John Bryan Wallace Kerr (1925-2001) had been educated at Scotch College, one of Melbourne's finest school. In his early 20s, this classy young man was an up-and-comer in the modern world of radio. Then unexpectedly, in late 1949, detectives from Victoria's Homicide Squad arrived at his elegant Toorak family home and accused him of strangling 20-year-old typist from Hobart, Elizabeth Maureen Williams (1929-1949), on the beach at Albert Park. Despite his protestations of innocence and a case largely based on Kerr’s confession to the police, the young man was found guilty of murder a year later and sentenced to death.
Interest in this very old case was recently revived when the Victorian police’s Cold Case Unit received information about the Williams murder. Author Gideon Haigh was given special access to material archived at Public Record Office Victoria, thus we now have the true story of John Bryan Kerr. Haigh’s book, Certain Admissions: A Beach, a Body and a Lifetime of Secrets, was published by Penguin in 2015.
What a story!! Murder back in 1949 Australia was rare and usually related to the criminal class. So the case became very famous. A pedestrian found Beth Williams' body, clothes torn and wet. Drag marks suggested she had been strangled near the bathing sheds. She had left her shared room in Albert Park, intending to meet up with a sailor, under the famous clocks at Flinders Street station. Alas the sailor was late, so when John Kerr and Beth Williams bumped into each other, they went out for the evening. They went to Mario's restaurant, then to a party in Prahan, then returned to her rooms in Middle Park. Although Kerr agreed he was the last person to see Williams alive, he said he had no idea why she turned up dead on the beach the following morning.
Published in 2015
Kerr looked well dressed, well groomed and eloquent at his trial. He had an expensive barrister, his well-spoken parents who were a constant source of financial and moral support, a speech coach and a PR man behind him (as expected). But he (unexpectedly) had crowds of young women queuing inside the court each day, and mobs of young women outside the Supreme Court building, awaiting his appearance.
On the other side was Senior Detective Fred Bluey Adam, Homicide's roughest and toughest character. It was Adam who had conducted Kerr's interrogation, the detective who had taken a full, voluntary confession from Kerr. Kerr utterly repudiated the confession.
Because capital crimes required unanimous decisions, three trials were held. At each trial, the level of public hysteria became louder and louder, yet at no time did Kerr change a single word of his testimony. What was different at the third trial was that the Judge Sir Charles Lowe admitted evidence from a psychiatrist whom Kerr had seen about his old episodic ungovernable rages. Kerr had been in the armed services for a short time during WW2 – he had been court-martialled in the RAAF for striking a superior officer in 1944, pleaded guilty to breach of the peace in a Colac hotel in 1945, and been involved in a violent fight with other boarders in Hobart in 1949.
Kerr's murder trial generated a huge amount of public interest, with many women waiting outside the court to hear news of the case.
Photo credit: Herald Sun 8/11/2013
After the third trial, endless women in smart suits waited for the verdict. The jurors found Kerr guilty with a strong recommendation of mercy, because “he was not responsible for his actions at the time”. Why not, we ask? Kerr had been convicted and, as mandated, Judge Lowe ordered that the prisoner by hanged. His sentence was soon commuted to 20 years in gaol, but again we have to ask why? I am assuming because the Conservative State Government valued capital punishment, but the population did not.
During Kerr’s time in gaol, he became a superstar prisoner. This was the start of penal reform in Victoria, so prisoners were encouraged to attend classes that would make them more sensitive human beings eg drama and debating. Kerr loved debating and took it very seriously, even representing Victoria in the 1956 Australian Debating Championship. Kerr also did a creative writing course by correspondence and wrote newspaper articles whilst he was still incarcerated, and afterwards. Plus he kept himself busy appealing his case, all the way up to the Privy Council in London. Unsuccessfully.
Melbourne’s most prestigious newspaper, The Argus, embarked upon a six-week campaign to obtain a retrial on grounds that there had been another suspect for Williams' murder back in 1949, a Pole. To their credit, The Argus also published a series of editorials, trying very hard to make capital punishment illegal in Victoria for once and for all.
Kerr only had to serve 14 years of his 20 year gaol term, apparently because many prisoners’ sentences were reduced in celebration of the 1954 tour of Australia by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. On his release in May 1962, Kerr immediately sold his story one of Melbourne’s least prestigious newspaper, The Truth. And then he went silent on the question of what had happened to Beth Williams.
Now the exact details of his life as a free man became difficult to trace. He ran away to Sydney with a woman who had been besotted with the handsome, obviously-innocent man while he was still inside. He changed his name to Wallace, took on respectable sales jobs, wore very snazzy clothing and re-wrote his life’s CV. He battled obsessive-compulsive behaviours that ordered his world but made him impossible to live with.
The worst was yet to come. John Wallace, as he now was, met a young girl Kerrie Williams and moved back to Melbourne with her. Kerrie Williams (note the surname) quickly died by overdose in mysterious circumstances. Despite Wallace having been with her the night before, her death was ruled a suicide. Did the police not know that Wallace was John Bryan Kerr? Apparently Wallace did not have to keep in contact with a probation officer, so the police truly had no idea who the bereaved boyfriend was.
On his rounds as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Wallace bumped into a very young chemist-shop assistant Denise Mahoney Duncan in 1976 and married her in 1983. (Was she a huge risk taker?) He told her his identity but no more, and not even his workmates knew his real name. When he died in Nov 2001, the funeral speeches carefully avoided mentioning the infamous John Bryan Kerr.
The author Gideon Haigh was somewhat guarded about his personal conclusions regarding Kerr's probable guilt. I thought Kerr was almost certainly involved in the murders of Beth Williams and Kerrie Williams, and possibly other young women. Two of my students, on the other hand, thought Kerr had been totally innocent.