Colin Campbell Ross

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Colin Campbell Ross
Born (1892-10-11)11 October 1892
North Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia
Died 24 April 1922(1922-04-24) (aged 29)
Old Melbourne Gaol, Melbourne, Victoria
Occupation Wine bar owner
Criminal charge
Murder
Criminal penalty
Death
Criminal status Executed by hanging
Conviction(s) Murder

Colin Campbell Eadie Ross (11 October 1892 – 24 April 1922) was an Australian wine-bar owner convicted of the murder of a child, which became known as the Gun Alley Murder, and executed despite evidence that he was innocent. Following his execution, efforts were made to clear his name, but it was not until the 1990s that the key evidence was re-examined using modern forensic techniques, strongly indicating that Ross was innocent. As a result, an appeal for mercy was made to Victoria's Chief Justice in 2006, and on 27 May 2008 the Governor of Victoria pardoned Ross, in what is believed to be an Australian legal first.[1]

Life[edit]

Colin Ross was born in North Fitzroy, Melbourne, the third of five children born to Thomas and Elizabeth Ross. Thomas Ross died in 1900 leaving his wife to care for the five young children, including one who was newborn.[2] Consequently, none of the children were well educated, each one leaving school as early as possible to find work to help support the family. Colin Ross began working at a local quarry at the age of 11, and over the following years he worked as a labourer and later as a wardsman at the Broadmeadows army hospital. In 1920, Elizabeth Ross became the manager of the Donnybrook Hotel, 30 kilometres north of Melbourne, with Colin as partner and another of her sons, Ronald, as licensee.[3]

During this time, Colin Ross began a relationship with Lily Mae Brown, who worked in a Melbourne hotel. On 5 March 1920, Ross asked Brown to marry him, and when she refused, he produced a revolver. He followed her onto a tram, where he continued to threaten her, until she agreed to meet him later in the day. Instead, she contacted the police and a plain-clothes detective was present when she kept her appointment with Ross later in the evening. Ross was charged with using threatening words and for carrying firearms without permission. On the charge of using threatening words he was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment, along with a 12 month good behaviour bond, and was fined for carrying the firearm.[4]

In April, 1921 the Ross family returned to Melbourne, where Colin Ross, with his brothers Stanley and Ronald, bought a wine shop in the Eastern Arcade, in the business centre of Melbourne. After the purchase of the shop, renamed "The Australian Wine Saloon", the Ross brothers continued the employment of its barmaid, Ivy Matthews. She later commented that the saloon had previously attracted a quiet and respectable clientele, but that the Ross brothers were willing to serve anyone, with the result that it was soon frequented by alcoholics and criminals. Other tenants in the building resented the intrusion of the wine bar's customers, who reportedly drank to excess, vomited and urinated in the arcade, and made lewd comments to passing women.[5]

On 13 October 1921, one of the saloon's customers was robbed in the outdoor lavatory of the premises, and was shot during a struggle with his assailant. His wound was not serious, but he was unable to give an account of events to police due to the large amount of alcohol he had consumed. An investigation revealed that his assailant was a young English traveller, Frank Walsh, who had spent most of his money, and who had been approached by Colin Ross to rob the customer on the understanding that the proceeds would be shared between them. Ross and Walsh were arrested and charged with armed robbery. Ross's comments to police incriminated Ivy Matthews, who had until that point refused to discuss the matter. Following a visit by Elizabeth Ross, Matthews began to speak on Ross's behalf, and at the same time began referring to herself as the saloon's manager, and drawing money from the saloon's account. Ross made no further attempt to draw Matthews to the attention of police.[6] He was acquitted of the armed robbery charge, but Walsh was sentenced to six months hard labour.[7] Following Colin Ross's acquittal, Stanley Ross confronted Ivy Matthews and dismissed her from her position.[7]

Victim[edit]

Nell Alma Tirtschke, known as Alma, was born on 14 March 1909 at a remote mining settlement in Western Australia, the first child of Charles Tirtschke and Nell Alger.[8] In 1911, Charles Tirtschke accepted a position with a mining company in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the family moved there, where Nell gave birth to a second daughter, Viola, in 1912.[9] The family was returning to Australia in December 1914, when Nell died of complications relating to a third pregnancy and was buried at sea.[10] After arriving in Melbourne, Charles Tirtschke was unable to care for the children, and returned to Western Australia where he worked on the goldfields. Alma and Viola were cared for by their grandparents, Henry and Elizabeth Tirschke, who were assisted by their five adult daughters.[10]

By 1921, Henry Tirschke had died, and the grandmother assumed all parental duties. She was remembered by Viola as a strict disciplinarian who kept a close watch on both daughters. Alma was studious and well behaved, and excelled in her studies at the Hawthorn West Central School. However her grandmother greatly restricted her from social activities with other students, and she became very shy. An uncle, John Murdoch, said of Alma Tirschke, "Though of a bright disposition, she was somewhat reserved, and did not make friends readily like some girls. She lacked the vivacious manner that encourages chance acquaintance".[11] Her sister Viola described her as being "soft in speech and soft in manner".[11]

Murder[edit]

On the afternoon of 30 December 1921, Alma's grandmother sent the twelve year old on an errand. She was to collect a package of meat from a butcher's shop in Swanston Street, Melbourne, and take it a short distance to Collins Street to deliver it to her aunt. The errand should have taken no more than 15 minutes and when Alma, who was known to be reliable and obedient, failed to return home, her grandmother became alarmed. She was reported as missing, and the police, along with the Tirtschke family, searched for Alma through the night. Early the next morning, her naked body was found in Gun Alley, a laneway off Little Collins Street, near the address Alma had been sent to. She had been raped and strangled.

The case became a major sensation, with the Melbourne press convincing its readers that a maniac was on the loose and likely to strike again. A reward of 1250 pounds (A$91,500 in 2013 dollars) was offered for the capture of the killer; one of the highest rewards offered in Australia at that time. As time passed with no real progress, the police were criticised, and were subjected to public pressure to make an arrest.[12]

Investigations revealed that Alma had last been seen alive between 2.30 and 3.00pm on the afternoon of her disappearance, at the corner of Alfred Place and Little Collins Streets, near the lane in which her body was subsequently discovered and that she had been murdered at around 6:00pm. Among the numerous men interviewed was Colin Ross, the saloon manager, who described seeing a girl matching Alma's description, outside his saloon. His description of events closely matched that of several witnesses who had also seen her. Several witnesses recounted how Alma looked worried with one stating that a man (not Colin Ross) was following her.

Ross was obviously well known to the local police, having recently been acquitted on the charge relating to his alleged involvement in the shooting and robbing of one of his customers. Despite Ross's willingness to co-operate, police began to interview him in greater detail. He was able to nominate several witnesses who had seen him tending his saloon on the afternoon of Alma's death and who would confirm that he had not left the premises, but the police remained convinced that he had killed Alma, and on 12 January 1922 they arrested him for murder.

Trial[edit]

The public fascination with the case intensified as newspapers published news of Ross' arrest, but Ross told his lawyers, family and friends that he had nothing to fear. As an innocent man, he said, it was only a matter of time before he would be released.

The trial began on 20 February 1922 and witnesses were produced to attest to Ross's guilt. John Harding, who had a previous conviction for perjury and was being detained in prison at the time, "at the Governor's pleasure", testified that Ross had confided in him in prison, and had admitted his guilt. Ivy Matthews, Olive Maddox, a prostitute, and Julia Gibson, who worked as a fortune-teller under the name "Madame Gurkha", also testified in court that Ross had confessed the crime to them. The prosecution case was that 12-year-old Alma had chosen to have a drink in Ross' wine bar instead of collecting the package for her aunty and had remained there consensually from 3:00pm until 6:00pm drinking wine, at which time Ross had raped and murdered her.[13]

The prosecution also offered forensic evidence in the form of several strands of hair they had obtained from Alma Tirtschke shortly before her funeral. A detective testified that on the day of Ross's arrest he had noticed several strands of "golden hair" on a blanket in Ross's house, which were later removed and examined by the state government analyst, Charles Price, who was a trained chemist, but had little previous experience in the new field of forensic science. Price testified that he compared the hairs under a microscope, and concluded that the hair found in Ross's house was a light auburn colour, while Alma's hair was a dark red. He measured the diameter of the hairs and concluded that they were of a different thickness. At one point in his testimony he commented that the hairs on Ross' blanket had most likely fallen from the head of a regular visitor, such as Ross's girlfriend, but after a long testimony, he stated that he believed the hairs were "derived from the scalp of one and same person," Alma Tirtschke. His contradictory evidence was accepted by the judge without comment.

Ross's barrister, Thomas Brennan, protested, requesting that a further examination be carried out by a more qualified person, but the judge refused. The jury found Ross guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death by hanging. His legal representatives were convinced of his innocence but found that public opinion remained strongly against Ross, and news of his death sentence was met with public celebration. Ross's legal representatives sought to obtain the right to appeal but this was refused by the judge who stated that Ross's guilt had been proven beyond doubt. Brennan sought leave to appeal to the Privy Council in England, but that application was also refused.

Brennan remained supportive of Ross and certain of his innocence, but had exhausted all avenues in his attempt to save Ross from execution. On the eve of his execution, Ross received a letter from a man who failed to give his name but admitted that he had killed Alma, and, although consumed by guilt, was not willing to come forward as it would cause grief to his family. Brennan later wrote that he believed the letter could have been authentic.[14] This letter may have been written by the real killer.

Execution[edit]

Before his execution in his farewell letter to his family, Ross wrote: "The day is coming when my innocence will be proved."

Ross composed himself with dignity for his quiet but resolute statement from the scaffold:

"I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don't know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family."

Ross was executed on 24 April 1922 at Melbourne Gaol in a particularly gruesome manner. Authorities had decided to experiment with a four-stranded rope rather than the usual three-stranded European hemp. The four-stranded rope did not run freely through the noose and Ross did not die immediately because his spinal cord was fractured, not severed. Although his windpipe was torn and obstructed by his destroyed larynx, the condemned man continued with rasping breaths and convulsed on the rope. Three times Ross bent his knees and flexed his arms before succumbing, slowly strangled to death by asphyxiation. A prison report later ruled that such a rope must never be used again.[15]

Attempts to clear name[edit]

Thomas Brennan became consumed with his failure to save the life of Colin Ross, eventually writing a book, The Gun Alley Tragedy, in which he attempted to establish that Ross had been hanged for a crime he did not commit. Although Brennan attracted supporters, it was not enough to persuade the Victorian government to have the case re-examined, and over the following years, interest began to wane among all but the most ardent of Ross's supporters.

In 1993, Kevin Morgan, a former school-teacher, became interested in Ross' case, and began to research the events surrounding the murder of Alma Tirtschke and Ross's execution. He read handwritten notes in the Bible Colin Ross had kept with him in prison, and which had been preserved by his family following his death. Morgan was moved by the simple notations in which Ross wrote of false witnesses, knowing that Ross had written these notes without expecting anyone else to read them.

Morgan examined interview records and court transcripts, and discovered information that had been kept from the court at the time, including the testimony of six reliable witnesses who placed Ross inside his saloon for the entire afternoon of Alma Tirtschke's murder. Furthermore, a cab driver, Joseph Graham, had heard screams coming from a building in Collins Street at 3.00 p.m., during the time that Ross was verified as having been in the saloon. Graham's interview had been disregarded by police and he had not been called to give evidence. Following Ross's arrest, Graham attempted to have his story told through a solicitor, but was not permitted to present his version of events in court. Morgan also noted that the witnesses against Ross were of dubious character and could have been motivated to present false testimony; John Harding's sentence was reduced after he stated that Ross had confessed to him in prison while Olive Maddox, the prostitute, Ivy Matthews, the disgruntled former employee and Julia Gibson, the fortune-teller, had shared the reward money. A closer examination of the long testimony of Charles Price regarding the hair samples seemed to support Ross's innocence.

Two years after he began researching the case, Kevin Morgan found a file in the Office of Public Prosecutions containing the original hair samples, which had been thought lost. He began a long administrative struggle for the right to submit the hair samples for DNA testing, finally achieving his aim in 1998. Two independent scientific authorities - the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and the forensics division of the Australian Federal Police - found that the two lots of hair did not come from the same person, thereby disproving with certainty the most damning piece of evidence presented at Colin Ross's trial.

On 4 October 2005, the families of both Colin Ross and Alma Tirtschke submitted a petition of mercy. On 23 October 2006 the Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls forwarded the 31-page petition to the Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren, requesting her to consider the plea for Ross.[16] The subsequent pardon, granted on 27 May 2008, is the first example of a posthumous pardon in Victoria's legal history and is to date the only instance of a pardon for a judicially executed person in Australia.[17]

The family of Alma Tirtschke believes that the pardon does not go far enough and that Ross should be exonerated. In a Fairfax Radio interview discussing the pardon, the murdered girl's second cousin recounted how her grandmother was preoccupied with the murder "She didn't say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung".[13] In a later interview on the Nine Network's A Current Affair program, the family stated they believe the true murderer was a family member.[18] In 1996, Kevin Morgan interviewed Viola, Alma's sister, and in his book revealed the probable killer to be a man mistrusted by the two girls, a returned soldier who had pedophilic tendencies, George Murphy, who was married to their cousin.[19]

Aftermath[edit]

The Ross trial was the first in Australasia to obtain a conviction using a scientific comparison of hairs. The case also led to the practice of anonymity for jurors after Keith Murdoch's newspaper, the Herald sensationalized the case and prejudiced the trial by publishing Ross's photograph and printing the names and addresses of the jury. The Herald was shamed by other newspapers and its headquarters in Flinders Street was nicknamed "the Colin Ross Memorial" by opposition journalists.[20]

In October 2010, Ross's remains were identified and handed to his family for a proper burial.[21]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Silvester, John (2008-05-27). "Ross cleared of murder nearly 90 years ago". The Age. Retrieved 2012-09-24. 
  2. ^ Morgan, pp. 110-111
  3. ^ Morgan, p. 111
  4. ^ Morgan, pp. 111-112
  5. ^ Morgan, p. 113
  6. ^ Morgan, p. 120
  7. ^ a b Morgan, p. 121
  8. ^ Morgan, p. 210
  9. ^ Morgan, p. 211
  10. ^ a b Morgan, p. 212
  11. ^ a b Morgan, p. 219
  12. ^ Lack, John, & Morgan, Kevin. "Ross, Colin Campbell Eadie (1892–1922)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 2008-05-27. 
  13. ^ a b "Pardon not enough, murdered girl's relative says". ABC News. 2008-05-27. Retrieved 2012-09-24. 
  14. ^ Morgan, pp. 290–291.
  15. ^ Morgan, pp. 260–261.
  16. ^ R v Colin Campbell Ross Supreme Court of Victoria December 20, 2007
  17. ^ Kevin Morgan (2012) Gun Alley: Murder, Lies and Failure of Justice (2nd ed., updated). Hardie Grant Books (Australia) Melbourne.
  18. ^ Waldon, Steve (2005-07-09). "Wrong man hanged". The Age. Retrieved 2012-09-24. 
  19. ^ Morgan (2012) pp. 357-376
  20. ^ Lack, John (2005). "Ross, Colin Campbell Eadie (1892–1922)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  21. ^ VIC:Wrongly executed man laid to rest, AAP News (Financial Times Ltd), 2010-10-16, retrieved 11 November 2013 

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