Wednesday, April 20, 2011







On the 27th March, 1848, the whole community was thrown into a state of great excitement by the report of a murder committed on Kangaroo Point the circumstances attending which were so barbarous as to be scarcely paralleled in the history of crime, and which in atrocity almost outdid the worst deeds recorded of the unenlightened savage. The unfortunate individual whose career had been so violently arrested by the hand of the murderer was Robert Cox, a sawyer, who had been working on the Tweed, and had only arrived in Brisbane five days previously. The first intimation of the terrible affair (which must have been enacted on Sunday night, the 26th) was the discovery made by George Cummins, a joiner, of the lower portion of a human body lying on the river bank at about the end of Main-street and considerably below high-water mark. Constable Murphy was summoned, and he with assistance removed the trunk, which was almost in two parts, being cut across the loins, to Sutton's Bush Commercial Hotel, at the corner of Holman and Main streets. There was a stab in the breast, there was a cut on the left side, and the ribs were broken. The head was missing, but the clothes were recognised as those of Cox by the constable, by William Fife, the cook at Sutton's, and by a man named Moseley, with whom Cox had been staying. Cox had been seen in Fife's company on Sunday night, the latter carrying the former, who was drunk, to his (Fife's) room. A search was made, and in the kitchen where Fife slept was found a towel with blood stains upon it, but which was not concealed. At this moment James Davis (Duramboi) discovered blood marks on the fence at the back of Sutton's house, and on going a little further into the back yard found a quantity of blood near the well. Some one then procured a ladder, and going down the well found three shirts (a circumstance to which much importance is even now attached by old residents), a knife, and towel. The liquid in the bucket, too, was found to be blood and water; while on the flooring boards of the kitchen being taken up a sheet with a small blood stain on it was found. A man named Lynch, with whom Cox had stayed on the Friday night, was arrested as well as Moseley and Fife, and on being examined in the lockup a spot of blood was discovered on the breast of Fife's shirt. Sutton made the remark that it appeared that his servant Fife had committed the murder, and at a later period Sutton also was arrested. On another examination of the locality being made, one spot near the well was found to be saturated with blood, the top of Sutton's fence was stained, and the grass on the other side had the appearance of something bloody having been dropped upon it; while a tomahawk and an adze were found covered with clay near Fife's bed. In the meantime a man named James Clouston was out on a fossicking excursion, when, observing a dog coming out of the unfinished building standing near the hotel and owned by Mr. Campbell, he went in and was horrified to find a human head resting between two joists. He immediately secured it, and holding it up by the hair before Fife that man at first failed to recognise it as that of Cox. On being asked to again scan the features he did so, and said boldly that they were those of Cox. Duramboi was asked for his opinion as to the site of the murder, which he fixed as being between the well and the fence in Sutton's yard. Perhaps the most important evidence adduced at the inquiry, which lasted five days, was that of Charlotte Sutton and John Connell. The former said that on returning home at dusk on Saturday she heard Cox and Fife quarrelling in the kitchen, Cox blaming Fife for waking him and robbing him. She asked her father if Cox had any money, and received the reply that he thought not. She then went to the kitchen again and told Cox to go to the men's sleeping room, which he refused to do, but proceeded to the bar and had some ale or rum, and returning to the kitchen lay down on Fife's bed. The next time she went to the kitchen was at about 10 p.m., when, seeing Fife in bed, and supposing Cox was there, too, she locked the door and retired. The knife found in the well she recognised as their property, as also was one of the towels, but not the sheet. When she went to the kitchen on Sunday morning after hearing of the murder Fife asked for a clean shirt, "as his own had not come from the washerwoman's, and as he was the last man with Cox he would like to appear clean." Connell in his evidence said that Cox had accused Fife of robbing him, and that the latter, shaking his fist, had remarked that "he would knock his head off and kick his ribs in before he left town." He at that time thought Cox was in danger, and fearing to sleep in the kitchen he had been locked in the bar all night by Sutton. On Sunday morning he had observed Fife was cleaning out the kitchen with a cloth. And now comes the most important point. The jury had been sitting on the case two or three days, but not until the fourth did they decide to inspect Sutton's hotel. They found below the floor of the room where Fife and Cox were supposed to have slept a candle and some papers, clots of blood, a blood-stained shoe, and also stains on the bed, while in Fife's box was one of his shirts bearing a stain. Remains of buttons, too, were found in the fireplace, and remnants of partially consumed clothing in the oven. The remarkable thing was that these were not found by the police when they previously searched, and the fact that they were not observed lent colour to the assertion of Fife at his trial that they had been placed there during the time that had elapsed between his arrest and the time they were discovered, for no one had been placed in charge to watch that such a thing was not done. Fife proved, too, that the clothing, destroyed was not his," and that the adze found near his bed had not been used in connection with the murder, but the circumstantial evidence against him was regarded as too strong, and he was on the fifth day, the jury having been locked up all night, committed for trial, Sutton and the rest being discharged. On the 12th of April he was removed to Sydney, and on the 5th of June he was brought up at the Central Criminal Court. The evidence adduced there was similar to that given at Moreton Bay, and was entirely of a circumstantial nature. The only points in Fife's favour were the medical evidence, which showed the possibilty of Cox having died a natural death before his body was butchered, and the absence of motive, for it was well known that Cox and Fife were on the most intimate terms, having been together during the penal times, and that the former had no money. A circumstance which was regarded as more than passing strange was the finding of the additional evidence the blood stains, &c, in Fife's room and under his bed two days after a most minute examination had been made by the police; and this, coupled with the fact that scores had been allowed into his apartment at Sutton's during the time Fife was in custody, strengthened the conclusion arrived at by many, that whatever Fife might have known of the awful tragedy it was not his hand that had committed the deed. For years after, indeed up to the present day, there are those who couple with the crime the names of men who afterwards became more or less prominent citizens. Mr. Henry Stuart Russell states with regard to this terrible crime that a man "in the horrors of a deathbed upbraiding confessed that he was the guilty one, and had looked on at the execution of the innocent locum tenens"! But to return. At the trial the Judge admitted that the evidence was very remarkable, and at the same time commented severely on the neglect of the police in not taking charge of the room at Sutton's, but the jury after half an hour's deliberation brought in a verdict of "guilty." On being asked it be had anything to say why judgment should not be passed Fife, in a faltering voice, replied, "I am not guilty." His behaviour throughout was exceedingly self-possessed, and he heard the verdict of death in a cool and collected manner, although he several times interrupted the Judge by alleging that if a witness who was absent had been in attendance, and if another had spoken the truth, he would have been acquitted. The absent witness, I have been told, was a man who was known as "Long Bill," and who it is alleged knew more about the murder than it would have been safe for him to disclose. On being removed the officials found sewn up in his coat a pair of steel spectacle frames, one end of which was broken off and ground to an edge as keen as that of a lancet. This was regarded by the authorities as being a means of suicide prepared by Fife to be used if found guilty. During the time Fife lay under sentence he wrote a speech for delivery on the scaffold. This was written on the first, second, and fourth pages of a sheet of foolscap paper, the other side being left blank until the Sunday preceding his execution, when he filled it in. In the meantime he had remained unmoved, almost sullen, always replying to any observation on the subject of the crime with a protestation of his innocence. Just previous to leaving his cell on the fatal morning he put his hand into his bosom to feel for his speech, but it was gone; it bad been abstracted surreptitiously by a gaol official, and was refused him. On the way to the gallows he joined fervently in a hymn, singing in a clear and firm voice. On reaching the foot of the scaffold he caught sight of his coffin, upon which he gazed for a moment or two. After praying for five minutes he thanked some of the officials and then turned to the crowd, which numbered about 4000, without the usual military and police guard, and made a request that he might be allowed to read his speech; but the authorities refused to give him the document. He then wished to address the people, but in the midst of this the cap was pulled over his eyes, the bolt was drawn, and the drop falling, be was launched into the presence of his Creator. But what followed ? The miserable man struggled for nine minutes, and then ensued a sight which sickened even those most habituated to such scenes. In falling his body had struck against the side of the floor, and large drops of blood trickled down the legs of his trousers on to the ground. On after examination it was found that his hand and thigh were grazed and his ribs broken. Fife, I may remark, had come to the colonies under a sentence of transportation of fourteen years, and after this had been served he was in service on the Downs, from which place he entered Sutton's employ as cook, I am unable to give the dying man's statement in full, but the following is the portion written on the Sunday preceding his death :- "I am about to suffer death for the awful crime of murder. I was found guilty on circumstantial evidence; and however well that evidence might have been supported on my trial by a complication of villainy on the part of some of the witnesses, the Almighty God, at whose bar I shall soon appear, knows that I am innocent of the awful crime; and I trust for the safety of all human beings and the honour of my friends in a distant land that the Almighty God, whose eye sees the least wing that flits along the sky, will bring the perpetrator of that awful deed to light when my body is mouldering in the dust. I cast no reflection on the Judge who tried my case, as he cannot tell the inward thoughts of man. I think had my case been tried at Moreton Bay on the spot where the awful deed was committed the jury would have taken a different view of the case. I have been a guilty sinner before God, but I never was so far hardened in crime as to imbue my hands in the blood of my fellow-man, I forgive my cruel enemies. I shall leave them in the hand of God, who declareth, ' Vengeance is mine ; I will repay, saith the Lord.' I cannot impress on your minds my innocence of the awful crime of murder. I am now before my God, and I shall suffer death for a barbarous murder. I shall appear at the bar of Almighty God as innocent as the child in its mother's womb."

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