Smith's Weekly, 28 February 1920, p17 via Trove

Smith’s Weekly, 28 February 1920, p17 via Trove

This morning on 2SER Breakfast, Dr Rachel Franks talked to Tess Connery about Australia’s oldest cold case, the murder of Constable Joseph Luker, who was the first police officer killed in the line of duty in New South Wales. 

Listen to Rachel and Tess on 2SER here. 

Joseph Luker[1] arrived in Sydney as a convict on the Third Fleet, in 1791. In 1796 he was given his freedom, and went from being a law breaker to being a law enforcer when he joined the Sydney Foot Police.

In the early hours of 26 August 1803, Constable Luker was investigating a robbery in which a small portable desk containing money and legal papers had been stolen from a house in Back Row (where Phillip Street sits today) when he was set upon by a group of thugs. He was belted with the desk, bashed with the frame of a wheelbarrow and stabbed multiple times with his own weapon. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser spared no details in describing the murder:

On the head of the deceased were counted Sixteen Stabs and Contusions; the left ear was nearly divided; on the left side of the head were four wounds, and several others on the back of it.

The wretch who buried the iron guard of the cutlass in the head of the unfortunate man had seized the weapon by the blade, and levelled the dreadful blow with such fatal force, as to rivet the plate in the Skull, to a depth of more than an inch and a half.[2]

Because of the number of weapons involved and the extent of his injuries, it was estimated that at least three men had assaulted Luker, with no intention that he would survive the attack.

Sydney Gazette, 28 August 1804, p4 (detail, from facsimile edition)

Sydney Gazette, 28 August 1804, p4 (detail, from facsimile edition)

Without the advances in the field of forensic science that are relied on in many criminal trials today it was difficult to prove guilt. Fellow police officers Issac Simmonds[3] and William Bladders were charged and tried, as were petty criminals Joseph Samuels and John Russell. Simmonds defended his blood-stained clothing by saying that ‘for a long time his nose bled habitually’ while Bladders accounted for blood on his clothes as ‘coming from a pig which he had slaughtered’.

At the conclusion of the investigation into Luker’s murder and the associated trials, Joseph Samuels was found guilty of the robbery being investigated by Luker on his night watch in August but not of his murder.[4] Indeed, nobody was found guilty of the murder of the first officer of the law to die on duty in Australia: the death of Joseph Luker remains our oldest cold case.

In 1811, David Dickinson Mann wrote of the community outrage surrounding the murder and his own personal trauma, in his book The Present Picture of New South Wales:

In the month of August, a most inhuman murder was committed on the body of Joseph Luker, a constable, who, after going off his watch at the government-house, was beset by some villains who still remain undiscovered, and who buried the hilt of his own cutlass very deeply in his head. I was the second person at the spot, where the body of the unfortunate man was discovered; and, in attempting to turn the corpse, my fore-finger penetrated through a hole in the skull, into the brains of the deceased.[5]

Luker was buried in the Old Sydney Burial Grounds, under the site of the modern-day Sydney Town Hall. The Burial Grounds, in operation from 1792 until 1820, represent Sydney’s first permanent cemetery, as laid out by Governor Phillip and Reverend Richard Johnson. The land, often referred to as Cathedral Close, was given over to the Municipal Council for the construction of the Sydney Town Hall in the 1880s – the city building opening in 1889. In 2007, over two hundred years after Luker’s death, it was confirmed that the body of the young constable had been exhumed in 1869 and re-interred at Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery.

This Thursday (26 August) is the anniversary of Luker’s murder.

 

Further reading

Rachel Franks, Writing the death of Joseph Luker: true crime reportage in colonial Sydney, TEXT Special Issue 45, Writing Death and Dying, ed Donna Lee Brien, October 2017

Louise Steding, Death on Night Watch: Constable Joseph Looker, New South Wales 1803, Sydney, NSW In Focus Press, 2016

 

 

Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel! 

You can hear Rachel in conversation with crime fiction authors Peter Cotton and Richard Anderson at the State Library this coming Saturday. Click here to find out more and make your bookings!

Listen to the podcast with Rachel & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

 

 Notes

[1] Also spelt ‘Lucar’ in transportation records, ‘Looker’ in personal records and ‘Luker’ in reportage as well as in records of the New South Wales Police

[2] Anon 1803 ‘Murder [Joseph Luker]’ The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 28 August, 4

[3] Also spelt ‘Simmons’

[4] Samuels was sentenced to death for his role in the burglary, but after three attempts to hang him failed, he was reprieved. He is often referred to as ‘the man they couldn’t hang’. Bergman, George FJ 1963 ‘The story of two Jewish convicts: Joseph Samuel, “the man they couldn’t hang” and Isaac Simmons, alias “Hickey Bull”, highwayman and constable’ Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society 5 (7), 320–31

[5] Mann, David Dickinson [1811]1979 The present picture of New South Wales, 1811 Sydney: John Ferguson

 

Listen to the podcast with Rachel & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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