Friday, May 31, 2013

The First Indigenous VFL Player

As this weekend's 'Indigenous Round' round plays out in the AFL, it seems like an ideal time to highlight the first Indigenous footballer to play at the highest level in Victoria.

His name was Joe Johnson, and he was a dashing flanker who played for Fitzroy just after the turn of last century. And, perhaps most remarkably, contemporary accounts of his playing career make almost no mention of his pioneering role, or even that he was Indigenous at all.

He clearly occupies a unique, and complex, place in the game's history.

Joe Johnson

Australia in the first decade of the 1900's was a very different place to today.

Our recently formed Federal Government sat in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, motion pictures and automobiles were newly invented novelties, and the White Australia policy prevented anyone not from an Anglo background from settling here permanently.

Similarly, Australian Rules Football was a very different sport.

There was no interchange bench, and no free kicks for booting the ball out of bounds on the full. Every time the ball crossed the line, on the full or not, it was thrown in, and the boundary umpires (introduced in 1903) tossed it in rugby style, whilst facing the players.

There were also no Indigenous players at the highest level of competition.

And perhaps this is not surprising. In the early 1900's, Indigenous Australians were not only denied the right to vote, but were not even considered to be citizens (a status they were not granted until the 1960's).

Enter Joe Johnson.

Johnson was born in Newcastle, in New South Wales, in 1883. His parents were originally from Melbourne, and the family returned to the city when Johnson was young. He played footy as a child, and debuted in the Victorian Football Association (the VFA, a rival comp to the VFL) for Northcote, in the 1903 season.

He quickly made an impression and was recruited by VFL team Fitzroy, switching clubs for the 1904 season. Fitzroy were one of the strongest clubs in Melbourne at the time, and Johnson thrived in the competitive atmosphere, impressiing with his dash and physicality:

Playing off the half back flank, Johnson starred throughout the season and enjoyed a memorable day in that year's Grand Final, against Carlton.

Crudely flattened by Carlton full forward George Topping in the first quarter, Johnson recovered to play a key roll in Fitzroy's eventual victory. After an even first half, Carlton threatened to overwhelm their opponents in the third quarter, but Fitzroy's defence repelled a number of attacks. The Roys then regathered themselves and ran away with the game in the final term. Winners by 24 points, Johnson was judged second best on the ground by the local press.

The 1904 Fitzroy Premiership team. Johnson is
second row from the back, at the left hand end.
Johnson showed his versatility in the following season, when he alternated between playing half back and half forward. He starred as a forward in Fitzroy's Preliminary Final win in that year, kicking two goals and being named best on ground, before having a quieter Grand Final as Fitzroy won back to back flags, losing to Collingwood in a low scoring game (only 6 goals were kicked for the match).

Johnson played the 1906 season, largely as a forward, before returning to the VFA as captain-coach of Brunswick. He lead the Brunswick side to the 1909 VFA Premiership, their first, before returning to Northcote for the rest of his career.

In 1916, Johnson enlisted in the Army and saw action in the First World War in Egypt and France. His health suffered in Europe and he was given a medical discharge in 1917, after which he returned to Australia.

Very little information is available regarding how Johnson spent the post wars years, although his passing in 1934 was recorded in the local press:

Johnson's passing, recorded in The Argus.

His memory was revived in a major, public way only recently.

With growing numbers of Indigenous players now gracing the AFL stage, and a greater focus on the part Indigenous football has played in the history of the sport, Joe Johnson's role as the first Indigenous VFL footballer has increasingly been highlighted. When the AFL named an Indigenous 'Team of the Century', they did so in 2004, on the 100th anniversary of Johnson's first season with Fitzroy.

Past and present Indigenous players at the launch of the
AFL's Indigenous 'Team of the Century.'

Considering this attention, some other elements of Johnson's career then take on a curious aspect.

Contemporary reports from his playing days make no mention of his Indigenous heritage. This is reflected in his entry in the  Encyclopedia of League Players, which makes no mention of it either:

This seems strange, when you'd have to think that an Indigenous footballer at that point in Australian history would have drawn an enormous amount of attention. Consider a story that Adam Goodes recounts, in a chapter he contributed to the book The Australian Game of Football about the history of Indigenous footballers:

It seems unlikely then that Joe Johnson, playing only 25 years after this event, would not have had his own heritage commented upon. One possible explanation for this is provided by Melbourne academic Barry Judd,  in his paper 'Australian Game, Australian Identity':

While I feel insufficiently expert to draw any conclusions myself, if Joe Johnson's cultural identity were somehow subsumed during his playing career, then this seems heartbreakingly tragic.

It can only be hoped that instruments like Indigenous Round are helping to put an end to this forever.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The People's Path

On the Western side of Fitzroy Gardens, about halfway between Treasury Place and Albert Street, is one of Melbourne's quirkiest pieces of public art: The People's Path.

Map showing the location of the People's Path.

Consisting of 10 000 terra cotta bricks, each featuring an individual design, the People's Path forms a simple loop around a tree at one of the park's entrances.

In the 1970's, Victorian artists combined to form the Crafts Council of Victoria (CCV), the first representative body in the state to attract Government funding for craft work. Among the projects funded by the CCV were several large, public art events, designed to get more people actively involved in the arts.

Often timed to form part of Moomba, these public events featured activities as diverse as mass tie-dying and weaving workshops, a textile maze and an oversize climbing net. The events were held in public parks around Melbourne, including; the Treasury Gardens, Exhibition Gardens and Fitzroy Gardens. 

In 1975, the CCV sponsored a year long Craft Festival, featuring a number of these public events. This was followed by another festival in 1978, where the People's Path was on the program. The Path was the brainchild of Ian Sprague, a well known local artist and potter who had been a founding member of the Craft Association of Victoria (the CCV's forerunner).

The bricks were created by members of the public on the opening day of the festival, and formally unveiled by the Premier of Victoria, R.J. Hamer, on February 18, 1978. The designs are comical, idiosyncratic, significant, obtuse and personal. Some of them show messages, or indicate where in the world the creator was from. More often they show pictures, some elaborate, some childishly simple. A surprisingly large number make mention of the slogan 'Life Be In It', or that campaign's cartoon spokesman Norm.

I  nearly always pause and have a look at a few, when I'm passing through that part of the gardens.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Gun Alley Murder - Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Forensic Evidence?

Even before Ross was a suspect, the police had thought that Alma's killer had privacy. There were no witnesses and the body had been washed before it was dumped. Alma had last been seen around 3pm on December 30 and not found till early the following morning, and no one thought she had been lying in Gun Alley the whole time. Piggott thought that these facts also implicated Ross; his saloon was only fifty metres from Gun Alley  and would have provided a secluded location both for the crime itself and to hide the body before it was dumped.

Piggott thought he had several key pieces of information that implicated Ross.

His motive was a disordered personality that manifested itself in violent behaviour towards women (as evidenced by his arrest the previous year), while the location of his bar provided a means to commit the crime. What Piggott needed now was a way to directly connect Alma to his suspect.

Ross was arrested at the family home in Footscray on January 12, 1922 and the police present conducted a search of the property. In the living room were two blankets, which Piggott thought he recognised from the saloon Ross had run (the saloon having closed on New Years Eve). Piggott said he asked Ross if the blankets were from the bar and Ross indicated they were. When the detective opened one of the blankets, he noticed what appeared to be 'golden' hairs hanging from it. As Alma Tirtschke had striking red hair, Piggott thought he had found his link.

The blankets were sent for analysis at a Government laboratory, where they were assessed by Charles Price. Price detected twenty two hairs on one of the blankets, which he described as 'auburn' coloured, and two semen stains on the other blanket. Hair had been taken from Alma Tirtshcke's body and this was now given to Price for comparison. As he would testify in court:

If Price was right then this now placed Alma Tirtschke inside Ross' saloon, something that he had denied previously. It appeared Piggott's suspicions had been correct.

Prosecution Witnesses

Forensic science was a new concept in 1922, viewed as something of a novelty, and this would be the first time that scientific evidence involving hair samples had been used as a key part of a murder trial. So despite the positive match of the hair samples, Piggott was keen to have more traditional evidence to back his case.

He was now able to secure several prosecution witnesses, who would all provide damning evidence against Ross.

Chief among these was Ivy Matthews, who had been a barmaid at the Australian Wine Saloon and occasionally Ross' business partner (although opinion on their business involvement varied). She had been interviewed on January 5 and had told police that she had not seen Alma on the day she disappeared and knew nothing about what had happened. Several weeks later, she came back to Piggott with a different story.

At Ross' trial she testified that she had seen Alma on December 30, not outside in the arcade or on the street, but inside the saloon itself. Matthews said she saw Alma sitting in a private room off to one side of the public bar and that Ross had given her an alcoholic drink. Even more sensationally, Matthews claimed that Ross had confessed his crime to her afterwards!

This was explosive testimony and seemed to sew up the case against Ross. When asked why she had lied to police in the first instance, saying she knew nothing, Matthews explained that she did not know at that time that Ross had killed Alma, only been with her, and she felt loyal to her employer. When he did finally confess, Matthews had come straight to the police.

Matthews' testimony was corroborated by other witnesses who came forward.

A customer of Ross' saloon, a young woman and sometime prostitute named Olive May Maddox, told police that she had also seen a young girl in the private room next to the bar, when she stopped for a drink on December 30. And a man incarcerated with Ross while he waited for trial, John Harding, stated that Ross had confessed the crime to him while they were in the prison exercise yard together.

The Crown case against Ross now seemed iron clad. The press rounded on the accused man and took it as read that he was guilty, even before his trial had begun.


But Ross' legal team had serious doubts about the case against him. He was to be defended by George Maxwell and Thomas Brennan, experienced criminal lawyers of some standing. As soon as they began to examine the Crown's evidence, they began to pick holes in it.

George Maxwell

The lawyers saw immediately that the forensic evidence was deeply flawed. To their eyes, the hairs from the blanket sample and from Alma Tirtschke did not look alike; being of different length, thickness and colour. Furthermore, they soon discovered that the expert examiner of them, Charles Price, had no background in analysing hair samples.

The lawyers also pointed out glaring inconsistencies with the testimony of the Prosecution's witnesses. By comparing statements that  Matthews and Maddox made during the investigation, at the preliminary hearing in the Coroner's court and then to police prior to the trial, they were able to demonstrate that the detail in each woman's story had changed with re-telling. Even more compelling, that details they had added in at a later date - what Alma Tirtschke had been wearing on December 30, for example - had been added by them after the same details had been widely reported in the press.

Matthews and Maddox also admitted that they were friends and that they had met and discussed the case a number of times, both before and after Ross' arrest. This obviously gave them ample opportunity to devise a common story that they could both take to the police. Matthews had a long standing beef with the Ross family - she claimed that she was owed money from the saloon business that had not been repaid - and this gave her a motive to make a false claim. Both women were generously rewarded by the State for the evidence they supplied.

And John Harding was a career criminal with a long record who had let it be known he wanted a sentence reduction in return for providing evidence against Ross. Neither defence nor prosecution seemed to take his evidence very seriously, although it was still presented in court.

Finally, but still importantly, was Ross' own claim of innocence. From the beginning of the investigation to the end of his life he never changed his story; he had seen Alma Tirtschke walk past his saloon on the day she disappeared and that was the only connection he had with her. He had never spoken to her or had her inside his saloon, much less raped or murdered her.

On the night of December 30, Ross said that he finished up mid evening and then caught a tram home, where he was seen by several witnesses. He subsequently returned to the city for a drink, before catching a train home again around 11.30 pm.

Trial and Aftermath

Colin Ross' murder trial began on February 7, 1922; a sweltering hot day in Melbourne. Primed by the press, hundreds of people flocked to the court to catch a  glimpse of someone already widely assumed to be guilty.

Colin Ross arrives at court

The trial proceeded much as expected. The Prosecution, lead by Hugh Macindoe, laid out the Crown's evidence; Ross' past, the proximity of his bar to the location of the body, the forensic evidence and then the testimony of the witnesses. In their turn, Ross' lawyers pointed out the flaws and inconsistencies in each element. When Ross was called to the stand his gruff, coarse speech and manner almost certainly harmed his standing with the jury.

The arguments from the two lawyers took five days, and the jury took only one day to find Colin Ross guilty of murder. The proscribed punishment was execution by hanging. Ross was taken away in shock, while his lawyers turned their attention to an appeal.

The appeal could not be based on a re-evaluation of the evidence already presented, but Ross' lawyers were able to find a remarkable amount of new evidence to support their clients innocence. This included more witnesses who could corroborate Ross' movements on the night of December 30 as well as testimony that debunked the crucial evidence of Matthews and Maddox (witnesses who stated they were in Ross' saloon all night and did not see a young girl).

Perhaps most stunning was the statement of Joseph Graham, a middle aged taxi driver who had been walking up Little Collins Street between 3.15 and 3.30 (shortly after the last confirmed witnesses to see Alma Tirtschke had spotted her in front of the Adam and Eve hotel).

The alleyway that ran alongside the Adam and Eve was lined with cheap rooms, many of them vacant, that could have supplied cover to a murderer. Ross was serving drinks in front of many witnesses at the time the screams were heard.

Graham said he had reported to the police to tell his story on January 9, but had been dismissed without explanation.

Despite this evidence, and the doubts cast over the evidence used in the first trial, Ross' appeal to the Full Victorian court was not successful. His lawyers sought leave to take the case to the High Court of Australia, and the case was heard in Sydney on 29-31 March 1922. But this appeal was not successful either.

Thomas Brennan continued to do what he could to lobby for a retrial. A petition was circulated that received several thousand signatures, and Ross' mother made an appeal directly to the Premier of Victoria. But it was to no avail.

Colin Ross was executed on April 24, 1922.

Headline in The Herald after Ross' execution.


While Ross' execution seemed to put an end to the Gun Alley saga, the doubts raised about the case were not settled. Brennan wrote a book about the trial - 'The Gun Alley Tragedy' - which he used to reiterate his objections to the Crown's evidence. But after that, with the passage of time, the case slipped into the background again.

In the 1990s, the case was re-examined by legal experts who reviewed the trial transcripts and concluded that Ross had not had a fair trial and the evidence presented against him was insubstantial and contradictory, exactly as his lawyers had said at the time. The hair samples that had so damaged Ross' defence in the 1920's were probed by modern forensic techniques and were found to be from two different people.

In light of this new information, Colin Ross was granted a posthumous pardon by the Attorney General of Victoria in 2008, to the great relief of his descendants. While Ross' reputation had, eventually, been restored, the underlying mystery of who killed Alma Tirtschke remains, formally, a mystery.

The Gun Alley Murder - Part 1

It is one of Melbourne's most notorious crimes, and perhaps it's most infamous murder. A shocking act that gripped the city and triggered both a massive police investigation and a scandalous trial. The Gun Alley murder made legal reputations, changed the way homicide was investigated and, very probably, lead to an innocent man's execution.

Alma Tirtschke

In the 1920's, modest housing was still a feature of the the Melbourne CBD. 12 year old school girl Alma Tirtschke lived in one such house, in Jolimont, with her 74 year old grandmother. Alma's  father was a mining contractor who worked in remote locations (often in WA) and her mother had died of a kidney disorder when Alma was still young. She was a friendly girl and good at school, but also quiet and solemn, traits her peers attributed to her mother's unfortunate passing. Alma's most distinguishing feature was her vibrant red hair; long and straight, she wore it hanging down to the middle of her back.

Alma Tirtschke

On 30 December 1921, Alma's aunt, Maie Murdoch, paid the Tirtschke household a visit. As well as catching up with Alma's guardian, Maie also had an errand for Alma to run; she was to go to the butcher shop on Swanston Street in the city, where Maie's husband worked, and collect a parcel of smallgoods which she was then to deliver to Maie's house on Collins Street. After the delivery, Alma was to return to her Grandmother's house, a round trip that was expected to take a couple of hours.

Alma was a conscientious, sensible girl and the errand a simple one. Maie gave her money for tram fare as she saw her off just after noon. Nothing much was said as Alma was expected to be back shortly.

Neither her Aunt or her Grandmother would ever see Alma Tirtschke alive again.

Gun Alley

Early the following morning, New Years Eve 1921, a man named Errington was scrounging for bottles in the eastern end of the city. Melbourne in the roaring twenties was awash was saloons and booze, and a living could be scratched by rounding up the empties from a big night and turning them in for recycling. The area around the Eastern Market - which stretched the block between Little Collins and Bourke, with frontage along Exhibition Street, where the Commonwealth Bank and the Department of Consumer Affairs is today - was a hub of nighttime carousing. The warren of little laneways and 'easements' (as dead end alleys were called) around the market was a good spot to search for empty bottles.

Gun Alley used to run to the rear of this city block. It
waslost when the block was redeveloped in the 1970s.

Around 6am, Errington moved into one of these small cul-de-sacs as part of his hunt; Gun Alley, which ran south off Little Collins Street. Near the end of Gun Alley, an unnamed easement ran eastward, providing rear access to the row of shops along Little Collins. A short distance down this easement, Errington was stunned to find the body of a dead, naked girl. Alma Tirtschke lay on her back with her legs bent under her, her broken body lying on top of a small drain cover.

The Investigation

The investigation of Alma Tirtschke's murder was charged to two men, John Brophy and Fred Piggott, both senior detectives in Melbourne's elite Criminal Investigation Bureau.  Piggott had seniority and was well known to the public, having been involved in solving several high profile cases since becoming a senior detective in 1919.

Senior Detective Frederick Piggott

The task facing the two men was immense. No witnesses to Alma's murder came forward and there was little in the way of physical evidence. Alma had been sexually assaulted and then strangled and the detectives quickly concluded that she had not been murdered in the Alley, as there was no signs of disturbance there, but moved post mortem. Her clothes were not found and her body appeared to have been washed prior to being deposited, removing any trace evidence and indicating the killer probably had privacy. A thorough search was conducted of all surrounding premises, lasting two days, but this turned up nothing.

Complicating the investigation was the location of the crime scene. The Eastern Market area was thought of as a disreputable part of Melbourne; 'squalid and depressing' according to The Herald, and 'a haven for evil characters' according to The Age. Residents in this part of the city were suspicious of the police, and reluctant to cooperate with any official investigation.

The local press reports the story.

But the murder had stirred up enormous feeling across the city. Thousands flocked to Gun Alley to examine the spot where Alma's body had been found, and many hundreds of wreaths and other small tributes were laid. The brutal nature of the crime left the public in a state of shock.  The local press stirred the pot, with the murder investigation dominating the headlines and many wild theories and accusations being put into print.

As the investigation stalled in the days subsequent to Alma's death, pressure began to mount on Piggott and Brophy. People were afraid to walk the streets after dark. Progress was demanded. Justice needed to be served and a culprit located.

And as the enormous amount of attention focused on Alma Tirtschke continued, witnesses to her last movements slowly began to come forward. Her striking red hair stuck in people's minds, and it was unusual to see such a young girl alone in the city, making her easier to recall. As the detectives pieced together the day she disappeared, their information would lead them to a dynamite suspect.

December 30, 1921

Alma left her grandmother's house around 12.30 and was seen shortly afterward walking through the Treasury gardens, so it was assumed she had pocketed her Aunts tram fare. She reached her first destination, Bennett and Woolcock's Butcher Shop on Swanston Street, between Bourke and Little Collins, shortly after 1pm.

She collected her parcel and left again around 1.30. She was now meant to head to her Aunt's house on Collins Street, which a short walk along either Collins or Little Collins would have brought her to. But Alma did not go directly to her Aunt's house and what she did next is one of the great mysteries of the case.

She was next seen at 2pm walking very slowly along the south side of Little Collins Street. She then turned onto Russell Street and made her way to Bourke Street, where she was seen entering the Eastern Arcade at about 2.30pm. The arcade was a pedestrian thoroughfare of small shops that ran between Bourke and Little Collins and had something of a seedy reputation.

The Eastern Arcade

The owner of a saloon in the arcade, Colin Ross, reported seeing Alma pass by his establishment shortly before 3pm. She exited the arcade and, having nearly walked in a circle, was seen back on Little Collins Street, on the corner of Alfred Street, around 3pm. She was now a few hundred metres from where she had started, a journey that had taken her an hour and a half.

What had she been doing? Why wander haphazardly around in a part of the city that she undoubtedly had been warned to avoid? That a number of witnesses also indicated that Alma looked 'agitated,' 'nervous' or even 'scared' only adds to the mystery.

The last witnesses to see Alma alive were a young couple, Stanley and May Young, who saw her shortly after she left the Eastern Arcade.

At first glance, all of the evidence regarding Alma's movements appeared puzzling, posing more questions then answers. But for Piggott and Brophy, it also provided what they considered to be key clues. For one of the witnesses who had seen Alma Tirtschke was well known to police, and his criminal record and reputation were such that he seemed highly capable of such a vicious crime.

Colin Campbell Ross

Colin Campbell Ross was a burly, strongly built man of 29 who was something of a jack of all trades. He had left school at 11 and had worked in labouring jobs, until a bout of appendicitis in his teens left him weakened and unable to perform manual work. He then took a series of unskilled jobs in Melbourne and Sydney and spent the war years as a hospital wardsman.  In April 1921 he entered into a business partnership with his mother and brother and they opened a saloon in Melbourne, with Colin serving as licensee and proprietor.

Colin Campbell Ross

The Ross' establishment, the Australian Wine Saloon, in the Eastern Arcade, was successful but quickly developed a poor reputation. It was known as a place where anyone would be served, regardless of how intoxicated they were, and Ross' business neighbours soon began to complain about drunks passed out in the arcade and other rowdy behaviour. The Ross brothers were not above liberating the contents of their patrons wallets, and then turning them out, if they were foolish enough to lose consciousness on the premises. The police kept a close eye on the saloon and were soon agitating for Ross' liquor license to be pulled. This was done after only a few months and the saloon was scheduled to shut at close of business on New Years Eve, 1921.

In addition to being known to the police as the manager of a disreputable bar, Ross was also known to them in another capacity.

The year before, in May 1920, Ross had been arrested after he pulled a revolver on his girlfriend of the time, when she refused his proposal of marriage. Explained as the rash act of a heartbroken man, Ross had only been punished lightly; a small fine, a suspended sentence and a good behaviour bond. Nevertheless, it had put his name before the police and, later, would be taken as evidence of a defective character.

Detective Piggott was certainly aware of Ross' record, as he started to zero his investigation in on him. Ross was questioned on January 5 and 6, but the questions were of a routine nature. A week later, with public opinion inflamed and the investigation stymied, Ross was elevated to chief suspect. He was arrested on January 12 and, after an interrogation that lasted several hours in which he admitted nothing, charged with murder the following day.

At the time the charges were laid, the CIB had nothing more than some circumstantial evidence (Ross' record and his proximity to the spot the victim was last seen) and the suspicions of their head detective. Piggott intended to keep Ross in custody while he waited for more evidence to come forth.

He would get more than even he had bargained for.

Continued in Part 2...