One of my very favourite letters in the collections of the State Library of NSW was written by a wool merchant by the name of Joseph Whitehead. In an 1838 letter to his uncle in England, Whitehead describes Sydney as ‘without exception one of the most wicked places under the sun [with] murders, suicides, robberies, innumerable pride, hypocrisy, lying, backbiting, drunkenness, and debauchery without end’. A scathing, but not entirely inaccurate, review. Now, crime might have been standard, but a heinous crime still brought the city to a standstill.
When John Knatchbull murdered Ellen Jamieson, a widowed shopkeeper, at her home in Erskine Street in January 1844 he generated one of the biggest stories of mid-19th century Sydney.
Knatchbull was a bloke who, today, we would say is ‘known to police.
He was born in England around 1792, and he appeared at the Surrey Assizes in 1824 where he was sentenced to fourteen years for stealing with force and arms. Our man, also known as John Fitch, arrived in Sydney in 1825 and was granted a ticket-of-leave in 1829. He was in and out of trouble however until he received another ticket-of-leave in 1842. He became engaged in late 1843 to a young widow, Harriet Craig, and just before the wedding he realised he needed some cash.
Sydney’s The Dispatch reported:
It is said that the prisoner was engaged to be married, and that Monday was the day fixed, but that he was not possessed of means to defray the expense of the ceremony. That, with this inducement to his desperate attempt, and having some knowledge of Mrs. Jamieson’s circumstances, he watched for some hours about the neighbourhood, and at midnight, when all was quiet, effected an entrance into the house under the pretence of wanting a pint of vinegar. Then, finding he could not obtain his purpose without proceeding to violence, he struck Mrs Jamieson upon the head several times, with a tomahawk, which was afterwards found in the house, stained with blood—and having laid her for dead, proceeded with his scheme of plunder.
Knatchbull attacked Mrs Jamieson on 6 January 1844, but she didn’t succumb to her wounds until 18 January. When she did die, there were two more orphans in Sydney. People were outraged, and the newspapers were only too happy to oblige a fascination with a man from a noble family who had become a murderer.
There was more than a brutal crime to report on when the brilliant barrister Robert Lowe took Knatchbull’s case and tested ideas of insanity for the first time in an Australian court.
Lowe passionately argued, in a one-day trial on 24 January, that insanity of the will could exist quite separately from insanity of the intellect, and that Knatchbull had yielded to an irresistible impulse. In short, he could not be held responsible for his crime. Nice try. The members of the jury were not having any of it. In fact, one of the many startling details of this case is that the jury returned a verdict of guilty without leaving the box. No solemn retirement. No careful deliberation. No pretence of considering all the details presented at the trial. Just ‘guilty’.
It was all over for Knatchbull, and one of the most famous villains of colonial Sydney met the hangman at Darlinghurst Gaol on 13 February 1844.
Sydney, then, was a walking city. To walk from any point in town to Darlinghurst would have been an easy trot. Almost normal. What was not normal on Knatchbull’s last day was that over 10,000 people walked from all over Sydney to watch him hang.
‘Execution of John Knatchbull’, The Australian, 15 February 1844, p.3 accessed 25 May 2021 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37123826
‘Inquests’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1844, p.2 accessed 25 May 2021 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12412784
‘The Life of John Knatchbull: Executed at Darlinghurst, Sydney, on Tuesday, February 13, 1844, for the Horrid Murder of Mrs Jamieson, Sydney, H. Evers, 1844, State Library of NSW, A923.41/K67/2.
‘Our Weekly Gossip’, The Dispatch, 13 January 1844, p.3 accessed 25 May 2021 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article228250613
Roderick, Colin John Knatchbull: From Quarterdeck to Gallows, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1963.
‘Supreme Court – Criminal Side’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1844, p.2. accessed 25 May 2021 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12411912
Whitehead, Joseph ‘A Letter to his Uncle Samuel Whitehead’, Sydney, 1 March 1838, State Library of NSW, MLMSS 9895.https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/YolgA6Q9
Wilson, Jan ‘An Irresistible Impulse of Mind: Crime and the Legal Defense of Moral Insanity in Nineteenth Century Australia’ Australian Journal of Law and Society, 11 (1995).
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW 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!