The Cruel City
Is Adelaide the Murder Capital of Australia?
By Stephen Orr
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Stephen Orr
All rights reserved.
Colonial days: Botched hangings and poisoned milk
Where did our Cruel City, and state, begin? With a few hundred settlers wading ashore at Glenelg Beach, looking at the scrub, swatting sandflies, unbuttoning their celluloid collars and wondering what the hell they'd done?
Although Adelaide was a planned settlement, thought out, subscribed, full of hard-working Methodists and humourless Lutherans, before long there were flaws in the glass. Michael Magee, a runaway convict, and his offsider, William Morgan, tried to settle an argument with the colony's first sheriff, Samuel Smart, by breaking into his cottage and attempting to shoot him. Magee missed, and was subsequently captured and sentenced to death.
A call was put out for a volunteer hangman but no one came forward. Eventually a reluctant citizen agreed, on the proviso that he appeared masked and 'artificially disfigured'. In May 1838 the prisoner was taken by horse and cart to a hanging tree in the north parklands. The hangman had no idea how to tie a noose, or even a simple knot for the prisoner's hands. Magee, standing on the cart, had the rope placed around his neck; when the horse moved forward he was left hanging, using his thumbs to try to loosen the noose. The executioner lost his nerve and fled. The crowd shouted for Magee to be taken down, or at least dispatched by rifle shot. Instead, the police chased after the executioner, returned him to the hanging tree, and forced him to take Magee by the legs and swing on his body until the job was done. Reports say that Magee was still murmuring thirteen minutes later.
We have an image of mothers covering their children's face, fathers shouting out in support of Magee, the fainthearted dropping to their knees or vomiting, as the hangman ran for the hills. All this in a place of such innocence, a near shop-new paradise with fertile fields, opportunity and strangulation.
Meanwhile, Magee's offsider, William Morgan, was captured at Encounter Bay and returned to Adelaide. On the way the police party became lost and left Morgan tied to a tree while they went looking for help. The writer Nathaniel Hales said that the prisoner was
tightly bound to a tree, exposed to scorching heat during the day, piercing chills at night, and suffering privation of both food and water. Ravenous birds screamed around him during daylight; wild dogs prowled near him at night, venturing every hour closer and closer to him; yet after four days he was found alive. When the constables rejoined him he was covered by thousands of bush flies, which had settled on him, and some of them had deposited their hideous living spawn upon his face and hands.
The first encounters between settlers and Aborigines would soon provide examples of frontier justice. The 136-tonne brig Maria left Port Adelaide in 1840 with 25 passengers and crew, and 4000 gold sovereigns. She set course for Hobart but encountered rough weather near Cape Jaffa, on the state's south-east coast. The Maria soon became shipwrecked but all of her passengers and crew survived, setting out along the Coorong to try to reach Encounter Bay.
It's likely that at some point members of the crew tried to take advantage of Aboriginal women they encountered along the way and the local tribe responded by killing all but one of the surviving party. George Hall, the acting colonial secretary, later described the event:
Major O'Halloran (the Commissioner of Police) on arriving in the neighbourhood of the place where some unfortunate passengers of the Maria were recently murdered, obtained that the most conclusive evidence that the sufferers on the sea coast were Mr Denholm and his family, Mrs Yorke and a man named Sturt, and that these persons (whose clothes the police recovered from the blacks) had been killed under circumstances of very brutal ferocity ... It appears certain that two or three men or women were murdered by another tribe of natives on the eastern side of the Murray.
O'Halloran wasted no time in convicting two of the most likely offenders in a drumhead court martial, finding a tree close to where they'd buried the Maria 's victims, and hanging them as an example to other would-be offenders. Two other Aborigines tried to escape by swimming across the Coorong but were quickly dispatched by musket.
George Hall explained that this summary justice was needed because it would have 'a very beneficial effect in deterring the natives of that district for the future from making wanton and unprovoked attacks on the persons or property of the Europeans who are about to settle in that neighbourhood'.
The full story, it seems, wasn't so important. This wasn't the first or last time a lack of language skills would contribute towards the conviction of local Aborigines. In the secret war that went on between Europeans and the First Australians it's safe to say there's more to most stories than the colonial records suggest.
Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, the government started building a gaol. Soon after its completion in 1841, in an attempt to preserve (or establish) the moral tone of the new colony, a decision was made to begin public executions at the grand stone building's front gates. On 29 March 1847, at eight in the morning, Thomas Donelly, who had been convicted of the murder of an Aboriginal man named 'Kingberri', was led out through the front gates and mounted a platform in front of several hundred people. He climbed a few steps, took a moment to survey the crowd (perhaps searching for a familiar face) and then yielded his neck to the hangman.
There is no record of the locals' response; perhaps there was some light applause, a show of appreciation for a job well done. Chances are someone was selling food, or drink, and someone else was arguing over the price. Either way, we assume they'd found a new hangman.
By the 1870s Adelaide had developed into what the English novelist Anthony Trollope, in a visit in 1875, described as 'one of the pleasantest towns among the colonies, well built, well adorned and surrounded by gardens'. The local population of 150,000 or so had just been blessed by a visit from Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, who'd laid a foundation stone for a Methodist college named in his honour, strolled through the Botanic Gardens and attended a Town Hall ball crammed with what passed as the local Establishment. Indeed, the history of early Adelaide is written in the language of the Establishment. We can find much written about the founding of the SA Jockey Club in 1873, the incorporation of Adelaide University in 1874 and the exploits of 'Old Colonists' such as Sir Samuel Davenport, the 'Squire of Beaumont'.
But was Adelaide really such a wisteria-scented paradise?
Starting in 1880, an old weather-beaten hulk named the Fitzjames was moored just off the coast of Adelaide. In a scene straight out of Great Expectations, boys aged between eight and sixteen were locked away beyond the sight, sound and hearing of 'respectable Adelaide'. At any given time up to 60 boys were held on the ancient, leaking vessel. Older boys, schooled in petty crime in Adelaide's seedy west end (Hindmarsh and Brompton), instructed the younger boys on technique — whom to rob, where to fence and how to avoid the police — in a sort of nautical Fagin's gang. Here the younger boys would have faced intimidation, violence and sexual abuse at the hands of older boys and warders. Instead of convicts, Adelaide boasted, but hardly ever mentioned, her water-borne penal settlement.
Most of the boys had been 'detained' because they were either uncontrollable or neglected. The latter category referred to homeless boys who'd either begged, thieved or lived with a prostitute or drunk. These children were sent to an 'industrial school' where their morals could be improved. Most of these boys quickly absconded, were recaptured and sent to the Fitzjames.
Although primary accounts of life upon the Fitzjames are scarce, it's nice to think of a calm, ordered, loving environment where boys could reclaim their lost childhood in a gentle rhythm of cooking, cleaning, sail-mending and woodwork. Yet, we suspect, the reality was different. Just how caring and concerned were the boys' keepers? What did they whisper to the boys, and how did they look at them? Did they see them as children, or as prisoners to be controlled, remade, bent like lengths of hot iron?
Meanwhile, a few miles away at Adelaide Gaol, the hangman was busy. The government had decided that public executions were doing nothing to improve the moral tone of the population, so a portable gallows was set up inside the prison walls. Hanging technology had improved, and on 16 July 1878 Jonathon Prest, who'd beaten his wife to death with a pair of tongs, inserted his head in a noose bound with a hangman's knot — a new spliced design that incorporated a shiny brass ring. Accounts are unclear as to whether this was any consolation for Prest, who was only one of a string of criminals executed in the 1870s to 1890s in an attempt to keep Adelaide decent.
Soon the nineteenth century had drawn to an end, and Adelaide was still a city divided. Thistle Anderson, an inhabitant of what she called 'Arcadian Adelaide', couldn't wait to get out of the place. In 1905 she summed up her view of Adelaide society with the credo, 'I believe in the social laws, in much going to Church, in doing unto others as they would do unto you if they could, in the charity that will be beneficial to our social position, and in the Life of the Everlasting, Amen.'
But even Thistle, with her advice that the best part of Adelaide was the train station and a ticket to Melbourne, acknowledged that there was another, dark, cruel side to Adelaide.
The Village is less holy than might be supposed, for Melbourne, with approximately a population of 494,129, has seven opium dens; while Adelaide, with a population of 162,261, has eight. Then, too, it is pretty generally admitted that, in proportion to its size, Adelaide has more prostitution and more young girls on its streets than any other city in Australasia. Many women of the unfortunate class in Adelaide begin their wretched profession at the early age of thirteen or fourteen.
Thistle Anderson continued by imploring,
ye people of Adelaide, try to remember that your hills are not the greenest, or your morals the cleanest ... bear in mind that your wines are the worst ever made, that some of you are passing plain to look upon, and that you have acquired a world-wide fame for your cruelty to animals — especially horses.
A year later, as Thistle Anderson was still railing against the Village, a pony pulling a riderless trap bolted wildly along Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide. The trap hit a light pole and the spooked horse came to a stop. Benjamin Young, a blacksmith, and a friend calmed the pony and took it by the reins. They recognised it as belonging to Natalla Habibulla, an Afghani camel-driver resident in the city. The men mounted the trap, turned the horse around and drove it to the home of Natalla Habibulla's mother-in-law, Edith Mason, in Tynte Street, North Adelaide. William Mason, Natalla's brother-in-law, came out to greet them and noticed a bloodstained shirt and mats in the back of the trap. Mason, alarmed, thanked them and drove the cart to a police station in Waymouth Street. A constable then accompanied him back to Natalla's house in the city. Here, Mason and the constable found a pool of blood in the backyard.
Later that night Natalla Habibulla, having heard what had happened, entered the police station. When a detective showed him the bloodstained shirt he said it had come from a blood nose. When challenged about blood in the trap he said it had come from meat he had bought earlier that day.
He explained how a passing car had frightened the pony and how it had bolted in the direction of North Adelaide.
Two detectives then accompanied Natalla back to his house where they found brain matter in the blood in the backyard as well as on a woman's clothes stuffed under a bed. A maid at the house identified the clothes as belonging to Mrs Habibulla, although neither she, Natalla nor any family members could account for Nellie Habibulla's whereabouts.
The next day a blacktracker led police from Natalla's house to the River Torrens. The police dragged the river and found two sugar bags containing the dismembered corpse of Nellie Habibulla. An examination of the corpse at the city morgue found that parts of the upper torso were missing. The next day the river was partly drained and a third bag was discovered.
Meanwhile, Habibulla was arrested and charged with murder.
At the trial, in October 1906, Maud Manson, Nellie's sister, explained how she had accompanied Nellie on a holiday to Broken Hill with her new husband a few weeks after their marriage. One day they were walking down Argent Street when Natalla, holding a heavy stick in his hand, asked Nellie to 'go round to the back of the mines' with him. Nellie refused, citing the poor light. Later that day, Maud explained, Nellie told Natalla that she 'did not like him very much' and he flew into a rage.
The cause of Nellie's rapidly fading interest in her new husband, and of Natalla's anger, was Shere Mahomed. Nellie had broken off her relationship with Mahomed to marry Natalla. Soon after her marriage, apparently, she'd had a change of mind.
After Nellie and Natalla returned to Adelaide, Natalla left for Hergott Springs on business. A few days later Nellie and Shere caught a train to Port Augusta for a short holiday. On his return from Hergott Springs, Natalla asked Edith Mason where his wife had gone and she replied that she didn't know. Natalla said he knew she was in Port Augusta with Shere and added, 'I will go and get her and shoot her, and then cut my throat.'
Over the next week Natalla sent several telegrams to his wife, and she eventually replied saying that she did not want to see him anymore but at the same time asking forgiveness for the pain she had caused.
Natalla then went away on business again. Meanwhile, in Port Augusta, Nellie fell sick, had a small operation and returned to Edith's house in Adelaide to recover. On his return to Adelaide Natalla argued with his wife, but then, Maud Manson described at Natalla's trial, the volatile couple lived at Edith's house 'on the best of terms' for several weeks. Then they returned and lived in Natalla's house in Bristol Street. The next time she saw her sister, Maud explained, she was in the morgue.
We can clearly see how Nellie's rejection of her new husband must have affected him. Natalla had hired a maid to help her, bought her a pony and trap to go shopping, and had leased a new house and furnished it. We can imagine his rage growing daily, as the couple vacillated between love and contempt, and as she, finally making up her mind, told him it was over. Perhaps this was the trigger for an assault, murder and mutilation that ended in three sugar bags dumped into the River Torrens.
After a long trial Habibulla was sentenced to death by hanging, but the jury, perhaps considering Nellie's role in inflaming her husband's passion, recommended mercy.
There was none. On 16 November 1906, at Adelaide Gaol, Habibulla was led from his cell, wearing a vest and turban, and escorted to the first floor of the 'A' wing. Newspaper reports say that Habibulla was calm as he stepped onto the trap, as his ankles were strapped, his turban removed, and the noose and a hood placed over his head. Habibulla dropped 6 feet and his suffering was over.
In the first half of the twentieth century Adelaide and South Australia produced some of its coldest, cruelest criminals. Although, today, their names are less well known than von Einem, Bunting and Miller, their crimes are every bit as horrific. In 1920, for instance, Alexander Lee poisoned his wife, Muriel, and three of their five children with strychnine at Rhynie, just over 100 kilometres north of Adelaide. When arrested he first claimed that rat poison must have accidentally fallen into the family milk, but later, faced with the improbability of this, explained that his wife had tried to poison her children before committing suicide herself. Lee's story was undone when one of his surviving children said she had seen him giving milk to his wife with 'something brown in it'.
James Mark Watherstone met twelve-year-old Elizabeth Nielson at Monash, in the Riverland, in 1938. At his trial the Crown prosecutor explained how Watherstone had 'outraged and strangled' the young girl at his home after having enticed her there. In his defence Watherstone said that he had been depressed over the illness of his wife, and that the girl looked much older than she was. 'Surely,' he said, 'no one can believe that I intended to kill her or even to hurt her.' He explained how he only put a sheet around her neck when she became frightened and screamed. When he took it off he was surprised that she was dead.
Excerpted from The Cruel City by Stephen Orr. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Orr. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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