This week on 2SER Breakfast, Tess talked to Dr Rachel Franks about the ‘al-fresco murderer’ Frank Butler, who was possibly Australia’s first serial killer.
Of all the different types of criminals, it’s the serial killer that frightens us the most. Serial killers are those murderers who commit at least two homicides, in separate incidents with an interval between their acts of murder. Other marks of the serial killer include how they generally murder in one-on-one situations, how there’s often a noticeable “modus operandi” or method of killing and how these killers often leave a ‘signature’ during, or after, each murder.
There are several candidates for the terrible title of Australia’s first serial killer. From murderer and cannibal Alexander Pearce (1790–1824) who committed dreadful crimes in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1820s through to John Lynch (1813–1842), the Berrima Axe Murderer, who confessed to ten murders before he was hanged in April 1842. The best candidate though, is Frank Butler.
Born Richard Ashe in Dorset, England in 1858, he adopted numerous aliases as he travelled the world, arriving in Australia in the early 1890s. In and out of prison, on and off the gold fields, Ashe found himself in Sydney in mid-1896 as Frank Butler Harwood. Tired of a life as a forger and thief he embarked on another, much darker, career: murderer.
Butler placed advertisements in Sydney newspapers under the name Harwood, seeking men to accompany him to search for gold. The man – labeled the ‘al-fresco murderer‘ by The Bulletin – selected three respondents for his brutal scheme.
Butler took these men west, told grand stories of mines worth thousands of pounds, made his companions dig their own graves (telling them they were digging for gold), before he shot them, robbed them, buried them, and then moved on.
Butler’s known victims, all recruited in Sydney, were Charles Burgess, Arthur Preston and Lee Weller.
Butler certainly fills the common criteria of the serial killer. He murdered at least three men, with a clear interval between each murder. He killed each man alone. The pattern of murder, conning men into digging their own graves, and then shooting them, is a very deliberate modus operandi while his signature, of leaving men in their shallow, unmarked graves, is consistent across these three victims as well.Sensing his luck was about to run out, Butler, using Weller’s identity, secured passage to San Francisco by taking a job as a seaman on the Swanhilda. The vessel, with its cargo of coal and a ruthless killer onboard, arrived in the United States on 2 February 1897. Butler was right about running out of luck: tip offs and solid detective work back in New South Wales had made him a person of interest. Authorities, including a small contingent of New South Wales Police, greeted the Swanhilda and took Butler into custody.
After a huge fight put up by Butler’s American lawyers, he was sent back to Sydney to face trial. (The New South Wales government received a bill from American authorities for £6,000, or US$28,000, to cover the cost of Butler’s US-based incarceration and legal fees. After some disputes, the colony eventually paid a reduced claim of £4,418.)
The trial of Frank Butler for the murder of Lee Weller (the strongest case) commenced at Darlinghurst Courthouse on 14 June 1897.
The court was overrun and those who turned up to watch were not disappointed. The proceedings were spectacular. The selection of the jury saw an attempt by the defense to exclude anyone employed by a newspaper. The Chief Justice refused, stating that being a journalist was not a cause for disqualification. Half a dozen men were fined for failing to present themselves for jury duty. Butler himself had a hand in jury selection when he calmly stood up in the dock and challenged the selection of 19 potential jurors.
There were numerous witnesses and a stunning array of evidence, including photographs of the crime scene at Glenbrook, clothing of the victim, a knife, and a rifle, as well as personal items belonging to Weller.
There were also re-enactments. One of the police officers testifying was asked to lay on the floor of the courtroom and show the jury the position that Weller was found in. Even more dramatically, there was a demonstration for the jury at the request of Butler’s defense – showing the pistol in different positions—to determine if it was possible that Weller had shot himself in the back of the head.
There were attempts to control the crowds. There were delays. There was also, on one of the occasions when the prisoner was led through the tunnel that connected the gaol to the courthouse, a violent scuffle. After losing his fight with police, Butler appeared in court, his coat was buttoned up high and tight, covering up a self-inflicted injury. There was another delay when Butler collapsed in the dock.
A guilty verdict was inevitable and the death sentence was carried out on 16 July 1897 in Darlinghurst Gaol. Hangman Robert Howard (aka Nosey Bob) was in attendance, as he had been for decades. The noose was put into place around Butler’s neck and it was reported he impatiently ordered Howard to: ‘Let go!’. The lever was pulled and Butler fell ‘7ft 5in, or 7ft 6in’. He died instantly and the last great criminal case of the Australian colonial era came to a close.
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!
An Interview with Butler, Australian Town and Country Journal, 1 May 1897, p32
Berrima, Australasian Chronicle, 28 April 1842, p2
Butler and the Pressman, Kalgoorlie Miner, 24 April 1897, p17
Butler Bill, The Mercury, 23 August 1897, p4
Butler Case, The Australian Star, 20 October 1897, p6
Butler Described, The Evening News, 28 April 1897, p2
Butler’s Return, The Evening News, 23 April 1897, p5
Execution of Frank Butler, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 July 1897, p203
Extradition of Butler, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 1897, p5
Foster, Jason K, The Dark Man: Australia’s First Serial Killer, Newport: Big Sky, 2013
Glenbrook Murder, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 June 1897, p3-6
Glenbrook Murders, Weekly Times, 12 December 1896, p20
Pearce, Alexander, A Confession of Murder and Cannibalism 1824, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (ML MSS A 1326)
Personal Items, The Bulletin, 23 January 1897, p13
Pinto, Susan and Paul R. Wilson, No. 25: Serial Murder, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, 1990
Scerra, Natalie, Serial Crimes in Australia: Investigative Issues and Practice, Doctor of Philosophy: U of Western Sydney, 2009
Travers, Robert, Murder in the Blue Mountains: Being the True Story of Frank Butler One of Australia’s Most Notorious Criminals, Richmond: Hutchinson Australia, 1972