Saturday, 21 November 2015

Murder and assault

On the evening of Friday 6 October, James Scobie, a Scot in his late teens and his friend Peter Martin were returning to Eureka after an evening celebrating their reunion. In the early hours of the following morning, they saw a light still burning in the Eureka Hotel and probably hoping to buy more alcohol began banging on the door, but James Bentley, an unpopular ex-convict from VDL and publican of the hotel refused them admission. Both Bentley and his hotel had a bad reputation: ‘The worst characters lived about his place; midnight robberies were frequent, and life and property were not safe’. [1] Many diggers had been cheated and bullied by the hotel’s employees but because it was frequented by a number of goldfield officials, the hotel enjoyed immunity from regulations that applied in other public houses. An angry exchange followed, threats were made and a pane of glass was broken. Scobie and Martin then meandered off towards Scobie’s tent but a few yards from the hotel, heard voices in the darkness behind them and were suddenly attacked, Martin later maintained, by two or three men and a woman identified by other witnesses as Bentley’s wife. Martin was struck and ran off but when he realised that Scobie was not following, returned and found his friend either dead or dying as the result of a brutal blow to the head.[2]

S.T. Gill, Site of Bentley's Hotel - Eureka Ballaarat, 1855

Suspicion immediately fell on Bentley, who was brought before a Coroner’s inquest the following afternoon. Coroner David John Williams selected a jury of twelve men, many of whom had known Scobie to hear the evidence and the depositions presented. During the inquest, the Coroner interrupted the proceedings on a fairly regular basis and many questioned his decision to allow Bentley, to cross-examine the young witness Bernard Welch. Bentley swore that no one left the hotel and was supported by the barman, William Duncan, Thomas Farrell a clerk and Thomas Mooney, Bentley’s night watchman. [3] In his deposition Doctor Alfred Carr, who had conducted a post-mortem forensic examination of Scobie’s body, had concluded that death was caused by internal bleeding caused by a blow to the head and that Scobie’s drunken state would have rendered ‘the blow more dangerous & more likely to cause a rupture of the blood vessels’. However, he thought ‘the injury was inflicted by a kick & not by the spade now produced’. There was also a later suggestion that Carr’s medical evidence contributed to the verdict and that he ‘was a colluding associate of both Dewes and Bently’.[4]

Despite the evidence of witnesses, notably Bernard Welch and his mother Mary Ann Welch who saw or heard Bentley and one of his servants viciously attack Scobie, the jury found that there was insufficient evidence against Bentley and an open verdict was given. There was considerable disquiet about how the proceedings had been conducted and with the verdict and several individuals, including Peter Lalor, formed a committee to investigate further the proceedings of the inquest. This placed pressure on the Ballarat authorities for further inquiries into the circumstances of Scobie’s death, additional evidence was collected resulting in a judicial inquiry presided over by Gold Fields Commissioner Robert Rede, Assistant-Commissioner James Johnston and Police Magistrate John Dewes on 12 October. [5]

Many observers, including Charles Evans, thought Dewes favoured Bentley. It was widely believed that he was part-owner in the Eureka Hotel and his behaviour during the trial led to suspicions of collusion between the prisoners and the Bench. During an adjournment in proceedings Police Constables John Dougherty and Michael Costello observed Bentley entering Dewes’ office where he remained for ten minutes. Dewes was also hostile to prosecution witnesses but courteous to anyone appearing for the defence. Johnston was so uneasy with the proceedings that he disassociated himself from the verdict. Nevertheless, Rede thought the evidence inconclusive and his decision, with that of Dewes led to a majority for acquittal, a decision that could only inflame the situation. [6] In the later petition to the Governor, it was pointed out that the correct procedure in cases where prosecution and defence witnesses contradicted each other, was that the matter should be settled by a jury. [7] Bentley was not without supporters on the goldfield, three witnesses testified that neither Bentley nor his wife left the hotel but all were either Bentley’s employees or lived in the hotel and, according to the Argus were ‘equally liable to suspicion’ and he was discharged with ‘not a shadow of imputation remained on [his] character’. [8] For many diggers, this decision seemed to embody all that was oppressive and corrupt about the Government Camp. Evans commented later in the month:

An act of the basest injustice on the part of the Camp Officials has inflamed the minds of the people to a pitch which will be remembered for a life time. [9]

Of the national groups at Ballarat, the Irish were the most cohesive. It was no coincidence that the wooden Catholic Church was situated on the Gravel Pits, on the edge of the Eureka field where the Irish lived in large numbers. Their spiritual needs were met by the young Irish priest Father Patrick Smyth and his crippled Armenian servant Joannes Gregorius, both of whom were widely admired in the community. Ministers of religion and their servants were exempt from having licenses but on 10 October, James Lord, an inexperienced constable apparently unaware of this demanded to see Gregorius’ license. Gregorius, who spoke little English attempted to explain that he was Smyth’s servant but Lord then dismounted, assaulted him and insulted the priest.

The real grievance seems to be a hasty and improper expression on the part of the Trooper, who is reported to have said ‘I don’t care a damn for you or the Priest.’ [10]

The fiasco was exacerbated when Assistant-Commissioner Johnston, who was riding past, also decided that the servant should have had a license. Yet, upon the arrival of Father Smyth, Johnston accepted £5 bail for the servant’s appearance before the Bench the following day. The Bench imposed a £5 fine on Gregorius for not having a license. However, Johnston realised that no license was required and made a bad situation worse by altering the charge to one of assault on Lord. Despite evidence of witnesses to the contrary, Dewes found the servant guilty as charged and fined him £5. After Mass on 15 October, a meeting of all Catholics was called to discuss the case but it failed to reach a conclusion and decided to meet again a week later on 22 October.

[1] Evidence of William Carroll, a digger and storekeeper reported in Ballarat Times, 13 October 1854.

[2] Argus, 9 October 1854. For depositions given at the inquest see, PROV, 5527/PO, Unit 1, Item 1.

[3] Proceedings before Coroner’s Inquisition, 7 October 1864,

[4] Sgiathanach, ‘Reminiscences of Ballarat’, Tuapeka Times, 17 January 1906, p. 3. See also, the discussion of Carr’s evidence, ‘The Trial of Bentley’, Argus, 20 November 1854, p. 4.

[5] On 20 November 1854, Dewes was dismissed as a magistrate and was subsequently blamed for accepting bribes to issue publicans’ licenses at Ballarat. His criminal activities continued in Victoria, British Columbia where he was appointed Acting Postmaster in 1859 and two years later absconded with £300 of public money. He is believed to have committed suicide in Paris later in 1861.

[6] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 19 October 1854, p. 5, prints comments written on 12 October: ‘it is thought that the decision (that gave unmistakeable offence to all who heard it) will not be final.’ ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 23 October 1854, p. 5, includes the petition to Hotham requesting him to institute a new investigate into Scobie’s death.

[7] This position was based on the observations of Lord Denham in his charge to the jury at the Somerset Assizes in 1849, A’Beckett, William, The Magistrates’ Manual for the Colony of Victoria, (Printed and Published at the Melbourne Morning Herald Office), 1852, pp. 21-22.

[8] Ballarat Times, 13 October 1854, contained a testimonial for Bentley that hastened: ‘to express the pleasure and gratification we feel at the just judicial termination of the investigation of that unfortunate affair, and are assured that your urbanity and manly behaviour will still continue to guarantee to so well conducted a house, its full share of public patronage’.

[9] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 25 October 1854, p. 94.

[10] Rede to Foster, 2 November 1854, PROV 1189/P Unit 92, J54/12201.

No comments: