1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC
Wrong man hanged
Just on 10am on April 24, 1922, the Old Melbourne Gaol hangman pulled the
gallows lever and Colin Campbell Ross fell to his fate.
Arrested in January and then convicted of the rape and murder of
schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke the previous December, Ross was resigned to
meeting his doom and must only have hoped for an instant death.
Instead, the knot of the noose did not run freely. Authorities had decided
to experiment with a 4-stranded rope rather than the usual three-stranded
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
3 times Ross bent his knees and flexed his arms as he battled his killer
bonds, before succumbing. It is thought his death by asphyxiation took 8
to 20 minutes.
What makes this episode in Victoria's judicial history more harrowing is
that, according to a new book, Ross almost certainly was innocent.
Researcher Kevin Morgan's Gun Alley: Murder, Lies and Failure of Justice,
to be launched on Monday, explains how public hysteria, media criticism of
police and politicians, and the testimony of unreliable witnesses
conspired to assure Ross' hanging.
Morgan exposes serious flaws in the prosecution case and concludes that
were the case to be tried today, Ross could not be convicted.
He spent many hours over the past decade scrutinising documents, some
sealed for 75 years. He says Ross' death was an expedience to quell a
baying city spooked by the 12-year-old Alma's death.
Morgan also found that Alma's younger sister, Viola, was living in
Melbourne. In a series of conversations with her in 1996-97, Morgan was
given a glimpse of something that gives his book a potency he could not
have imagined when he first hit the detective trail - Alma's likely
The book names a man known to Alma and Viola, recounting his pedophilic
tendencies and the girls' mistrust of him. Morgan then outlines a scenario
in which the man probably murdered Alma. And it was not Colin Campbell
One is Betty, the other is Bettye. When they meet on Monday, they will
share much more than a name - they are bonded by what happened to Alma
Tirtschke some time after 3pm on December 30, 1921.
Bettye Arthur lives in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. She is Alma's niece -
Viola's daughter. Until she was about 6 or 7, Bettye Arthur believed the
aunt Alma she never met was the victim of a traffic accident. Her mother
told her the truth, but swore her to secrecy. She honoured that for
Viola, Bettye Arthur says, married a month after turning 21, and resolved
to start life afresh. "She'd had a tough life until then," she says.
"She'd lost her mother on the ship coming back to Australia, then her
grandfather, then Alma, and then her father (in a hunting accident). But
she gave us a good childhood - she's been a strong woman."
Betty Everett lives in northern NSW. Her father, Stan Ross, was the
younger brother of Colin Ross.
Now a spritely 75, Betty Everett recalls that the uncle Colin she never
knew was a family secret. When she was about 15, Betty Everett saw in a
bible the dates of birth of her father and his siblings, Lexie, Ron and
Thomas. But there was another name: Colin Campbell Ross. She and her
sister did not know about Uncle Colin and, the times being what they were,
felt unable to approach their parents about the mystery.
"The next occasion I became aware of some secret was upon a visit of Aunt
Lexie," Betty Everett says. "She was talking to my mother and I heard the
words 'Do the girls know?' This concerned me, but I did not feel I could
ask my parents the meaning of these words."
Stan Ross never mentioned his wrongly executed brother to his daughters
and, even as adults, they did not raise it with him.
Betty Everett discovered the truth in the early 1950s in a magazine
article about the murder. She nearly fell over when she saw the photo of
Colin Campbell Ross. "He looked so much like my father that I couldn't
mistake him," she says.
Apart from the shock of reading about a relative being linked to such a
crime, Betty Everett was intrigued by the article's conclusion. "The
reporter had been at Colin's hanging and his article expressed his belief
that the hanging was of an innocent man," she said.
Betty Everett had further cause to believe her uncle's innocence when her
husband, Keith, came across a pamphlet by trial barrister Thomas Brennan,
who wrote it not long after Ross was hanged.
Brennan's review of the trial, although observing the conventions of legal
dignity, could be read as a condemnation of Ross' conviction. Brennan
cites the inadequacy of the judge's summing-up to the jury, blatant
contradictions by Crown witnesses and evidence crucial to establishing
Ross' innocence not being permitted.
Now Betty Everett had 2 sources questioning the conviction. Forty years
later, when Morgan tracked down Betty Everett and said his research all
but proved Ross' innocence, she felt as though the family's soul had been
freed from taint.
She is an enthusiastic supporter of efforts to have her uncle pardoned.
The book is a critical step, "but it would be good after all this time to
have Colin Ross' name cleared legally, to have recognition that it was a
miscarriage of justice", she says.
The possibility that Colin Ross was executed for a crime he did not commit
was first revealed in The Sunday Age on March 5, 2000, when Morgan's
investigation was in its 7th year.
His conclusions took everyone back in time, confronting them with the face
of a condemned man who steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. They
explained how and why some disreputable prosecution witnesses were
swearing Ross' life away, and offered alibis for the key times of the
murder and disposal of the body.
And yet, as Morgan's book recounts, Ross' path - from the police interview
to his arrest, the trial, conviction and the botched hanging - has an
inexorability about it. Readers who believe a jury and the criminal
justice system would serve Ross well come to realise, with a growing sense
of dread and incredulity, that he is doomed.
Colin Campbell Ross was a bit of a scoundrel, but essentially harmless. He
lived with his mother and a brother in Maidstone. He loved and was
respectful to his mother, and she loved him. Ross was not uneducated, just
a bit rough around the edges.
He ran the Australian Wine Saloon in the Eastern Arcade, between Bourke
and Little Collins streets. It was not a salubrious establishment, but
neither was it a den of evil.
The saloon was at the southern end of the arcade, near Little Collins
Street. . Just a few metres away, where Alfred Place runs off Little
Collins Street, Alma Tirtschke was last seen about 3pm on December 30,
Reliable witnesses who had nothing to lose or gain by telling police what
they knew said Alma was dawdling, apprehensive and obviously afraid.
In retracing her last hours, Morgan successfully paints a picture of a
girl, on the verge of puberty but truly innocent, about to endure
something wretched. Her task that day had been to go from her
grandmother's house in Jolimont to a Swanston Street butcher's, collect a
parcel of meat, drop it at an aunt's Collins Street home and return to
It was uncharacteristic for Alma to take so many hours to complete the
task. She knew her grandmother would be worried. A witness says he saw a
man - not Colin Ross - following Alma. Other witnesses say Alma looked
over her shoulder with trepidation, and dallied in the block bounded by
Little Collins, Russell, Bourke and Exhibition streets as though she did
not know where to go.
Morgan believes Alma was afraid she was being stalked by a man she knew
and of whom she was wary. Why didn't she go to her aunt's Collins Street
home and drop the parcel as instructed? Who did she fear might be there?
Why didn't she return to Jolimont? Was there something she couldn't tell
Her naked body was found early the next morning in a lane running east off
Gun Alley, not far from Alfred Place.
Morgan has been able to establish that Ross could account for his
movements at the time Alma disappeared, and later that night, when her
body was dumped in Gun Alley. With nothing to hide, Ross told detectives
who interviewed him that a girl matching Alma's description had passed his
saloon. He saw her in the arcade.
Kevin Morgan was aware that if his theories were correct, everyone
associated with the case were going to have to reassess what they knew
He decided truth would demand an absence of censorship, yet what of the
feelings of the various families involved?
In the case of Senior Detective Fred Piggott, who led the police
investigation, Morgan traced a grandson and explained that the book would
most likely raise some awkward questions about his grandfather's motives.
"That family has been tremendously supportive and understands that it
seems the wrong person has been executed," Morgan says.
It is such a long time ago, yet in deference to Colin Ross' reputation,
Morgan pushed on.
Detectives Piggott and John Brophy, he says, were good and competent men
feeling the enormous weight of public expectation of an early arrest. They
were investigating in a climate of public hysteria, intense media scrutiny
and political pressure to get a conviction.
Morgan concludes that suggestions Piggott planted evidence that condemned
Ross, are untrue.
For Viola, Bettye Arthur and her family, Morgan eliminates the suggestion
made during the trial that Alma was responsible for her fate.
For Betty Everett and her family, Colin Ross' name has been cleared to
their satisfaction, and a stigma removed.
Betty Everett was born in the Maidstone house where her Uncle Colin had
slept the night of Alma's murder. Her father - Colin's brother Stan - and
his wife moved in after Colin's execution to take care of matriarch
Morgan's book, although confronting, has given her peace of mind. Perhaps
more importantly, she has come to appreciate her long-suffering parents
anew, and to understand that families comprise disparate personalities.
"Colin was portrayed as not a very nice man and considering that my father
was part of this unpleasant company and surroundings, I am proud that at
all times during my life he was a gentleman," she says.
"Not only a gentleman, but a gentle man. Truly an example of how one can
Gun Alley: Murder, Lies and Failure of Justice, $29,95, published by Simon
and Schuster, distributed by Harper Collins.
(source: The Age, July 9)