This week on 2SER Breakfast, the Dictionary’s special guest Dr Catie Gilchrist talked to Tess about one of the stories she’s come across during her work as a Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales into colonial coroner’s inquests. The Sussex Street mystery was a sensation in colonial Sydney, and considered for many years to be Australia’s most gruesome murder. There were months of avid newspaper coverage, pamphlets and booklets were published, and a waxwork dummy of the murderer, like those in Madame Tussauds, even went on display at Sohier’s Waxwork Exhibition on Pitt Street.
On Saturday 15 September 1866, eleven-year-old James Kirkpatrick took his playful Newfoundland pup out for a morning walk. He opened the wooden back yard door of his home in Sussex Street, crossed the vacant land, which lay immediately behind his parent’s house and headed down towards the busy working harbour. In the 1860s the area at the rear of Sussex Street, between Bathurst and Liverpool streets, was a mishmash of factories, mills, wharves, and wasteland.
The wasteland was used as a thoroughfare by the mill and factory workers and as a smouldering tip for industrial scraps and nearby household refuse. As James approached the rubbish heap, his dog began to bark and scratch at it ‘in a very excited sort of manner. Thinking he had found a rat, young James crouched down to take a closer look. To his horror, the puppy had not found a rat but the severed head of a dark-haired woman whose tongue was protruding outwards. Terrified, James quickly ran home to tell his father, who reported the find to the Central Police Station on George Street.
The police were soon on the scene. A few yards from the severed head they discovered the partial, charred and decomposing remains of an armless torso. With no limbs found and no additional evidence of note, the remains were sent to the Dead House at the Benevolent Asylum, on the corner of Pitt and Devonshire Streets. Here, the medical officer of the Asylum, Dr Arthur Renwick, examined them and estimated that the deceased had been dead for two to three weeks.
The sensational news of the ‘foul deed’ and ‘fiendish act’ quickly spread across the city. But who was the woman and where was the rest of her body? And what would the coroner’s inquest reveal?
The inquest was held, as inquests were at the time, in a pub, and it was rather gruesome. For an inquest to be legally valid at the time, a body had to be present, so Dr Renwick showed the jury the skull and lower jaw. He said the remains belonged to a middle-aged woman of large bones and build, with a long nose and dark hair, that the injuries to the head would have caused immediate death and that they had been inflicted during life. The body had been deprived of its limbs and this had ‘unquestionably been performed by a person or persons having some acquaintance with the anatomy of the body and exhibited a certain amount of skill, especially in the mode in which the neck had been severed.’ Given that this was all before the development of forensic and medical science as we know it today, his deductions were remarkable.
The jury found, unsurprisingly, that a murder had taken place, by person or persons unknown and the colonial government offered a reward for further information.
In the third week of October, young shoemaker David Fitzpatrick went to the police with an unusual story. Late one night, a few weeks before, in the Sussex Street region, he’d been asked to help a strange man carry a very heavy iron box, that stank to high heaven, to the backyard of the Walter Scott Inn, at the corner of Sussex and Bathurst Streets. The police went to the pub and found, in the water closet (the outdoor toilet), two decomposing legs, two arms, and other human body parts. In all ‘some nineteen or twenty pieces’ of human remains were found. Dr Renwick was called to examine them and again noted the expertise with which the limbs had been dissected. The head and torso found earlier were exhumed from the Devonshire Street cemetery where they’d been buried and on examination were found to be part of the same body.
The deceased was eventually identified as Annie Scott. The shape of her nose, a mole on her right arm, the dark remains of her hair and her estimated height and age were all vital cluesl so too the clothes and possessions left behind. Aged in her 30s and originally from Yorkshire, she and her husband had married four years earlier in Brisbane. They had been living in a rented house on Sussex Street, near the corner of Little Hay Street, when she disappeared.
Annie’s husband William Scott was taken into police custody for questioning. He claimed they’d quarrelled one evening early in September and she’d left. He had no idea where she was or why she hadn’t taken any of her belongings. Scott, who worked as a butcher, was duly charged with her murder.
Evidence presented throughout Scott’s subsequent trial made a compelling case against him. As well as having the necessary professional expertise and tools to dissect Annie’s body, he was identified as having asked, not just one, but two men, to help him carry the heavy, smelly iron box late one night on the streets of Sydney. The box was subsequently found at his lodgings and blood stains were identified by Dr Renwick at the Sussex Street house where the couple had been living. Scott had also taken several things covered in blood to be laundered by different women around the city, and although his work as a butcher would naturally entail some gore, his former employer said the tasks Scott undertook in his work would never have resulted in the level of blood described.
Scott protested his innocence throughout.
When it was revealed that Scott was also a bigamist, a motive seemed to have been found. Scott’s second wife Emma lived in Melbourne, and had written to him only days before Annie’s death.
Scott’s defence lawyer William Bede Dalley argued that the evidence was all circumstantial and that the many witnesses’ accounts were tainted by the media’s relish of the case that had prejudiced the trial, but Scott was found guilty by the jury and he was sentenced to hang.
William Scott was executed at Darlinghurst Gaol on 18 March 1867 for the wilful murder of his wife Annie Scott.
Dr Catie Gilchrist is a Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales, a regular contributor to the Dictionary of Sydney and a Research Affiliate in the History department at the University of Sydney. Her book Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court will be published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia in 2019. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Catie!