31 October 2015

oops we hanged the wrong man. Sorry, Colin Ross

I went on a guided walking tour of Melbourne’s China Town and was surprised when the guide pointed out a piece of land that used to be called Gun Alley, off Little Collins St. I have lived in Melbourne most of my life and had never heard of Gun Alley. Apparently like many of the C19th laneways of Melbourne that were built over or renamed during the vast redev­el­opment of the City post WW2, Gun Alley was lost to human memory.

Here was the guide's story. Early on New Year’s Eve 1921 the naked body of a young, red headed school girl was found in Gun Alley, right in the centre of The City. Alma Tirtschke, who lived in the nearby suburb of Jolimont with her grandmother, had been raped and strangled. She had been sent the prev­ious day to a butcher’s in Swanston St and had been seen alive at 3 pm, close to a drinking site, the Austral­ian Wine Saloon. But the little girl was never seen by her grand­mother again.

The Gun Alley Murder of 1921 caused a sensation. Citizens were terrified for their own families because a witness said he saw a man following Alma. She didn’t seem to know him and was clearly afraid.

Alma Tirtschke’s case
front page of The Herald, 25 Jan 1922

Following the discovery of the body, Colin Campbell Ross became an early suspect both because he was a local saloon keeper (the Australian Wine Saloon) and because he had a bit of a criminal history. The case against this larrikin was based on the evidence of two witnesses, plus some strands of reddish hair from Tirtschke's head, which provided a vital connection between Ross and the murder.

Ross could explain his movements at the time Alma was walking, and later that night, when her body was dumped in Gun Alley. With nothing to hide, Ross totally cooperated with the detectives, saying that a school girl matching Alma's description had passed his saloon in the arcade. But Ross was not believed, and was charged with Alma's rape and murder.

Eastern Arcade
before it was demolished in 2008

 Ross insisted till his last breath that he was innocent, but he was hanged anyway, in April 1922. A small book was written in 1922 by the barrister Thomas Brennan, junior defence counsel in the Ross trial, after Ross was hanged. Brennan's contemporary review of the trial had clearly condemned Ross' conviction. This barrister cited 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.

Thomas Brennan was devastated with his failure to save the life of Colin Ross. Alas his book, The Gun Alley Tragedy: New Light on a Sensational Trial, was not enough to persuade the Victorian government to have the case re-examined, and it was not enough to have capital punishment banned in this state in 1922.

Capital punishment was carried out in Victoria for the penultimate time in 1951 and then for the final in 1967. It was soon banned by the state legislature, following the Ronald Ryan debacle of 1967. In total there were 21 hangings in Victoria from the time of Federation (1901) to the last episode of capital punishment (1967).

Kevin Morgan's book, Gun Alley: Murder, Lies and Failure of Justice, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2005. It explained how media criticism of police and politicians, public hysteria and the test­im­ony of unreliable witnesses ended up tragically. Det­ec­tives Fred Piggott and John Brophy were good and competent policemen who were feeling the enormous weight of public hysteria. They were carrying out their investigations in a climate of intense med­ia scrutiny, community fear and political pressure to get a conviction. Families of young children wanted the guilty man to be caught and hanged. Quickly.

Ross meets the hangman
Photo credit: the ABC Shop

Decades after the murder, forensic tests became more and more accurate and by the 1990s, Morgan was confident the modern tests disproved the red hair connection. Furthermore the two witness­es were consid­ered to be unreliable, both having had a motive to lie. Morgan had exposed serious flaws in the prosecution case and concluded that were the case to be tried today, Ross would not have been convicted.

The possibility that Colin Ross was hanged despite being innocent was first aired in The Age newspaper in March 2000, when Morgan's investigation was well underway. On May 2008, five years after the book was pub­lish­ed, the Victorian Attorney-General announced that Colin Campbell Ross was posthumously pardoned. After a complete examination of the facts, it was found that Ross had been wrongly con­victed of kill­ing a schoolgirl in Victoria’s Gun Alley murder.

The unprec­edented pardon had been granted – almost 90 years too late for poor Mr Ross. At least for Colin Ross’ family, Uncle Colin's name has been cleared and a stigma removed from the family. And it was significant in another way – it was the first and only pardon for a judicially executed person in Australia. Capital punishment had always an abomination  in Australian society but in this case, it was even worse! Colin Ross was almost certainly innocent.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I understand the desire for action when horrible crimes are committed, but never the rush to prosecution and especially to capital punishment. If a mistake is made, not only is a terrible injustice being committed, but also the original threat to safety has not been removed. I am often shocked at the treatment of evidence and quality of testimony that leads to conviction in old (and not so old) trials.

Hels said...

Nothing stays the same, including the old fashioned justice system. And the last judicial execution was in any case a long time ago (1967). But somehow we sill keep hearing about terrible injustices eg a man in New Orleans gaol for 23 years after another man was found guilty of the same crime. I don't understand :(

John Tyrrell said...

I cannot think of anything much worse than being hanged for a crime you did not commit. Whatever the injustices in Australia i am sure that the sum total in England (I deliberately miss out the rest of the UK) has been far far worse.

I came across a case the other day, in the early 1800's, when a man was executed because the pardon arrived 20 minutes too late - it had been sent to the wrong address! Needless to say like most executions in those days the man's conviction was not even for murder. The lucky ones were deported to Australia.



Joseph said...

I am so glad you had the image of the Eastern Arcade. There is nothing there now to show people what that part of the city used to look like. Even a plaque and map on the side of the street would be helpful.

Hels said...


The last judicial hangings in Britain were Evans and Allen in 1964. As I remember it, there was an obscene rush to get the two men hanged, without a proper appeal process.

Capital punishment was seen in 1964 in Britain as medieval, barbaric, capricious and flawed in law. And open to political manipulations.

Hels said...


Nod. Modern tourists and locals would have no idea what the city looked like after WW1. The lanes have since disappeared and new huge buildings have changed the cityscape.

So why aren't there plaques and maps etc? Are we ashamed of the entire 1921 story where our court system failed justice?

Labonno said...

very very shame news, I can't accept it. sometimes justice give wrong decision.

the foto fanatic said...

Thank goodness most of the world has learned from these horrors and capital punishment is slowly being eradicated in most western countries.

I was appalled at the recent executions in Indonesia but even more appalled that executions still occur in the US. It is shameful.

Hels said...


I suppose wrong decisions will occur in even the most careful justice system. But if the person is wrongly gaoled, the situation can eventually be sorted out (although years of the person's life might have been wasted).

Only if the person is hanged or gassed to death or guillotined can the wrong NEVER be righted. What is the court going to say to the widow and orphans "Oops we are sooooooooo sorry you lost your husband and father in error".

Hels said...

foto fanatic

109 countries have abolished capital punishment for all crimes;
87 countries have not abolished capital punishment, but haven't used it for many years.
37 countries retain capital punishment in both law and practice.

In 2014, the nations executing most citizens were, in order:
China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, USA, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt and Somalia. Not a proud list :(

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